Sunday, April 22, 2012

Art – and memory – know no borders

On Friday night I attended the opening of an exhibit of mixed-media paintings by the fabulous Palestinian-American artist Manal Deeb titled “From There.” (The exhibit runs through May 11 at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery, 2425 Virginia Ave NW, Washington, D.C., 20037)

Deeb’s paintings speak to her Palestinian heritage across time and place, addressing issues of identity and memory. Through a trancelike blur of white, like a snowstorm or a dream, works like “Delirious in Exile” reveal swirling colors, snatches of sacred verses from the Quran and stylized eyes.

Other works incorporate bits of bark, burlap, traditional Palestinian embroidery and Arabic calligraphy rendered sharp, like thorns, and offer shadowy glimpses of the faces of refugees and Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock. 

Part dream, part memory, part mourning, part longing, the paintings also address the issues of survival and authenticity in a new culture. In her artist’s statement, Deeb asks: “What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another, that is, for the same person to be real at all the times?”

In a striking self-portrait, “From There,” Deeb appears partially obscured by a screen of white paint. Though eyes without faces are a recurring motif in her other works, in this portrait Deeb offers her face without eyes, without a window into her soul.

It strikes a precarious balance; the exact point at which one cannot tell if her face is being obscured or revealed. But given the jut of her chin and the smile on her lips, I like to think it is the latter, and that she will emerge, unfragmented, into the light.

Memories, dreams, reality: She is from there, and it is hers.

*** The poems accompanying these images were written by Iyad Hayatleh, a Palestinian poet living in Scotland whom Deeb met via the Internet. The opening lines from my favorite:

“There – far away
where the sky, just a bows length from a sigh
overshadows the doors of the houses
born out of tents
as it dries the tears of old women
who weep for the warmth of homes they left --
which remain on their eyelashes
wherever they dwell
wherever they go”

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A third culture princess

It was a rainy night in London when I turned on the television set and was swiftly transported, as if by magic, to a “mystical land known as India.”

By the end of the movie – A Little Princess, the 1995 film based on the 1905 children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I had cried my way through a box of tissues and couldn’t stop. So I phoned a South African friend who I knew had also experienced the pain of homesickness, of longing for a faraway place where “the sky is all different colors, like a peacock’s tail.”

The story of Sara Crewe, a girl born in India who moves to New York at the start of World War I, is the classic third culture kid narrative. (*) Sara, whose parents are English and American (like mine, it so happens) has spent her childhood in India (mine was spent in the Middle East). It is the place she calls home; but at the same time it is not her home. So when her father goes off to serve in the war, she is brought “home” to New York, and enters Miss Minchin’s Boarding School.

Here she is noticeably “different,” attracting both the distain and the delight of the other girls for, among other things, her attitude toward race and the exotic stories she tells from the Ramayana.

She introduces her classmates to a new way of thinking, a new way of living: a global perspective.

But following an unfortunate reversal of fortune, she finds herself both fatherless and penniless. For a time she loses the belief in magic that has sustained her, her desire to tell stories and her sense of self.

Much of the beauty of this story lies in its message that kindness begets kindness, and in the way the other girls help Sara regain her identity, holding out to her shining fragments of the stories she has shared. But for me, the most powerful moments are those in which Sara encounters Ram Dass, an Indian immigrant who is caring for the rich old man next door.

That visceral recognition of someone from home, a kindred spirit who understands on a deep level who you are and where you come from, is at the heart of the immigrant experience. It’s the reason immigrants band together, seek each other out, find comfort in their tribe.

But it’s also the very essence of the third culture experience. The mutual recognition in these cases is less obvious to the casual observer – in this case a little white girl and an Indian man – but no less authentic: It is, in the words of the film, a heart kindling a heart.

Cue the swirling snowflakes and the sitar music.

* According to American sociologist David C. Pollock, “a Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The waters that divide us, unite us

Nationalism is what comes to mind when I think of the Navy, or in fact any branch of the armed services, anywhere. After all, isn't defending the nation what the Navy is all about?

According to the New Recruits Handbook: "The mission of the United States Navy is to protect and defend the right of the United States and our allies to move freely on the oceans and to protect our country against her enemies."

As the seaborne branch of the U.S military, the Navy shares the mission of the U.S. Armed Forces "to prepare and conduct prompt and sustained combat operations in support of the national interest."

The Navy exists to protect our national interest, not the global one. And while it is careful to promote diversity within its ranks -- of race, socio-economic status, gender (and much more recently, sexual orientation), at its core, its ethos is "us and them:" America's interests first, then the interests of our allies, then everyone else.

Except in the sense that it works to maintain good borders, and good borders make good neighbors, the Navy does not promote globalism -- or so I thought until a few days ago when I came across this quote at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"To shipmates from other lands
The waters that divide us, unite us."

If art is the universal language, I thought, there also must be a universal language of mariners.

Regardless of their national allegiance, sailors understand one another instinctively and intuitively. They know the joys and dangers of the wide, wild ocean, and they know what it means to be, in the words of the Naval Hymn, "in peril on the sea."

In the eyes of shipmates from other lands, sailors find mutual respect. Though their loyalties -- to country and to the fraternity of seafarers -- occasionally conflict, rubbing together like tectonic plates inside them, they are first and foremost citizens of the ocean, over which no nation has mastery.

"The waters that divide us, unite us."