Much of the course focused on how Islam is defined. Who has the power to do so? How do these definitions change in different contexts?  How do cultural beliefs and practices interact with the vast array of beliefs and practices that constitute Islam? By looking at the whole breadth of the Islamic world, rather than focusing on one area, we learned how concepts are in effect translated from one tradition to another.  Though only one of the explanatory essays explicitly uses the word “translate,” nearly all of the pieces in this portfolio are an effort to translate concepts learned in the course in some way. This umbrella theme of translation encompasses and unifies all of the pieces, and also acts as a bridge between the individual works of the portfolio and the themes of the course.

Melding with the personal

One of the pieces in my portfolio similarly looked at translation, but this time on a personal rather than societal level. The piece “3D Arabesque” was an attempt to make sense of how Islamic concepts and ideas interact with my own identity: a translation into a more personal language. This was a particularly potent piece for me, since it gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own mixed identity. It was not only an experiment on how an Islamic art form, the arabesque, can be melded with a Japanese art form, origami, and what kinds of symbols and meanings can be found in their marriage; but also, as a half-Japanese American, an interesting commentary on what it means to be multi-cultural. This was one of my favorite (and time-consuming pieces); constructed out of dozens of sheets of stiff paper, it is a traditional Japanese art that I learned from my mother and great-grandmother. The final product, a large half dome of artificial flowers, was meant to represent a 3D version of the arabesque, a literal illustration of Necipoglu’s arguments about two-dimensional Western representations of Islamic art. In her view, scholars fail to take into consideration the social and political context of Islamic art, rendering their interpretations of it flat. In the same way that she argues for adding an extra dimension to the study of the arabesque figure, I added another dimension to two-dimensional arabesques. This was in both a literal and a figurative sense: it’s 3D, and I added a foreign element, Japanese tradition.

Bringing to life course concepts

“3D Arabesque” was also part of a group of pieces that strove to “bring to life” various concepts or ideas learned in the course. “3D Arabesque” made Necipoglu’s argument jump off of paper—both figuratively, as described before, and literally, in the sense that it is made from paper. My first creative response, “Heavenly Bowls,” also took a concept about humankind’s relationship with God and brought into the real world. In order to illustrate the description of heaven from the story of Mohammad’s ascension in the series of West African Islamic stories we read, I constructed my own personal heaven from a series of thin tissue paper spheres. Meant to serve as a light shade to a candle, the series of brightly colored nesting bowls represented the thousands of curtains made from every material conceivable separating the mortal soul from the divine. Each human must pass through these curtains in order to enter the presence of God. I symbolized this idea by placing a candle at the center of the bowls; one cannot see the candle itself, but its light can be seen through the tissue-paper-thin shades. In the same way, even though we are separated from God by literally every substance on earth, we can still sense his presence.

A third piece, “Haute Couture,” brings the story of “The Conference of the Birds” to life in a series of “fashion” photos (“fashion” used in a rather loose sense here). Four of the bird characters from the novel are represented in a human form, each with their own personality and backdrop. The personality tropes that Attar describes have been transformed into people that one might see every day.

This project also performed translation in a sense, bringing these tropes illustrated in “The Conference of the Birds” into the 21st century. The characters described are ones that can be found at Harvard. The nightingale has become the lover of wine and romance; the partridge the lover of glamour; the heron an emo, and the duck the showoff student that everybody loves to hate. This last character was modified to better fit the modern setting while still preserving the original duck personality: rather than being a person that complies with every letter of religious law but not with the spirit, it is the student that puts on every appearance of being an excellent student—but has no real love of learning, only for exterior impressions.

“Bringing to life” was also a theme of the general course: through different forms of multimedia, we were meant to experience Islamic art, literature, and spirituality for ourselves. Various movies, video clips, and songs that we listened to were meant to put a face on the concepts we were learning. We were introduced to imams, to a child from Kazakhstan that is memorizing the Koran, to a Pakistani rock star, and to numerous “divas”—and each introduction served its purpose, making it easier to understand and relate to their stories.

