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May 4, 2012

Portfolio Introduction

Filed under: Uncategorized — mandi @ 4:58 pm
Portfolio Introduction
Mandi Nyambi

On the first day of  classes of the second semester, I walked into culture and Belief 12 with absolutely no knowledge of Islam outside of the Five Pillars and 9/11. In my mind, I renamed it Islam 101, because it would be my formal introduction into what has become one of the most valuable classes i’ve ever taken. The first lecture struck me as one of the most powerful, because of a concept that Dr. Asani highlighted, the idea of “a clash of ignorances”. This idea pierced at the heart of my views towards muslims and their way of life. I had no educated views on the subject and yet, I felt as if I had the authority to judge them and their practices. “They”, whom I have come to realize, are just like I am. Dr. Asani told the class on the first day of class, that muslims learn about their religion by experiencing it in different ways. It is this very approach that we have taken in this class. Our experiences have been through creating something in response to what we learn in class each week. We can use our imagination to conjure up an artistic representation of the ideas the resonate most loudly with us. In short, we’ve been given the right of a muslim to submit in the fashion that Allah would have us.

Being charged with the task of responding to the readings we’ve conducted in class, at the end of the first half of the semester, I looked back on all of the readings and chose three that I enjoyed the most. These included (W) A. Osman El-Tom.  “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure,” Popular Islam South of the Sahara, 414-31; (W) Al-Ghazali, “External Rules of Qur’an Recitation,” The Recitation and Interpretation of the Quran: Al Ghazali’s Theory, trans, M. A. Quasem, 34-55; (W) Sir Lewis Pelly, The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein.

The reading from week two was truly an eye opener for me. I was aware that different cultures had unique practices that defined them as a people, however, I underestimated how bizarre that could get. The ritual of erasure is powerful in its simplicity. I think of it as almost an internal baptism, where instead of pouring the water on the exterior of your body and washing away your sins, you are drinking the cure. The approach is very literal, having the word of God pulsing through your veins and spreading to all the extremes of your body. Therefore, I wanted to take this idea of literal translations, and make it into something that anyone could understand. The toughest part of this was picking what artistic medium to use. I knew that I wanted verses to appear somewhere, but I wasn’t sure how to incorporate them. I decided to draw out what I was feeling on paper, and it came out to the drawing you can find in my portfolio. I drew a pitcher, with the words Kalan Allah, meaning Speech of God. I often like to play with the idea of God using vessel through which he works through, or God being the vessel through which we can work good things. . The word is considered to be a force harboring powers that are near that of God’s majesty. It is common practice in some Muslim communities to drink the word of God through a ritual process called erasure. Many remedies of the early Islamic days — that still thrive today – call for believers to drink the words of passages from the Qur’an.  The Berti people of Darfur are notorious for using erasures and medications for a wide range of illnesses, and for purification purposes. Therefore, in the creative response depicting a pitcher pouring out the word of God, one can appreciate the symbol of the water as quenching one’s thirst for healing or any thirst in general, and the Quranic passages are the vehicles of repair.

The need for repair and cleansing often comes after one has been negligent of the guidelines that are set by the religion. There are several books that talk about these guidelines, of Shariah that transcend all aspects of life. In the third week of the course, we read about the rules that govern how to read the Quran, as God would have us. I found it startling that there were established rules for this. Coming from a Christian background where there is no formal guide to reading the bible. Shariah touches upon all aspects even those concerning how often the Quran is recited, at what time of the day one should recite, even what position one’s body should be in. Shariah almost makes it possible for there to be a perfect muslim, since all of the requirements are spelled out. It’s an astonishing concept to me. However, it has its counterparts in Christianity as well. Moses wrote down for his people, the laws as mandated by God. These laws came in the form of the 10 Commandments, on two large clay tablets. This was the first connection that came to me when I was reading the assignment, and it inspired me to put the guidelines for Quran recitation in the same fashion that Moses put the commandments. I’ve found many religious overlappings such as this one between the eastern and western peoples. I found this exercise to be quite a revelation, that there were obvious connections between the two religions and yet everyday people fail to see how much we are similar our “enemies”. This simply calls for education of the social variety. If people were to see how much our religions coincide in thought and practice, our world might be a more peaceful place. Professor Asani has suggested that we use the arts to do just this.

