Actu USA

Actu EU


Espace adhérent

Notes on my works of art - Khairat Al-Saleh 1939-2014 PDF Print E-mail
User Rating: / 1
Written by Amin ELSALEH   
Saturday, 22 February 2020 11:03


In Search of the Lost Arts of the Arab Moslem Civilization

The Missing Links

A Short Artistic Autobiographical Foreword

TREE OF LIFE (Khairat Al-Saleh 1939-2014)

This preface to the story of my art is not autobiographical in the proper sense since I shall concentrate not on the chronological events of my life but rather on the development of my intellect and artistic awareness. Thus, the temporal and the sequential are only significant in relation to how much they can shed light on the crystallization of my aesthetical self and the shaping of my creativity. Throughout my life I never cared enough for the march of ordinary life, including mine. I do not know whether it is a great failing of mine or the source of my strength that I have always strove to live with the essentials. I looked down at what I regarded as frivolous and always asked too much of myself. I missed out on the simple pleasures of childhood and the antics of adolescence. It might be that the exodus from Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinian people had killed my childhood stamping my whole being with the tragic and instilling a very serious streak into my personality, in addition to a powerful sense of responsibility towards the well being of the world. Hence forth the horrors of violence, dispossession and alienation, as the Palestinians suffered, made me a seeker after that which violence cannot touch. My young innocent self, outstretched and tormented by the suffering of others, made a leap towards an unknown fraught with light and the colours of the rainbow, an unknown shaped out of peace and beauty to ceaselessly search and yearn for.


I inherited my verbal and artistic abilities from my parents. My mother was a woman of rare wit and sparkling sense of humour. She learnt English at the American Junior College in Beirut and taught English in Jerusalem then in Damascus. She also worked as a broadcaster in Jerusalem where I was born and wrote short stories for the BBC World Service in Jerusalem, which were not published. Our attempts to trace them ended in failure so far. My mother was among the first pioneers of women in Syria and Palestine to leave home in order to learn a foreign language in a boarding school.  My maternal grandfather, a Lebanese by birth, realized how gifted his daughters were and spared nothing in order to educate them to the highest levels available. To achieve this, my mother travelled to Jerusalem while very young in order to learn English and in later years to Beirut where she graduated. She sustained her independence most of her life, travelled when she felt like it accompanied or unaccompanied, never wore the veil and had friends from both sexes who admired her unreservedly. Her sense of humour when she was not troubled or ill was almost legendary. She could make people laugh, a gift that was so sparkling in her that my grandmother forbade her to attend her after-funeral mourning rituals in order not to spoil the sobriety of the occasion with her sense of fun as was her wont.

My father studied at a French school in Damascus during the French occupation. I suspect that most probably he learnt the basics of oil painting at that school, though he was mainly self-taught. Oil painting was almost unknown in Syria while he was growing up. Apart from few pioneers, there was no established tradition of painting in oils, a practise which was widely regarded as Western. I believe he ought to be regarded as one of the pioneers of the modern artistic movement in Syria, for he was very talented and dedicated, but for reasons unknown to us, his family, he did not sign most of his paintings. His imagination was fired by Arab history which provided the main themes for his oil paintings. From the few documents he left, which I was able to collect and study, I could feel how passionate he was about the perusal of Arab art despite the scarcity of reference books and visual material. Art libraries did not exist at that time in Damascus.  The crafts and the beautiful old houses and mosques of Damascus were almost the only survivals of once a great art which created masterpieces of architecture, calligraphy and illustrated manuscripts, not to mention wood and metal works, enamelled glass and ceramics. From what he told me while reminiscing about his youth and artistic endeavours, I discovered that his fascination with the Damascene crafts, resulted in his being apprenticed for a while to the master craftsmen who worked on decorating the Damascene chamber which was purchased by the National Museum of Damascus. The whereabouts of the bulk of my father’s paintings remained a mystery to us and they would have been lost to us were it not for a trip to Jerusalem and a chance visit by my mother and sister years later to the Al-Aqsa Museum. My sister recognised some of the paintings from photographs my father took of them in the past.  She approached the museum authorities who told her that because the paintings were not signed they knew nothing about the painter. She told them about my father and promised to return with the photographs to authenticate the paintings. She never did because Jerusalem fell to the Israelis and revisiting became impossible. I never saw my father paint while we were growing up, my brothers and sister and I because he quitted painting after his marriage to my mother, succumbing to social pressures and because he and my mother had to support their four children. Therefore, alas, their talents remained largely unexplored because their circumstances seldom yielded enough peace and opportunity. My father embittered by his experience, sought to encourage us, both my parents did, to study and achieve academically but discouraged severely any tendencies to engage in artistic activities.

I did very well at school, excelling in most subjects, thus securing my reputation as a star pupil. Academic achievement came easy to me until when I was at the University of Cairo studying English, I decided that it was not other people’s thoughts and critical assessments I wished to adopt but my own.  That landed me in trouble because independent exploration was not encouraged. I loved reading and spent hours devouring any book I could lay hands on, finding numerous and ingenious ways to circumvent the censorship imposed by my father on forbidden subjects. I first read in Arabic and when my English was good enough I extended my reading to English literature. While I was still at high school, I started reading Shakespeare and fell in love with his plays. I dreamt that one day I would travel to England in order to study Shakespeare.  I was in search of teachers and gurus because at an early age, I realized that my school teachers fell short of my expectations. Thus Shakespeare joined the company of Gibran Khalil Gibran as one of the chosen for my better education. Gibran embodied to my generation all that was noble, refined and rebellious in modern Arabic literature. We worshiped him and drank the nectar of his intellect which filled us with ecstasy and intimations of beautiful things to come. His vibrant dreamy style and the music of his poetic language remade our world and offered an alternative to trite expressions, yoked to social patterns we found lacking and restrictive. There was an innocence about our young world of dreams and the desire to change everything around us. Gibran, like the Sufis before him, taught us that God was love and that love was indivisible and universal and above the squabbles of those who speak in the name of religions, deforming them in the process. Gibran’s voice awakened an early idealism within me and the yearnings for a higher morality. Ethically, I felt that my parents had nothing to teach me and all those around me fell short of the values that were revealed to me through my readings. Some of my friends at school were as hungry for knowledge as I was and read a lot, dreaming of an Arab world to come, free and great. My school friends and I were not tainted by notions of violence and religious fanaticism.  These notions came later and I had left Syria by then. Gibran thought of Syria and Lebanon as one and it was that Syria that I held sacred as a child and loved with a pure passionate love. To the list of my teachers, I added Ghandi and Socrates as portrayed by Plato in the Symposium. As my spiritual being expanded and bloomed, I began to feel the need to subdue the physical in me in order to strengthen the spiritual. I dressed simply and tried not to indulge in eating the things I liked most.

In my early teens, I tried my hand at writing. Inspired by Gibran’s lyrical poetical style, I started a diary which did not record events and my daily life, but an unravelling in the impressionistic mode of my feelings and thoughts My most ambitious work was a short story in the manner of the Arabian Nights, complete with genies, magic, heroes and villains. But my favourite occupation was extending my reading horizons to include Greek philosophy, world literature in translation and English poetry and prose. Before I reached Egypt, after winning a scholarship, to read English at Cairo Univesersity, I had completed reading most of Shakespeare’s plays. That required a diligent and laborious use of the dictionary, which vastly enriched my vocabulary and improved my English.  Since most of my education was in Arabic it required a great effort on my part to raise the level of my English. As I gradually declared my intellectual independence by seeking, to spend most of my time researching at the library instead of attending lectures, my troubles began and my academic reputation as unwavering steady achiever, which I earned during my schooldays began to suffer. The hallowed established educational system of imparting knowledge demanded that the students learn and repeat what the lecturers and teachers thought and taught, adopting unquestioningly the opinions they upheld, especially in literary criticism.  This made me feel uneasy and aroused my resolve to resist. So I rebelled, taking the decision not to attend lectures on the works of the writers and poets we were studying without having first read or reread them in order to have the chance to form my own personal opinions of them. I paid a heavy price for my independence and for my departure from the prescribed path. I almost failed in two subjects. Luckily my parents who were used to my brilliant achievements were in Damascus, which spared me and them having to discuss my fall from greatness But in choosing an unconventional approach, I was able save my beloved Shakespeare and many other poets and writers I admired from uniformity of opinion and dreary critical conformity.

While I was still at Cairo University, I started writing a play I named, Thus spoke the dream. When a friend of mine read it she commented that there was enough dreaming in it to suffice our entire generation of Arab women. I called the central character Mariam and gave her my own reflections and spiritual journal. In this play I somehow predicted my destiny of painful intellectual and spiritual estrangement, my refusal to conform and the inevitable sacrifices outsiders like me have to make in order to save their love and beauty and preserve their unity of being, so essential also to choosing the unity of mankind and the allegiance to humanity at large. In this play I was trying to say that I knew what was waiting for me and the inevitable sundering. Strangely or not so strangely, the play also spoke of joy, the unimaginable joy, half spiritual and half Dionysian which can only be achieved through communion with nature.  In retrospect, I believe that Gibran, Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot and Wordsworth, all contributed to that dream of joy.

I arrived in England in 1970. Why did I choose to come? The history of British politics in the Middle East was murky and fraught with betrayals. More than any other country in the world Britain was the great shatterer of Arab dreams and aspirations. Were it not for Britain’s devastating role in the Levant with the advent of the twentieth century, Palestine would have been still the home of the Palestinians. Several Western nations welded the bow that shot the Arab nation in the heart, but the arrow was Britain.

You can never hate a country if we love its language, if you love its Shakespeare and Wordsworth and so many infinite poets and writers. This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with civilisation. It is the eternal rift between the temporal and the eternal. As Britain stood accused, the grandeur of the verbal aesthetics and later the visual saved it for me. The lure of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre stretched over two continents and whispered my name. It was a dream I strove very hard to fulfil, loaded with hardships and trials. The only University which accepted me as an overseas student wishing to do an MA and possibly a doctorate in English literature was Swansea University of the University of Wales. So I headed to Swansea where I was selected to do a course in drama and poetry. Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and William Butler Yeats were the poets, authors and playwrights I concentrated on, nearly all of them exponents of verse drama.

I knew nothing about Swansea the city and its mostly Welsh population. Arriving by train on a dismal rainy day, I watched the gloomy station then the greyish monotonous buildings along the way to the University with trepidation.   Swansea was keeping its natural beauty hidden like a well kept secret. Throughout my life I have felt the need to anchor my nomadic being to a spot nature has laboured hard to endow with earthly loveliness. My childhood orchards of Damascus, before the thoughtlessness of man turned paradise into jungles of concrete,  the farms run by the Department of Agriculture of the University of Cairo where I roamed with flowers in my hair drunk with light and scent, and the Swansea seaside were such spots. These spots helped to tame a wildness in me that has always strived to break free from the confines of geography. As one headed out of the modest Swansea city centre along roads lined with rather shabby greyish homes, another world gradually came into existence. Stretch upon stretch of beaches nestle close to the ascending hills, climbing even further up, only to descend down to the open arms of the sea, unfolding  into sandy beaches studded with sand dunes sprouting velvety emerald vegetation. The dreamy untamed cliffs of the Gower peninsula, crowned with the purple of wild heather and the cadmium yellow of broom and gorse captured my imagination and filled me with primordial joy. I used to kneel by the picturesque lichen clad mighty rocks and gaze at the sea with an almost holy rapture possessing me, while the wind tore at my long red hair and the sea spray drenched me to the bone. As the dazzling sea birds sang their songs, their lonely whiteness engulfed by the upper grey blues of the skies, I listened to eternity.

I loved the sea and I loved Swansea.  I spent there the happiest days of my life. At the university, while I was researching English drama and poetry, my usual inability to limit myself to the subject in hand, to one area of knowledge, drove me to extend my readings and research to a variety of art subjects. After a year of Shakespeare, drama in general and T. S. Eliot, I started studying the poetry and writings of William Butler Yeats, the author I finally chose for my M.A. thesis. Yeats the poet was among the greats and his verse drama had aroused a lot of controversy and interest, but what was not so well known was his prose including his literary theories and critical works. The elegance and beauty of his prose mesmerized me and captured my imagination. Yeats explored the contemporaneous literary and artistic world of the early twentieth and that of the late nineteenth century with tremendous imaginative vigour and creative assiduousness.  As one of his favourite subjects was art, dear to my heart too, and as was my duty as a researcher, I had convinced myself, to act the detective and follow all the threads leading to the understanding of my author, I embarked on the delightful task of discovering those artists he wrote about. Thus it came about that I had my first encounters with the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and Beardsley, not to mention many others. William Morris inevitably ushered in the Arts and Crafts Movement which in turn provided one of my leads to the discovery of Islamic art. I became profoundly interested in that movement and its exponents, especially its founder William Morris. His interest in the crafts and their revival, the aesthetics he promoted to support the movement in bridging the gap between art and craft resulted in the creation of works of superb quality and finesse. The sophistication and complexity of design and the meticulous workmanship revolutionised the concepts of the decorative and all things ornamental which hitherto were regarded as inferior to the fine arts.  In short, as William Morris, his, associates, disciples and fellow artists, laboured to produce masterpieces and works of breath-taking beauty, covering ceramics, fabrics, stained glass, furniture, book binding, calligraphy, carpets and tapestries, the central most important contribution to the history of art they made was to prove by example that the division between art and craft is an imposed didactic, lacking true substance, thus a flimsy one. What in the Arts and Crafts Movement was to have in the future a lasting influence on my work and the body of thought supporting it is the central concept that asserts the unity of art and craft. Needless to say, that these are, more or less, the same aesthetics that Islamic art had lived by and that are manifested in its legacy to the world. The artist and the craftsman were one. The division that sets them apart would have been incomprehensible to them. That in the Arab and Islamic worlds today such a division has been blindly adopted is totally due to the influence of the West.

