Introductory Essay To My Creative Portfolio

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The six pieces I created for this class are all expressions of emotional reactions I’ve had to what we’ve been exposed to over the course of the semester.  I have engaged with the themes of the course, and I examine them through my artwork, but these pieces are not just works meant to explicate some point or specific trope and idea.  They are the result of emotional reactions I’ve had while immersed in the ideas of the course, they come from a place of individual experience and authenticity, and so they say something about myself as well as about what we studied.  The main themes that arise in my artwork are: the difficulty of genuinely engaging with religious traditions other than your own, the difficulty and also the value of truly putting yourself in another’s shoes and understanding their experience; the experience of the martyr; the pursuit and enjoyment of the love of God.  Each piece makes its own claims and seeks to move the viewer in a different way, but these themes I’ve realized inform all my art because they are central to my thinking and my experience in the course.

 

One of the main themes I explored with my creative portfolio is the love of God.  I did this through constructing a Ghazal with traditional themes involving the search for God, the Sufi journey of the self to union with God, and the use of wine and intoxication as a symbol for the overwhelming love of God.  I had already written a Ghazal for the Ghazal project, but that Ghazal dealt with less traditional themes and so I wanted to write a Ghazal more true to the genre.  Although I am of a different faith, I felt an immediate connection with Sufi practice and theory because it is all about connecting with the love of God.  The desire for God, the search for him and ones efforts to become more intimate with him, although pursued with perhaps different methods, practices, and theological frameworks, seemed to have significant similarities across religions that speak about the love of God.  I was able to connect with this Sufi desire and see the value of their goal, even though I am from a different faith tradition.  The love of God is absolutely central to all followers of Islam, especially the Sufi, and it was this that I tried to express through the Ghazal.  I tried to express how essential it is to look for God’s love and how unfortunate it is when people don’t see the value of this pursuit and don’t search after that love.   This is a theme we’ve seen the whole course through, and I was glad to take the opportunity to explore it more in my creative Ghazal.

 

The next significant theme of my art portfolio is the story of the martyr.  The narrative of the martyrdom of Hussein was very appealing to me, as it is about a man who believes so strongly in the truth that he goes knowingly to his death rather than capitulate to the forces of evil.  It is a powerful story.  I found it extremely interesting how this story, with Hussein the martyr and Yazid the evil tyrant, has been used throughout all of Islamic history to establish narrative and moral context in situations of oppression.  If there is a tyrant somewhere he is Yazid and he is crushing the spirit of his people, Hussein.  It is such a powerful vocabulary of shared understanding within Islamic societies.  I love the idea of the power of narrative portrayal.  With my painting of the martyrdom of Hussein I tried to express both the significance of Hussein’s individual story, as the last great light and fire of the family of the prophet, as well as the enduring significance of his story as a means of inspiring people who are struggling against oppression.

 

Similar to my work about Hussein is my work memorializing Benazir Bhutto.  I describe in my post of the interpretation of “A Rose for Benazir Bhutto” that I have an interesting individual connection to this famous woman, both through our Harvard connection and how my dad met her once, but the main thematic significance of the work is how it celebrates her as martyr.  Depending on your perspective Benazir Bhutto can fit perfectly into the Hussein narrative as the courageous champion of a more liberalized, accessible economy during her time as prime minister who was martyred by assassination upon her triumphal return to Pakistan.  There are of course others who would invert the narrative and portray her as Yazid, pointing to her problems with corruption and secular influence, which only further emphasizes the plasticity and utility of the Hussein/Yazid narrative.  There is just something so powerful about the martyr narrative that makes an individual into a historical force after their death even if when they were alive they were in no ways a paragon of perfection.  This fascinated me, and that’s why I painted pieces on Bhutto and Hussein.  Although my own perception of Bhutto leans far more towards the positive, I think it is important to be critical of the legacies of martyrs and not let the sheer power of their cult of personality overwhelm all criticism.  This leads to an interesting juxtaposition of Bhutto and Hussein, as Hussein is a religious figure, a grandson of the prophet, viewed by Shias as the true Imam at the time of his death and also revered by Sunnis, and for whom a critical appraisal is much more difficult than for Bhutto who was a recent and colorful political figure.  Anyone can agree to be critical of Bhutto’s legacy, but is Hussein’s legacy open to criticism?  Especially considering his Imam status and the significance of the Imam I think there are those within the Shia tradition who would categorically deny any attempt at historical criticism, but there are others who would think historical criticism of him productive.  That being said, my works engage with him as a true paragon and exemplar of martyrdom and don’t lean towards critique, but it is an interesting point when other more contemporary and less perfect martyrs are compared to him.

