How much do the actions and thoughts of our ancestors shape our lives and limit our experience?
Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves tells the story of residents in the tiny town of Pluto, North Dakota, on the edge of the Ojibwe reservation. The town and the reservation are fictional, but Erdrich, the daughter of a man of German descent and a Chippewa woman of Ojibwe and French blood, draws upon her own background to paint a rich picture of life in a small northern American town where descendants of immigrants and native people still feel uneasy with each other. The discomfort is even more confusing for those like Evelina Harp, whose veins are filled with the blood of both natives and colonizers.
All of this unease is exacerbated by a crime, or rather a double crime, that occurred in 1911, more than seventy years before the novel ends. The Lochren family was brutally murdered, shot to death at their farm. Only the baby, Cordelia, survived, found by a group of native men who happened to stumble on the gruesome scene. When the Lochren’s neighbors find out about the role the men played in saving the child, their prejudice finds suspicion in the great act of kindness. The native men are hunted down and killed, except for Mooshum, Evelina’s grandfather. Meanwhile, the murderer lives a long life, barely keeping his terrible secret. He would not have kept it all if the immigrant community had not allowed itself moral blindness rather than pursue the guilty within its own ranks.
What happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough? It becomes your entire history.
Three, and in one case four, generations of the major players are interwoven in the heartbreaking story of a dying community. By the end of the novel, the retired Dr. Cordelia Lochren is alone, unable to reconcile her feelings for native people, especially her lover, with the lies she was fed as a child. Mooshum is an ancient alcoholic, reliving the failures of his youth through painful memories that loom larger than his own life. The Peace family, descended from a man who could not leave a child to starve and was killed for his decency, show a lack of decency and control that lands them in peril deeper than their murdered ancestor. Evelina and the granddaughter of the murderer work side by side at the local diner, barely making enough to get by, never quite connecting the dots that link their patriarchs together. Cordelia alone knows the secret, which she reveals to us quite simply in the last few pages of the novel. It is actually fairly obvious, but obscured by the structure of the community itself, which is built on institutionalized racism. Even our own eyes do not want to see the truth.
Tragically tender and human, Erdrich’s prose is constantly running the gamut from crude humor to profound truth, which, she reminds us, are not mutually exclusive. I found myself identifying with the emotions the characters present and getting caught up in their feelings. Jumping from one narrative voice to another and traipsing back and forth over the decades, we come to know the residents of Pluto in their heroic moments and their feebleness, in their cruelty and their silliness, and we mourn the decline of a community haunted and held together by its ghosts.
The Old Violin, William Harnett, 1886
Erdrich does not leave her community or us without hope. The hope comes, strangely and beautifully, from music, which presents itself as supernatural force, somehow not quite bound by time and place. There is an old violin that has a marvelous part to play, found floating in a canoe, the instigator and only survivor of a fatal rivalry between brothers. It is this instrument that will change the outcome of the novel, saving a young guilty man’s life and ending that of an old guilty one. Then, its debt repaid, it will be shattered.
The music was more than music- at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.
It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off. I always felt that way about the South, that beneath the smiles and southern hospitality and politeness were a lot of guns and liquor and secrets.
―James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
Public Domain Image: Vivian Malone, one of the first African Americans to attend the University of Alabama
Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?
I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.
Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.
No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.
Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.
Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.
“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”
“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”
“Mother, Daughter, Doll”
“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel
Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.
Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.
“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”
“These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel
Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.
Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.
The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”
“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”
Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.
Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.
from Northern Yemen
from Northern Yemen
“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
from Northern Yemen
“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
On either side of a potentially violent conflict, an opportunity exists to exercise compassion and diminish fear based on recognition of each other’s humanity. Without such recognition, fear fueled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.
―Aberjhani, Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays
Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
The fact that the Hegnish have absolutely no interest in any people except themselves can also cause offense, or even rage. Foreigners exist. That is all the Hegnish know about them, and all they care to know. They are too polite to say that it is a pity that foreigners exist, but if they had to think about it, they would think so.
―Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes
Therefore, she hummed the provincial lullaby she had learned from the officers’ children in the English Quarter of Jerusalem, and watched in fascination while the savage radical’s eyes misted over with tears. For an instant, the prison bars melted away, and she felt God’s presence—for the first time since their imprisonment. She was not a captive, and this man was not her captor. Indeed, they were both merely God’s children.
Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.
―Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook