Tuesday, October 22, 2013

That Wooden Bench

After the last two years, I really did not think I would be spending this Ramadan outside of the comfort of the Adhaan ( Call for prayers), the family gatherings, and the fuss over what to cook for Iftar. I remember distinctively writing about Ramadan in London last year for the Art Dubai blog, thinking to myself, next time, I will have nothing to write about, my experience will be just like everybody else’s in Dubai.

Fast-forward a year later and here I am in a city I never imagined I’d ever reside in, a city of narrow canals, and foot traffic that is in its essence, a city that struggles to survive.  Ramadan this year came with an official warning from the Italian media of the impending heat wave that will hit the country; a heat wave that media claim has no parallels in the last 10 years.  It is not a pretty weather, with structures too old to handle Air Conditioning, and alleys so narrow for ventilation, Venice in the summer is a difficult city.

Venice in Ramadan, is almost impossible.

With 50,000 residents give or take, I did not really expect to fast with fellow Muslims from the community here, neither did I anticipate paper crescents adorning the lamp posts, but I expected that the spiritual fasting would be the most difficult given that I am now living in Italy, a country that aims to satisfy quite literally all of your senses. But no, I actually was challenged physically to the point that I did not even imagine I could fast; the heat, humidity, long hours of the day and the walking everywhere were not easy; never in my life did I feel that Ramadan was exhausting physically until I moved to Venice.

I spent a couple of days fussing over my body, and when I took control of it, I took a glance at my heart and smiled at my foolishness in focusing on the ritual rather than the worship. I walked every morning trying to find ways in which I can be spiritual; I thought of sitting on a bench in Giardini facing the Grand Canale and mediating a little; but mosquitoes found their way to my legs, arms and face and it did not feel spiritual at all.
I tried to sit on my couch and read Quran or watch Moez Masood [1]speak of faith and God but these setting were interrupted by the most-needed showers during the day to cool off. What I believed would be tears this year over my beautiful Quran pages, were actually drops of sweat that just made the whole experience simply uncomfortable.
I really was not feeling the spirituality. I even fetched dates from Dubai with me to feel closer to home, made some lentil soup which Mom always makes sure is on our Iftaar table, but nothing worked.  Until that morning I left Arsenale where I work and went to buy some stationary for the office only to be stopped by the crowds of people weeping standing in front of the church in Via Garibaldi, saying goodbye to a wooden coffin carried by sad strong men. I couldn’t believe it at first, it felt like a scene off a movie; the sounds of people crying was too loud, and the silence of the street was too quite. I stood there and stared at that coffin for as long as I could, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I wondered who was in it, and what has happened, and what life did he/she lead. I kept staring until I felt my tears cooling off my burnt cheeks. I looked around me fearing for a second that they will figure out that I was an imposter, but my tears were too real.

The crowds of mourners started going inside the church and I couldn’t help but follow. I sat there with them along with my tears, they prayed together, I prayed alone but all under one roof. At that moment, I forgot that I had a scarf on my head, and a Quran application on my phone, I only thought of God, and His glory, and this short-lived, almost trivial life.

I stayed for a while inside on the wooden bench, with closed eyes I tried to find that spirituality again. Yes, there are no mosques in Venice, but there are houses of God, and at that point I knew I was the closest to Him.

I left the church and the mourners alone, and walked slowly back to work thinking of the next Ramadan, praying I would live to witness it. Ramadan is somehow a harsh reminder of Death; there is that sense of relief at the end of it that I had lived through it all, and a genuine fear that I will not live to witness the next one. That wooden coffin accelerated all of these feelings usually stretched out over a month in few minutes. That wooden coffin was my reminder of what Ramadan really meant.

I am not sure what I will write for Art Dubai next year on Ramadan, somehow I wish that I will be in Dubai with family, but I also have a feeling that I might be somewhere else. It doesn’t matter really where I am, as long as I am somewhere to witness it again. And pray for Him in all his glory.

[1] Egyptian television and radio presenter, religious leader and activist who focuses on the fields of spirituality, inter-faith dialogue, and Islam in the modern world.

* Originally Posted on Art Dubai Blog: http://www.artdubai.ae/blog/that-wooden-bench/


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Just one thought for now | The Venice Diaries


Its been more than 50 days in Venezia, my new home for this year. A city so beautiful that at some point you realise that your attempts at capturing its beauty on camera are futile; Photos will not immortalise these visual masterpieces. A city so different from everything else you have known, a feeling that pushes you to renegotiate everything you learnt about living in cities around the world.

Venezia is not Dubai, not London, and Venezia is certainly not Baghdad. I found solace in cities I have lived in before in their streets that smell like home, platters of food from cuisines similar to mother’s cooking, but here, I found no traces that I can cling on. A stranger in a city filled with strangers from around the world. Thousands of tourists flock this city during the day almost paralysing mobility on the narrow calles “alleys”; you cannot walk, and you cannot avoid being the random stranger in someone else’s photographed memories.

