Monday, December 10, 2012

Where Is Bahrain?

For R.J. & T.A. 

"Reclaim Bahrain" by Camille Zakharia

This question is asked a lot in Istanbul, and you keep wondering, "Where is Bahrain?" before you can seriously answer the question. You are perhaps fully aware that the answer to the question is only partial, and that a pointer isn't enough to locate Bahrain on a map. Then you say, it is in the Middle East, it is an Arab, "Islamic" country, and yet you also know none of that is true at all. As Bahrain approached me, on the earliest morning of November 23, I felt descending upon a pond of light in which I could only tiptoe around the flashes without becoming completely intoxicated. You think you can grasp the entirely place, visually, in terms of its relative size, but you truly can't. At some times of the day, Bahrain is so infinitely small and you want nothing but to escape, to reach the shore, to love the Ocean and swim far away in one of those little boats. There're other times when it is so immensely big. No point of observation in the horizon can eventually lead you anywhere and you want to be soaked into this endlessness so that it never leaves you; a basin of pure concrete rises out of its own proportion from within the womb of the sand and the shadow of the palms that are no longer there. Manama has a tendency to grow erratic and chaotic, according to its own rules, it is a patchwork.

Buildings grow naturally and nowhere in the shadows you can see an old Bahraini trying to pick up memories from the glorious history of the island. You had to imagine the old Bahraini, telling you a story, accompanied by the drumming beats of a mirwas. The soundscapes were different: Indian pop, conversations in Urdu, a stench of Chanel everywhere and this absence, this infinite sense of absence. The absence of those who are not allowed to fully become what they are. So close I was! They say, and then they try again, and every time, the shore withdraws a few miles more. The journey can never be completed. At a beautiful but small palace in a village, you admire the linoleum prints of the late Nasser Al Yousif, perhaps one of the greatest masters of painting in a largely unknown part of the world, and too much known for all the wrong reasons, at the same time. In his prints you can see the bastari - no longer existing in Bahrain - or mud houses, the women clad in abayas dancing and the men playing the mirwas and the jahlah. "Where is Bahrain?" You keep asking the question, especially after you know that Nasser Al Yousif did these prints when he was already blind. "Back to basics", is what Jamal told me, when we spoke about the younger Bahraini artists, a generation that doesn't like drawing and painting (or wouldn't admit it in public).

If you would like to go back to basics, in Bahrain, where would you go? Who could tell you how to get there? Even if you knew the names of all the roads - which is very difficult in Bahrain - they all lead into each other, and like a logical tautology, you would end up again in your departure point, or even prior to your departure point. Sometimes the sky is pink, if that hint helps you in anything at all. Have you ever seen the sun? No, you truly haven't. Only in Bahrain they've seen the sun. That is ought to be explained. Not now. There was another painter, whose colorful nudes I had seen, those that no one in Bahrain had seen, so colorful and innocent, almost childish. As he drove me to Adliya - a new home or at least a pointer in the map of one's hope - he told me about Dilmun. Someone else was looking for Bahrain, and it wasn't just me.
I recall Helene Cixous, who taught me three months ago, how to see Bahrain, if I wanted to go there, if only to have that dinner, that someone once promised in a letter. Everything else was secondary: "But I feel, after all, “at home.” What you can’t have, what you can’t touch, smell, caress, you should at least try to see. I want to see: everything. No Promised Land I won’t reach someday. Seeing what you will (n)ever have. Maybe I have written to see; to have what I never would have had, so that having would be the privilege not of the hand that takes and encloses, of the gullet, of the gut; but of the hand that points out, of fingers that see, that design, from the tips of the fingers that transcribe by the sweet dictates of vision."

I had come to Bahrain to learn to see again. I told this to Jamal, that as a painter and as an art historian, one is never trained for knowing things, for interpreting - which always tries to dissect art works into sections and make them so comfortable and comfortable - but for precision of the eye. This is what I had discovered about three months ago when I wrote that story that begins in New York and ends with Mrs. Dalloway: "'I will come,'said Peter, but he sat for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was." In the end of the story there's a painting lesson, the painter wanted to teach his dinner host, how to paint at the ocean and he brought up Monet, who said: "There's a recipe. To really paint the sea, you have to see it everyday, at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location." While in Istanbul, and still trying to locate Bahrain, looking into the Bosphorous, every morning and every night, I began to think about Monet's lesson, and why it had been so important for me. Once I had written a story for George, and I had changed that same passage about Monet for another one. The new passage from Monet was this: "What I am looking for, instantaneousness... The same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light." How can I see again?