During my first two years at the university in Swansea, my creative efforts sought their major outlet in continuing to write poetry, mainly in English, with the exception of some few experiments in writing poetry in Arabic.  These poems in Arabic were lyrical and short, echoing the Andalucian Muwashahat, but their prevailing mode was mystical. They reverberated with Sufi sentiments, echoing my rising interest in Sufism. Muwashah was a lyrical form of Arabic poetry which developed in Al-Andalus and was very popular in medieval Arab Spain.  It is a strophic poem written in classical Arabic, often consisting of several lines and three or five stanzas, but the rhyme can change from one stanza to another. One of its major themes was courtly love, but the form also lent itself beautifully to mystical divine love.  One of the Muwashahat most appealing feature is that they were mainly written with music in mind and many of them were handed down with musical accompaniment, which helped them to survive. They, in addition, inspired a form of stylized rhythmical dance, refined in step and movement, the elegant choreography of which is still practised in Morocco and Syria in selective circles. Because I regarded my poems as songs, I started humming them to myself, but finding a piano available, I started to fumble with the keys trying to conjure up notes for the verses. I had never learnt how to play the piano or read music; nonetheless, the urge to sing and compose some simple melodies for these short verses was overwhelming.  The beauty of the park surrounding Clyne castle and the hall of residence where I was staying was dazzling. At night, the rhythms of the sea pulsed and vibrated, pulling at my innermost and informing my sleep. During the day, the cries of the sea birds haunted me and seemed to spread wild white notes in the upper air. The atmosphere was luminous with their rugged music. The magic of the castle grounds made me feel mighty and eternal and I knew what it was to be godlike. In that spot I experienced the intersection of time and space as if unseen hands were leading me through layers of accumulated consciousness to the heart of creation. When I eventually left Swansea, I left part of my spirit behind.

It was then, as my senses grew very sharp and keen, that it began to dawn upon me that the word as a vehicle for expression and creation was not, alone, adequate any more. I began to experiment with words accompanied by music. The music I created out of no training whatsoever was rather primitive but hauntingly strange. It was as if there and then a fissure opened in time through which the music escaped.  I do not know how to evaluate this experience which was imbued with feelings of homesickness and nostalgia. Yet the very nature of that nostalgia was a mystery to me because it was not nostalgia to familiar things or time past but rather all things timeless. It was as if something incredibly ancient and fathomless began to speak to me.

The awareness I gleaned from this experience was that verbal expression alone was no longer very satisfying or adequate.  By then I had started writing my thesis on the verse theatre of. Yeats. Yeats was a poet who painted elegantly with words and had the gift to juggle them both in prose and verse most magically. I think he was a writer who learnt much from painting in which he was most interested. As I have mentioned above, his essays on the art of his times led me to explore the Pre-Raphaelites, Beardsley, in addition to the artists who designed for the contemporary theatre.  Yeats sought the mystical and the fantastic in art. He hated realism and the mere imitation of life because that verged on the vulgar in his opinion. He was after the heroic, the passionate and the beauty that surpasses understanding. Beauty he believed is born out of struggle and the metaphorical clash of swords, and is the reward of the soul battling and labouring in many previous lives. In retrospect, I can see now that during that pivotal time in my artistic life, a progressive pattern was set in motion, one step leading to another in an ever widening motion.  Thus, exploring Yeats led me to explore the painters and the art forms he was interested in, which in its turn led me to combine my research for my thesis on Yeats with a parallel selective research on the history of art and the artists that appealed to me. Most of the things we tend to do in continuity or semi continuity, will take the form of a journey eventually. The journey becomes a quest for a certain something, or just a quest for its own sake. We might have to make several journeys in our lifetime in order to fulfil our destiny. As we tread along, we start to distinguish and respond to the inner pulse of the road which seems to stretch painfully and forever, only to be broken by landmarks of intense significance, pointing to intersections where and when knowledge and vision are imparted. My art journey started when the image rather than the word began to take hold of my imagination and when my creativity began to channel itself into the hitherto unexplored realm of colour, structure texture and form. I began to make sketches of the sea and rocks. Green seas and emerald crags began to sprout. The black and white of Beardsley's art inspired me to make pen drawings of the sea that I loved so much.

The Swansea Sea with its changing lights and dancing shadows, its rhythms and tides seemed to send several message to me. Every morning, as I walked to the University, a harvest of shells and pebbles greeted my sight. I loved those shells and pebbles and treasured them.  The oyster shells were unusually large and their shiny interior surfaces very smooth, while the pebbles presented silky unblemished contours. It did not take me long to decide to decorate the ones I collected. These were my first miniatures. From my experiments with shells and pebbles, I learnt how to reduce the world and how to choose my details. They imposed a discipline on me that later became one of the requisites of the art I created.  I learnt precision, attention to detail, consummate control and the basic requirements of technique from painting on shells. I later learnt that during the war many budding artists in Wales used to collect shells and pebbles and paint them to make a living. They helped me too to supplement my income in my times of need. I missed home and my parents, only what I was truly missing took the form of a yearning for the nameless and the infinite.

I had to move to London in the mid seventies in search of a job so I said my farewells to Swansea most reluctantly, almost with a broken heart. In London, I began regular visits to museums and art galleries.  I had been collecting and reading books on Islamic art but nothing had prepared me for my first encounters with the Arabic and Islamic collections of the British Museum and the V&A. Manuscripts, calligraphy and miniatures, ceramics, enamelled glass, woodcarvings, textiles and metal works, the likes of which I had never seen before, assailed my vision and shocked my awareness into recognition.. It was not only a discovery, but also a revelation, a breath-taking experience which                                                ensnared my imagination and opened hitherto unexplored dimensions for me. I was overwhelmed. It was as if I had walked into a lost world where all time was simultaneous and experience instantaneous, a lost kingdom offering the choicest and the greatest. I walked through history and geography assimilating, absorbing, synthesising, and willing my awareness to flower into cognition. If I had stayed in the Arab world, I would not have created the art I have eventually created. Although the truth is hard and extremely sad to admit, the fact remains that the greatest and the most illuminating examples of Arab Islamic art reside in the West, not in the Arab countries. The Orientalists, the archaeologists, the civil servants of Imperialism had done their best to enrich the museums of the West with the treasures of the East. When I started researching Islamic art in the late seventies, The Arab countries had not yet started collecting Islamic art in state-of-the-art museums as Kuwait  has done and most recently Qatar.

Probably my approach was tinged with Orientalism, yet mine was an oriental Orientalism. It was different in that I was aware that my focus of study was part of my inheritance. There is no doubt that the scholarship that Orientalism brought into being was of the highest calibre at its best, when not blinded by politics.  Here I should point out that I was assessing and evaluating with my duality. I believe that each of us who can speak more than one language has experienced that switching from one language to another embodies a mode, even a personality, change. The ability not only to speak another language but also to think and dream in this language is like creating another dimension to the self and pushing the boundaries of the mind to include and contain the otherness. It is a wonderful experience, enriching and liberating.  I mentioned above that were it not for my living in the West, my art would have been different. Having two cultures was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. They reside within me not in division, not in conflict and the compulsion to make agonising choices, but in the unity of duality, in the wholeness of the reconciliation of the opposites which cannot exist without each other. I struggled, and how I struggled, not to allow the outside world to converge upon me with its harrowing disruptions, jarring politics and aggressions, its relentless race for supremacy, which was called, and still is, the clash of civilizations. I was after the communion. The opposites still existed, only not in division but in symbiosis. Living in the West was the crucible that forged my art, the catalyst fired my creativity.  Having more than one culture was like a dance for me, a dance choreographed by my dreams, imagination and cognition. Many ugly realities threatened my dance, like bigotry, Parochial narrow mindedness and spiritual blindness, in addition to the fact that my own personal life was extremely sad at times and I had to struggle bitterly in order to earn a living , but I was determined not to stop dancing in and out, back and forth, ever accumulating new dimensions. Most of all I was determined nor to stop loving. Because I was born in the Arab world and crossed over to Britain, my art became a journey and a quest. It became imperative for me to reconcile East and West and dwell culturally where they converge and meet. My mind and soul partook of each, and both of them in turn played, to use a Jungian term, the role of my animus.

Murakami, the Japanese writer explored the concept of shadow in many of his novels. His treatment is so hauntingly beautiful and mysterious.  You know and you do not know what the shadow stands for. It arouses in the mind of the reader intimations and visions which defy definition. It is an archetypal image. In the shadow metaphor, Murakami tries to draw on an ancient concept deeply rooted in magic, religion, spiritualism, psychology  and the occult.  The old Egyptians named it Ka. One's Ka is born with one and it continues the journey after life towards eternal life. It is a very serious mutilation to be divided from one's shadow or the other half of the self.  It is like castration and in some beliefs; it signifies living and not living, in short becoming almost like a zombie. No spiritual or physical life can be complete without the shadow. The shadow is given many names throughout the history of humankind. Sometimes it is called Daemon, demon, double, opposite, familiar, genie, mask, and twin, or the other half of the self, dark and shadowy.  Light can make the shadow disappear optically but it does not kill it. Shadows exist only because of the light and light is defined by the shadowy dark. The concept of the shadow, mask, or double was at the root of W. B. Yeats tragic theatre. He even wrote a philosophical treatise exploring the subject: A Vision. The unity of being, the birth of heroism ,of art and great literature only follow in the wake of the big bang, forging into union the opposites.

I have lingered over the subject of opposites and otherness in order to explain that I have created my art in the forms it took in order to invoke my otherness at the heart of my Britishness. It was a celebration of that otherness, either theirs or mine. This is why I am against globalization in the arts if it means the creation of dominant creative ways of expression at the expense of other cultures. There is no true greatness in the domination of power, artistic or otherwise.

Arriving in London to work and live, I started looking for a suburb by the Thames. I had to live not far from water because leaving the sea behind created a vacuum and a feeling of loss. Thus my choice fell on Richmond which I liked instantaneously.  In Richmond, the most beautiful of the London suburbs, I created for myself in loneliness a lonely art or, to describe it better, an art of solitude. I was never part of a movement nor did I aspire to be. One artistic trend after another came into vogue then halted or sank into oblivion but I staggered on, which meant that my works were always difficult to sell and that they had to depend on an elitist evaluation. With an adamant steely single mindedness that never ceases to astonish me, I took the solitary path and never turned back for better or for worse.  It was a sacrificial path, unyielding, unrewarding and financially disastrous. We do what we have to do. We hear the call and respond, for not responding means to lose all integrity and honour.

Trying to offer a rationale for my art, I wrote in one of my artistic statements:

After the passing of the golden age of Arab civilization, a great darkness was ushered in due to conquests, great upheavals and political disintegration.  Arab art was wrenched from the past into the present missing an interval, a beat, a holding continuity. I am in search of the lost bridge, the rainbow.

When I paint, I seem to leave the world behind with all its dissonance and contradictions. Perhaps I do take it with me, refined, condensed, and vibrating. I have discovered that because I tend to respond to colour and light with intense animal joy, I cannot make journeys into the dark night of the soul in my paintings. Therefore, the ritual of painting for me has come to embody joy, celebration and praising in triumphant tones the beauty and the gradual vanishing luster of our planet. I find myself clinging to the splendour of something that might fade away at any moment.

The summer like no summer

The light like no light

The trees like no trees

Where is that unimaginable joy

Where is that unearthly immortal summer?

I dream therefore my art dreams with me, not excluding pain, but courting the light despite the tragedies that overwhelm our world.

In retrospect, it strikes me that I had adopted an apologetic tone in the above.  I was trying, out of feelings of a lingering guilt, to defend my choice of light over night. After all, I was born in Jerusalem and my inheritance, like all those who witnessed the tragedy of Palestine, was a bitter and a tragic one. In my poetry and writings I tended to express, in addition to ecstasy, the tragic and, too often, the sadness and the pain of living. Therefore, when my artistic visual experience began to reveal to me that  the ecstasy in my paintings was the ecstasy of joy, I was bewildered and felt uneasy. Was I an escapist trying to live in a world of fantasy or an idealist in search of a parallel word of harmony where pain is transcended? Perhaps in my escape into images, I was uniting the two halves of myself and sensibility. The joy in the discovery of colour, form, the dance of light, texture and technique dominated my creative faculties in painting, while there was much sadness in my writings. The anguish of my writings was replaced in my paintings  by ecstatic peace and equilibrium. Thus I was saved by art because when the real world got to much for me, I subconsciously slipped into that other world and drew strength and courage from it.

The knowledge I was gleaning from the perusal of my research into Islamic art gradually resolved itself into four areas of study and interest. The first three Calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts and miniatures, were related to the art of the book while the fourth, ceramics, borrowed most of its vocabulary of ornamentation from them. These arts captured my imagination which started to vibrate and resonate with their impact, seeking release in artistic creative endeavours. Later, experimenting with the techniques of printmaking, I added another field of exploration to the list: the geometric art of Arabesque. Chronologically, in the narrative of my art, studying and developing the techniques of printmaking and ceramics were contemporaneous, but I did not whole-heartedly engage in them until the early nineties.

