NIGHT 11 – THE STORY OF THE FIRST DERVISH

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ON THE REST ON THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT

(Part 1)

Picture this: it’s the middle of a long winter night. A young woman, nervous, apprehensive yet resolute, gives birth to a baby, with the support of her equally nervous yet steadfast husband. The child is not even his, yet he is totally supportive – a good man and true. They are surrounded by animals and are miles away from home. This is not by choice. They have no midwife.

They are, essentially, refugees.

The woman has just given birth for the first time. It’s a boy! By the grace of the universe her baby is healthy and full-term.

She’s exhausted. They are happy and nervous, like all new parents, with the added burden of being on the run. She takes a quick breath and snuggles her baby – and then, having barely delivered, they have to go. Again.

So, with the gritty determination that awakens at the moment of birth and unites the couple like never before, they pack up and flee while it’s still night and they are under cover of darkness.

And they ride, with only the stars and their steely resolve to guide them to a safe haven for the sake of their precious cargo.

They ride and ride and are tired. Eventually they realise that they have covered some distance and have not been followed, and it’s now safe to take a quick break. Small relief for the couple, who can finally catch their breath before continuing on their journey.

The first thing the woman does is to pause, scoop up her little boy and breastfeed him. She does this through instinct alone, with no one to guide her, although perhaps she has grown up seeing other women do it so she does have a vague idea. But this is her first time, and she has to feed her son – she has no other choice – he’s a hungry newborn. Infant formula won’t be invented for another 2,000 years.

The woman’s name is Mary. Her baby’s name is Jesus.

This pause is called ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ and it’s one of the most famous, most painted moments, indeed sacred moments, in Western art history. I understand why. It’s the first moment of real bonding of mother and child. It parallels the rise of landscape painting as a respected genre in itself (another vested interest of mine since I locate my own work here). It’s the first break the exhausted couple has – and lest we forget – they are refugees that have just given birth to a miracle.

Artists throughout history would have been surrounded by breastfeeding, if not witnessing their own families, then those of other people. (There are other genre paintings depicting more mundane scenes of everyday life which show breastfeeding.

I’m currently collecting and compiling images of breastfeeding in art and literature throughout history as I continue on my own journey with my child.  Sometimes it’s a natural part of mundane everyday life, and other times it is revered as a sacred act.  I find these references in unexpected places, when I’m not looking for them at all, and it’s a nice reminder of something that connects me to the long line of our female ancestors since time immemorial… anyone who has ever breastfed is part of this chain that links us to our original, mammalian past.

 

Meanwhile, in Arabia…

(Part II)

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From the Prado Museum, Madrid:

Patinir, Joachim (1480-1524)
Rest on The Flight into Egypt
1518 – 1520. Oil on panel, 121 x 177 cm

 

NIGHT 10 – THE STORY OF THE PORTER AND THE THREE LADIES

 

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‘Walk a mile in another person’s shoes’

As part of my general relentless anti-racist drive I have a mini-project for my baby son to collect shoes from other cultures as far as possible for him to wear. I’m sure it’s been done before by countless parents because it’s also fun. Thus cultivating empathy, respect and love of all cultures. I look forward to more shoes (I love shoes and hats anyway – I am not into buying kiddie things really but books, shoes and hats are great exceptions)

So it starts with these Greek slippers!

NIGHT 9 – THE STORY OF THE FISHERMAN AND THE ‘IFRIT

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ON CARPETS AS FLOATING ISLANDS

 

 

May the road rise to meet you, and the wind always be at your back – traditional Irish blessing

I am a floor-based person. Maybe it comes from the East; maybe it comes from living alone for years; maybe some people are just built to sprawl. I love to live on the floor. I love to do everything on a clean floor – painting, working, eating, tea-drinking, playing, sitting, reading, meditating, exercising, napping, dreaming. It is when I am at my most relaxed. I can melt into the floor, wallow in it; it is one of the safest places. One cannot fall from the floor.

Beanbags help with comfort for my back when needed; I am cross-legged with a woven band around my knees to ensure my back stays upright with correct posture in my favourite photo. A meditation cushion sometimes helps ease my lotus position into classic Buddha pose for quiet reflective times. As a child, given a choice and a chair, I would gradually recede and succumb to gravity – I always ended up on the floor. Slumping and sliding until I finally folded over and curled up to concentrate on whatever I was doing. I am happiest and at my most comfortable when I’m sitting on the floor cross-legged.