Provoking emotion

This project also illustrates a central theme of the collection, of evocation of emotion. Many pieces were created not only with a concept in mind but also with an attempt to provoke an emotion in the viewer. That is, several pieces tried to marry the creativity of the process with the creativity of the final product. In the case of “Haute Couture,” each photo was meant to convey a particular mood: dramatic shadows for the nightingale, glittering highlights for the partridge, and moody blue for the heron. “Heavenly Bowls” was also meant to convey an emotion: a sense of quiet reflection and awe, a moment in which to feel closer to God. The Tazi’ya piece was supposed to be a graphic representation of a symbol of tragedy; though just looking at it might not tell the entire story, the straight edges and colors of the collage hopefully convey a sense of the mountains, and a sense of sharpness. “Translating Persepolis,” an illustration of the protagonist of Persepolis lying in a field, was meant to connote a sense of childish joy and connection with the divine.

Thinking about the reaction of the viewer is something that wasn’t explicitly brought up in the context of the course. However, in the sense that the material was meant to provoke us into thinking about concepts in a different way, this theme did fit in well with the general themes of the class.

Iteration and repetition

A last theme that I didn’t expect to find in my work was that of iteration: many of the projects featured repeated designs. One of the most beautiful concepts that I learned in this course was the idea of repetition as dhikr. Murmuring Allah’s name repeatedly, according to some sects, brings you closer to remembrance of him. It was therefore a pleasure to realize that my pieces in many ways incorporated the idea of repetition.

For example, the ghazal “I am but a mortal” features a rhyme that is composed of a repeated word, “me.” This poem was partially inspired by the ghazal I memorized for the ghazal project, “Guftam gama’ to daram” by Hafez. The beauty of the repetition of the beginning of each line throughout the poem (each line begins with either “I said,” or “he/she said”) struck me in a very profound way; though I didn’t process the meaning of the words in Persian, Hafez’s poetry still had the power to evoke a response. My own poem used a repeated word, “me,” at the end of the line.

“Heavenly bowls” is repetition in a more literal way: the piece is a set of nesting bowls, each slightly smaller than the other and a different color, but the same in composition. Since each was meant to represent one of the thousands of curtains separating us from the divine, I had initially hoped to have many more than just three bowls, but in the end the repetitive effect is still apparent.

In “Translating Persepolis,” the background of grass is illustrated by repeated rectangles in green, with a scattering of repeated flowers on top. I drew my inspiration for this piece from the sumptuous illustrations of Peter Sis for the story of “The Conference of the Birds,” which also features quite stylized, repetitive designs. One of my favorite pages of his work is simply a page full of black birds of all shapes on a white background. It was this image that made me realize the artistic power of repetition. Though “Translating Persepolis” uses this conceit on a smaller scale, the repetitive background pattern dominates the picture.

Perhaps most iterative is “3D arabesque,” which is composed of many different units. The squares of paper from which I composed the piece were folded into the shape of a flower petal. Five petals were then put together to form a flower, and the flowers were gathered together to make the final half-dome shape. In other words, not only was this repetition of the base unit, the petal, but also repetition on a more macro level, the flower. Origami kusudama balls are traditionally constructed in this way, with many individual units coming together into a defined whole—exactly the same way that the thirty birds come together as the Simorgh in “The Conference of the Birds.”

A Last Note: Translation Complete

Throughout this course I have been obsessed with translation. In weeks when we were reading original works like the Conference of the Birds and ghazals, one of my response questions was invariably focused on the translation: can we trust the translation to convey the original sense that the author intended? Can we even fully understand a piece when we are not reading it in its intended form? From my limited study of Arabic, I know that oftentimes there is no easy translation: the dictionary entry for one Arabic word can run on for pages, describing the numerous (and often contradictory) meanings of the same three letter root.

Through this course, I have come to understand that translation in a less literal sense, on the cultural level, is also difficult. As some of the authors we read would tell us, some attempts to translate Islamic concepts into something more easily understandable to us are blatant misinterpretations of their true meaning. Nonetheless, in my pieces I attempted to tackle this difficult task of translation. I blended some concepts with parts of my own reality and personality; translated others from the page to real life; and tried to translate a concrete object into an emotion in the viewer. Although some of my “translation” efforts fell somewhat short of expectations (I was a little ambitious when beginning projects, such as the plan to fully illustrate a vignette from Persepolis in a different style!), these projects (and, more generally, this class) has been one of the most rewarding experiences at Harvard.

Comments are closed.