Since the artistic expression is part of the cultural aspects of Islam, the best demonstration of the people’s emotions toward the religion might be the most effective manner. For instance, poetry, is one major vehicle of expression. Some of the most influential muslims in all of history were poets, like Rumi and Hafiz. Poetry has been used to celebrate a wide variety of religious events and benchmarks. One of the most important months in the Islamic calendar is the month of Ramadan. It holds historical and religious significance and is an intense annual cornerstone for all believers. During this month it was revealed to Muhammad the first of all the revelations that would eventually make up the Quran. The month of Muharran also holds a special place in the Islamic calendar. It was during this time that Hussein’s infamous martyrdom took place. Today there are several rituals and performances that reenact the story as it has been passed down through the generations. This martyrdom, which was discussed earlier, is a concept that is often misrepresented. In order to shed some light on the topic, I composed a poem that highlights the beauty and symbolism that is associated with Husseins’ sacrifice. The reading assignment for week five allowed us to read the story of Hussein’s sacrifice, which many people do not have the opportunity to do. Therefore, it was important to bring to the forefront, the essence of the beauty in his sacrifice. In a lot of poetry that expresses sentiments about God, nature is a theme that is toyed with on many levels and the same is true for this poem. There is a fundamental belief that all of nature is a scripture and a prayer to God. Therefore this theme was instrumental in getting across the point of beauty in love for God.

I only began to really connect with this inner beauty during the second portion of the course. This change is observable in my artwork. During the first half, I only used artistic media that I found to be convenient or less of a strain on my creative organs. However, I became more invested, emotionally, in my work when I decided to explore media that reached beyond what I found to be common place. The transition was gradual, but it is very evident. The first piece I completed was in response to week 11’s assignment of Muhammad Iqbal’s poem, “Complaint and Answer”. I happened to think that this literary work was very profound. Iqbal wrote it over the course of many years, in that he wrote just the complaint section first before coming back years later to write the answer. We see the evident his growth in his faith when we compare and contrast  the style and the tone of the two sections. Often, I compare his transformation with my own. Not only am I now able to express my intellectual feelings, but I can also display some of the emotional experiences that i’m having in reaction to the readings.

One of my most prized skills, is my ability to place the piano. I started playing from around 8 years old, and I’ve accomplished a lot through diligent practice and releasing myself the the music. On countless occasions, I’ve found myself at the mercy of the keys, just pouring my heart out, into the music. I’ve always used it as way to release any emotions that I had bottled up. Therefore, taking my feelings from reading the “Conference of the Birds”, I was able to take myself back to where I’ve come from. I’ve never been able to compose a piece, and I’ve tried several times. However, taking my time to consider the voices of each bird the I wanted to portray gave me the inspiration to compose my first piece, “Concert of the Birds”. It took quite some time, and a great amount of thought, but on the other side of it, I feel amazing. Throughout the process I kept in mind my overarching theme, writing with the ear of a first time listener. I’ll admit that the majority of the piece is quite raucous and dissonant. However, I meant for it to be that way in order to show the dismay and the struggle that the chorus of birds was in the absence of their king, their God. A lot of consideration was taken into account when I was deciding which instrument to designate to each bird. The Piccolo plays the part of the Turtle Dove, and though it is a softer instrument, the shrillness of its sound ensure that it is still heard over the rest of the quintet. I also place runs in strategic places where the other instruments were more hushed or stagnant to bring out its sound. The Oboe plays the role of the melancholy Nightingale. I played around a lot with the moving up and down the scale in drawn out half-steps. This gave the nightingale’s song a somber and almost minor feeling. However, it is still in the key of C major so it is overall a happy song. Taking into consideration minute details such as these I was able to craft the song of each bird including the Falcon on the clarinet, the Pheasant on the horn and the Goshawk on the bassoon. In composing this song, i was able to translate one of my deep passions into passion for one of the most influential Islamic works.

Not only am I passionate about music and piano, but also capturing moments on film with a camera. There is something profound about freezing a moment and being able to look back and reflect on it, with a vivid picture, at any point in the future that intrigues me. I used this element of photography to capture the essence of what I felt in regards to Marjane Satrapi’s account of her childhood in her book, Persepolis. In my reflections and discussions in section, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason Persepolis has been to popular and translated into several languages was because of the visual aspect. Though she has told a very compelling story, it was able to reach a wide range of audiences because it used the universal language of sight. Not all people, including myself before this class, are Islamic scholars and so this leads to a sort of intimidation factor. Some people might think that they need a background in the history of the social struggles of muslims, when in fact that is not true. Reading this book helped me to see, on yet another level, just how similar the strife that muslims have endured is to that of other historical clads of people like African Americans in the United States or Indians in India. For these reasons, I decided to explore her feelings of communism and the ideals that she held which she had to mask under her hijab. In my photo I have used a red gradient in order to depict a young girl, who has to pretend that she believes in the Islam of her government but cannot hide the Communism of her mind.

These are the new qualms I’ve taken on as I finish this semester long journey. Looking back on the pieces that I have created, I cannot say that there is a common thread being strung here, but that each of them is a piece to the puzzle of my new found understanding. As a freethinking and socially open person, I have found no reason to hate or to persecute against muslims. Islamophobia was as foreign to me an idea as Islam was, initially, I had not stance in the matter. Now that I have taken a look into the matter, I can say that I still have no prejudices against muslims. The task at hand is to now peer educate, in order to bring others to the understanding that I have arrived. Though it may be difficult, I am not weary because much like my musical composition, my understanding has ended on one final, clear note.

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