When I first arrived I was overwhelmed with the opening of the exhibition I have been working on for the past 6 months that I missed out on the tiny detail of me moving into another city, changing locations and addresses. At first, I caught myself rushing to capture photos of the different yet similar canals around the city and stealing glances at major landmarks in the hopes of making the best out of my time, but as soon as the exhibition opened, and the work slowed down, I realized that I was indeed not in a hurry to be a tourist in Venice because I was simply not one.  

At first, Dubai did not leave me. I found myself waking up almost every morning worrying that I have overslept, miscalculated the time it will take me to reach work, worried about traffic and other things metropolis. It is a strange process to divorce your senses from elements that you cannot control; traffic, car accidents, and half-empty petrol tanks , to be faced with the reality that your body is now under your control, completely. A funny and scary process at times; there is no valid excuse for not showing up anymore.

I am still trying to understand the city I call home today, coming up with different theories on what it represents, what It feels like, how it marks me.. Several conclusions rushed to my head in the first two weeks of my time here, one that was evident is that Venice is not a city for the lonely hearts. I never really perceived Venice to be romantic, in fact, I think it is the complete opposite of that, a city so busy with tourists blocking your way most of the time, that there is seldom any romance left for the others. Gondolas are public, expensive and for someone like me with serious motion sickness, they are not ideal.

Still, Venice at night is something else. The tourists leave, the locals sleep and then there are people like me, wandering but not lost, looking around, breathing in the moist, the breeze and the silence. It becomes so quite that you can hear your own breath as you sigh for relief walking in one of its narrow alleys. You see your moon shadow, you know the one we lost in our rush to kill the moon.  You feel human again, with a city built with human dimensions in mind; you are no longer small.

And yet, there is this underlying overwhelming sense that you are a burden walking in this city alone. The alleys were created narrow enough to fit one person at times, but mostly wide enough for two people to walk together. Alleys are intimate, and your shadow is not intimate enough.

And it is because of that that I feel Venice is the perfect place for me to be in right now. I am a girl with a lonely heart, and this heart needs to be challenged in a city that strives to counter all of my heart’s arguments on the beauty of beating on its own.

And in the words of Henry James who argued that:

The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give. But such people came for themselves, as we seem to see them - only with the egotism of their grievances and the vanity of their hopes.

There is so much to write about, nothing new, nothing you have not heard before about the city, and no new visual discoveries that have not been exploited in souvenir shops. No, but there is Mariam in Venice, and that is certainly new.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

There is Something About Sharjah

“There is something about Sharjah”, that’s how I usually answer curious questions about the city that is most often referred to as the city next to Dubai. Indeed, there is something about this city that hosts more than 15 museums, the home of Sharjah biennial, and its own little canal.

Sharjah, a city often misunderstood because of the traffic leading to it from Dubai and other northern emirates during rush hours. A city that is somehow left unappreciated and unnoticed, or rather undiscovered.

There is pedestrian life in Sharjah; the kind that sees its locals walking its streets, and running their errands without the need of a car sometimes. A city with so many falafel and shawerma shops in one street, one is often left puzzled on which parlous serves the best sandwich. There is also the Cornish, and the buildings surrounding it, that saw the settlement of many Arab expat families that decided long ago that Sharjah is their home, even if it meant commuting for hours in the early morning to another city for work.

Sharjah is this city, and more.

Al Qasba 

There is so much to say about this city that saw my first steps, and first memories in its parks and busy streets, a city that changed dramatically in the last 15 years but never really lost its essence along the way. It still has its chaotic street structures that see small shops and parlours blossoming organically around the city, without a forced aesthetic standard from the government to abide by. An element of ‘real’ that reminds you of old(er) cities in the Middle East: Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. You can find elements of resemblance that often leave a sense of comfort within its diverse Arab diasporic groups. Yes, cabs stop randomly on roundabouts sometimes to pick up the random passenger, traffic jams happen for no reason at times and make you wonder. And there are the ports facing the Museum of Contemporary Art, blue and brown ships from East Africa, India and Iran greet artists and curators as they walk the arts area in downtown Sharjah looking for inspiration. Spice and textile markets beside contemporary art installations create a contrast that actually makes sense.

Sharjah is this city, and more.

When Salem Al Qassimi and I started organizing Pecha Kucha night in Sharjah, I knew that the reasons were beyond shedding the light on exciting projects and ideas by Sharjah natives, it was also to stress on the inspiration that this city provokes without the traffic bias that often fogs percpetions about it. Pecha Kucha was always concerned with the alternative underground ideas that often see light in small cozy gatherings of creatives; like Sharjah that is often celebrated intellectually and artistically by people who truly appreciate its urban realism.
The event is set in Maraya Art Centre : A space for the young and old in the city to meet, greet and create. Colorful Majlis-seating on the floor, green walls and blackboards with chalk-documented calendar events; very reflective of the city itself.

This event is my way of manifesting “there is something about Sharjah” into action; through series of 20-seconds slides by participants, almost as long as it takes to truly appreciate this city and what it holds.

The first Pecha Kucha night in Sharjah will be organized in Maraya Art Centre at al Qasba, on the 9th February at 20:20 PM. Come, and see for yourself what I mean.