THE PILLAR & THE WELL
Selection from English text written for "Hirwar Fateh Adonis: Sense and Intuition". Installation by C Ferrini, image by Marco Lo Rocco. Entrance of Testaccio, Rome, June 2020.

Selection from English text written for "Hirwar Fateh Adonis: Sense and Intuition". Installation by C Ferrini, image by Marco Lo Rocco. Entrance of Testaccio, Rome, June 2020.

3am symbols

“What happened to those songs?”

Fateh al-Moudarres picks up the orange ashtray, the long pack of al-Hamra cigarettes, the white lighter, the green phone. He sweeps aside the portrait of Gogol, the candlestick-holder with the three melted candles, the letters, empty inkwells, and a vase of dead flowers, and starts to look through the cassettes: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Paul Baghdadlian, Mohammed Reza Shajarian, Wadie al-Safi, Arif Sağ… No sign of Zaki Müren.

“Where did they go?”

He is sitting on a cane chair. He can’t remember which of his many visitors left him the tape. Now, all of sudden, it’s stirred him to life: the obvious resemblance between his face and that of the Turkish singer—the tangle of jet-black brows over shadowedeyes, a gaze whose gleam holds both the happiness and sadness of impulse, which is kindled alike by pleasure and pain, like the shine in the watchful eyes of the djinn who haunt wells and crossroads and wastelands. Lightly, like him, they cross from one world to another, from one secret to the next. Through the ocean of errors called life this other world stays with him: it clings to him, he longs for it. For those who move between worlds, the anxiety never ends. Fateh pushes through wall after wall. He sweeps aside the barrier of the mind and finds himself staring out over the void of the universe like a great womb. It is his belief that the true audience for whom his work is made is another, and invisible, time and place.

 

Sun in a pit

Fateh al-Moudaress’s studio is in Nejma Square in Damascus, a cave crammed with pasts and futures. He shares it with the spirits of children who were never born, who were buried in their mothers’ bellies, or who lived and are dead, like his daughter Halfi, whose heart burst and whose little shoes hang on the studio wall like a charm.

From beneath the drifts of papers he digs out The Naes Perpetual Calendar (“Buy once and pass it down through the generations!”). Someone has written on the frame:

‘He who digs a well may not dig a grave’

            Sun of the Imams, Al-Sarakhsi

Did it occur to the artist that “digging a well” is a vulgar euphemism for taking a woman’s virginity? Later he will chance across another aspect of the great imam, an image in which their fates intersect.

Al-Sarakhsi was imprisoned inside an abandoned stepped well, where he spent fifteen years like a man buried alive, denied books and light. Despite this, he still managed to dictate his great elucidatory opus The Unfurled to his students, who clustered around the mouth of the shaft and transcribed in their notebooks the cries that issued from the dark below. Confinement strengthened his memory; his prolific outpourings were a stand against despair and injustice and oblivion. Thousands of pages over the years. People whispered that God had placed a djinn at his disposal to assist him in his only consolations: the tasks of remembering and composing.

“Who imprisoned me?” wonders Fateh al-Moudarres, then provides himself with an answer: “That which lays siege to me is unknown.”

 

Twelve little sparrows in the Gospel of Childhood

Fateh was two years old when his uncles murdered their youngest brother, his father. Despite the series of tragedies that have befallen him, he once wrote, “Art begins with love of the earth and those upon it”. A number of his paintings bear the title God is love. Both God and Love are riddles, words too beautiful for the rational mind, too far beyond it. Theologians ascribe love of God to orphanhood. That seminal experience: who loses their father remains alone, cast out into the unsheltered earth.

The apocryphal gospels were not pariah texts in early Christianity; they carried no taint of forgery or heresy. The term Apocrypha meant “hidden” because they were known only to very few. The Church kept silent on the subject of Christ’s childhood, or removed it altogether, a severed narrative that was reimagined by various saints and messengers of God who passed through Damascus. One of these left his name on a gate of that city: Bab Tuma. Thomas’s Door.

