Hazel McHaffie

Muslim

Turkish delight

‘I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.’

How’s that for an opening line? Brilliant, isn’t it? And the first paragraph sucks you in still further:

‘Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.’

Wow! Who … where … why … what … how …? More please.

I’ve been to Turkey where this beautiful calligraphy was created for me personally by a talented artist just a stone’s throw from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The whole experience was utterly fascinating, so I’ve been keen to read something by the much garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and what better book than one about calligraphers in Istanbul! It just needed a decent slot of time without too many other distractions – it’s over 500 pages of dense small print. Imagine translating something that long! Hats off to Professor Erdağ Göknar who I imagine is often forgotten; his command of English has to be exceptional.

First then, the official blurb about My Name is Red to give you an overview: it’s the late 1590s …

‘The Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and the Ottoman Empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day – in the European manner. In Istanbul at a time of violent fundamentalism, however, this is a dangerous proposition. Even the illustrious circle of artists are not allowed to know for whom they are working. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their Master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?
With the Sultan demanding an answer within three days, perhaps the clue lies somewhere in the half-finished pictures . . .’

The now-dead man, Elegant Effendi as he is known, is one of the select few responsible for painting and embellishing books – illuminating the edges of pages, the borders – in Our Sultan’s workshop under the eagle eye of the Head Illuminator, Master Osman. Elegant is an undisputed master of his craft. But he has now been missing for four days, and his fellow miniaturists – Butterfly, Stork and Olive – are the prime suspects. The question is, which one? And why? Was the motive professional, romantic or religious? The man asking the questions, Effendi Black, is also pursuing his own love interests in delicate and difficult circumstances (his lady love, Shekure’s husband is missing in action not yet declared dead, and her father-in-law and brother-in-law are exerting a lot of pressure on her to stay within their family where she will in all probability become a sexual and domestic slave) giving the book a feeling of subtle layers and stories within stories which necessitate keeping all your wits about you to retain a firm hold on all the threads. Added to that, each chapter is written in the first person by a range of different players (20 in total) in this drama – not all of them human – so we know a great deal about motives and actions and dreams from all sides.

My Name is Red is at once a murder mystery and a meditation on love, artistic devotion, religious conviction, and the tensions between East and West. Tall order, huh? It has the ring of a long involved parable designed to explore deep truths – albeit in the Muslim rather than Christian tradition.

‘Allah created this worldly realm the way an intelligent seven-year-old boy would want to see it; what’s more Allah created this worldly realm so that, above all, it might be seen. Afterward, He provided us with words so that we might share and discuss with one another what we’ve seen.’

Sight/blindness, time/infinity, books/paintings are all recurring symbols.

‘Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of the blank page.
Blindness is a realm of bliss from which the Devil and guilt are barred.’

Europeans are ‘infidels‘ and their beliefs and practices are abhorrent to these people. They must take great care not to be tainted by such influences. So, it’s necessary for us to understand the strict rules laid down in the ‘Glorious Koran’ prohibiting the representation of the human image; divine will forbids ‘objects that mimic mankind’ and thus ‘compete with Allah’s creations’. Women’s faces must not be seen outside the family.

The writing is lyrical (thanks to both author and translator), the concepts deep and rich giving much to ponder. The minute detail Pamuk invests in this work, the delicate and subtle descriptions, seem in a way to reflect the exquisitely fine artistry of the illustrations demanded by the sultans, refined by the masters, every stroke given importance and meaning; a combination of inspiration, talent and patience. Though this level of minutiae makes the book long and complex, it needs to be savoured slowly, each idea given due weight – the fine line between right and wrong, good and evil, reality and fantasy, truth and lies, marriage and divorce, beauty and ugliness, life and death.

‘Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.’

It might be expected that these highly sensitive artists working for the Sultan would lead cossetted and protected lives, surrounded as they are by fabulous art and sumptuous wealth. Not so. The master binders and calligraphers whose ‘brushes made horses gallop at full speed and whose butterflies fluttered off the page‘ have suffered for their art. Their lives are fiercely controlled.

‘Only true artists like us who’d suffered throughout our apprenticeships merciless bastinados, random pummelings and fists so that the irritable master who drew a line incorrectly might feel better – not to mention hours of blows from sticks and rulers so that the devil within us would perish to be reborn as the jinn of inspiration – only we could feel such extreme joy by depicting bastinados and tortures,only we could color these implements with the gaiety of coloring a child’s kite.’

