Still life with Mounir's ceramic donkey, wedgewood pot, and Turkish tiles.
Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends.
I find myself thinking a lot about what to paint or draw these days. With Gaza and our chaotic world so much on my mind, it's hard to focus on simple beauty: it somehow seems trivial, oblivious to reality, self-indulgent. And yet simple beauty and simple pleasure are what nearly every human being desires, and deserves.
The little ceramic donkey in this drawing belonged to my father-in-law, so it's precious to us. I think it came from his native Syria, though I'm not sure; to him it was a reminder of the donkeys that used to bring fresh cool water from the mountains into Damascus. In the later years of his life, he had a whole menagerie of small animal figures: birds, monkeys, camels, an elephant, snakes: a veritable Noah's ark. None of them were to scale, which gave the arrangement an even quirkier air. When he still lived in a house, they were arranged around, and in, a large houseplant. After he moved to a retirement home, they were on a wooden stand, and he sometimes liked to rearrange them for his own amusement. His favorite was a tiny mouse made of ivory. One day it disappeared and he was disconsolate. We searched everywhere but never found it. He blamed the housekeeper, saying she must have knocked it onto the floor and vacuumed it up. After he died I hoped it would turn up as the apartment was emptied, but it never did: I like to think it scampered away to live behind the bookshelves, exactly as long as he did.
Last night I began reading Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun ("Bab al-Shams"). It's been on our shelf ever since we heard Khoury read at the Blue Met literary festival in Montreal some years ago, when he was interviewed and spoke about his close friend Mahmoud Darwish. Afterward we went up and met him, and he inscribed this copy to J., whose grandmother's maiden name was also Khoury. The novel is a story of relationships that contain Palestinian and personal histories; it is woven together rather clumsily - as the NYT reviewer notes - from snatches of stories, but this was a deliberate device by the author, who tried to write in a way that mirrors Palestinian reality: the history of the nation and each person seeming torn and patched together.
The novel is written in the voice of a surrogate son sitting at the bedside of his "father," an elderly freedom fighter who has had a stroke and lies in a coma. The son, a medic in a hospital in a refugee camp, spends most of his days bathing and caring for the dying man, refusing to believe he won't regain consciousness, and then at night, like Scheherazade, tells him stories, hoping that the words are still penetrating. I've been afraid of reading it, and now, even though I've started, I still am.
In addition to the tragic and horrifying events it recalls, the book of course also reminds me of my own dialogue with my very alert, very aged father-in-law, and of the last few months when he slipped in and out of present time and space as we sat by his bed, talking to him and listening to his own stories. When he died, at 99, a door into our family's life and history closed forever; now we too must patch it together out of fragments. Last night, when the narrator began reciting bits of verse by al-Mutanabi, perhaps the greatest of all classical Arab poets, I felt myself back in the familiar room with its blue and yellow silk carpet, the books lining the walls, the statue of Socrates on the stand in front of the old shortwave radio, and my father-in-law, leaning back in his chair, eyes shut, smiling at the ceiling as he recited poetry.
Terrible times can paralyze us, or we can use them, turning their negative energy into something better. Perhaps the time has finally come for me to pull out those dialogues that were collected here under the title The Fig and the Orchid, and see what can be done with them. As sad as my father-in-law -- a former UN administrator of a refugee camp in Gaza, among his many positions through a long life of teaching and ministry -- would be over the events today, he always believed in the power of education, beauty, literature, noble ideals, and -- most especially -- reason and truth. He often spoke about their remarkable ability to endure across the millenia, lifting people above the worst.
"The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.
Al-Mutanabi, I have just learned, was the son of a humble water-carrier.