NIGHT 6 OF 1001 – THE FISHERMAN AND THE ‘IFRIT

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ON STORIES AS PORTABLE EMPIRES

I think of stories as portable empires.

Wisdom distilled and truth embellished.

Stories are extremely portable. You can take them with you. They don’t weigh much; stories are light. Material possessions are heavy. The 1001 Nights idea was conceived at a time when we received our marching order. Moving house is tough enough without childbirth in between. Using my 1001 Nights brackets analogy of stories within stories, it looked a little something like this: Forward March! Move (Give Birth) House!

Or, more precisely: Forward March! Move (Give Birth [Rest A Bit {Thanks Mama}]) House!

I found a calm oasis in these stories and they centred me, and so miraculously was given a way to be very happy during pregnancy, which I believe passed on to little Caspi. This was an extremely stressful and chaotic time for us as we commenced the move during the last trimester and finished in the early months with our newborn baby. I suppose the idea came to me as a way to order my postpartum life; paring it down to the essentials, it is a simple way to mark the progression of the Nights off a calendar and honour the passing of time.

Stories – and the lessons they offer – are more valuable than gold for the education they impart. They are a way of teaching Caspian about the world. How fortunes rise and fall; how one man’s poison is another man’s medicine; how the worst of times can be followed by the best of times; how fickle Lady Luck is; how one’s moral choices affect one’s life path; the role of fate and destiny; the straight and narrow. All this is contained within the Nights. I want to envelop us in its parallel world.

One Christmas as an art student I cooked a three-course meal for a homeless man whom I passed daily as I left my flat. He used to collect bus tickets and other tickets and pass them onto me in the days of paper tickets; some already used, some still valid (I would airily hold my hand over the time and date, nonchalantly flash them at the bus driver and it worked without fail; I breezed through every time). One of my father’s life lessons to me was to always offer food to everybody as it is one of the greatest gifts. As a poor art student I appreciated the value of food and understood how to live hand to mouth, always wondering about the next meal. I’ve been almost down and out in both Paris and London.

And we talked. I gave him a hot meal; he gave me stories. I gave sustenance yet I received more; food for thought. Stories are food for the soul. It occurred to me that stories were pretty much all he had. I learned loads – he’d travelled the world and cooked for royalty. I didn’t ask why he was homeless (does it ever matter?) and I’m not sure he wanted to talk about it. I have no way of knowing whether all his stories were true. Then again, are any stories really true? We see we want to see and we remember what we want to remember. We even refer to lies as tall stories. All I know is that he criticised my cooking in a sharp and focused, keenly precise manner worthy of a chef and offered me practical, specific advice on how to make it better next time. He carefully considered every mouthful, discerned all the ingredients with the palate of a master taster and rattled off tips on how to manage a ship-shape kitchen and serve hot food simultaneously to hundreds of guests, some of them royal. His story was the personal empire of his life. I don’t think I’ll ever need to cook for multitudes and I’ve already forgotten most of what he said. But I remember the feeling that wintry day, the closeness of kings and vagabonds, and I was astounded.

It’s always worth listening to the stories of others. They are their personal kingdoms. The 1001 Nights protagonists always make time for stories – even on the brink of death. This is an inviolable rule of the Nights. Even as a king is about to put someone to death, the victim cries: Wait! Do not do as such-and-such a person did in the past! The king, suddenly captivated, enquires: What is the tale of that so-and-so? And promptly with that, the mood entirely changes and shifts from the sense of an ending to a new, fresh beginning: ‘It so happened that X…’ Stories are too good a learning opportunity to pass up. I envisage this situation like a freeze frame: the action is about to be brought to its climactic end, all characters are holding their breath when – “Hold it! All change! Everybody freeze! – Now, did you ever hear the tale of that such-and-such a person?…”

A shift in mood, a raised eyebrow, a sideways cock of the head and a delicious Mmmmm! of interest from all parties. The executioner is told to stay his hand, the sword is suspended in mid-air and all glittering eyes turn toward the storyteller. For them, a quiet hush of anticipation. For us, a relaxing breather from the tension of the tale in the limelight. A tangent to the margins and space to be distracted. The 1001 Nights’ own frame story is based on this very cycle of suspended drama, a tale of mighty procrastination at worst and hanging off the edge of your seat at best: King Shahriyar, bored and desperate, threatens to kill Scherezade each morning yet, compelled and irritated by his own curiosity, cannot but allow her to continue her irresistible tales…

Stories provide stability in an unstable world. They repeat themselves, have patterns and encircle us in their rhythms. They are a routine to settle baby Caspian, one of the most important routines I can provide him with as something to anticipate each evening and, hopefully in time, something to look forward to. While the world whirls around us, stories are our focal point. Each night, the same ritual, a different story. Our compass point while the story-verses of our Uni-verse are drawn around us. One turn to bind us. Order in chaos.