I do not think we shall ever know how experience in all its forms influences us. What used to make perfect sense suddenly ceases to vibrate. What we thought we are, unexpectedly takes a turn towards the unknown.  The best I could do was to obey my impulses and instinct and stop rationalizing or trying to understand. You create things or make them because you have to, regardless of the consequences or results. When you fall in love with a person, a civilization, an art, a visionary way of containing the world, the object of your passion becomes an all-guiding star which uplifts you to its sphere, and you take flight, overflowing with life and heightened awareness.

My preoccupation with Islamic art was the beginning of a much wider exploration and more involvements.  For example, my study of Arabic calligraphy, Islamic manuscripts, miniatures and illumination had to be set against older prototypes. Without the historical context, my research could not have hoped to attain fruition and maturity.  Similarly, as I was looking for an unbroken line extending to the remotest of pasts, I had, in addition, to search for and research the means of also extending an unbroken line or lines to the future. But the past first, then the future. Consequently, I branched out into researching Syriac and Byzantine manuscripts, especially Byzantine Icons and mosaics. In the opposite direction, my study of Islamic illustrated manuscripts inevitably diversified to open the way to a parallel study of Western manuscripts and early paintings, the common dynamic being, Byzantium.  One half of me feasted on the magnificent Islamic illuminated manuscripts, while the other half was held still-bound by the beauty of the early European illuminated manuscripts, like The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospel. The Insular and Calligraphic Gothic styles, the latter also known as Black Letter, stood out for me. I believe that if any traits are to be found in common between the Arabic and the Western calligraphic scripts they are to be realized by juxtaposing some forms of the Kufic and the Gothic calligraphic styles.

What began as a journey into Islamic art evolved over the years and gained new dimensions, especially when my fascination with ceramics prompted me to acquire the skills and the art of the potter. There was something about the world and nature of clay that deepened in my imagination the concept of journey and the overlapping of time. In my mind's eye, I saw pots as the greatest time and space travelers, despite their amazing vulnerability and seeming fleetingness. From the shards of pots and clay tablets of very ancient civilizations, we were able to unlock whole areas of, otherwise, lost history. I wrote,

Pots have a kind of indestructible eloquence which never fails to overwhelm.  Like us, if we choose to believe in the myth of creation, they are shaped out of clay, out of the primordial formless mud.  Making a pot echoes the making of Adam. Yet their clay is more durable than our clay, and they hold time still in perpetuity.  Ten thousand years old, as some of them are, and yet they are still with us.

The notion of mystical time, as opposed to temporal chronological time, began to take roots in the discourse of my art. Nevertheless, mystical time cannot be achieved without the exploration of chronological time, without a journey through time. The following extract, from a speech I delivered at the School of African and Oriental Studies of the University of London, dwells on this subject at length and attempts to explain,

I like to describe myself as an archaeological potter, a potter who creates by making all times contemporaneous… I do not know when it started; I cannot exactly say when I set out on my journey towards and through times archaeological.  I have embarked on my journey in order to be enriched and endowed. As I travel back in time and space, seeking the cradles of civilization, as I, overwhelmed with wonder, proceed in search of the treasures of our ancient earth, I find that I am enriching my own fragment of earth, and adding fresh layers of awareness to my experience. It has become a compulsion.  I know that my artistic journey through time is largely a quest for meaning. Like many others, I believe that our contemporary existence is in need of rediscovering meaning. And we, each one of us, are travellers though we forget it.

Perhaps we are not alone. Ancient voices and ancient faces are all around us. If we summon them, they make themselves seen and heard. Ancestral murmurings and whisperings are not voices of the dead, but life stringing itself in eternal continuity. In his great Poem, The Waste land, T.S.Eliot summons up the ancient gods and the life giving forces in order to fight off despair, "These fragments I have shored against my ruin", he says. We conjure up the past in order to rebuild our houses and our lives. I go back to the past in order to search for our beginnings.  The earth was young then, with humanity still in its infancy, spiritually, intellectually and artistically. The joy of watching the dawning of civilizations is a unique experience, which could be achieved through leaps of the imagination. Everything was still waiting to be discovered and made. We all need to make history integral and civilizations chapters in one book in order to master enough vision to embrace the world and all its people since time began and for all times to come. I intend to move the paragraphs marked in red to my chapter on ceramics when I get to grips with it.

Aurora: The Mystical Dance of Light and the Poetry of Colour

Before taking up painting seriously, my creative literary energies sought expression through metaphors and images fraught with colour. I did not write poems envisaging in my mind's eye only abstracted words and concepts, for I also saw them, as if an unseen prism made them flower into patterns of coloured light.  Some poems were predominantly crimson or red, fading into pinks and oranges, some were green and some definitely blue trailing purples and violets. Others shone with the full energy of the spectrum. Colours born of light were and are everywhere for me. Sounds reverberate with colour, smells echo with earthen pigments. I even identify People I care for by their auras of colour. To myself, I have always been blue and gold. When I was a child, feeling sad, I used to sit in my bed at night and gaze at the darkness intently until it began to dissolve into spinning, revolving and dancing patterns of luminous colours.  Those patterns used to lull me to sleep. Sometimes, even during the day, lying down and gazing at the sky, I used to play the same gazing game until the air started to dissolve into myriad little diamond crystals flecked with gold, gyrating up and down, in and out and everywhere. It might be that many other people have had similar experiences, but I treasured mine, never mentioning them lest they never come back if revealed. They made me feel very special.

Due to those experiences in the dark, my definition of black, or in better words my relationship with black, the shadowy,  or that which we define as black has remained very complex and bewildering to me. At the beginning, I avoided using the colour black in my paintings. I just could not handle it. For what is black? Is it merely the absence of light? Or is it the primordial darkness of the universe before the Big Bang?  If so, then it is the cradle of light, the eloquent preface to the epic of light and the birth of the stars. What makes Rembrandt paintings unforgettable is the Rembrandt dark leading us gently and mysteriously to the threshold of the intense stunning drams of light. It was in my ceramics that I began to explore midnight black. Strangely, I never used black without hinting at the metaphor of light. I added lustres to my blacks especially mother-of-pearl so that it gleamed with the colours of the rainbow. Another ploy was to use a pallet of blacks and golds, thus bringing peace to my soul.

One of my favourite exploits when life was racing in my veins and I was overwhelmed by the immensity of all things living, was to walk blindfolded among the trees and flowers and touch my way through, feeling them radiate their signature colours. One tree would glow red, another passionate white; a flower revealed it was yellow, another emanated violets.  These colours had nothing to do with their real colours. Rather, they described their essences in the same way people were defined to me by their auras. Gradually, I imbued colours with my personal symbolism, the patterns of my thoughts and the shades of my feelings. Never the less, I do not think I invented a colour frame of reference that was uniquely mine because I was on the main echoing the archetypal symbolism of colour and colourful light. Mysticism, Sufism, poetry, even religion, made use of colour symbolism to describe states of beatitude, bliss, nirvana or to visualize the terrific descent into hell, projecting the inferno.

Following, I have chosen some extracts of my pomes which I like to describe as the painted poems; they were harbingers heralding the switch from the verbal to the visual in the story of my art, although one might argue it was not a total surrender:


I am green in the trees

Blue in the seas

Silver in the moon

Red in the sun

An eternity in eternity.

From The Emerald King,

The rocks float

Hung in the diamond air

Each an orange-clad sage

Gazing laughingly

At the opal arching gates.

The green waters enfold the rocks

Framing their fiery crystal solitude

In gleaming rippling jade.

From an untitled poem

White wings

Crimson light

Birds of the sea

Glowing like shafts

Of scarlet silver

The peacock light

And the white wing

Only come together

In a moment of red intensity

And from Amber and saffron

Amber and saffron

In a maze of rowan

In a haze of pollen…

O red ripe grapes

O full cool lemons

Moon-round but born

By seven sad herons

To the gasping farrows

Of seven dark eons.

Amber and saffron

In a maze

In a haze of rowan.

In the last poem, the colours chosen are all in the shades of yellow and red. It reveals my growing obsession with colour. A cluster of colours and images are chosen to convey mods of shifting feelings and to achieve the jump from the real to the surreal. Logical thought is suspended and the resulting liberation frees the mind to delve deep into the subconscious.

However, my most painted poem is the following chant from Mosaics: Am I Living or Dying, which reminds me of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring:

Red Earth

Red round earth


Red purple earth

And Adonis

Golden Adonis

Glistens red

In a red rose

Glitters purple

In a purple violet

Blue red earth

And the green moon

Jade full- green

And the blue moon

Is purple

In the red earth

Is golden

Golden in Adonis

For Adonis is light

And the moon is light

And the earth

Red and purple


Green and blue

Gold and




This life

As my paintings began to mature, moving from the amateurish to the professional, my vocabulary of colour started to have the same added dimensions as my painted pomes, but in reversal. In the poems, words acted as the brush, while in the paintings the brush was dipped in the verbal pallet. To the inherent values of colours, layers of symbolism began to transfer them into correlated metaphors. While the colours resided in the real world, a transcendental parallel world bestowed upon them unearthly, or heightened earthly, dimensions.  It is the way I see things, as if in a shaft of sunlight that imbues my vision as a painter with the memory of the stars. Sunlit, starlit, moonlit or penetrating through the jewelled glass, is how the world unfolds in my kingdom of colour. Illuminating or lighting up a painting should emanate from within. It should look as if it were painted with multi coloured lights. One might say that the light of a painting is the light of the world in microcosm.  The world of colour is forever searching for the light of lights, aesthetically or mystically, creatively or religiously. Art and the sacred are united in the evocation of universal forms and images which are akin to the Platonic eternal forms residing in the mind of God. Many artists, without any clear intention or conscious effort, find themselves compelled to employ colours in a manner conforming to the spiritual and aesthetic interpretation of them.   I believe that deep in the human psyche, light is coloured light; it is the rainbow and the spectrum, consequently every feeling and state of mind can be reflected and translated into colour. On Plato's Theory of Forms and the ideal world they inhabit, which exists parallel to our world in a more rarefied manifestation, I like to quote the following passage from Wikipedia,

In comparison to it (the world of forms) our earth is "spoilt and corroded as in the sea all things are corroded by the brine."[17] There the colors are "brighter far and clearer than ours; there is a purple of wonderful lustre, also the radiance of gold and the white which is in the earth is whiter than any chalk or snow."[17] Moreover the plants are better: "and in this far region everything that grows - trees and flowers and fruits - are in a like degree fairer than any here."[17] Gems lie about like ordinary stones: "and there are hills, having stones ... more transparent, and fairer in colour than our highly-valued emeralds and sardonyxes ...."[17] And for the humans, "... they have no disease, and live much longer than we do, and have sight and hearing and smell ... in far greater perfection. They converse with the gods and see the sun, moon and stars as they truly are ...."[17] Indeed, for Plato, "god" is identical to the Form of the Good. {I must find a better source that the internet for this}

My friend Nigel Jackson, artist, illustrator, author, scholar, librarian, with whom I correspond and explore our mutual interests in art and mystical thought, especially at the point when Christian and Islamic mysticism, both influenced by Plato and neo-Platonism, seemed to have so much in common, wrote to me to say,

Thus we find Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, heavily influenced by Arabian thought, discussing colour and saying that 'Colours...are certain kinds of light.' I think this chimes with the ideas of the Illuminationist philosophy in mystical Islam, underlying the manipulation of colours as a living alchemy of spiritual light... { I must research this further}

The manipulation of colour as a living alchemy of spiritual light- this appeals to me immensely. What I was trying instinctively to do all the time, as an artist, was to turn my core colours into something rich and strange by undergoing, in Shakespeare's words, a sea-change. The blue I saw in my mind's eye and sought was like no blue. Safire blue, azure blue, ultramarine blue, indigo blue,  Prussian blue, cobalt blue, sky blue, turquoise blue –these are but a few - are all part of the great mystery of blue, extending all the way to coart the blue enveloping the Milky Way and the blue wherein the spheres dance. I created my lapis lazuli series in ceramics in order to solve the riddle of blue. The Muslim and Christian illuminists of the Middle Ages crushed the lapis lazuli stone in order to make a rare blue which never stops to court eternity.  That the loveliest Lapis lazuli stones are flecked with gold, offers a part explanation why blue and gold are entwined in my psyche and imaginations. It also meant that to the Lapis lazuli of the series, I had to add the description moonlit in order to correctly describe the melange of fired blues and lustres.

Gold is the sun in my paintings. I see it as the universal spirit and the light of heaven and earth.  Gold is the alchemist which resides over shadows and transforms them. It is like the kiss of life. It awakens colours from slumber and resurrects their dormant spirit.

The shadows laugh

The shadows sing

For a moment

Unique and glowing

The dark corners

Become eternal

The white hand

Of an immortal creator

Rests in beauty upon them

And holds

The gold cries in the corners

Light …light

Gold, including the colours which invoke it like yellows, ambers and oranges it, is an incarnation of light.  In all the mystical traditions, especially those of the Sufis’ , it symbolizes the flawless perfect state of being.  It is the princely garment of the pure soul which has attained a second innocence. It is incorruptible. Though the flesh might surrender and weaken, the gold of the soul will partake of the eternity of the godhead.