In the Gospel of Thomas we encounter a five-year-old orphaned Christ sitting by the banks of a mountain stream, taking the soft clay in his little hands and shaping twelve little birds, the same number as the disciples he would later have. When his young friends criticised him for desecrating the sacred Sabbath day with his sculpting in clay, this wild child Christ blew his divine breath into the bill of each little bird and cried, “Fly! Live! And remember me!” at which they began to trill and sing then, one by one, slipped through his fingers, fluttering up over the heads of all and quickly vanishing—though their singing remains.

Fateh's Studio

Fateh's Studio

Who am I?

(Riddles from northern Syria)

I have at home

a bird made of mud

alive and glum.

He sees the birds in the sky

around him flying

and he does not fly.

At its right wing a child is dreaming.

At its left, a guest is sleeping.

And the beak is where?

In the house next door

A pig props up the wall.

 

Wedding procession in the Qalamoun mountains

In the wilderness of Saydnayah

I tripped over a heart turned to stone

which I placed on the shelf in my studio.

I sleep to a beat that comes from far away.

                        (from The Glow of Spaced Images)

Fateh al-Moudarres isn’t interested in miracles. They are “God being lazy”. His art transcends religions and eras; effortlessly distilling them, reviving the time and place of his choosing. His fingers grimed with red and black, the two colours that dominated his early paintings, recall another myth from these early years: Afrin, the sweeping land of his childhood. The name itself means dust: red, as though stained with blood. And on the east bank of the Euphrates, where the gods first thought to create man, they sacrificed a ram and mixed its blood with the floodplain’s silts and of that mud made Adam. The red which has dyed the palms of makers and creators is held sacred. Its fertility is evoked in wedding rites through the bride’s hennaed hands: she is the goddess who is coming to creation. The shepherds likewise hold it holy: staining the fleeces of the rams that lead their flocks with the remnants of that henna, just as the robin dipped his breast-feathers in the blood from Christ’s wound. Shepherds and fishermen also created words, which like them have scattered over the earth and wandered, have given birth and died, and which, like them, have occasionally found their way into townhouses and palaces. Every language hoards what it inherits from its dead or dying sisters. In every moment, in every place beneath the earth’s four winds, there are hands writing and eyes reading, vertically in a tireless rise and fall, or left to right and back again like a shuttlecock. In which way human language meets, hatching with its lines numberless crosses on which whole worlds suffer and die to rise again.

Christ’s presence in a number of Fateh al-Moudarres’s most noted works is unignorable. The Nazarene Messiah is embedded in human consciousness, regardless of one’s beliefs. Was Fateh drawn to him because (among other reasons) Christ was an artist who eschewed rational debate, whose natural mode of speech and thought was metaphor, whose only writings were a few Aramaic words scratched in the sand to be erased by water?

 

Christ recrucified

The cross is a horizon bisected by a perpendicular. Between the vertical and the horizontal there exists an age-old tension: among mortals, relationships open horizons, but prayers rise to God along a vertical which begins and never ends.

Saint Ephrem, lion of the Syriac Church and its poet, saw the cross as the tree of the future, and birds as crosses that fly.

The body of man is his cross. The device for punishment, inspired by the body’s shape, became a symbol emptied of the body and endlessly reproduced. Its emptiness, its abstraction, allows it to be seen from a distance: in the streets, at crossroads, on mountaintops. Its emptiness is a rhetorical question: “Is it really that they took His Son down and he rose from the dead, or might they come and nail another son up there?”

 

The Trojan dog

Fateh al-Moudarres wrote that art is a silent conflagration, and that one could catch the stink of the artist’s burning flesh drifting off the canvas.

In late summer 1999, the Damascus traffic held me up on my way to see (for the second time) his painting Christ and the Trojan Dog in the basement of the Arab Cultural Centre in Mezzeh. It was there, earlier that same summer an official wake had been held for Fateh, just days after he had been laid beneath the ground in the cemetery of Bab al-Saghir next to Nizar Qabbani.