 

The most important theme of my artistic portfolio is the engagement with the other.  The first piece I created was a poem called “Stranger” that spoke to the difficulty I had in approaching the Adhan.  I had at first set out to record my own version of the Adhan.  My motivation was that I did not like what seemed to be the prevailing style of Adhan recitation, which I think of as very melismatic, using a great deal of oscillation and variation of notes around every syllable.  The Adhans we listened to sounded painfully warbly to me, and also dominated by nasality.  I was very unsatisfied, and although I didn’t actually think I could do a better job reciting the Adhan than those who did the recordings we listened to, I did think that I could do it in a more pleasing style.  I was going for a clearer, less nasal version that only had one or two notes per syllable of text.  I knew this would be a difficult project but I didn’t realize how difficult.  Most of the difficulty would have come from perfecting my own technique, especially considering that I have no vocal training, but I didn’t even get that far.  The moment I began going through the Adhan and preparing to recite it, I became uneasy.  The Adhan is a profound statement of belief, a statement of beliefs that I do not hold.  I am not Muslim, I am Christian, and I do not believe that God is one or that Muhammad is his prophet.  I thought that I could just recite the Adhan and it wouldn’t mean anything, but my visceral reaction to the attempt made me realize that, even alone in my room, my spoken word has meaning.  I could not escape the sensation that it felt wrong to say things I did not believe, as it would both trample on my own beliefs and it would be disrespectful to the Islamic tradition for which these words are of devout significance.  I could not say the Adhan without being uncomfortable, and I realized it was because of the powerful, inescapable meaning inherent in spoken word.  My discomfort gave me insight into how difficult it truly is to put oneself in the place of another, to actually live out another’s beliefs and not just ponder them intellectually.  I also realized that, in being made aware of the power of the spoken word, I was absolutely engaging with the Islamic tradition of recitation.  For Muslims the Koran is most powerful as a spoken document, rather than a read one, and although I found it too uncomfortable to actually recite the Adhan, I experienced the power of the spoken word that is so central to how Muslims engage with their faith.  It was also significant in that it gave me a chance to think of preference, in this case musical, and in how my preference is shaped by my background and that it presents a real barrier to me engaging with the art of people from backgrounds with different preference.  Overall what I got from doing this first piece of art was an appreciation for the difficulty of truly engaging with the other, and also the beginnings of the value of benefit of the attempt.

 

My third piece was a plot summary that tells the story of two boys who go skiing and witness an act of violence and hatred towards Muslim immigrants.  With this piece I was trying to express in narrative form the positives and negatives of when two cultural and religious worlds come together.  The two American boys witness a sad and demeaning act of violence done to Muslim immigrants that is partly motivated by anti-Islamic sentiment.  I think narrative is a very powerful way of bringing out sympathy in people for others that are not like themselves.  Narrative does this because a person, when immersed in a narrative, lives vicariously through the characters in the narrative.  It is one of the truest forms of stepping into another’s shoes.  I wanted to show this, both within the story as the two boys are witness to and affected by the violence they see, as well as for anyone experiencing the narrative.  I chose to use a plot summary structure because it involves the reader in creating the narrative themselves.  The reader fills in the gaps and actively tries to situate themselves in the persons described within the story.  This project was part of  my progression in thinking about how, in order for there to be positive dialogue between people of different faith traditions, there needs to be mutual sympathy for the painful experiences of others and a recognition of the value of others regardless of difference, and I think a powerful way to do this is through narrative.  The narrative also highlights how important it is that people step up and prevent discrimination against minorities, that they not be passive observers and therefore enablers.  This is how I tried to use narrative to explore engaging with the other.