The celestial and astral Islamic astrologies and cosmologies which I researched as I was collecting the material for my book, Fabled Cities,  Princes and Jinn from Islamic Myths and legends, while enriching my imagination, opened the vistas of the firmament for me and I beheld the dancing spheres, overshadowed by the myriad wings of the iridescent  angels. This journey through the mythical heavens was not diminished, on the contrary it was greatly enhanced, by the recent scientific discoveries which has revealed to us in pictures the glories of our cosmos. Art begins at the juncture where myth and reality fuse.  Myth treads where nobody dares and science travels in its wake. In order to prove or disprove myth, science takes leaps into the unknown fired by the life force of fables. I do not think this is an exaggeration for, even as myth seems to recede, science and technology are not above clothing old heroes in contemporary disguises.  In myths, dreams and art the human imagination seeks unity, wholesomeness and healing. Every night, as we surrender to dreaming, it is not reality that we seek, or a continuation of our daily concerns, but what life has failed to offer, the knowledge that we have failed to attain, the wisdom that has escaped us, the horrors that might be, the people and the geographies we have lost the chance to discover. It is our lack of fulfilment that speaks to us in dreams and myth.  This same lack is what we try to atone for in art and is the driving force that fires our creativity and makes science seek to tread where only dreams and fantasies dared to walk.

The imagined glories of the astral mystical cosmologies and the stunning NASA pictures, relayed from outer space, of a universe crowding with galaxies and stars, of many suns trailing planets and moons in their wake, captivated my waking awareness and my subconscious alike.  The radiance of that unimaginable light and its cascading brilliance, ever gathering luminous intensity, in other words, the enchantments of the lights of heavens, mythical and scientific, enthralled me. My mind throbbed with them and whirled, almost possessed, until a dance was born at the centre of which stepped the whirling dervishes onto the floors of heaven to enact the story of creation.  In their whirling dances of the Sufi traditions, emulate the movement of the stars and planets round the sphere of spheres, which according to Islamic sacred cosmologies, support the Throne of God. Before I finally was able to create my Cosmic Dance Series in order to translate my vision visually, I had tried verbally to  imagine how it would feel, to dance and revolve like a heavenly body on the stage of the universe, bearing witness to the majestic grandeur of the universe:

Where did we dance the dance of dances?

Where did I dance wrapped in a cloud of star dust,

The sun on my right, the moon on my left,

Mercury imparting visions of forms perfected,

Mars yielding the toned clamour of the clash of swords,

Jupiter communing omniscience, Saturn omnipotence?

Where did I dance measuredly revolving with the revolving spheres,

My eyes two galaxies, my hair threading the Milky Way

With Venus a crown and the Pleiades a circlet adorning the brow?

Where did I dance seeking the sphere of spheres

Within without, all embracing, all-encompassing,

The fountainhead, the matrix, the essence of all music?

And yet I danced, I danced with my right hand caressing the stars

My left hand touching to the earth, feeling the powerful tree trunks,

Harvesting the myriad hews of flowers?

Tell me in what lost garden did I fall into step

With the majestic foot-falls of the cosmic dancers

Treading lightly, vibrantly upon the floors of the universe,

Unseen, yet ten thousand times seen, unheard, yet eternally heard,

Unfelt, yet penetrating the marrow, reddening the blood, stringing the sinews

Where did I dance, my beloved rising to meet me

Astride monumental shafts of cascading light,

Amidst the whirlpools of the cosmic wilds

And waste upon waste of star-studded universal meadows,

With meteorites and asteroids sliding off his hands

As his fingers plucked his strings, then paused to pluck them again

The metaphysics of cosmos or metacosmology, was at the centre of Islamic gnosis. One of its greatest exponents was Ibn 'Arabi. What was myth in the cosmology of folklore, metamorphosed into metaphysical, spiritual, philosophical, psychological and gnostic interpretation of the divine cosmos and the mystical journey of humankind to God.  It became a hymn to the light of lights and the heavenly stage upon which the ascent to the Lord of the universe is enacted. One hundred years later Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, but the totality of Ibn 'Arabi's thought and metaphysics, spread over many works, created vaster dimensions and sco[e for the unfolding of his philosophy. Ibn ‘Arabi was not writing a masterpiece of poetic spiritual literature, but seeking to interpret the creation and the manifestations of the divine by developing a sacred frame of reference, involving the whole of cosmos.

Part of me is pagan and animistic, which is to say I believe in pantheism and that the Universal Spirit is in everything.  In other words, I am an instinctive believer in unity of being. I tried to express this on an earthly level in a chant forming a part of my poem Am I Living or Dying.

I am all bent upon myself


Like a knotted wave


Like a sea swept cave

Crouching listening

I hear the molten lava

The subterranean streams

Bending brooding

I yield to the burning energy

The fierce pangs of pending birth.

I am close to the earth

I am close to you.

The rockroses are breathing

Into my eager lungs

My veins are drawing blood from

The red soil of drowsy elements

From murmuring roots

The hair tapestry of the living

Sporting with green death

I am close to the earth

I am close to you.




With the fine veins

Of singing minerals

The soft fibres of scented wood

My body is shooting in the hissing lava

Sharing in the impatient talk

Of the burning mud

Down down down

Where all life awaits beneath

The brown crust of crazy times.

I am close to the earth

I am close to you.

In my study of Ibn 'Arabi, I found one of the perfect examples of the doctrine of unity which, to my artistic temperament, is manifested in concentric circles of cascading light spiralling to Gnosticism ever absorbing and radiating the mythical, the imagined, the scientific, the metaphysical, the poetic, the literary and the theological (including various traditions and creeds), while remaining totally embedded in Islam. He stands where all religions meet at the fountain of universal mysticism.  One cannot help but set the doctrine of universal unity of being against our contemporary distorted concept of globalization, a concept which shatters all unities, spiritual, cultural, ecological and political because it is power and dominance based, because it dispenses with compassion, justice and equality in the pursuit of wealth and supremacy. This comparison might be far-fetched and a little out of context, were it not that globalization is monopolizing art and thought and our very souls. The doctrine of the universal unity of being draws its life force from diversity and multiplicity, the parts, as if it were, fulfil their destiny in unison. In addition, globalization often implies belittlement, subjugation and the loss of individuality even being.

As a poet and an artist, I like to stop with Ibn 'Arabi on his journey to heaven at the station, level, from which comes poetic sustenance, and which reveals form and beauty , along his spiritual ascension to the Creator. (Quoted by J. G. Sullivan in his study of Ibn ’Arabi’s journey to heaven Miraj.)

He reveals to you the world of formation and adornment and beauty, what is proper for the intellect to dwell upon among the holy forms, the vital breathings from beauty of form and harmony, and the overflow of languor and tenderness and mercy in all things characterized by them.

Calligraphy and the Art of Illuminated Manuscripts as reflected in my Calligraphic and Manuscript Style works

The word retained its importance in its absence

1.  Calligraphic Works

Kufic Script

My love for Arabic calligraphy started with my research at the British Library and visits to the British Museum and the V&A. The works I saw were dazzling examples of perfected art forms  and consummate skills wherein the sacred and the profane vied for excellence. The illuminated Koranic manuscripts I viewed are among the finest and greatest in the world. At the V&A, I saw for the first time in my life how the Arab and Muslim potters began in the golden days of Islam to use calligraphy to decorate their plates, jugs and jars. That practice was certainly revolutionary and very daring because, hitherto, calligraphy was mainly preserved for the sacred, the surfaces being primarily vellum and paper. In the beginning, the potters largely used the Kufic script because of its rich ornamental characteristics and potential. The script was skillfully modified to fit the curves and the shapes of the pots.  It was very different from writing on a flat unchanging surface. My own first attempts to decorate plates and vases with calligraphic ornament were very taxing and trying, especially when I was struggling to fit the calligraphic patterns to rims and circumferences.

Kufic is a monumental calligraphic script which reached its perfection in the 9th to 10th century

AD.  It is pictorial qualities, yielding stateliness and gift to flow, bend and amble, continuously shape changing to create the perfect ornamentation without losing purity of form  make Kufic the nearest of all Arabic scripts to drawing and the most suitable for decoration. In addition, its verticals and horizontals can be elongated or shortened to dramatic effects creating the impression of infinity within the word and endowing it with elegant momentum. If any script can be described as sacred, thus helping to create a sacred art, I would award the honour to Kufic. From its beginnings in the seventh century until it reached its fullness in the period ending in the beginning of the 9th century, Kufic was there to dazzle and dominate the aesthetics of calligraphy in the Muslim world. With the passage of time it evolved into a Koranic art form before its ornamental potential coaxed it into the secular domain too

Although it was superseded in the centuries to come by more practical and prosaically functional scripts like Naskhi , it remained a favourite with the illuminators who gave it the pride of place in their illuminated frontispieces and Sura and chapter headings.  Some of the early examples of Kufic , it seems, were drawn then gilded, a model I followed in my Kufic calligraphic works accidently, not knowing that it was practised briefly, because it seemed the right thing to do for an artist, like myself, who is not a calligrapher. Kufic takes many forms like square Kufic which is very geometric, floriated and foliated Kufic, which tend to sprout palmettes, tendrils, and leaves, whole or split, and interlaced or plaited Kufic, not to mention other variations. Maghribi Kufic, also known as (Western Kufic), developed and was predominantly used in North Africa and Al-Andalus.

The prototype of the Kufic  script used in my painting Compassion, one of the group entitled The Creation, is an early 11th century Koran written in Western Kufic by Ali Al-Warraq, probably in Kairawan.  When I first set eyes on a page of this Koran, I was completely mesmerized by the sweeping beauty and the elegance of the powerfully and gracefully shaped letters.  They seemed to flow effortlessly unfolding in forms that I found quite unique among the Maghribi Kufic variations In my paintings and ceramics, even etchings, which employ calligraphy, I concentrated  on mainly using the Kufic script. It blends with geometric and floral design like no other script. In the vocabulary of ornamentation, it bridges the gap between decoration and writing. Aesthetically it has a unique grandeur, yet it can ripple cascading softly and unobtrusively, blending harmoniously with ornamental design. In my own use of Kufic calligraphy, I have tried to explore its decorative potential and ornamental values to the full, adapting, adjusting, bending, tempting the shapes of the letters in order to cover and envelop the multiple surfaces and mediums I employed. .

While the icon is at the heart of Christian sacred art, the letter, not the image, is at the centre of Islamic sacred art. In Arabia, although writing was employed, the art of lettering, the making and the shaping of elegant beautiful letters was absent, in as far as we know, in the Pre-Islamic era. Yet., I like to mention here that the odes of the outstanding poets of the Jahiliyya were said, in the old tales of Arabia, to have been written in gold and hung on the walls of the Ka'ba, the Sacred House of Mecca. The birth of the Kufic script defies definition. It was not there, and then it was. I am not going here to trace its development and I can say that even the earliest examples seem to have come into being, fully-fledged, breathtaking, perfect.  In the presence of the marvellous, we marvel and are lost in the contemplation of it.

The birth of the Kufic script is like the birth of a galactic star.  It came into being to reveal the word of the Creator and mirror the magnificence of the creation. The majesty of the Kufic script is derived from the majesty of the Pen which God employed to pass on knowledge to the world.  When the calligrapher writes the words of God he is emulating the sacred Pen which wrote the destiny of the universe in the Guarded Tablet. Here, I would like to dwell on these two concepts because of the frame of reference and body of spiritual, theological, philosophical and metaphysical literature that they inspired and motivated.

In the Koran, God addresses the Prophet Mohammad , commanding him to: Read in the name of your Lord, He who created… Read, your Lord is Most Magnanimous, He who has taught by the pen, taught humankind that what they did not know…

The heavenly Pen stirred the imagination and the most devout contemplation in the minds of the lay people and the theologians alike. While I was writing my book, Fabled Cities, Princes and Jinn, I researched the myths and stories which abounded in folklore and popular religious literature regarding the Creation and the order of heavens and earth.  I quote,

It was believed that God first created the Pen (AL-Qalam) .  Then he commanded it to write.

“What shall I write, O Lord?" asked the Pen trembling in awe. "Write in the name of your Lord, the Compassionate, the Merciful, write down the destiny of the world", was God's answer. So the Pen, moved by the will of God, faithfully rerecorded on the Guarded Tablet everything that happened from the day it was made until the day of judgement…The Pen, which was made of light, measured the span between heaven and earth…The Tablet was made of pearl with pages of brilliant ruby…

In the learned sacred cosmologies, especially that of Ibn 'Arabi, , what the Pen (the Prime Mover) wrote was the Creation.  The Pen is the First Intellect and the first creative principle. It inscribes the unity of creation and that the created world is an expression of the grace and mercy of God. The Guarded Tablet, on the other hand, is the universal soul, corresponding to the name of God: He who resurrects. No wonder, therefore, that the very act of writing implied the miraculous.  Inscribing the Koran, in particular was an act of devotion and piety and praise, aspiring to emulate the Pen.

Since I am not a calligrapher, my approach to calligraphy was a painter's approach What I mean by this, is that I draw and paint the letters rather than write them. I studied and researched the forms, proportions, aesthetic values and ambiance. In most of my calligraphic paintings, etchings and ceramics, I remained the painter, the printmaker or the ceramist, rather than the calligrapher. I created paintings with calligraphic structural and textual elements. I used calligraphy to enhance my art, knowing that the art of the calligrapher and that of the painter, though they might converge and complement each other, are two distinct forms.  One might spend a life time trying to perfect the calligraphic arts. In that respect my ambitions modestly only sought to explore and dwell upon the aesthetic and ornamental values of the forms.