The gate was shut. From behind the bars came the sound of shoes tapping over tiles, then two young women in hijab appeared, begging for help: “They locked us up and left!” Before leaving, the caretaker had bolted all the doors. Overhead, a line of Baath flags hung from a pair of cords. Motionless in the hot air, they branched out from a lightning arrester on top of the portico that shaded the front door. A building like the country: Soviet architecture and French railings, tall and spiked. I tried to hop over and failed. I didn’t bother taking a look round to see if there was a gap anywhere. This was a neighbourhood of embassies and officers’ villas after all. So I went to a fire station not far off, behind the blood bank where I’d once donated in exchange for a deferral from military service. Four fireman were sitting with their tea beneath the 113 of the emergency number, their dark blue jackets unbuttoned in the late afternoon heat. On the ground, their helmets glared yellow. Their unshod feet felt cool.

In the yard outside the station a piebald dog was chasing a ballon about with some children. Antar, they called him. His meals were the leftovers of shawarmas ordered from Sheikh Saad outlets. It was said he’d been trained to fight fires at a Russian institute by the same man who trained Laika, the street dog who’d been the first living creature in space. They’d taught Antar to detect smoke the same way he’d sniff roses (which most dogs can't pass by without pissing on them first).

Before I could ask, a fireman said, “What is it? Fire? A drowning?” I explained what has happened then hurried back to the centre, where, just minutes later, the hand of the saviour balanced on the fire-engine’s ladder was reaching out towards one of the hesitant young women and beckoning her up. “Don’t touch me!” she snapped. “Miss,” he said calmly, “just settle down. How am I going to get you out of there if I can’t touch you?”

No sooner had the feet of the two prisoners stepped down onto the pavement outside, than they were off, helter-skelter downhill towards the Tala Tower. They didn’t look back.

So: I’d seen Christ and the Trojan Dog before. When it was hung it had been punctured from behind, up in the top left-hand corner, like someone stabbed in the back. The crucified Christ in the centre of the canvas is meek-eyed, dwarfed; he seems, in his utter and utterly pure powerlessness, to be a man who has finally arrived in the overwhelming future he always knew was coming. His body is a fiery red; spattered with white his feet are cool as stucco. This is his triumph over his fate, sad as all victories should be: a wedding and a funeral. There is always someone indifferent to tragedy: the black centaur who has turned his back and is moving away into the depths of the image (the Greeks didn’t ride horses in Homer’s time; the first time they saw a man riding one they took the two forms to be a single creature).

On this second, aborted, visit, I had wanted to check for myself what I remembered seeing. A doubting Thomas, I wanted to touch the painting’s wound.

Fateh Moudarres, Christ and the Trojan Dog, Oil on Canvas, 150 x 124 cm, 1967.

Image courtesy of the archive of Atassi Gallery

Fateh Moudarres, Christ and the Trojan Dog, Oil on Canvas, 150 x 124 cm, 1967.

Image courtesy of the archive of Atassi Gallery

Doorman of heaven, doorman of hell

Don’t be sad,

All the angels are barefoot, shadowless.

In any case, you can pass by

yourself, without a shadow.

                        (from The Glow of Spaced Images)

Images of angels in Islam can take any form you choose: tender and compassionate, violent brutes, vigilant, guardians of fire and chroniclers of men’s deeds. The earliest Christian angels were, in the words of John Damascene, “an intelligent substance in perpetual flux”. In both faiths, they are quick to change and impossible to impede, numberless, invisible though their actions be visible, sexless and egoless, and without memory or name (except for a very few). They have a beginning and no end.

These transformations and contradictions took Fateh Moudarres on a night journey through the darkness of himself and of the world. On many and various occasions he was heard to say, “In the heart of every angel is a professional assassin.” He painted Israfil carrying the golden trumpet. He painted an angel with three-eyes and a head branching in two, like siamese twins. Perhaps we are reminded of the three-eyed beast on the yellow shirts of Baathist Young Pioneers, embracing a map of the Arab nation from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Syrian schoolchildren were taught that the eyes of this beast never slept, that they symbolised the Baathist trinity: “Unity, Freedom, Socialism.” In the Dellah roundabout in Deir Ezzor, beneath a poster with the figures of Hafez, Basel and Bashar al-Assad, an anonymous hand had written in tiny script: “The tripartite aggression against Syria.”