Later on, as the 1001 Nights draw to a close and I turn to other epics of world culture, I will look to more stories to tell children. As I grow in confidence with the tales, like any good storyteller, I will make the stories my own and simultaneously try to pass on the spirit of the original storytellers who came before me. We are wealthy.  Arabian Nights, Shahnameh, Mahabharat. I Dream of Red Mansions. The Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, the Prose Edda… I look forward to them all.

All stories are retellings of sorts. Mighty kings and empires have risen and fallen in the time it took for stories to pass down into oral history. Who knows who told the very first stories…who lived these legends and who made these myths? Who knew? Who remembers? Who cares?

All we have left are the stories.

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ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING VI

ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING VI

Painting the backgrounds; here I am in my element so I felt like I knew what I was doing!; tucking the cutouts under the leather for a more seamless transitions; inserting and sticking the cutouts to finish; lining the book with gold.

Now the process got quite straightforward; it involves painting and the final touches. Painting on leather is much the same as painting on paper except for the fact that the paint is not absorbed as much, it sits on the surface rather than being absorbed in, as with paper or silk. The top right hand corner has a silk background (just to try all the different techniques). The book is taking shape slowly, and looks like an Islamic book now; the colours remind me of Central Asian colours!

With enormous thanks to my mother for looking after baby Caspian, without whom I would never have been able to do this! I love you mama~

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ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING V

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ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING V

Enjoying the flattened leather ‘veneer’; having fun water gilding the leather and bookcloth corners with 12 carat white gold and the back bookcloth torang with 23 carat yellow gold; water gold size; allowing to dry and transferring the designs to the back; cutting out the intricate tezhib/tazhib islimi shapes inside the leather and bookcloth.

This is the Year of Gold for me. I love ‘gold’ gold, Renaissance gold, yellow gold, and all the varying colours that gold appears in. White gold is equally beautiful, its appearance is a warm silver colour with an added quietness and softness. This gentleness suits Islamic book covers very well I think and will complement yellow shell gold beautifully. As a contrast I also applied yellow gold leaf.

I adore the gilding process and regularly use gold gilding in my work. I have never used white gold before so this was a nice highlight of my day; because it was 12ct it was lighter and thinner to handle, and therefore a bit more flyaway. Sometimes this quality makes gilding easier; sometimes the heavier weights of gold (22ct and above, to 23, 23.5 and 24ct Renaissance gold) makes gilding easier, depending on the job, the time of day, the weather outside (gold responds to the atmosphere and the slightest breath of air causes it to float; beaten loose gold leaf is an amazing substance that seems lighter than air), other people in the studio, the energy in the air, the energy of one’s hand, one’s current mood and the phase of the moon…

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ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING IV

ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING IV

Tezhib islimi – arabesque biomorphic design – torang shape drawn by the Master for me to copy as we wanted the spine to have a direction (pointing North); my tracing of the final design, ready to cut out; template cut out and scored onto the leather; cutting out the design from the leather and lifting it out; splitting the leather of the cutout; stiffening the floppy, fragile leather ‘veneer’ with starch paste and letting it to dry, pressing it flat in the press overnight.

Splitting – paring – the leather (perhaps this originates from the word ‘pair’ as you end up with a matching pair of leather surfaces?!) is difficult.  Perhaps as difficult as skiving (bevelling) the leather, but I can imagine with practice this skill will improve. It takes all one’s attention and is very absorbing. Any distraction and the fragile leather is liable to tear – mine tore in two places (because I got distracted…twice!). However, the Master says this is fairly normal and that the piece was good to use. As another bookbinder told me, let’s not make the craftspeople of the past into gods and idols – they were humans too, they got distracted, and if you look closely at many works of traditional art, you can see the humanity, the quirks, the hands of the people that lived long ago and loved their craft, their knowing touches all embodied within these breathtakingly complete works of beauty.

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ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING III

ISLAMIC BOOKBINDING III

Pasting the leather to the boards; pressing the book boards; rounding the spine using the edge of the table; gluing the book block to the open leather of the spine; tying cord round the hinge to increase the indent (this can also be done with a metal tool to create a pattern; this nylon cord and rope did an approximate job); pressing to finish.

My favourite part of making the cover was rounding the spine around the edge of a table: such a simple move and yet so effective!