However, a painting wherein a poem or a verse embodies the central theme is not like other paintings.  It is best described as a calligraphic painting. My earliest calligraphic paintings, after a period of self-designed apprenticeship, employed the Kufic script in many of its various forms. For the series of my Creation paintings, including Compassion, which I embarked on especially in order to use the Kufic script, The prototype was two pages from an early 11th century Koran Written in Maghribi Kufic by Ali Al-Warraq, as mentioned above. I had to supply the missing letters by conjecture and a careful study of the available forms. His variations on the Kufic, so distinct and unique, enchanted me and fired my imagination to the extent that I later used the same prototype for an Andalusian poem in red and gold.

The following review of my painting, The Creation 2, is interesting because the writer has used his own knowledge of Islamic art to interpret one of my Creation paintings,

One look at Khairat al-Saleh’s The Creation 2 and it is evident she was inspired by the highly traditional forms of the Blue Qur’an and the Sultan Sha’ban Qur’an.  At the time these two antique manuscripts were created, the text of the Qur’an itself was used to provide the main decoration for pages, representing of the revealed word of God in visual form (Bloom 71).  The Blue Qur’an

(beginning of the tenth century) uses gold ink on blue-dyed parchment, making the book itself extremely costly to manufacture as blue was the most expensive dye in the medieval world and parchment required the skinning of hundreds of animals for a single Qur’an to be produced (Bloom 73).  The Kufic script of Arabic was used to symbolize the high-status nature of the words on the page and the text lacks the diacritics which aid the reader in pronunciation and interpretation of meaning (Bloom 71). By contrast, the Sultan Sha’ban Qur’an (14th century) is lavishly decorated with the text neatly including all vowel markings in a clear, legible script. The use of gold and crushed lapis lazuli on paper signifies a shift from the more expensive blue-dyed parchment to the more economical, but arguably more variable and practical medium of paper.  Al-Saleh’s work combines the styles of these two manuscripts while simultaneously incorporating modern media.  She uses the comparatively modern mediums of gouache and paper, but still writes her letters in gold leafed Kufic script and surrounds the text with elaborate margin decorations.  The idea that The Creation 2 is supposed to hang on a wall is also significant because “in Islamic culture, pages from the Qur’an were never torn out to be framed, and the illusion of two open pages in a free-standing painting is entirely modern,” (Ali 166).  Perhaps this is, as Lewis describes a self-conscious neoclassical effort, but the media and purpose of the piece clearly differ from those of the antique Qur’ans and it would be a mistake to think of The Creation 2 as anything but modern.

From Orientalism in Islamic Art History by Andrew Mayzak, 2006

In truth, my inspiration for writing and illuminating the Koranic verses for the Creation series, was more universal without ignoring the particular. My main departure with the old

Schools of Koranic illumination were that I attempted to express images contained in the Koranic text itself. In creating the stylized semi naturalistic panels which were inspired by the decorative mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, I metaphorically or more directly, sought to combine image with word by linking the verbal content with the illuminations. The Koranic illuminations of the past were confined to arabesques, geometric, foliated and floral; stylized patterns which with the passage of time and the continuous developments of new styles acquired breath-taking subtlety and originality, reaching several heights of perfection as new schools of illumination representing new regional powers came into being. Yet despite their continuous evolvement, throughout their development the Koranic illuminations remained abstract or abstracted. They were abstract not only in the forms they elaborated, but additionally in the fact that they never, in as far as I know, attempted to directly illustrate the Koranic verses or mirror their contents, unless we regard the overwhelming impact of the greatest of these illuminations as an attempt to express the glory of the Creator and majesty of  His words literally.

Koranic Illumination

The traditional Koranic schools of illumination which, though never attempted to mirror the contents directly, as I expressed above, strove to manifest the sacred visually in trying to match the grandeur of the calligraphy with a corresponding  grandeur of gilded ornamentation the opulence of which, especially in the frontispieces, defies description. The illuminations make the pages glow with the passionate intensity of devotional art, pages of light as if capturing the sun and dipping in a sea of lapis lazuli. In some of the most lavishly decorated Koranic manuscripts frontispieces, wherein the ornamentation covers every inch of the page, meandering above and below the headings, sweeping through the margins and filling the borders, the illumination while expressing the majesty of God and invoking the splendors of his creation in elaborate abstract or semi abstract design, and while at times the decorations are  imported to decorate headings of suras within the text,  they remain strictly unrelated to the textual contents  as illustrations. They continue to inhabit, as it were, a separate but  a parallel sphere, a sphere populated by richly and mystically created forms in golds, blues and greens, highlighted here and there by oranges and reds.  An Infinitude of concentric, radial, stellar, interwoven, centrifugal geometric ornamentation speaks of the order that regulates the stars in heaven and the hidden geometry that underlies all created forms and the natural world.  Sometimes, the Arabesques blossom into leafy spirals or scrolls racing up and down, germinating foliage or creating nests of delicate colourful gilded flowers, thus creating a lyrical accompaniment to the sobriety of the formal studied precision .

Of all the illuminated Korans handed down to us by various epochs and dynasties, the Mamluk Korans rank among the most sumptuous and opulent.  They reached inimitable heights of perfection owing to the combined and coordinated efforts of master calligraphers, gilders, illuminists and binders who laboured in the royal workshops, pushing the techniques of their times to hitherto unknown grandeur. Some of the Korans they produced measured one meter in length and had to have special lecterns designed for them, in their own right masterpieces of exquisitely carved and inlaid wood, in order to use them. These Korans which were made in for the Mamluk Sultans in Egypt and Syria were created in workshops equipped with the best calligraphers and illuminists of the time. Gilding and binding displayed the same consummate skills and constantly strove to develop superior methods. Many of the Mamluk Koranic manuscripts, carrying the names of the rulers and patrons whom they were made for, were donated by the Sultans to mosques as wqfs (to be held in trust)) for public use. I have tried in vain to find some detailed description of the art of the Mamluk gilders and acquaint myself with some of the methods employed. Art historians Orientalists and Arab and Moslem art commentators mostly dwell on descriptions of these manuscripts, referring  in their studies to the general methods used in the workshops where the manuscripts were prepared, but they do not offer detailed studies of the techniques. What I was after were treaties written by master illuminists, calligraphers, colourists and gilders detailing the making and preparations of pigments, gold inks, gold leaf and the methods for laying the gold leaf or applying the gold powders, shell gold, not to mention the last stages of burnishing the gold including the tools used to achieve this. What I craved unceasingly was to find recipes, formulas and guidelines for preparing pigments, making the sizes and binders necessary for applying the gold leaf and preparing the solutions for pens, quills, and the brushes of the artists.   Eventually, in the absence of such specified information I had to rely on the modern methods of Western gilding which I believe, have incorporated many of the old traditional techniques. I am sure that if I go to Iran or Turkey, I shall have better luck tracing some of the old techniques which have survived.

Korans were the first manuscripts that were written in Arabic. Perhaps at the beginning, calligraphers were expected to combine the skills of the gilder and colourist as prerequisites for mastering their profession. Never the less, it becomes evident from the refinement of the arts of the book even very early on that  producing a Koranic manuscript became a very specialized art which required the consummate skills of a team of master craftsmen . I believe that a similar development and gradual move towards specialization took place in the monasteries in Europe where some of the most magnificent manuscripts of the Christian Gospels were illuminated by teams of calligraphers, illuminators and binders not to mention the complementary skills of preparing the parchment and binding.  The spread of the use of paper, learnt from the Chinese, in Baghdad under the Abbasids in the second half of the eighth century soon replaced in the tenth century the arduous task of preparing and treating parchment for Koranic manuscripts. In comparison, Europe had to wait another four hundred years or so before paper was properly introduced and put to use in the fourteenth to the fifteen centuries, after the fall of Granada. Until then parchment continued to be utilized for the production of Western manuscripts.

The illumination of Koranic manuscripts was mainly confined to double paged frontispieces and end pieces.  Within, the surah headings were also illuminated. Medallions, rosettes, and palmetts in addition to interlaced patterns and roundels, were used  as verse markers. The margins and borders and page breaks in some manuscripts also received the attention of the illuminators and were ornamented with scrolling foliage and arabesques.  The palettes of the illuminators were restricted, in addition to gold, to the primary colours of blue, yellow and , not so commonly red. To the primary colours were added the secondary colours of oranges, greens and purples as the art f Koranic illumination gained in complexity and grandeur. Gold was the colour of the divine majesty and dominion.  Like the sun it is the emblem of the spirit and the heavenly multitude. Blue is the infinitude embracing in mercy the cosmos and the creation. Yellows partake of the mystery of God and are a symbol of cognition, knowledge and revelation. The reds express the regal in the divine and the passion of love manifested in life.

Since this is the story of my own art, I would like to reiterate that my artistic meanderings took the form of several quests, each leading to the stage after and each opening a hitherto undiscovered world shrouded in mystery waiting to be revealed. I marked each such stage  and each venture into the unknown or unexplored by creating several works of art in celebration of a quest accomplished. The ground covered was sometimes merely assigned to the store of experience and the accumulation of skills, while in contrast, on many occasions, the ground covered was to be revisited again and again because to leave it behind  permanently seemed to shake the very foundations of my art. Thus, the majority of the works I created tended to refer directly or indirectly to the arts of the book. This is the case with my paintings, ceramics and prints. Never the less, although I was expressing my vision mainly in painting, the written word remained present and dominant despite the fact that I was painting, not writing and that my main vehicle of artistic expression was the visual image.  Many of my calligraphic paintings were direct interpretations of verses, poems, including mine. Thus, the illustrative principle in my art is linked to literature, mysticism, history and philosophy; all are branches of knowledge associated with the written word.

My boundless joy in contemplating the illuminated Koranic manuscripts is only equaled by contemplating the glories of such Western manuscripts as the Book of Kells (Ireland around the end of the eighth century AD) and the Lindsfarne Gospels at the British Library (England, Northumberland, beginning of eighth century).  They both belong to what is described as the Insular style. Insular art is a later development of Celtic art in its best known and most prominent phase. Celtic art originated mostly in the Irish monasteries of the Celtic church, starting around 600 AD and gradually producing lavishly illuminated manuscripts dedicated to religious texts, mainly the Gospels.  After the fall of Rome, the art of illuminating manuscripts was almost destroyed in Europe, but it made a comeback, incorporating in the British isles, Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements, not to mention Mediterranean oriental influences. The Book of Kells and the Lindsfarne Gospels represent the highest achievements of this school of illumination which flourished in Ireland, Britain and early Middle Ages..  Its main artistic features are the lavish use of interlacing motifs, intertwined birds and animals, intricate knotwork, not to mention other sophisticated motifs like spirals. It is an mainly an ornamental art without direct imitation of nature, so fundamental to the classical traditions. For me the most glorious aspect of this style of illumination, which remained a durable feature in the schools of illuminations to follow, is the use of decorative lettering, usually confined to the marking of paragraphs, especially of the opening text in prose or verse.  Hence they came to be called Versals. The decoration of capitals or initials started with the Romans and was one of the main features to be revived and elaborated by the Insular school. Gold leaf, gold ink and embossed gilding techniques were lavishly used to enhance the ornamental an grandeur effects. Embossed gilding techniques were not used in Islamic manuscripts.

In branching out to describe some of the features of one of the earliest Western schools of book illumination, I am trying to draw attention to important similarities between the early Western art of illuminated manuscripts and that of the art of illuminated Koranic manuscripts. Both were inspired by religious fervour and were contemporaneous at some stages.  Both, arguably, represent the most enduring in devotional art. In the use stylization, symbolism and formal presentation their aesthetics converge at times. In craftsmanship, like gilding and pigmentation, an example of which is the employment of crushed lapis lazuli for blue, there were also similarities, as well as in the utilization and treatment of parchment .

The use of gold leaf was widely known to the ancient Egyptians and was later developed by the Romans and the Hellenistic world. In design, Islamic and Celtic have in common an underlying geometry which controls such patters and forms  as spirals, knot work and interlacing, thus inspiring countless variations. In my own works I merged some of these features and tried laboriously to emulate some of their artistic excellence. My intense admiration for the illuminated capitals so, characteristic of old Western manuscripts, inspired me to design some illuminated free standing Arabic  letters , employing the embossed burnished gilding techniques I so fancied in European manuscripts. (See Taj triptych). The reason why I am finding it important to delve into a kind of comparative study is that I am trying to elucidate my sources of inspiration and to reveal the process of my efforts to self educate, in view of the fact that the most important art college I graduated from was the collage of dedicated research and scholarship and personal laborious experimentation. In my perusal of the great works of art that appealed to me I was gradually unmasking my invisible hidden teachers and apprenticing myself to them.  In the making of my art, it was not art colleges and schools which formed and shaped me.

2. The Exploration of the Arts of the Book, Islamic and Western in my Manuscript and Miniature Style Works

I can never explain convincingly why I have chosen the miniature style, a style borrowed and constructed from a study of Islamic and Western miniatures alike, for the mass of my paintings.  The obvious explanation is to say that the arts of manuscripts including calligraphy and illumination, whether in the form of miniatures or illustrative designs and ornaments, not to forget gilding, arts mostly interdependent and interwoven are also known as the arts of the book. Literature, poetry, prose, in short words, as the earliest of books were compiled, fired the imagination of the painters who sought, or were employed, to marry the word to the image. In the story of Western art, even when the paintings left the books and were liberated from the confines of parchment and paper, the painters still borrowed most of their subjects from religion, myth and literature. First came the word then the image. I might be wrong.  Never the less, I might further explain, in my case, that the poetry of the word and the poetry of the image called each other forth and the two halves of my mind, one verbal and one visual, sought a union and found it in the art of the book.