Being grounded keeps you connected to the earth; yogis and monks both practise on the floor. If you feel lost, hold your ear to the ground and feel the earth’s ancient heart beating. Traditional societies lived on the floor. Architect Witold Rybczynski divides humans into those that are chair-based, and those that are floor-based. Anthropologists remind us that it’s most natural to sit on the floor, and it is seemingly unrelated to climate and culture – you find a mix of both floor and chair people across the globe. Miniature painters work on the floor. Being of either persuasion influences your whole life – how you dress (loose clothes for ease of slinking down), what shoes you wear (slippers vs lace-up boots), whether you take them off when you enter your house, the height of your shelves, the rest of your furniture (if necessary at all)… I dream of Mediterranean marble, or underfloor heating in England. I compensate with a beautiful carpet.

A carpet is like a little island – a whole world encapsulated symbolically in the pattern and physically within the borders. But carpets are not always on the ground – they are portable floors that can be rolled up and removed to wherever they are needed. They can even lift off and fly. And then they become floating islands…

I imagine that the boundaries of my carpet are the edges of my little island. There I am, firmly in the centre of my world, calm and in control with everything I need to hand. It’s all I need, my little piece of the world. My space has a shape and a frame. The 360 degree vision all around me is echoed by the pattern of the carpet, repeating outwards from the centre until it reaches its borders. Whatever doesn’t fit on my carpet, I sometimes imagine, isn’t necessary.

So my rug of choice is a flying carpet, floating serenely through the sky while I sit cross-legged, bum firmly planted in the middle. The cross-legged position, based as it is on a triangle, is a very grounded, stable position. 3 is the geometric minimum number for 3-dimensional stability like a tripod, since 2 collapses. It is a position that, if done correctly, can be upheld for hours on end with only minimal shifting; there is a reason that it is the basis for the classic meditation posture. The following structure is also triangular in form and is always true; everyone on earth shares this same basic design (siblings are a bonus):

The Russian word for family is семья – семь-я. 7 x ‘me’. Here is a basic diagram:

дедушка  – бабушка            дедушка – бабушка
отец                    –                    мать
я

Grandmother – Grandfather              Grandmother – Grandfather
Father                            –                        Mother
Me

These are your roots. Visually your roots are triangular and stable in form. Your background is distilled to a fine point, the tip of the triangle – you. The future may be behind you, as it is for the Maoris, always mindful of their forefathers. The future may also be ahead. Both are correct. Inverted, your family tree becomes a pyramid – or a mountain. At the top of the triangle-mountain, you can fly. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid, starting with the physiological, moving through safety, love and belonging and esteem and peaking in self-actualization – the flight of the soul.

One needs to plumb the depths of one’s roots before one can soar. To be secure. To feel the ground under your feet as a springboard from which to fly. Then the world becomes yours. Take your roots with you. Floating islands always have dangling roots – they are memories of places left behind, ready to be planted again wherever the wind takes them. Pandora’s floating islands in the film Avatar are as realistic and plausible as a moviemaker could design and the attention to detail is minute – I always watch out for the trailing roots. Roots absolutely uprooted, all the better to be immersed in new soil.

I have moved across cities, moved across continents. Moving has eroded my island – and therefore shaped my life. A rock, subject to the elements. A lump of clay, handled. They have indeed lost part of their material selves – but they are also refined. They have been formed. They are defined by what has been taken away. I sometimes get the feeling that one must be light: lightweight; spiritually light; made of light; not eating meat; not consuming too much and ready when the wind changes direction. Roll up your carpet and move on to the next pasture. Bring only your stories. Tell only your tales. I don’t believe you must lose your roots if you move. Be like a floating island, and take them with you ~

1001 NIGHTS DREAMING

To sleep, during our Nights, perchance to dream.

NIGHT 7 – THE STORY OF THE SEMI-PETRIFIED PRINCE

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ON ISLAMIC ILLUMINATION – THE ARABESQUE

How can one not be entranced by these beautiful swirling patterns with no true centre? No centre but centres everywhere. The arabesque is like the map of a city. Little pockets of interest to hold your attention that quickly lead you on, via a twist and a turn, to another focus round the corner. I am mesmerised and calmed by these spiralling forms that are at once endless and finite, dancing ghosts captured by the edges that contain them.