Monet's Garden Exhibition in Istanbul
I spent a night in Manama with Camille, the Lebanese photographer, thinking together about Bahrain's fleeting moments, and the history of the last minute, but of the minute after the last minute. How to reclaim Bahrain? We thought about the fishermen huts along the coast, the murals that appear and disappear everyday, the fluctuating identity of a country that can be described only when one's not in it. We spoke about memory, and how the vault of memory is like a box in which no empty space is allowed - and anyway there's no such a thing as empty space - and in order to make the space composite we need to stretch some memories and aggrandize them and yet to shrink and belittle others. Is visualizing, touching, enclosing, a way to prevent memory, or at least to delay it? Is memorizing a form of abstraction? If so why would it be important to paint from memory? Memory can only be stable within the confines of the home and the place, but dissolves unto itself in the intersection between spaces. Traveling causes intense distortion, and loss has a lot to do with the use of magnifying glass at times. Dan Pagis wrote in his poem, "Fahr, fahr doch... Du darfst nicht vergessen" (Travel, travel far... You're not permitted to forget) and perhaps this doesn't have to do with traveling at all. A curious childish observation would be that life is the same everywhere. 

Things don't really change as we move places, because it is fundamentally the same concept of space - isonomy, but perhaps it is true that the intensity of life can change, sometimes, depending on the circumstances. There was a day, I remember that night, I was in Juffair, and all of a sudden, everything went dark, I fell into a pit, and could no longer recognized the difference between light and day, I was unable to see the light anymore, even though I was in the one only place where people had truly seen the sun, this transparent yellow beauty that made everything glimmer towards itself and become illuminated by waters, without any external interference. I was too afraid to read the signs; I feared it would hurt too much. Helene teaches: "In the beginning, I adored. What I adored was human. Not persons; not totalities, not defined and named beings. But signs. Flashes of being that glanced off me, kindling me. Lightning-like bursts that came to me: Look! I blazed up. And the sign withdrew. Vanished. While I burned on and consumed myself wholly." And I so wanted to read his sign, to see all the colors, to find myself at home there, to fall asleep for the first time in my life, to really fall asleep. This enormous mountain I never wanted to climb, although I recognized its beauty, and then with encouragement and love I began to ascend, so slow, so very slow, and I withdrew often, let myself slip and fell. But he kept me always standing. And as I reached my destination, exhausted and weary, at the moment I was about to touch the peak, he grabbed me by the neck and dropped me in a free fall; I fell on my face, entirely alone, and hurt myself with the shattered pieces of my own bones reentering my body like burning coals. 

"What had reached me, so powerfully cast from a human body, was Beauty: there was a face, with all the mysteries inscribed and preserved on it; I was before it, I sensed that there was a beyond, to which I did not have access, an unlimited place. The look incited me and also forbade me to enter; I was outside, in a state of animal watchfulness. A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to see, to pursue the answers that will appease it, that will annul it." In the end, beauty was never a promise, but already a thing in itself, something that needs to be taken raw when it appears, and it is not ruled by the laws of matter and energy. So happy one had been and so happy one could be. This thought itself is a Messianic vision, for the object had already presented itself to you, it had screamed in your face, it had said to you, happiness, behold, I am here. It couldn't be boxed and stored unfortunately. Or perhaps fortunately. To keep happiness is the very modern possibility of not dying, it is the end of the perpetual illusion of new beginnings throughout one's life. 

What did you want from this happiness? You wanted having, the one thing humans aren't permitted, and yet you insisted. "Having? A having without limits, without restriction; but without any “deposit,” a having that doesn’t withhold or possess, a having-love that sustains itself with loving, in the blood-rapport. In this way, give yourself what you would want God-if-he-existed to give you." In Istanbul you see Monet, you see the Bosphorous, again and again, trying to learn this place, trying to learn this location, for once at all. "Non piangere" (don't cry) screams at you a Florentine painter, and anyway you can't, you're too overwhelmed trying to take in the water, to understand black, to understand white, to understand grey. To understand where truly Bahrain is. You wanted to have everything. A dinner could be everything, you know. Like the day Mrs. Dalloway died, at the party. How can you learn to see? Learn to see even once? How to not beg the possibility? To really see once would be enough, without understanding, without knowing, just taking it in, like the most important painting, like something in purple, done by Monet, imitating how the lilies would see the water. Helene Cixous comes to writing when she says: "Writing is good. It's what never ends". This is Bahrain. What never ends. It's only a light, spread throughout, a blinding light. We're yet to find what is it that never ends, while looking at the Bosphorous and trying to learn how to paint at the Ocean. "Writing is good. It's what never ends." This is Bahrain. This is where Bahrain is. In what never ends.

"Belonging" by Camille Zakharia 


Anonymous said...

Once again, Ari, you shine.

Anonymous said...

Wow amazing

Anonymous said...

Achingly beautiful, just...beautiful, Ari.

Anonymous said...

As always,so very beautiful Ari