It wasn't just the sunny break in a month of gray cold that made me want to get out of the house. It was the cloud of dread that lowered over me every time I tried to do the small jobs that make my living. With America at war, nothing personal seemed worth concentrating on.
"Let's go downtown. Let's go see the Islamic Art show at thWalters. We can have lunch and walk around Mount Vernon and make a day of it." My husband agreed with an immediacy that could only have come from under a brooding cloud of his own.
Moving from the sunny, highly decorated geometrical patterns of Mount Vernon Square and the Walters Art Gallery itself, into the sunny, decorative geometries of Kuwaiti art offered none of the culture shock I'd been expecting and half hoping for. In some long-ago art course I'd once scribbled notes about Islam forbidding the representation of human figures in art, but the Kuwaiti exhibit was busy with miniature men -- a few mounted on colorfully armored war horses but most seated in semicircles, holding books or documents, unmistakably taking part in some sort of business meeting. Various Islamic art collectors or scholars I talked to later told me that it was Judaic tradition -- sometimes superimposed on Islamic tradition in art -- that forbade human figures. They assured me that I did, in fact, know a business meeting when I saw one, even if it took place eight centuries ago: documents illuminated with depictions of people negotiating, drawing up agreements, were common. Unlike the red and gold warriors, the negotiators wore the 13th century equivalent of dark business suits for their boardroom talks.
Talk -- words and more words, their power, their beauty -- dominated the exhibit. "Epigraphic ware" supplied the oldest pieces in the show. The inscription on a 10th century Iranian bowl read: "He who talks much, errs much." But talk, much talk, vied with gazelles, flowers and plump birds as the main decorations on the beautiful Islamic objects. We looked at a 6-inch square brass box covered with 4-inch-tall lettering in praise of an officer of a sultan. Exhortations inscribed on a helmet. Fourteenth century "bear and monkey stories," animal fables intended, according to a placard at the exhibit, "to teach moral values to rulers." Everywhere, the words "prosperity," "progress," "longevity," "glory" -- and, yes, "peace."
Love for poetry -- for art made out of words -- was strongly in evidence. On one of many magnificently illuminated poetry manuscripts, there was a curiously touching depiction of a Sufi mystic watching the poet Sadi "whirl in ecstasy." Sadi the wordsmith spins delicately on one jeweled foot. The Sufi's expression makes it clear he's both impressed and intent on duplicating the poet's trick. A placard reminded us that the flowered "oriental" rugs we Westerners cherish were designed to look like these manuscript pages.
Perhaps rugs are the reason why Islamic art looked so familiar to my Western eyes. I recalled that my own threadbare and much-loved living room Oriental not only has that manuscript-page look but also, at either end, an inscription -- writing that looked to my American eye just like the writing on a Kashan pot. The writing on my rug is not exactly small and hidden -- it's a good 10 inches tall by a foot and a half wide. Years ago, when this 10- by 20-foot antique rug was my mother's generous Christmas present, I'd thought of trying to find out what the writing said. Somehow I never got around to it, though I walked on the words a dozen times a day.
The Kuwaiti show was opulent but small. It didn't take us long to stroll through it. At the last door, a smiling museum volunteer beckoned us into the wonderful "hands-on" children's exhibit. A gaggle of 8-year-olds ooohed over the Middle Eastern costumes they were invited to play dress-up in. I joined them to rummage through small closets and drawers full of velvet jackets, gold-embroidered vests, and turbans. The clothing was sectioned "Boys" and "Girls." Pulling out the main drawer of each section, I was chilled to find that the girls' drawer contained half a dozen lengths of material suitable to veil every inch of a girl's face and body -- while the boys' contained only a glass-jeweled sword. It was the swords and daggers, my husband reminded me, that boasted the most efflorescent and lovingly detailed burst of gold and rubies in the whole exhibit.
On our way out, we decided to walk through the rooms devoted to "decorative art" that flank the great hall of the beautiful old part of Walters. We deliberately chose the room containing Western European medieval-through-17th-century wood and ivory carvings, since this exhibit covered the same centuries as the Kuwaiti exhibit.
Here, at last, was the culture shock we'd been anticipating all along.
Grinning rosewood skeletons wore shreds of tattered skin with terrible bravado, as if it were the clothing of a young dandy who'd fallen on hard times. Exquisitely detailed serpents and rats cavorted in the nostrils and eye sockets of a human skull. A voluptuous ivory Cleopatra writhed as the snake she held sank its fangs into her breast. The anonymous carver who produced an entire case full of ghoulish miniatures -- gleefully ghoulish, somehow -- was identified only as the Master of the Furies. Eat your heart out, punk-rock-album designers, I found myself thinking. What on earth would some delegate from an adjoining planet make of Western civilization -- especially in relation to Middle Eastern civilization -- if all he/she/it had to go on was those civilizations' art?
As a person descended directly from Western civ (both in genes and education), I knew that the lushly horrible Momento Mori in Walters' front gallery had to be placed in the context of a Europe torn by century after grinding century of war (largely people against people exactly resembling themselves); of a culture whose religion admired Death as an escape from a life of poverty, starvation and injustice; of a continent swept by the Black Plague.
Then I thought about the rubble of today's Middle East, at war against itself for decades. I thought about the Black Plague of oil sweeping the Persian Gulf. I thought about human faces --
American, African-American, European and Middle Eastern -- twisted in fear, bitterness and pain, which the TV news shows me nightly. And I just didn't know what to think.
So I thought, at long last, about the writing on my rug. Laboriously I copied the large, unfamiliar letters and asked several friends -- Persian, Turkish and Indian, one of whom, I hoped, might recognize the script -- if they could tell what the letters spelled. Two told me firmly that the "lettering" was not writing at all, but simply a decorative pattern. One believed it might be actual writing -- but a script she couldn't read. Finally, one friend, an Iranian physician who also is a man of letters, solved the mystery.
"It's Kufi script," he informed me, "the oldest Arabic script. It originated in the city of Kufeh, in Damascus, seat of the last of the Caliphs." What does it say? I pressed.
"It's very hard to read," my friend responded. "There are no vowels and none of the usual curves. Reading Kufi depends heavily on the reader's schematic sense of perception."
So -- what did he perceive?
" 'Kamil Allah.' That's a person's name, or at least it could be. It means 'the perfection of God.' The script at the opposite end of the rug might be the same name, decorated a little differently, or it might mean 'the word of God.' "
Well, now I could read my rug. But it didn't give me the mystic message I'd somehow been hoping for. All it told me was that many years ago some individual had felt compelled to write somebody's name -- in very large letters that were nevertheless obscure, subject to misinterpretation and quite possible to ignore for a long time -- across a very large "territory," with the approval of God. Maybe, as a metaphor for War, the writing on the rug says it all.
CLARINDA HARRIS RAYMOND is a regular contributor to thmagazine.