Variously known as the Arabesque in the West, but also as biomorphic design, vegetal ornamentation, scrollwork, Islamic illumination, islimi/eslimi, tazhib/tezhip, they are a collection of forms that characterise Islamic art and were a synthesis of older cultures spanning China to North Africa. Indeed, khataei – a central component of the form – denotes those that stem from Cathay, China, and traditionally, anything Rumi meant those connected to Rum: Rome, or the Byzantine Empire. These are ancient motifs, collected the world over then transformed under the starry skies of the desert. The ancient Arabs took these things that exist in nature and made them unreal. No longer bound to the earth, they set them free, forever to whirl in their kaleidoscope ways over tiles and carpets, miniature book pages and grand towering architecture. They released these free spirits to cover the world, touching every surface, sparking true joy. (The desert peoples, observant of heavenly phenomena as they were, also folded clouds neatly into the heart of these patterns.)

Palmettes, rosettes, lilies, leaves, foliage, stems, spirals, waves, clouds, wings, dragons, phoenixes, simurghs and a calyx betwixt: these motifs include geometric, vegetal, animal, weather and even figural motifs. They uncurl like ferns, they curve and roll, they bifurcate, they split, they fork, they hit and run, they glance back on themselves, they shiver and tremble, they pulsate and vibrate, they weave in and out, they crest and peak like waves, they return and do it all again. They are round, ribbed, feathered, fluted, convoluted. In short, they are alive.

If we think about these motifs historically then we place them in a specific space and time, which is useful. Contexts are great starting points. But if we think about them symbolically, they become timeless and universal, which is far more meaningful. Poetry is not based on fact but on feeling. Thus they transcend their origins (do they ever matter?), laughingly go back to their Divine source, teasing adamant academics and frustrating scholars alike who fail to see past this simple truth. I am trapped and then released by these strange patterns that hold me in their maze then let me go. Always I see something new, find a new trajectory through, always I learn something. I am charmed. I like these bubbling, boundless patterns and could willingly lose myself in them.

They instantaneously connect me to the past, present and future, to the earliest times in which they were drawn, to the cultures that spawned them that are forgotten. Herein lies their legacy. Humble carpet weavers and mighty architects alike have all been at one time or another hypnotised by their rhythm. I always like to think of the humble Persian carpet weaver who is considered unlettered, yet who holds within her hands a vast repository of patterns that flow automatically from her fingers – she is in many ways far more literate than I am. I liken this to the oral Indian storyteller who holds entire epics in his mind, complete with rhythm and rhyme – on learning to read and write, all his memories are lost, in time, like… tears in rain. (The season of Blade Runner 2049!)

They start with a kind of centre, of course: the middle, or the bottom from which all things spring. But it is not a true centre; the eye, restless, wanders, thereby being forced to take in all of its creation. The patterns demand that you look at them as a whole. The eye travels, rests briefly on a focal point, then sets off again – at times re-entering the same focal point via a different meandering route, other times wandering off on a tangent to discover something new. There is no real end and no real beginning. They are infinitely, inexhaustibly wondrous.

Every part is equal and does not overpower its neighbours. All parts are respected and have enough personal space to breathe – yet not so much that they get lonely. There is no ego, no ‘I’. The tiniest element has a role and a meaning, without which the whole structure would collapse. Everything is necessary. There are no others. Perfect harmony, encoded. World peace, encapsulated.

Often, when confronted with something as vastly exciting and shimmering with possibilities as the arabesque, and finding it hard to categorise what it is, I look for what it isn’t. It isn’t a still, calm or stagnant lake; it’s a flowing river. It isn’t a solid mountain; it’s all the teeny tiny rocks that make up its mass.

My love for these forms grew as my little foetus grew and transformed inside me. They both started life as spirals. The arabesque emanates growth and is excited and eager to grow, move and dance around with the sheer joy of being alive now. I too have fallen under the spell of the arabesque, like countless other artists before me and doubtless countless others to come. This connectivity is reassuring, yet I feel as though I have a place; the patterns are accommodating, having already absorbed a multitude of cultures into their midst.

This is what makes one breathless with joy. Always moving, always travelling. An ancient metaphor for our modern nomadic times. One never steps in the same river twice. It’s the same with the arabesque. There is no need to trace the same route twice, because the flowing possibilities are infinite ~