Illuminated manuscripts in Western and Islamic art created rarefied, profound and mysterious worlds to which the chosen and the few were admitted. When an illuminated manuscript is closed, the world within it awaits in secluded hushed silence for the moment when its splendour and bejewelled contents, no less than a private paradise, are revealed to the beholder. Of all the arts, miniatures are the most intimate and the most intriguing. They guide the viewer, as if through the looking glass, to a parallel world where the diminutive gains immense imaginative proportions, opening up a universe where  every module acquires the kind of eloquent significance other genres of painting rarely manage to achieve. Because of the religious iconographies which are associated with this art, miniatures retained a powerful frame of references embedded in symbols, magical qualities, and talismanic attributes. In miniatures, every detail plays a role of major importance as it illustrates, refers to and enhances. The symbiotic relationship with texts, whether religious, literary, poetic, historical, astrological or scientific, fuses image and word, bonding the verbal to the visual.

The art of manuscript illumination was known to most civilizations of the ancient world, like Egypt, the Roman Empire, Persia, China, and India. This art did not grow in total isolation, geographically speaking,   because techniques and influences travelled along the Silk Road and along the locations of contact between East and West in later periods. It was also practiced in the Hellenic world, under the Byzantines, reaching great heights of sophistication and splendour under Islam and in Europe. Islam and Europe share a significant common heritage in this respect because they both inherited the classical world.  The artistic traditions and influences of Hellenism ( incorporating Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Persian elements) and that of the Byzantine world played a role that cannot be overestimated in creating the Islamic and the Western schools of illumination, including miniature art, in other words painting. Painting in the East and West continued to share many features in common in the two rival worlds until the Renaissance changed the aesthetic norms so drastically, bringing about the great severance in introducing such innovations as perspective, naturalism, shading and the hung (suspended)  independent work of art, painted on canvas or wood

Because of my ethnic origin, I started by searching the Arab and Islamic schools of painting, starting with the Umayyads of Syria and ending with the Mogul and Ottoman schools of painting which were mainly dedicated to illuminated manuscripts. There was first the Syrian School embodying mostly the Syriac and Byzantine influences with their  rich history of icon painting and religious book illumination. The Hellenistic traditions and iconography of this school which also prevailed in Egypt before Islam (Coptic painting) and whose influences spread to Europe through the Mediterranean, , had a great impact on the School of Mosul in Iraq and through it the School of Baghdad, both of which constituted the pillars of what became better known as the  Abbasid School of painting. The Syrian School, embodying the traditions of the Syriac School, prior and contemporaneous to it, impacted Islamic painting starting from the eighth century onwards and its traditions remained very strong until Eastern, via Persia, and far Eastern influences also became very manifest in the Baghdad School and later the Persian schools. These influences, especially the Chinese, continued to exert strong fascination and indeed practical engagement under the Safavids of Persia and the Ottomans.  The invasion of the Mongols and the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate at the hands of Hulago Khan in 1258 AD, after five hundred years of its foundation, was one of the most tragic events in the cultural history of the Arab Islamic world and the world at large. Baghdad was sacked and put to the sword. The famous libraries of Baghdad, the most renowned of which Dar Al-Hikma,  were burnt and hundreds of  thousands of manuscripts and illustrated manuscripts were burnt or thrown into the river, thus writing one of the blackest chapters of vandalism in the history of the world because Baghdad was then the greatest centre of learning and scholarship known to the civilized world . We shall never know what artistic and literary treasures were lost and were it not for Al-Wasiti's splendid illuminations of the Maqamat, and the few illuminated manuscripts that survived, we would have never been able to envisage the true stature and contributions of the Baghdad School of painting. The miniaturists and calligraphers of Baghdad left the city to join the courts of the conquering Mongols in Persia and Central Asia, thus helping to create new traditions under new powers.  Despite the enriching and lasting traditions of the Baghdad School which poured its influences into the arts of the Mongol conquers who were later converted to Islam, establishing many dynasties and sultanates in Persia and Central Asia, and despite the heritage it left to the emerging painting schools of Persia and the Mongols, Arab miniature painting subsided in Iraq and never flourished again or attained such heights until the modern times. Koranic illumination did achieve unprecedented grandeur under the Mamluks, but Arab miniature painting only saw short revivals which were not marked by noticeable creative originality.

These historical developments helped to generate, in my belief, what I like to describe as the missing link, more accurately, one of the major missing links or black holes in the history of Arab culture and art .

Baghdad was sacked for the second time in 1401 by another wave if conquerors of Turco-Mongol descent under Timur (Tamerlane). Timur also attacked Damascus and Aleppo in 1399 and massacred the population, sparing only the lives of the artisans whom he deported to his capital Samarkand. The first wave of Mongols were stopped by the Mamluks of Syria and Egypt in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, while the second wave under Timur did not establish its rule in Syria which remained under the Mamluks, whose rule in Syria started from 1250 until the beginning of the 16th century, 1517, when  they were defeated by the Ottomans of Turkey. It must be noted here that the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria were able to vanquish another formidable enemy in a series of defeats they inflicted upon the Crusaders at the end of the 13th century, retrieving all the lands that were lost to them for the last two hundred years, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the main strongholds of Acre, Tarablus and Antioch.   In contrast to the Mongol invasions, the Ottomans defeat of the Mamluks did not lay the earth bare and end with pools of bloodshed, with cities sacked and raised to the grounds and the populations massacred in their thousands.  It was relatively peaceful and the Mamluks were able to assert themselves as power sharers, but as it had always been the wont of every conqueror, the cream de la cream of the Syrian and Egyptian artisans and craftsmen were moved to the workshops of the capital of the new rulers, Constantinople.

Under the Fatimids in Egypt (909-1171), whose influence extended to Sicily, Malta and the Maghrib, the arts flourished in the courts, and were characterised by great attention to detail and the and exquisite craftsmanship and delicacy that marked  all crafts. In painting and the other arts, theirs was a continuation of the Abbasid traditions with added refinement and elegance. In painting, the influence of the illumination schools of Smarra, Baghdad and Mawsil, sometimes grouped under the Mesopotamian School, was vey present. The Fatimid rulers received embassies and gifts from China and this cultural exchange resulted in introducing far Eastern artistic elements into Fatimid art, displayed in  fondness for depicting and making fabulous animal forms. Through the Fatimids and Cisily where Fatmid art had a considerable influence , Arab painting traditions reached Italy and Southern Europe, thus opening another channel for artistic exchanges between the Mediterranean and the West. Never the less, the main centre for cultural contact and the channeling of Arab learning and arts into Europe was via the Arabs in Spain. With the fall of Granada in 1492, the torch of Arab art and learning received its second most devastating blow, a tragedy that surpassed in its enormity even the fall of Baghdad.  It is said that hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts were burnt by the Inquisition in Spain. We shall never know how many illustrated manuscripts perished, thus there will always be a gap in our knowledge of the art of Arab painting in Spain. Another missing link. Another black hole. History stood still as the curtain fell on the last jewel in the Arab crown. A cultural darkness lasting hundreds of years in the Arab world was ushered in.  The true influence of Arab Spain on the rest of Europe and its role in the birth of European Renascence will have to be rewritten and reassessed in a fairer age and time, although one must say that the stubborn efforts  of a new generation of free thinking researchers in East and West are already changing the face of established history . The story of Arab Spain and its role in the history of world civilization will remain incomplete, shrouded in mystery, misinterpretation and injustice. Shall we ever succeed in rediscovering that lost magnificent civilization and give it its rightful place?

Having said that, I would like to draw attention, in this context, to Internet research and scholarship because they are creating a near virtual revolution in the history of scholarship by challenging the dominant scholastic attitudes. Because the internet, in addition to many other numerous roles, is acting as a world forum and platform for intellectual and artistic discourse coming from every corner of the world and from differently held opinions and beliefs, the formal established academic interpretations and theories are being challenged constantly, which has resulted in considerable relaxation and flexibility in hitherto unassailable premises and hypothesis. New blood is being infused daily giving vitality and impetus to dialogue and debate.

In the hugely diversified libraries of the Umayyad caliphs of Spain and the dynasties that followed them, many manuscripts were adorned by calligraphers, illuminators and guilders, especially Korans beginning and ending with double pages of ornamentation. But in as far as I know, and as many researchers believe, apart from few surviving illuminated Korans, only a handful of illuminated manuscripts with miniatures have survived from Al-Andalus. Among these is the romance of Bayad and Riyad, (circa 1200), an eleventh century illuminated Koran and a treatise on astrology by Al-Sufi (died in 986), in addition to a book of fables, The Consolation of the Sovereign,  illustrated by a Morisco in the 16th century. Hadith Bayad and Riyad, the tale and love story of Bayad and Riyad, written in the convention of courtly love, has numerous illustrations with figures, gardens, pavilions and architectural forms against which the action is set. The illustrations display features in common with the Baghdad and Samarra schools, both belonging to what is sometimes described as the Mesopotamian School.  These features are manifested in the treatment of space, vegetation and figures. Perspective was not a contrivance known to the artists of that time, but a semblance of it was projected by making the action take place on several levels supplied by the architectectural elements. As with the Baghdad School, the backgrounds are plain and nature stylized. But in the treatment of folds and the depiction of figures: frontal view bodies,  moon shaped faces presented in three quarter positions, the influence of the Samarra school asserts itself.

However, Andalician painting was not restricted to manuscripts because a number of wall and ceiling paintings were found in Alhambra and other locations. Chief among them is the 12 century charming wall painting at the museum of Santa Clara in Murcia, depicting a girl playing the flute. It is delicately  outlined then filled with colour in Blue yellow and pinks. The paintings in Alhambra adorn the ceilings of the Hall of Kings. The centre chamber shows a group portrait of the kings of Alhambra, ten out of the twenty two, while the adjoining two chambers show hunting scenes. In my opinion, these paintings show in style some features in common with Western manuscript painting.

But the true masterpiece of Andalusian art and one of its greatest achievements might be described as the art of visual poetry as embodied in Alhambra palace. As the eyes wander, lost in contemplating the lyrical beauties of Alhambra, they are bound to notice the inscriptions adorning the walls , the courtyards, the arches and the capitals of the slender columns, carved in fragile plaster and forming friezes, medallions and ornamental motifs.

Most of these inscriptions are in praise of God, the omnipotent, but many of them are in praise of Alhambra itself. It is as if the inscriptions imparted the overwhelming vision that turned the whole edifice into a poem in timber, plaster, marble, ceramic tiles, water and shade, vying to match the verses in magic. Alhambra, one is forgiven to say, is but an illumination, an illustration of one dominant theme which is the celebration of earthly paradise.  The fleetingness and the passing of this earthly paradise was also celebrated in passionate poems of nostalgic anguish and heart breaking sadness that marks Andalusian poetry in the last days of the Arabs in Spain. Thus, Al-Andalus became in their collective imagination a symbol of the earthly paradise and civilization that the Arabs lost, irretrievably tragically lost.

The artistic genius of Arab Civilization and Islamic Civilization as a whole is hugely manifest in that they had some of their greatest feats of inspiration and achievements, not in the art of painting, but in architecture and the decorative arts. Indeed, the mystical and spiritual visions of artistic Islam were mainly channelled into public outlets, pouring their creativity and momentum in the so called minor arts, thus raising them to unprecedented subliminal levels of perfection. Sacred geometry, as it were, became one of the main vehicles for channelling mystical thought and spirituality. A marriage between pattern and spirit.

I created some dedicatory works in memory of the art of Andalusia, especially the art of Alhambra. I illustrated some verses from the Muwashahat in several ornamental designs. I later used some of them in my ceramics.  In the painting I called Red Poem, by using a background in burning reds in addition to gold leaf calligraphy in the Maghribi Kufic style for this love poem, I tried to depict the passion for life and beauty, for elegant refined living the Andalucians portrayed so movingly. In addition, when I created the Series Variations on Arabesque and Dance of Arabesque, I mainly had in mind the elaborate multicoloured tiles of Alhambra, a most eloquent and consummate visual treatise on geometry in multicolour. The play of light and shadow on the brilliant surfaces of the tiles in the exteriors and interiors of Alhambra drove me to coin the phrase Dancing Geometry, for I visualized the tiles in the idiom of light  penetrating through pattern and design in endless colourful multiplications, thus  giving the effects of stained glass.