In Catholicism, siamese twins provided proof of the trinity’s truth, and its churches were often home to images of beasts born with three or more eyes: from the medieval churches of Boí in the Catalan Pyrenees, to those of Qadisha Valley in Lebanon, the beauty of whose deep ravines bewitched al-Moudarres, and where, surrounded by snows, he witnessed lunatics shackled with chains in the grotto of St. Anthony of Qozhaya.

It was not unknown for Syrian Orthodox Christians to criticise the Catholics. They had their own interpretation of three-layered triregnum worn by the popes and remained unpersuaded that the trinity was a single entity beyond rational comprehension and outside time. It should not be forgotten that heaven and hell were two houses: that each was in its own way sacrosanct and must have its guard. These guardians were usually fearsome. Cerberus was at first a dog with fifty heads, their number later reduced to three out of compassion for the artists, the way the Prophet interceded on behalf of the Muslims during his night journey to al-Aqsa and heaven to make God cut the number of compulsory daily prayers from fifty to five. Three-headed Cerberus stands at the gate of hell, barring those within from leaving, while the gate to heaven is guarded by the pope, who tests the souls before him, evaluating their command of Latin before permitting them to enter.

 

The red light and its fire

White, for Fateh al-Moudarres, is “riddle and absence”, a light wrapped round by nothingness, sheltered and smothered. It is hard to say how many times he has revisited the theme of the Last Supper in the thousands of painting and drawings that he has produced over the course of sixty years. In the picture that belongs to the National Gallery in Damascus, Christ is completely absent. In another, there are only three angels sitting at the table, picked out in red and white.

In The Book of the Secret Supper, St. John the Evangelist poses a series of questions to the Father (present only in His voice) and his son, the angel Jesus, as they partake together in a secret supper. The central character of this apocryphal gospel is Satan: glowing white pre-Fall, red after his banishment to earth. In church iconography, these two colours are used to depict the apostle Matthew and Jesus, the son of man, but they also take us elsewhere: to the Yazidis and the April flowers (the poppy anemones) of their New Year festival, Red Wednesday; to the white of their robes and the brilliant linen kercheifs on the women’s heads, the fabric perfumed with fruits—quince in winter, little striped cantaloupes in summer.

 

The pomegranate virgin

Fateh al-Moudarres was fond of stating that he shed his skin like a snake. Any poet who had spent as much time as him looking into the civilisations of Mesopotamia might have come across the word snake before: in the extinct language of the epic of Gilgamesh, “snake” is a composite of two words or signs. Lion and Dust. But he had known the villages of the Yazidis around Aleppo since his early childhood, their white walls guarded by black snakes, their banquets blessed by the presence of the “dresses” as they called the snakes’ shed skins. Like children, like legends, animals bring the hearts of men together. Before Islam, the snake was worshipped in the Arab deserts, where she was called al-Lahah. Allah was said to be her male counterpart.

The Yazidis tell a story of the snake queen Shahmaran and the little girl Hab Hinarkeh, or Pomegranate Seed. Maybe Fateh, who loved pomegranate blossom, heard them himself. It is said that Shahmaran decided to put mankind to the test, and so slipped into the open mouth of the sleeping Hab Hinarkeh in the guise of a tiny snake. There in her guts she started to grow. The villagers thought that the bulge of the hidden snake must be the fruit of fornication. Afraid for her life, Hab Hinarkeh fled and took refuge in the Well of Suicides. There, beneath a harvest moon, she opened her mouth and stretched her jaws wide. The Queen of Snakes hearkened to the call of the deep waters and emerged from the virgin’s innards like the word of truth, returning to her subjects in the depths of the seventh earth to rule the Kingdom of Shadows. At which the bulge, blessed and harrowing, was wiped from the belly of the girl, saint of women in love and falsely accused, intercessor on behalf of the abducted and the unchaste. She lives in the company of serpents to this day, crossing the centuries and never growing older, still beautiful, her cheeks as rosy as a pomegranate seed. She never went back to her people: they had denied her and cast her into the wilderness with the beasts; had hoped that out on the plain where wolves eat black jennies her memory would die forever and ever.

