Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rihla (Journey 51): PALMYRA, TADMOR, SYRIA – STANDING BY THE RUINS (al-waqfa ‘ala al-atlal) – ZUHAYR’S LAMENT

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria and the poetry of loss.

“I consider Fate to be like the stamping of a blind camel: 
he whom he meets he kills; he whom he misses lives to grow old.”

The Poem of Zuhayr 
(Zuhayr bin Abî Sulmá 520- c.609 CE)
c. 600 CE

The lines quoted above are from one of the famous Seven Renowned Odes or Mu’allaqât poems that make up the main corpus of the best of pre-Islamic era Arabic poetry. They were called the Mu’allaqât, or ‘suspended’ poems because tradition held that,

1. They were hung like precious gems to be considered in the Kabba in Mecca    or
2. They remain suspended in one’s consciousness after hearing them.

The second explanation is more likely as the tradition of pre-Islamic poetry was intensely oral and these poems were recited in public by the poet himself or by a rawi reciter whom the poet or sha’ir himself had trained. In Zuhayr’s case he had been trained by ‘Awas ibn Hajar, and he subsequently trained his son K-ab, who was later to recite poetry for Mohammed (PBUH), and who then went on to train al-Hutay’ah. This tradition of formally trained recited poetry was to manifest itself in the dispersal and recitation of the Quran at an early stage in the Islamic era, and even today in the training of the Huffaz.

One of the consistent features of the Renowned Odes were the opening lines or nasib of the poems where the poet reflects on the deserted ruins of a remembered love or abode. Zuhayr began his poem with,

Does the blackened ruin, situated on the stony ground between Durraj and Mutathallam, which did not speak to me…

and in general terms this poetic device of establishing the context for the poem was known in Arabic poetry as al-waqfa ‘ala al-atlal or “standing by the ruins.”

The meters of Arabic rhythmic poetry are known as “seas” or buhur and in an analogous way I have always considered the history of the Middle East, from the time of the Ziggurats of Sumer to the Burj Khalifa tower of modern Dubai, as having the rhythm of a sea crashing against man-made defences and hopes: tidal, sometimes calm, but more often violent, destructive, cleansing.  Following an earlier visit to Petra I wanted to see that other great mercantile city whose purpose and prosperity suddenly evaporated as if overwhelmed by the sea.

I visited Palmyra, Syria on the 7th October 2010, travelling the 220km on Highway No. 2 from Damascus. Tadmur, which is the ancient Hebrew and Greek name of the place, is now the name of the nearby new town which was established in 1929 after French Archaeologists cleared the ancient remains of their lean-to dwellings and dwellers.

Palmyra has existed as a defined settlement from about 2000 BCE. Following the death of Alexander the Great it became a Hellenistic city under the Seleucids in 300 BCE. It was always primarily a trading city and was to reach its commercial and political zenith however in the years following the annexation of the Nabataean capital of Petra by the Romans in 106 CE by taking up most of the Nabataen trading monopolies. It became a Roman colony in 211 CE.

Under King ‘Udaynath (r.260-267CE) and in particular his wife Queen Zenobia (r.267-272), in an attempt to separate themselves from being a client-city of Rome, a brief but brilliant Palmyrene Empire was established militarily, influenced by Iranian court protocols, that stretched from Ankara in Turkey to Egypt. Zenobia who was to crown herself the first queen of Egypt after Cleopatra, was defeated by the Emperor Aurelian, allied with Palmyra’s traditional tribal enemies the Tanukh, in 272 CE and the Romans occupied the city. Zenobia was captured and brought to Rome and there is a great deal of uncertainty about her ultimate fate.

The following year however, following a rebellion by one of her relatives, Aurelian took the opportunity to retake the city, plunder it for its riches which he badly needed following his suppression of the Goth invasions and rebuilding of Rome's walls, raze it to the ground and in echoes of today allow his troops to club and cudgel to death much of the population. The Romans later regretted the fact that they had destroyed one of their ‘own’ cities and in particular a city that guaranteed protection on their desert frontier. The Emperor Diocletian attempted to repair and restore the city during his reign but the trading emporium that had been so beneficial to Rome did not recover, destroyed by Aurelian’s avarice.