Here I would like to have the liberty to digress and step back in order to return  to the subject I have left unfinished and try to do justice to the Baghdad School of painting by exploring some of its most prominent artistic characteristics, its iconography, influences and the traditions it handed down, even after the fall of Baghdad. One of the great achievements of this school is that it succeeded in absorbing the Hellenistic and Syraic traditions, in addition to the influences reaching Iraq in the per-Islamic era via the  Silk, not to omit others, such as that of the School of the Persian Prophet Mani in Iraq and Persia. But its greatest achievement no doubt was the remarkable and revolutionary reaffirmation of the use of images, started by the Umayyds of Syria, in the face of the vehement religious opposition mounted by the puritanists and the iconoclasts who put forward the argument of idolatry and image worship. The Baghdad School pushed ahead, paying little attention to its religious opponents, finding ways to circumvent and thwart them.  The range of the illuminated manuscripts this school produced was most remarkable and outstanding, to say the least. Literary, scientific, botanical, astrological, mathematical, and zoological subjects and automata were meticulously illustrated.  Some of the miniatures illustrating these books boast considerable finesse and are amazingly attentive to detail. This may largely explain why a streak of realism and naturalism characterizes a large part of what had survived of the Baghdad School. Stylization and formality coexist with an imaginative rendering of the subject matter in hand. However when we come to explore the favourite literary works that the miniaturists of Baghdad loved to illuminate, like Kalila wa-Dimnah, a collection of fables featuring animals, we are bound to encounter the phenomenon of the Hariri Maqamat (Assemblies), written in the tenth century, and the obsession with it. Al-Maqamat adopts an innovative literary style, though not invented by Al-Hariri, greatly refined and elaborated by him to reach unprecedented heights of verbal dexterity in employing the devices of play on the meaning of words, puns, linguistic puzzles, astounding grammatical constructions, glamorous verbal feats and wondrous deftness.  The demands of this extremely elaborate style, rhymed couplets in prose, were no obstacle to his genius which wallowed in harnessing its difficulties effortlessly and delightfully. What is most intriguing and baffling, besides the choice of the style, is the choice of the subject matter. For the Maqamat is dedicated to the adventures of Abu Zayd and his simpleton son, and if we ask who is this Abu Zayd who is assuming the role of the chief character  in this episodical narrative of an adventurous journey, geographically covering a vast stretch of the Islamic world? The answer is that Abu Zayd is a con man, a trickster, and a swindler of exceptional talent.  In contrast, the story teller who accompanies him recounting his adventures, is a decent, God fearing man, completely his opposite in character. The popularity of this , one of the most popular of literary works, lasted for a long time, enough to generate a considerable number of illustrated manuscripts, original or copied,  spreading from Iraq to Syria to Egypt., dating in all from the fourteenth to early eighteenth century.

I believe that the most brilliant and gifted of all the illustrators of the Maqamat is the master miniaturist Al-Wasiti, who is as well the most accomplished exponent of the Baghdad School. His illuminations have preserved to us its most characteristic traditions and  elaborations in the treatment of colour, costumes , animal and plant life and chiefly the human figure. As sheer luck will have it, Al-Wasiti's manuscript, completed in 1237 and surviving the Mongols destruction of Baghdad, reached us intact with ninety-nine breath taking miniatures. The world that meets us as we leaf through the manuscript is akin in spirit to the bustling world of the One Thousand Nights and One.  The artist rises to the challenge of the Maqamat, and with extraordinary gusto and enthusiasm he matches wit with wit, humour with humour, shrewdness with its like and verbal conceit with its visual counterpart. He creates a parallel universe in which Abu Zayd and his companions come to life impressively. Where Abu Zaid treads Al-Wasiti follows, observing in selective detail, the human foibles, whims and weaknesses around him.  H chronicles and observes the fate of common humanity with great charm and ingenuity. The panoramic human landscape that unfolds gradually is akin to street theatre on a large scale. It is so full of dynamism, vividness and atmosphere, unveiling in successive scenes and episodes the rituals, the aspirations, and frustrations of the ordinary folk going about their business, legal and illegal.  It reminds me of the of the Canterbury Tales. You feel the bustle the hustle of the journey, the concentrated life force of human, animal and plant. I especially admire his structuring of his scenes and the remarkable grouping of his characters. His rendering of animals, especially, camels is a joy to look at. The architectural forms are suggestive and finely drawn, but never obtrusive. The composition as a whole is exuberantly but carefully manipulated with a masterly skill.  The costumes are meticulously handled with garments and drapes hanging in stylized folds, beautifully drawn, in my opinion, with calligraphic pens. Al-Wasiti's crowd scenes, speak of a civilization at ease with itself and its contradictions and amalgamation of races and cultures. Twenty years later Baghdad and its people were savagely destroyed and massacred. In retrospect, the manuscript has thus become the most poignant and stylish of farewells to Baghdad.

Baghdad never again rose to imperial prominence and the seat of power shifted to many geographical locations under new rulers, especially Persia..  The Abbasid Empire was no more and the last of the royal line fled to Cairo extending the life of the Abbasids Caliphate in name for another three centuries until the fall of the Mamluks.  The Mamluks Kept the Abbasid Caliphate ticking but purely in a symbolic and religious role. Damascus which since the Umayyad rule has been playing a semi provincial role became with Cairo the capitals of a powerful Sultanate and consequently the new centres of Arab art.  Because history tends to be named after rulers, dynasties and empires the main thread of historical continuity is sometimes lost or becomes muddled out of recognition. It is the people who are the roots that do not wither, they, whose continuity goes thousands of years back, that create literature, philosophy, the sciences and the arts, not the rulers who if enlightened play, at best, the role of patrons. The temporal life of political powers cannot boast of such unbroken endurabilty.  What is timely is played against what is timeless. In the Middle East, especially Syria, civilisation was written by the people who saw empires come and go, kings and sultans appear on the stage then disappear, they who suffered countless devastations and endless wars, who were put to the sword, raped, burnt, tortured and ravaged. Never the less, those who survived rose again, rebuilt, farmed the land, sang new songs and wrote new poems and books. In their genes they preserved the story of the civilisations they created before and when the dogs of war were silent they resumed their immemorial role and more chapters were added.

With the advent of the Mamluks and the defeat of the Mongols in Ayn Jalut in 1260,  in addition to the expulsion of the last of the Crusaders, the disrupted artistic traditions began to try recovering what was lost while opening up to numerous new trends and fashions, absorbing and assimilating them with renewed vigour.  I had thought that the Baghdad School of painting and its legacy had ceased to exist in the Arab world after the Mongol conquests until evidence of its continuation in more modest achievements, yet with relevance, became apparent to me. It also seems that the Baghdad School continued to struggle on after a fashion in the wake of the first sack of Baghdad because Timur moved the remainder of the painters of the Baghdad School to his capital, Samarqand, after the second fall of Baghdad at the hands of his army.

Recently I have been reading the novel; My name is Red, by the Turkish author Orhan Ramuk.  Rarely have I come across a book whose verbal sensibilities extend so eloquently to treat the realm of the visual with such profound sensitivity. As the story progresses the very heart and soul of Islamic painting is unravelled beautifully. Most of all, and in this he is very unlike the majority of art historian, he picks up the thread of unity and continuation which never ceases to pulsate defying mass slaughter, the destruction of great seats of learning, the massive demographic changes and the rise and fall of great dynasties, sultans, kings and shahs. I came across his book half way through writing this autobiographical introduction to my art. In his loving and passionate perusal of the art of Islamic illumination, I have found a kindred spirit and a voice that I sometimes found I could not distinguish from my own.  Ramuk understands the philosophy and mystique underlying Islamic miniature painting like only the few do. I have been at pains to elucidate similar points, especially the importance of the art of manuscripts because Islamic painting remained, at its greatest and most lasting legacy, mainly dedicated to the arts of the book; it stayed in tune with the spirits, aesthetics and visions of the great poetic and and literary works of Islam.

On the fall of Baghdad and the barbarous destruction of its learning and legacies, Ramuk travels to the future to see the Mongols embrace the civilization they had vanquished and convert to its religion, taking upon themselves to speak in its name as the new rulers. From their ashes the arts of Islam rose like the phoenix with the centres moving in the wake of new dynasties and new powers. He wraps up by telling the story of a calligrapher of Baghdad who had in the past transcribed hundreds of books:

Ibn Shakir, ascended the minaret of the Caliphate Mosque...and from the balcony...witnessed all that would end a five-centuries-long tradition of scribal art. First, he saw Hulagu’s pitiless soldiers enter Baghdad...He watched the plunder and destruction of the entire city...the burning of libraries and the destruction of tens of thousands of volumes as they were thrown in the Tigris.  Two days later, amid the...cries of death, he watched the flowing waters of the Tigris, turned red from the ink bleeding out of the books. And he thought how all those... books that were now gone, hadn’t in the least served to stop this horrifying massacre and devastation, and in turn swore never to write again. Furthermore, he was struck with the desire to express his pain and the disaster he’d witnessed through painting, which until that day, he’d belittled and deemed an affront to Allah, and so...he depicted what he saw from the top of the minaret. We owe the happy miracle of the three hundred year renaissance in Islamic illustration following the Mongol invasion to that element which distinguished it from the artistry of pagans and Christians; that is, to the truly agonizing  depiction of the world from an elevated, Godlike position attained, by drawing none other by a horizon line. We owe this renaissance to the horizon line, and also to ibn Shakir’s going north after the the direction the Mongol armies had come from-carrying with him his brief we owe much to his learning the painting techniques of the Chinese masters. Thereby, it is evident that the notion of endless time that had rested in the hearts of Arab calligrapher scribes for five hundred years would finally manifest itself not in writing, but in painting. The proof of this resides in the fact that the illustrations in manuscripts and volumes that had been torn apart and vanished have passed into other survive forever in their revelation of Allah’s worldly realm. Check

Under the Mamluks that is until the 16th century Arab art in Syria and Egypt, experienced a kind of renaissance which poured a new vigour in the arts such as calligraphy, metalwork, glass, ceramics woodcarving and textiles. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be made in Syria and Egypt under the patronage of the rulers and sultans, the splendours of which I have described above in exploring the sacred art of Koranic illumination.  The Mamluk rulers were very devout and strict Sunnis. Perhaps this explains why the art of illumination at its most spectacular was mostly manifested under the Mamluks in the gilding and ornamentation of of Koranic manuscripts. Calligraphy occupied a pride of place and many gifted calligraphers were able to compensate for the fate that befell the calligraphers of Baghdad.

Although painting played a prime role in the Islamic arts of the Arab world, the controversy about the use of images in the arts continued to surge unabated, The supporters of the painters and miniaturists and their patrons, the  kings shahs, sultans and wazirs argued that as long as the use of image did not result in reverting to adulatory, the artists in their works were only glorifying in the creations of God. Consequently instead of slandered, they should be considered as chants of praise to the Al-Mighty and the wonders he has blessed us with in creating them. Despite the fact that artists in the Islamic world continued to produce their magnificent illustrated manuscripts, an uneasy sentiment and attitude persisted to the extent that sometimes the clergy and zealots succeeded in defacing and vandalizing works of great beauty and perfection. Never the less, figures and figurative motifs are found in plenty even in the secular arts like metalwork, for instance.  Hunting scenes and musicians often mix with formal arabesques and calligraphy, a tradition which still lives in the ornamentation of contemporary metalwork.

The illustrated manuscripts remained the property of the rulers, cloistered in their libraries and private collections. Each great ruler had his own art-of-the-book workshops where he assembled his miniaturists, gilders, calligraphers, binders and painters. The most valuable manuscripts were guarded and jealously kept as part of the treasuries of the rulers.  After their death they were handed down to their heirs, only exchanging hands as powers rose and fell.

The Baghdad school aesthetic sensibilities, combined with Sassanid, Seljuk, Mongol and Chinese influences were at the root of the genius of Persian painting which inspired Ottoman painting in Turkey and Mogul painting in India and empowered them to climb great heights of beauty and accomplishment. In addition,  The legacy of Baghdad school, permeated with Seljuk influences and those of the Syrian School, also inspired Mamluk painting which in turn acted as a conduit for channelling techniques and traditions to the Ottoman School of painting, infusing it with the legacies of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, especially in the wake of the fall of the Mamluks and the consequent  removal of most of the gifted artisans, painters and illuminists from Damascus and Cairo to the capital of the rising Ottoman empire. Most remarkable among the achievements of Mamluk art of illumination were the abstracted arabesques and the ingenious geometric designs that enriched Koranic illumination. Moreover, we must not forget that one of the glories of Mamluk art was the creation, at the order of the Sultans, of the opulent mosque lamps inscribed with their names and coats of arms and beautifully decorated with superb enamelled and gilded motifs.  Many other glass artefacts, like water bottles, made during that period, were also decorated with figures in the style of miniature painting.

In the pictorial styles of illustrated manuscripts, Mamluk art was also a continuation of Fatimid painting which shared in its own right many traditions and aesthetic principles with the Baghdad school. The Maqamat proved as popular as ever.  Many were copies of the lost or destroyed originals of the Abbasid manuscripts, which was a blessing in disguise. The Seljuk iconography is apparent in the treatment of figures: round full faces and a contoured style in representing bodies. The paintings are also stylized and abstracted, unlike the compositions of the Baghdad school with their liveliness and almost realistic representations.

The halos, it is suggested by many scholars, which encircle the heads of figures in Islamic painting of different schools; Iraqi, Persian, Mamluk and others, all display the Seljuk influence which in itself is derived from Chinese models in the portrayal of the Buddha, but in my opinion, these halos  display, in addition, stylistic traditions inherited from the Syrian and Byzantine schools of painting.

The Chinese pictorial traditions had a considerable influence on Islamic painting. Trade, conquests, the Mongol invasions in particular, diplomatic relations and embassies, all played their role in enhancing the artistic exchanges between the Islamic world and China.  But it is to the invaluable role the Silk Road played that we must give most of the credit. Along the Silk Road, besides the commercial transactions, religious, cultural and artistic exchanges travelled to and, including languages and writing systems. Textiles, ceramics, artefacts and styles never ceased to cross from China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean, constantly pouring new trends and fashions into the arts. Great urban centres came into being owing to their geographical locations along the Silk Road. These centres played the role of melting pots, assimilating, welding and fusing traditions and ways of life.  Even conquests, after the initial destructive stages, gave rise to dynasties which established great cultural and commercial centres wherein the semi savage conquerors learned the ways of the culturally superior vanquished and were transformed by them to dedicated patrons of art and learning.