Fateh Moudarres, The Last Supper, Oil on Canvavs, 60 x 90 cm, 1964.

Fateh Moudarres, The Last Supper, Oil on Canvavs, 60 x 90 cm, 1964.

Virgin of the well

For you the liver of this angel

            (from Oriental Moon on the Western Shore)

Fateh al-Moudarres wonders: “What shape does a mother take in the mind of a child?” He says: “Grey was the last thing I saw in the moment of my mother’s death.” Many of his paintings bear one of these two titles, Mother and Child and Annunciation. He has painted The Virgin and the Holy Child, The Virgin and the Dove, Eve, The Skin of the Earth. He called the last painting he ever made, They were Created to be Crucified.

In the Lisan al-Arab, the word for annunciation or tidings, bashaara, implies good news, things of beauty, but in the Quran it is also associated with torment and suffering, where the exegetes regard it as “an antithetical metaphor” or an inimitable feature of the holy text beyond rationalization. Ibn Arabi reconciled the two opposing senses, believing that God gave “tidings” that both blessed and afflicted. He did so by relating it to the term bashara, which is the soft skin of the face: “They receive news that affects their skin, turning it a colour different to that it bore before.” We think of the Surrealists, measuring responses to a work of art by how it made the skin goose-pimple and crawl. We remember Fateh, musing on the thundercloud, heavy with happy memory, that sweeps over a person when they hear news that their dearest friend has passed.

In Ibn Arabi’s Meccan Revelations, Adam is the mother of Eve, and Adam’s mother is the earth. The word for humankind, bashr, signifies that God created them mubaasharatan, which is to say “directly”. With his own hands. Ibn Arabi calls nature “the great, supreme mother of the world”; it is “the mother of what was in a state of transformation”. As an instance of the endlessness of these transformations and the open-ended exchange between voice and form, motherhood and fatherhood, Ibn Arabi offers us the example of a carpenter (we think of the man who raised Christ). This carpenter, he says, is a designer: he has knowledge but no skill in his work, and so he tells his design to one who possesses that skill. The words the designer speaks are a father and their reception by the craftsman is a mother, at which the received knowledge of this craftsman becomes a father, and his limbs and organs a mother.

The first church was a tiny house in Dura Europos, silted by centuries of sand and dust and alluvium from the Euphrates. The images of salvation that filled the baptismal chamber were of marriage and pregnancy and birth. Not a single depiction of Christ’s torments. The women in the frescoes, conventionally referred to as mourners due to their resemblance to women in the funerary reliefs on the temple walls in Tadmur, are in fact a wedding retinue. Out there on the floodplain by Deir Ezzor, painted on a wall, a single woman bends over a well, the bucket’s rope in her hand. This is most likely Mary, captured midway through turning around (in terror?) as Gabriel delivers the tidings that her child is Christ. She is quite alone in her surroundings, perhaps because the angel’s voice is as terrifying as an earthquake. The animals have heard it and turned tail. The Jews and early Christians conceived of the angels as monsters. The angel that brought Samson’s mother news of her son’s birth was “most terrible”. But in this third century scene on the wall of a church in Dura Europos, the angel is absent. Angels were yet to feature in church art, were yet to take on human forms and have wings planted in their shoulders. The annunciation was yet to soften into the sweet coo of a white dove. Two colored lines extend to the virgin’s back, pricking into her. Perhaps they represent the Holy Spirit entering her body, where the Lord, unseen, will take on a corporeal form. The Lord is a child. The Lord is a word. The Lord is an invisible image, blown by the voice into the womb of the Mother of God. The unknown artist, a son of this long dead town, has drawn us the angel’s voice.