 

My last piece was a comic, structured like a political cartoon, which pictured several protestors waving and shouting nationalistic slogans and telling a Muslim girl, clothed in a burka, to leave because she was Muslim.  This piece represents the consummation of how I think about experiencing the experiences of the other.  The inspiration for this comic was the video we were shown in class of protestors in California saying very hateful things to Muslims as they were going to a civic dinner.  Watching this video was painful for me because the hate spewed by the protestors was so terrible.  What they said was horrible, and it was horrible that they had taken it upon themselves to say that they represented what America ought to be.  I felt so bad for the Muslim individuals, even children, who were meant to feel that they were evil or the problem and that they didn’t belong.  They belong just as much as anyone else in America because America is a place for everybody, where no one should be excluded from anything based on creed.  This was an experience that allowed me to most strongly put myself in the shoes of others because it was such a painful moment.  I felt so sorry for the people getting shouted at and I didn’t want them to feel like they didn’t belong, but rather that they absolutely did belong.  The feeling of exclusion is terrible, and I wanted to express this, the damage the protestors were doing, in a powerful and striking way.  I thought a political cartoon, which relies on pithiness and an immediately relatable punch line, would be the best way to do this.  In the comic we see the effect of the hate on the girl in the burka, we get her inner voice and feel her pain.  The absurdity of the protestors is also laid bare.  My comic represents the strongest emotional connection I’ve felt with those of such very different backgrounds and experiences that we’ve studied in this course.  I felt pain because of what they had to go through, and it was definitely one of the most powerful moments for me in the course.

 

With these creative projects I’ve explored what has been most significant for me through the course.  The significance of these themes of engaging with the other, martyrdom, and the love of God became more apparent to me as I engaged them artistically.  Instead of being analytic I had to create, and in creating I had to be sure that what I was creating was meaningful to me and interpretable to others.  Using art as a medium for expression was especially important in how I thought about engaging with the other because art is experiential, it was invaluable in helping me to understand and identify with the experiences of Muslims, and if I had just been asked to write a paper on the experiences of Muslims in the United States or elsewhere I would not have had as powerful an experience.  This art is my truest response to what I’ve learned in this class, not passive reception but an enriching and active immersion.

Interpretation of Comic

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One of the most affecting things we were exposed to in this course was a video of protestors someplace in California who were heckling and spewing hate at Muslims as they went to attend a dinner celebrating civic achievements by Muslims.  It was absolutely revolting, and made me feel terrible for those who had to experience such hatred, and that the protestors represented a not insignificant part of the population who shared their sentiments.  As I thought about it, one of the most terrible effects of the protestors’ hate was that it told the Muslims, ordinary families, that they didn’t belong, that they weren’t welcome.  This kind of exclusion is completely antithetical to all that America stands for as a place of freedom where we claim that anyone should be able to make what they want of themselves and not be prevented from doing so because of their race or creed.  I was horrified that anyone was meant to feel that they didn’t belong, especially as these people do belong here.  They’re just as American as anyone else.  The actions of the protestors were not only infuriating but also absurd.  Who are they to tell any other American that they don’t belong or aren’t welcome just because they hold a different form of belief.  I thought about how this would be a difficult experience for the Muslims who were protested to process from an identity stand point.  These people identify as Americans, and so to be told that they don’t belong to the place that they absolutely feel they do belong to would be painfully dissonant.  I wanted to get across the absurdity of the protestors and the poignancy of this effect on the poor Muslims who had to experience this terrible treatment.  I realized a political cartoon was a great way to do this, as cartoons are all about powerful brevity, making a strong point in a satirical way.  It was towards this end that I came up with this cartoon.  That the main protestor has USA on his hat emphasizes how absurd it is that he and the others think they speak for America or all Americans.  I especially like how it invites the person reading it inside the thoughts of the girl in the Burka, showing her internality and personality, that although she is covered and therefore often perceived as anonymous she has a vital inner life that is being effected by the hate she experiences.