Political and cultural iconoclasm has been a feature of political revolution and religious revisionism from time immemorial. Our human psyche appears genuinely threatened when faced, literally, with the iconography of the generations that precede us and when allied to a political will and/or religious ferment we seem all too willing to want to destroy those idols, those depictions as if  some primitive way they could exert control over us. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as part of its political and religious orthodoxy is determined to eradicate or erase 'faces'  from the past any in addition to rendering opposition to its remit impotent by sustained and propagandised acts of selective terror and depravity. 

So it was before with the Mongols, the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge.

The poet Zuhayr wrote about war before ever a Muslim orthodoxy existed. He said,

When you stir it up (war), you will stir it up as an accursed thing, 
and it will become greedy when you excite its greed and it will rage fiercely.
Then it will grind you as the grinding of the upper millstone against the 
lower, and it will conceive immediately after its first birth and it will produce twins.

With ISIL, and lets assume with reasonable certainty that they establish so form of a State that will stretch from Damascus to Baghdad incorporating most of Syria (apart from Latakia) and North Western Iraq, at some point to protect themselves from within they will have to turn to governance; providing shelter, food, jobs, education, trade, utilities for the peoples they have subjugated. Poetry may even be allowed! However its existence, a bit like the very brief Palmyrene Empire might be brief. The “twin” wars promised by Zuhayr, from 'within' and 'without', will inevitably arise from within in opposition to ISIL's version of orthodoxy and without from a militant Shia Iran, a threatened secular Sunni Turkey, but most of all by a paranoid Israel. The tides of Middle Eastern history will continue to turn!

On the 21st May 2015 Tadmor/Palmyra fell to the ISIL forces and to date there has not been any reported destruction of the city's archaeological heritage. Truth be told from my observations, such as the already defaced heads shown above in one of Palmyra's tombs or of the statue of Aglibol, the lunar God near the entrance to the Temple of Bel there is very little of interest, particularly to satisfy an religious iconoclastic thirst, left in the ruins of Palmyra today for them to destroy. However the political iconoclasm has been sated where the streets are stained with the blood of ISIL-executed men, women and children whose “faces” were strongly associated, as either soldiers or officials, with the former regime.

For them there is only Zuhayr’s lament for the Fate of the people of Palmyra/Tadmor. Those that ISIL’s “blind” camel (read orthodoxy) have encountered have been killed, those that have been missed will hopefully live to old age.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

VENETIAN PALINA & BRICOLE – A Photographic Navigation

The hardwood stakes or palina, originally of oak but now mainly South American hardwoods, are a feature of Venice navigation. From the plain mooring poles to the candy-striped Palo Palazzo Veneziane outside the waterside palaces to the grouped Bricole Veneziane that are the main navigational markers in the lagoon. First formally regulated by Venetian Senate decree of the 8th December 1439 under the control of the Judges of the Pioveghi their maintenance was subsequently taken over by the Magistrate all Acque in 1501.

A simple mooring-post for Gondolas.

A squeraroli working in a squeri gondola shipyard


A group of three or more stakes from a word meaning 'catapult' but often
called 'Dolphins' or "Duc d'Albe' in international nautical use.
They are the main navigational markers in the Venetian Lagoon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

RIHLA (Journey 50): VENICE – THE 56th BIENNALE – A giro d’ombra and umbrage

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is a rihla about the Biennale in Venice, Italy.

The last time I was at a Venice Biennale was in October 2004 for the 9th International Architecture Exhibition (Mostra di Archittura di Venezia), curated by Kurt W. Foster, to see in particular Ireland’s “Scary House” exhibit; architects John Twomey and Sheila O’Donnell’s interpretation of their work in transforming Letterfrack Industrial School in Renvyle, Connemara from being an institution of death, terror and despair to Ireland’s (and perhaps Europe’s?) premier institution of furniture design and craftsmanship. (Blog Sunday May 31 2009)

I was anxious to revisit the city (I am always anxious to revisit Venice constantly amazed by the fact that it even exists!) to experience the artistic and original Biennale (La Biennale di Venizia), which has been going since 1895. In 1922 the Biennale had its first exhibition of works by African artists and this year (the 56th) had it has its first African-born artistic director (curator) of the entire festival, Okwui Enwezor.

