Yesterday I took a group of 15 women who participate in Jewish-Muslim-Christian inter-faith dialogue to tour the new exhibit of Contemporary Islamic Art at a local Arts Center. The exhibit was exciting, challenging, and moving. Many of the pieces were of the difficulties of faith in a foreign land. What does it mean to be separated from one’s homeland, one’s culture, one’s life; and to build a new life in a strange, often hostile, environment?
This appears to be a common thread in many faith communities. Throughout history, in different corners of the world, under various political systems, it would seem that every faith group has been faced with persecution and exile from some other group, sometimes other factions of its own group. Martyrdom often helps to solidify community bonds between those of similar understanding and experience. The expelling of heretics never seems to have the intended effect; rather, often the opposite happens when the group(s) under pressure organize and support each other in an even more powerful way.
Interestingly, each faith group also has theology built around suffering. How do we explain grief and pain and loss? How do we get through it? That’s why this exhibit was so profoundly moving: it isn’t just for those of Islamic faith; it is for all who seek divine guidance and for those living with grief associated with displacement and loss.
I confess I was expecting to just admire the artists’ work, but I was filled with a feeling of sisterhood with these artists. I could feel their suffering and longing and see our shared humanity, regardless of what names, labels, and alphabet we use to express it. This reminds me: there were a number of pieces with writing in them which I could not read, but it simply didn’t matter.
There was one piece by Nina Ghanbarzadeh called “Decomposing a Novel” in which she wrote out lines of text in paint, let it dry, and then rolled the text up like a ball of written yarn. It sat next to the open [blank] page of a novel with the facing page of text in Arabic so that it appeared that the words on the page were being pulled off and rolled up into this ball. (I cannot post a picture of that piece, but the link above is to her website with a similar ball of words)
The question for me becomes twofold: 1) how am I pulling words from people’s mouths and silencing them? and 2) do the words matter if I cannot understand them? In a very real way, I have to ask myself: When I am not hearing the voice of an Other? When am I acting as though their words do not matter? Am I silencing the voices of history in a way that erases the story of an Other? How can I give voice to the voiceless? How can I protect the voice of the Other whose language is not my own?
I suppose this is one of the devastating losses of displacement: the loss of common language and culture that persists to the extent of silencing one’s voice in order to fit in, to lose one’s history in favor of someone else’s chosen story. Perhaps it is no wonder that faith contains the hope of homecoming: to be brought back from the grief of exile to a place of love and laughter and peace.