Burka and Protestors

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Interpretation of “A Rose for Benazir Bhutto”

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We learned some about the history of Pakistan, and I realized that of all the figures we learned about Benazir Bhutto was the only one I really knew much about or felt much of a connection with.  I first hear of Benazir Bhutto from my dad.  He went to Harvard and his time here overlapped with hers.  He remembers being in an elevator with her once.  She had this huge bodyguard with her at all times, and he remembers it being cool but also intimidating to be standing with her and her bodyguard in such close quarters.  My impression of her is also formed by my memory of her assassination in 2007.  I remember how it was the biggest news in the world for a while, and seemed very sad since she had finally returned to the country after many years being forced to stay abroad.  I saw her then as somewhat of a martyr for peace and responsible government.  As I’ve learned more about her, I realized that she wasn’t a one dimensionally wonderful figure.  Her administration when she was in power had a lot of corruption problems, and she was born into a very privileged situation as daughter of a prime minister.  Her story relates to much of what we’ve learned in this course about fledgling Islamic nations, such as Iran and Pakistan, that are struggling with what role religion will play in government and civic life.  So much blood has been spilled because of disagreement over this.  It was an interesting experience to learn about Pakistan, a distant and very foreign place to me, and to feel some kind of emotional connection to Benazir Bhutto from my connection through my dad, my connection through Harvard, and then the tragedy of her assassination.  Because I had this emotional reaction I thought I would paint something that could stand as a small memorial to her.  I thought of how roses are a common symbol of love in Urdu ghazals, and almost everywhere else of course, and how Bhutto was greatly loved by at least some of the people in Pakistan.  I also, as I was searching her online, discovered that during her funeral her coffin was draped with rose petals and that that was just something that was done and many people came to scatter roses for her.  That is why I painted a rose, and I kept it very simple and direct.  It was a fun painting to create.

A Rose for Benazir Bhutto

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Recitation of “That Sweet Place Where She Hides”

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Interpretation of “That Sweet Place Where She Hides”

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I really enjoyed the ghazal project we did earlier in the semester, and so I thought I would write another one.  For the ghazal project I wrote a piece that attempted to portray my spiritual experiences and show how they are different than those usually represented in ghazals.  My experience of religious fervor is not uniform and inconsistent, whereas ghazals seem to always be expressing complete fervor and abandon.  Because I went in that direction for the ghazal project I thought I would write a more traditional ghazal as one of my creative projects.  To that end, my piece is about one completely given over to the search for his lover, who represents the love of God.  The lover is constantly searching, even though exhausted, and he reprimands others for not being as passionate in their search, or even not knowing to search.  The search for his lover is everything, and it is a travesty that all do not grasp this and are not searching alongside him.  I invoke tradition images, especially of wine, the drunkenness of wine, and flowers, and I also explicitly discuss, in bayt six, the Sufi desire to lose one’s particularity in the absolute love of God, the path towards the center.  The poem is fully about one completely given over to journey to immerse oneself in the love of God.  I also constructed my poem according to a meter, which is LONG-short-LONG-short-LONG-short-LONG-short-LONG-short-LONG-short-short-short-short-LONG.  I liked the rhythmic feel of this meter.  I also chose the –ide sound for the recurring rhyme at the end of each bayt.  I also used my middle name, David, as my signature since my first name had an awkward number of syllables for the meter, and my last name didn’t feel quite right.  I’m most proud of bayt 3, which I think very naturally fits the meter and has some nice phrases.

That Sweet Place Where She Hides

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Oh now where upon the earth does she who owns my passion reside?

Long have I spent all my days in search of that sweet place where she hides.

 

Eyes too tired to see, so I have looked, have searched, in cities and fields;

forever I’m lost, I’m dry, my thirst is still so unsatisfied.

 

Where can wine be found that with one drink, one draught, can nullify pain?

With that wine, if long lost found, I’d fill my cup and say despair lied!

 

Do I dream?  Is she thought cheap?  Fickle or cruel?  Not worthy of all?

Where are they, women and men, can they not see, so lost for a guide?

 

It is not so hard to tell that I am all alone in my search.

Where are they that if they knew of all she is would search by my side?

 

Oh my soul it is your loss that you are still so painfully one.

Lose yourself in not but love; my search is this: to enter inside.

 

Pick a rose for her, my hand, and drink a glass of wine oh my mouth!

Then I may present her with beauty in flower and song uncontrived.

 

Sing alone my soul, if that is what you must; still a chorus you’ll be.

Towards all else be mute, David, but sing for her and you will abide.

Interpretation of Plot Outline for “Robbery”

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This piece is a plot outline.  I took a creative writing class my sophomore year and one thing we had to do was come up with a story plot every week, and so I thought this would be interesting.  It gives a complete story but is more gaps than narration, and so is actually just a structure for a story from which many different stories can be told.  My goal is to actually write this story eventually.  What I am reflecting on here is the short story we read for section this week called “The Beggar’s Strike.”  In that story Islam interfaces with a culture and society recently emerged from the colonialism.  The main events around which the different characters’ stories are interwoven is a crackdown on beggars in the capital city and then their ensuing strike.  This is a story about the weak being oppressed by the powerful, and also, especially in the case of Mour Ndiaye, how easy it is to fall into sacrificing moral principles to the pursuit of wealth and  power.  I was also intrigued by the brief descriptions given of the interactions between the native Senegalese and their colonial rulers when the nation was still under colonial rule.  There was such a tremendous tension it seemed in every encounter that was described.  These were the thoughts I was having towards this particular short story we read, and they came together to form this plot outline with the experiences I had the weekend before.  During that weekend I had gone snowboarding in Vermont with some friends and we had stayed in a small motel very similar to the one in the story.  It was interesting for me to think of how this same power dynamic, the strong oppressing the weak, would play out in this new setting.  I also wanted to bring together two groups of different religions and cultures and subject them to a shared oppressor, as opposed to in the Senegalese story where the colonials in their brief appearances are the oppressors and the Senegalese the oppressed.  I wanted to portray the experience of the robbery from both the perspective of Michael and Faisal in such a way that they are very different people from very different backgrounds but brought together in the face of shared oppression.  I want to explore the commonalities in the plight of the oppressed and also the interaction of people from very different cultural perspectives, even through what seems like at first a very ordinary interaction.

Plot Outline for “Robbery”

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This story is told in the third person and is several people from different places and a robbery.

  • Michael and Tom pull up to a motel in the mountains of New Hampshire.  They are going skiing for the weekend.

 

  • They go into the motel’s office to check in.  The man running the office is Pakistani and they can see past the hotel desk to the family room of his house.  On the wall are pictures of his daughter, Roxanna.  She is in elementary school.

 

  • The history of this man is given.  His name is Faisal.  He came to America six years ago and his family followed four years later.  He manages this hotel, a job he got through a cousin.  The encounter is retold from Faisal’s perspective

 

  • Michael engages Faisal in conversation by asking about his daughters, how old they are.

 

  • Michael and Faisal have a pleasant conversation.  Faisal gives Michael and Tom their keys and recommends a couple places to eat in the small town some miles down the road.

 

  • Michael and Tom are tired from the drive and it is late.  They decide to go to bed so they can get up early the next day.

 

  • Faisal and his family sit down to dinner.  He asks his daughter how her day at school went and teaches her about Muslim piety.

 

  • Michael and Tom are woken up in the night by yelling.  They clearly hear the voice of Faisal and of a few other people, and they realize he is being robbed.  Faisal is resistant.  The robbers are demanding more money than he says he can give them.  They start to beat him and shout racial and ethnic slurs at him.  The boys can hear Roxanna crying.

 

  • Michael and Tom want to help Faisal but are too afraid and stay hidden.

 

  • Michael and Tom cower until the robbers are gone, and can still hear Roxanna crying.
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