Enwezor a Nigerian has lived in New York since 1982 but has curated international shows all over the world. In addition however he also has a very strong track record of activism on the human rights stage and was the co-author with Yadh Ben Achour of Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation in 2003 arising out of a symposium held in New Delhi in 2001 which incorporated human rights lawyers, artists, curators, historians and anthropologists.

In its optimal manifestation Transitional Justice, complemented by human rights and humanitarian policy and law, looks to post-conflict resolution by incorporating non-punitive amnesty-driven “Truth” commissions in an effort to understand the origins and thus reduce the possibilities of recurring patterns of effect in any society devastated by conflict. In our Western consciousness however the increasingly restrictive and punitive post-9/11 “War on Terror” agenda has marginalised somewhat the Transitional Justice notion of “Truth” as being informative to being suspect and it is in this context in 2015 that I was interested to see where Enwezor’s interpretation of “Truth” in artistic transitional terms was going to take me.

The title chosen by Enwezor for this years Biennale was All The World’s Futures. (see: He conceived the exhibition to ‘delve into the contemporary global reality as one of constant realignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility, shape-shifting’ but decided to represent that reality with a ‘relentlessly incomplete’ fractal, fractious and to my mind, not so much a clarion-call but a hammer-blow to any notion of  future development of transitional justice mechanisms.

I found the exhibitions in the Arsenale section in particular unsettling, not so much in their depiction of despair or dysfunction in “relentlessly incomplete” artistic terms, but for a cynicism that bordered on lunacy.

I live on the sea’s edge, and in my journey through the exhibition, it was if I was on a beach-combing exercise in the main wading through the detritus of an artistic storm. A chaotic, fuzzy and very miasmic reality presented no real sense of a “future” apart from the reality that modern communication means that artists increasingly depend on video-display interpretations of their work in caverned, curtained-off spaces where all light is conceived rather than perceived.

Edward Lorenz explained Chaos Theory as “When the present determines the future, the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.” Enwezor’s approximation of the “present” is proof of this.

In that approximation, in the Arsenale section particularly, there are some incredibly diverse interpretations of the present juxtaposed. From the bleakness of a Mexican partition wall to the sublime ceramics of the Argentinian Juan Carlos Distéfano; from a Swedish series of pools with intended sunken causeways to represent global warming (but their meaning and function entirely abandoned for the exhibition because of health and safety concerns) to an interpretive artist walking oh-so-solemnly diagonally across a defined space to release a model glider only to pick it up and release it again, depending on an occasional peripheral gust of wind to render chaos in the process and thus his interpretation.

I know now, where truth and art is concerned, that I am of a generation where a solidity of structure, of transforming space, even in its most translucent application, allows the opportunity of examining that space and interpreting its effect, its truth, its determination. I am also however of a generation who despite understanding the artistic interpretation of Lorenz’s explanation of the butterfly-effect of Chaos theory also love the notion that the colour of a butterfly’s wing is not the consequence of pigment but of structure, and that the “Truth” of that colour is one of refraction and diffraction of light caused by that structure. This is my concept of the future. We must continue to fight for the reality of truth, search for its structure within and use that to undermine the increasing latitude of approximation.

In a restaurant called Hostaria All’Ombra (the Shadow) on the Via Garibaldi, close to the Arsenale I wondered on its name. In English usage the umbra is the darkest part of a shadow, where the fuzzy twilight edge is excluded from the darkness. I asked the owner the reason for the name. Some Venetians, he explained, call their wine Ombra, from the term “giro di ombra” (journey of shadows) after the reality of when itinerant wine sellers in St Mark’s square had to keep moving their bottles on display into the cooler shades of the transit shadow cast by the Bell Tower.

My own journey through the shadows of the 56th Biennale, where truth has become redundant somewhat, left me with a feeling of umbrage rather than Ombra.