Perspectives and insights are the product of this upbringing. And over time, when these apprentices in turn become experts, and then masters themselves, with experience and the study of tomes of illustrations painted over hundreds of years, they come to possess a special kind of knowledge and understanding.

‘I came to know which artist had learned what from whom, in which workshop under which shah’s patronage the thing we now call ‘style’ first took shape, which fabled master had worked for whom, and how, for example, the curling Chinese clouds I knew had spread throughout Persia from Herat under Chinese influence were also used in Kazvin … but an agony lurked deeper within me, a melancholy and regret I can scarcely share with you for the belittled, tormented, pretty, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed, sapling thin painters – battered by masters – who suffered for their art, yet remained full of excitement and hope, enjoying the affection that developed between them and their masters and their shared love of painting, before succumbing to anonymity and blindness after long years of toil.’

For generations, for centuries, these rare skills have been taught in secret using vicious means of control and submission; rivalry, jealousy and backstabbing the norm. But when these highly specialised workmen fall victim to bitter fighting amongst the ruling and political classes, they become ‘penniless and destitute, homeless and bereft’, their rarefied world collapses, and in consequence ‘rapidly transcribed, hastily painted, cheap books appeared everywhere, matching the tastes of common soldiers, boorish pashas and spoiled princes’.

‘Just as the doors of houses are closed of an evening and the city is left in darkness, painting was also abandoned.’

New priorities, different jealousies emerge.

Having myself watched Dervishes whirling, and visited the Hagia Sophia, stared at the priceless jewels plundered from vanquished enemies, sailed on the Bosphorus, smelled the spices of the great souks, and been woken by the muezzin call to prayer, I could readily picture the scenes: Istanbul, the portraits of the Sultans, the fabulous Ottoman wealth. Without that experience I rather think I’d have struggled to understand the culture, the history, the nuances in this unusual and complex tale.

Seen through the eyes of artists used to precision, beauty and painstaking execution, the story has a poignancy, subtlety and depth of its own. Perhaps the narration itself has to aim for a pinnacle of perfection to be worthy of its message.

‘There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest master in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning.’

‘… shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world’s beauty belongs to Allah.’

But through the esoteric world of these master-craftsmen we come to better understand fanaticism, how men can be driven to commit heinous crimes for their beliefs no matter how suspect the foundations of their conviction may be to an outsider. Salutary lessons for today, methinks.

 

 

 

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Forgiveness writ large

I Shall Not HateEvery now and then a book comes along that challenges the reader at a very fundamental level. Izzeldin Abuelaish‘s book, I Shall Not Hate, was that kind of a read for me earlier this year. (Apologies in advance: this will be a longish post to do justice to a powerful story.)

Whatever your preconceptions or affiliations or prejudices, this is certainly not a book for the fainthearted, and the experiences this man recounts make one feel ashamed of ever having complained. You might perhaps remember Dr Abuelaish appearing live on TV reporting the massacre of his family in January 2009. This, and its subsequent reproduction on Youtube, precipitated him into the public eye. But let’s go back to the beginning.

The boy Izzeldin was born and raised in a refugee camp in the Gaza strip. Reading about his shockingly deprived childhood, it’s hard to believe this was less than five decades ago (he was born in 1955), taking place while we enjoyed the normal privileges and freedoms we take for granted in this country.

‘We were everything the word refugee stands for: disenfranchised, dismissed, marginalised, and suffering.’ 

He vividly describes the grinding poverty that drove him to work for a pittance from a tender age to keep his large family in food, wearing cast offs from humanitarian aid bundles, bone weary and constantly hungry. As the eldest male he was also culturally required to shoulder responsibility for his parents and all his siblings.

‘Like most Palestinian children, I didn’t really have a childhood. Until I was ten, my family, which eventually numbered eleven (two parents, six boys – I was the eldest of them – and three girls), lived in one room that measured about ten feet by ten feet.There was no electricity, no running water; there were no toilets in the house. It was dirty. There was no privacy. We ate our meals from a single plate we shared. We had to wait in line to use the communal toilets and wait for water that was delivered by the United Nations. We were only allowed to fill our pots during certain hours of the day. We waited for trolleys to come by with kerosene or wood for us to buy to cook with. We were usually barefoot, flea-bitten, and hungry. We all slept together on a huge mattress that was hoisted up against the wall by day and lowered at night – except for the baby. There was always a newborn, it seemed, who slept in the same basin my mother used to wash the dishes, scrub the kids with a loofah, and clean the house.’