Chinese influences before the advent of the Mongols were noticeable in Abbasid art and that of the Fatimids of Egypt, continuing after the Mongol conquests in Mamluk art. Needless to say, that these influences reached their strongest under the Mongols who also ruled China and subsequently under the Timurids.  Islamic manuscript painting, generally speaking, borrowed freely from Sino-Central Asian Buddhist sacred art. This is manifest in the depiction of angels, their postures and costumes. Most angels are crowned or wear halos of flame, sometimes plain and crescent-like. Flames also sprout at times from the wings of angels and the lamps they are carrying. Flowing robes, sashes and festive ribbons weaving lightning patters in the air, mythical birds and winged animals, like dragons and phoenixes, expel any doubts about where they have originated from and the traditions that inspired them.  One of the most significant influences was the adoption of watercolours. Landscape painting was also influenced, especially in the treatment of stylized flowing serpentine clouds. This is particularly apparent in the illuminations of the Miraj manuscripts which depict the Ascension, the Night Journey, of the Prophet Mohammad to Heaven.

Timurid, Persian and Turkish illuminations of the Miraj show these borrowed elements which in the hands of the master illuminists are imaginatively employed and treated with considerable innovative skill. The Timurid Miraj Nameh , circa 1437, of the School of Herat  stands out as one of the finest achievements of the Herat School and Islamic sacred art.  Moreover, of all the Miraj illustrations that I personally value, is the one I saw in the original at the British Library. This illumination is attributable to one of the greatest Persian painters, master miniaturist Sultan-Muhammad. It appears in the Safavid manuscript Khamsa of Nizami, made for Shah Tahmasp (1524-76) in Tabriz. I had a close encounter with this manuscript at the British Library.  I could not believe it when I was allowed to look at it and examine the illustrations. I opened the pages with great care and gazed in awe at the exquisite paintings, as fresh as when they were composed and as immaculate as when the manuscript left the workshop of the Safavid ruler to grace his library. Yes, there is something very special indeed in gazing at a rare miniature in a rare manuscript of poetry. It addresses the vision with the eloquence of eternity. It is said that this illumination was among the latest of Sultan Muhammad’s paintings.  If so, then it is a fitting farewell by an aging artist whose vision unfolds in front of our very eyes in golds and lapis lazuli blues, bejweled oranges, pinks and reds. The angels, resplendent in rainbow garments and peacock wings lead in a cloud of shimmering lights and hanging lamps the crowned Buraq (horse of the Prophet) which is carrying the Prophet to the Seventh Heaven.

So far, I have journeyed l with the arts of the book through the wonderful and fantastic world of illumination and miniature painting. My aim was to look for the beginnings of Arab art which was also Islamic art in its vision and interpretation of the world. As Islamic art spread along the routes of geography, accompanying  the conquests and the expansions of many empires by force or by peace, it changed names, successively becoming Abbasid art, then Fatimid, Andalucian, Seljuk and Mamluk art, before coming to be known as Mongol, Timurid, Persian, Ottoman or Mogul art.  After traipsing in the company of Arab art, I made my home for a while in the garden of Persian art, choosing for the last stop of my pilgrimage the art of the Moguls in India, singling out the art of the Taj Mahal. In my own art the source of inspiration has always been a multitude. In my printmaking, I borrowed from ceramics.  In my ceramics I borrowed from manuscript illuminations and vice versa.  In my paintings, architectural and calligraphic elements feature. Not to mention, elements borrowed from textiles and mosaics. In my glass I have used the techniques and the vision of the painter in order, not to paint on glass, but rather to paint with glass.

But before bringing this chapter in the story of my art , or is it, to conclusion, I would like to linger a little,  in order to dwell briefly on Persian miniature painting because of the lasting influence it had on the making of my artistic aesthetics. My discovery of the extraordinary contribution of the Persian School of illumination began with the great Behzad in Cairo. I was a young student then and my knowledge of the Islamic legacy in painting was almost nonexistent.  I happened to pass by a bookshop which had on display in its window a small booklet with the title: Miniatures of the School of Behzad In Cairo Collection. I bought it because leafing through the pictures, I found myself entering a world of mystery and splendour with cypresses beckoning, with arches rising tall and redolent with geometric and floral arabesques.  As I gazed the doors under the arches stood half open or open to reveal trees in bloom, a hidden garden or just the one solitary bridal tree. Those images have remained with me ever since.  A painting is a door to the unknown. In order to have it revealed to you, you have to gain admittance. And in order to gain admittance you have to go through a dedicated initiation, the fine tuning of the senses in order to be ready and in the proper receptive mode. It is like going through Lewis Carroll’s Through the looking glass or Narnia’s wardrobe.  I am looking now at the reproductions of Bihzad’s miniatures in my little booklet.  I see all that I had seen before with my young eyes, yet many other things that only the trained eye of the painter can see.  Never the less, the thrill is still the same and the wonder, if anything, is more whetted and sharpened. Bihzad is a wizard when it comes to composition. He lays down his interiors and arranges them with the precision of an architect’s plan. We walk upstairs and downstairs and wander from one room to another, from hall to garden and watch as the story unravels front stage and backstage simultaneously. We wander, surrounded by geometric architecture, on ornamented carpets, floors and rugs, through embellished doors and arches, to lofty halls decorated with the most refined that the vocabulary of ornamentation can offer.  We think we are staring at a doll’s house, only this is the house of art.

Behzad, born in Afghanistan 1450-1535), was of the School of Herat the capital of the Timurids in Afghanistan (1370-1507), near the Persian borders. Under the Timurid patronage, Herat School grew into prominence, representing a style of illumination that came to be known as the eastern style in comparision to the western style which prevailed in west Persia and represented by the School of Tabriz. Herat School, dominated in its last days by the genius of Behzad, the leading court painter, introduced the concept of, in better words the illusion of perspective, into its illuminations, not to be confused with the European perspective. This concept was used before in Arabic illumination but not so elaborately.  It is brought about by showing the figures and the action taking place on many levels of the skilfully manipulated miniature space. The School of Tabriz was founded at the end of the 13th century. It inherited the older native traditions of Persia in addition to numerous other traditions which it absorbed and assimilated, mainly those of the Baghdad School, in addition to Mongol, Seljuk and Chinese distinctive influences. The Mongol -Turko-Persian style peaking in the 15th century in Tabriz and the style of the School of Herat were brought together when Behzad moved after the fall of the Timurids to Tabriz under the Safavids who came into power at the beginning of the 16th century. This heralded the golden age of Persian painting and book illumination. The breath taking miniatures adorning the works of the great poets Nizami, Hafiz and Firdawsi still glow today with  gold, with the crushed lapis lazuli and malachite, the minerals and earth pigments that went into creating their palettes. Something rare was born and the rarest of all were the great miniatures of Sultan- Mohammad, arguably the most gifted miniaturist of the Safavids. I consider his The Court of Gayumarth in the illustrated manuscript of Firdawsi’s Shah-Nameh, made for Shah Tahmasp, as one of the finest masterpieces in the gallery of world art and the most beautiful Persian miniature. It is almost holy. It glows with an inner heavenly light.  Humans, animals, rocks and trees throng together to create a mystical perfect world of peace like no peace and harmony like no harmony. It says to me, enter and be changed.

The sensibility and the unworldly splendour of some of these Persian miniatures remind me, in a way, of the miniaturised paintings of the British painter, Samuel Palmer, strange as this might be. The attention to detail, the inner light emanating from the bejewelled landscape, the melody of praise their worlds seem to be singing defies the understanding, in better words, the beholding. In Orhan Ramuk’s novel which I have mentioned and cited above, a miniaturist tries to explain what might be described as the theory of art which he passionately upholds, the principles which make his art and that of his fellow artists possible. Paramount is the argument that the visible world existed and continues to exist in the mind of God so that all the painters do is to paint that which has been touched by His hands. The account is so moving and its main argument is supported by references to famous illustrators and the traditions they handed down t.  I have chosen the following;

I, an elderly and blind miniaturist, know that Allah created this worldly realm the way an intelligent seven-year old boy would want to see it; what’s more, Allah created this earthly realm so that, above all, it might be seen....painting is seeking out Allah’s memories and seeing the world as He sees the world...According to master miniaturist Mirek (Aqa Mirak, a Timurid and Safavid famous miniaturist) blindness wasn’t a scourge, but rather the crowning reward bestowed by Allah upon the illuminator who had devoted an entire life to His glories; for illustrating was the miniaturist’s search for Allah’s vision of the earthly realm, and this unique perspective could only be attained through recollection after blindness descended...through the memory of blind miniaturists..

The argument concludes with the statement that, unlike the Venetian (Western) painters,        the artist draws the image not as he sees it, but as he recollects it from memory. In the interim of looking at the image and drawing it, even for a second, what is drawn is the image as the painter remembers it, not as he sees it.

The gift of synthesis Persian painting had achieved was passed on to the Ottoman art of illumination and miniature painting, as well as to Indian painting under the Moguls. By then the Western influences had started to trouble and slowly modify the Muslim painters’ legacy of past traditions. This caused an agonizing self-searching and questioning because it threatened the way the artists saw the world and assailed the purity of the vision of perfection and the idealism which had hitherto sustained them. At their best, the new forces broadened this vision and intensified it, thus heralding a new spirit of elegance and creating a fresh style of ornamentation, combining the formal, and the stylized with the semi naturalistic. The Taj Mahal floral decorations and the later style of Izniq ceramics are examples of this upheaval.

My fascination with Taj Mahal influenced my style of ornamentation in some of my calligraphic paintings and ceramics.  My ceramic Fantasy in clay in particular explores the designs of Taj Mahal which I studied at the British Library and delights in them.  In this particular composite work (installation if you wish), while throwing  some of the forms on the wheel, the image of the tall minarets of the Taj was in my mind, the memory of which guided my hands as I was shaping some of the tall pieces. The dazzling whiteness of the marble of the Taj was echoed in my work by my choice of porcelain white as a background for the flower motifs and designs which echo the inlaid patterns in semi precious stones of the Taj.

We have seen that Islamic art absorbed many traditions and was immensely invigorated by many other Eastern artistic traditions, and as long as the influx of Western traditions was well within the painters’ ability to control and utilize creatively, an uneasy peace prevailed. Innovations and trends that were inconceivable before were gradually admitted, like the portraits of rulers and sultans, a kind of glorification of the individual that was offensive to religious sentiment because elevation was reserved to God alone. But this artistic truce could not last for long. The new Western traditions were too radical, too arrogant, too soul shattering, too relentless in claiming all, too single minded in their own vision of the world to keep absorbing creatively and gradually, without discarding the old and hallowed traditions. Thus, the artistic severance from the past was a time bomb waiting to explode and change the memories of the painters, to replace them with memories not their own and notions of times not their times.  The tradition was broken. The landscape shifted and the definition of artistic place and space changed out of recognition. Like an earthquake, the new painting styles swallowed up the rules and the principles of the past. The vision that defined what is art and the system of apprenticeship which sustained the budding artists and trained them in the workshops of the royal libraries under the patronage of the rulers fell apart as political instability and the winds of change destroyed the very infra structure which nurtured the arts. The centre could not hold and things fell apart. Alienation pointed the way to the unknown , enforcing rootlessness and a future which rarely was able to recapture that which was lost, because the evidence of the best and most lasting of that which was lost had already left their provenance and birthplace by compulsion or ignorance to end in the museums of the world, especially the West as art treasures, not the breathing and vibrant legacy handed down throughout the ages by the artists who created them to their own people.  The man- made world took over and world politics presided over by the West changed the geography and the destiny of the Middle East. Yet another black hole? But this one of the most devastating of black holes did not affect the destiny of Arab art alone, but that of the Islamic world as well.

Looking back at the art I have created and the vision that have shaped it and brought it into being, I can see now that, driven by naive and innocent dreams, I have been trying that what might have been if there was  no severance, no sundering, if continuity had made it possible for the artists to work with the past as well with the modern times without the tragedy of loss and bereavement. I was living in the West, absorbing the living artistic traditions of my second home and greatly treasuring them, but in the shadows there lurked another great tradition no longer completely and wholesomely of this world  What if I could make it live for me, what if I could, despite my shortcomings and failings, make it part of my present: time present and time past are both contained in time future, as T.S Eliot states.

Moreover, looking back from my vantage point, I believe I have earned the right to say something about the so-called clash of civilizations. Even within the one culture there are many clashes; of terrorism, of fanaticism, racialism, suppression of civil and human rights, of the poor against the rich- all motivated by violence of one kind or another and all having their roots in injustice and the abuse of power and the belittlement of the Other. The clash of civilizations is a concept invented, as a justification for upholding their culture and way of life above others, by the historically illiterate and culturally deficient political masters of the world. The human treasury of knowledge: the sciences, the arts, the literary and philosophical legacies, religions and faiths, this very treasury belies the theory of clash and emphasise the theory of continuity and the underlying unity of all the civilizations of the world.  We have lived on our planet earth so far, sustained by the creative and pyramidical accumulation of knowledge, wisdom and experience, forged not by one but all civilizations and races: take one step away and the whole edifice is shattered or deformed. The problem with the West is that it has a short memory, refusal to acknowledge the painful, but constant, march of history and an avid relentless arrogant drive for supremacy at any cost. It took thousands upon thousands of years to wrench humanity from the cave to the moon, not a few generations to send NASA rockets to space.

End of Part One, first edited draft

Part two will be dedicated to ceramics

Khairat Al-Saleh

Last Updated on Monday, 02 March 2020 06:32

Promotion 1963

MLFcham Promotion 1963

Giverny - Mai 2004

MLFcham Giverny - Mai 2004

Athènes - Oct 08

MLFcham - Athènes - Octobre 2008

Promotion 1962

MLFcham Promotion 1962