He was accustomed to seeing at firsthand the brutality of war, over and over again; he watched his meagre home being demolished to make a road wide enough for Israeli tanks to drive along; he was himself the subject of humiliating acts of cruelty and discrimination. All around him was hate and revenge. And yet, from an early age, Izzeldin believed in the common humanity of all races, of the potential for good, and the ‘hope for a better tomorrow’. He was, and still is, convinced that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace, to lead decent civilised lives, in safety and harmony. ‘It’s largely the leaders in both camps who continue to fight the unfinished battles of yesterday’, and the minority fanatics who carry out atrocities, who fuel the divisions, perpetuate extremist visions, and polarise opinion outside of the Holy Land.

Furthermore, he sees his own profession as uniquely placed to foster peace. Against all odds, thanks to his own determination, and his indomitable mother, he succeeded in his chosen career of medicine, becoming a recognised expert in obstetrics and gynaecology, infertility treatment, and public health. Race is irrelevant when you’re sick or in need of medical care, he says. He became the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital.

He also believes that if women and girls were accorded equal opportunities for health and education, they ‘could very well lead us to a peaceful coexistence.’ He certainly has reason to be grateful to the women in his own life. Not just his strong mother, but also his wife, left at home with up to eight children during his frequent absences for weeks, months, even a year, while he acquired the qualifications to break the vicious cycles of his inheritance.

The picture he paints of his country is a bleak one. Deprivation continues even to this day and everyone, including professionals like Dr Abuelaish, must endure them in the Gaza Strip. Water and sanitation services are on the verge of collapse; materials to repair the crumbling systems sit on an embargo list; the healthcare system is broken; access to hospitals and expertise outside the Strip is limited and not infrequently prohibited; a public health catastrophe is highly likely. Unemployment is extremely high; 70% live below the poverty line; farming and fishing face impossible restrictions. Exit visas are often denied for no good reason, limiting access to better lives and opportunities. All contributing factors in the escalation of hostilities in this volatile region. ‘It’s so easy to incite the people with the misery they’re in.’

But this book is not principally about the Middle East tensions, it’s one man’s personal crusade against seemingly impossible odds. Because a successful career didn’t render Dr Abuelaish immune to personal suffering. His nephew was deliberately shot in the legs and seriously disabled. Then his wife, Nadia, was diagnosed and died from leukaemia, all within the space of two weeks, leaving their eight children motherless, and Izzeldin a widower at the age of only 53. And then the worst catastrophe of all happened.

The Abuelaish family were desperately trying to regroup after Nadia’s death at the end of 2008, when the Gaza War erupted: an ‘insane assault‘ lasting 23 days. From the Palestinian perspective, Izzeldin calls it a ‘crazy annihilation‘ of the innocents. For those three weeks the family lost their faith in humanity; ‘God and each other’ were all they had left as they clung together waiting for what was to come. Then, on 16 January 2009, just twelve weeks after Nadia’s death, an Israeli tank blasted shells into the girls’ bedroom, blowing three of Izzeldin’s daughters and a niece to pieces. A tragedy so enormous and harrowing that it’s hard to even comprehend it.

Yet this man, their grieving father, has devoted his life to treating people on both sides of the conflict equally, and actively fostering understanding and reconciliation. His steadfast faith (he’s a Muslim), compassion and strength of character are at once humbling and awe-inspiring, and his book is one of the most powerful testaments to humanity triumphing over tragedy I’ve ever read.

‘We all need to understand that there are evil people in every country, every religion, every culture. But there is also the silent camp of people in every country who believe, like I do, that we can bring two communities together by listening to each other’s points of view and concerns. It’s that simple. I know it is; I’ve been doing it for almost all of my adult life. Look at the Middle East, the bruised Holy Land, and its generations of hatred and bloodshed. The way to replace that is with dialogue and understanding.’

The terrible massacre of these innocent girls inspired renewed and widespread calls for revenge but, even in the depths of his devastation, Izzeldin knew that ‘hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace’. Besides, no amount of retribution would bring his beloved children back. Instead he writes: ‘This catastrophe … has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide. I understand down to my bones that violence is futile. It is a waste of time, lives and resources, and has been proven to beget more violence. It does not work. It just perpetuates a vicious circle… To find the light of truth, you have to talk to, listen to, and respect each other.’

And he extends the challenge to us all: ‘… wiling is not enough. We must act. It is well known that all it takes for evil to survive is for good people like you to do nothing.’ (my emphasis).

[You can see an interview with Dr Abuelaish here which challenges him on some of the points in his book.]

 

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