 

The moan

The scholars of Islam categorised the inner voice as a waswasa, a whisper set loose in the blood by evil, like poison. Inspiration, or ilhaam, is the illumination and opening-up of the heart by good. The first ear that heard the Creator’s words was nothingness. No one can say whether the voice of silence was one voice or plural, old or young, man or woman. Is this the voice that has resided in the hearts of all people, ancient and unchanging, from the very beginning? What ear hears it? Whose voice commands the artist’s hand? “Stop here!”

Fateh al-Moudarres says that he paints with his ears, that he sharpens them to hear the smallest sounds in nature and the voices of childhood that echo through the vast expanse of his memory: “These voices are me.”

The wind blowing at three in the afternoon in the gaps of the tree-house in the willow, between the liquorice stalks and thickets of cane, over the violet crowns of the globe thistle, through the ears of barley.

The sounds of the river that loved him and drowned him.

The wolf’s howl, the cockerel’s cry, a wicked woman shrieking. The barking of his dog, Tirru. The cawing of crows.

The flutter of sparrows’ wings by a scatter of seeds on the snow before they snag in the goat’s-hair snare.

His mother murmuring as she deals him little love bites on his wrists and back. The shushing of her skirts through beds of camomile.

The feeble voice of his grandmother Saliha singing a song of his uncle’s death, her back against a black stone wall, shielding her eyes from the morning sun.

Just twenty two months old, strapped to his grandmother’s back (humming to him as she walks through the cucumber field), he is woken by gunshots echoing through the valleys. Frightened, the old woman starts to mutter to herself. Her grandson will later realise that the distant shots which rang out lovely summer morning had laid his father dead.

 

Lady of the Mount of Olives

The tattoo’s blue derives from the cool blue of the milk. The children of the Syrian villages and plains are tattooed as they suckle. The mother mixes her milk with soot from a lamp then pricks the mixture into the child’s soft skin. Sometimes the needle used is the one with the turquoise bead which they stitch into the swaddling blanket to ward off djinn.

One sunny morning in spring, young Fateh went to find his aunt on the high slopes filled with olive trees. Her brother had kicked her, killing the son in her belly. He saw her by a distant rock near the river where she had gone off alone to relieve her brimming pain. The purity of a mother’s milk (the villagers swear their oaths on it) means it must be spilt somewhere where it will never be trodden on and sullied. Fateh listens. For a long time he listens out: to the grief which his aunt is wringing from her breast behind the rock; to the softness with which warm jets of milk and tears pour out over the grass.

 

The death of Adunis

Fateh al-Moudarres’s work has its own antiquity, one that precedes myth and religion. Childhood and poverty deepen this quality; its elements grow insubstantial as air, bleached like dust, the two substances that dominated his entire oeuvre. I do not believe that he was ever seduced by the myths of the Arab nationalists and their glories, nor that he ever truly felt the appeal of their politics. Unlike, say, his friend Adunis, who followed this path from the beginning. Both men published their early poems in Harp , the monthly magazine from Lattakia which was edited by “The New Poetry Group”. Here is one poem, published in 1947:

            The Wax Face

The vengeful storms will blow forever behind your blind window

and illusion green as snake eyes petrify

                                    between your monstrous lids.

And do you think the clanking hammers of the past

will ever stop their drumming

                        on the flesh of your dumb harp?

Isn’t it that the terror you feel has no sense of ending, little one,

                        and that a bewilderment, chewed on by oblivion,

            the way that autumn chews the almond’s leaves,

                        has turned you, worshipped spider,

                                    to a wax face?

                        And how terrifying you are.

                                                by Fateh al-Moudarres

                                                            English language instructor at the Aleppo Academy

                                                            Taken from the forthcoming collection, Dust of the East

The foundation myths of these two “implacable friends” were quite different:

The first, the one adopted by Ali Ahmed Saeed, tells of a “peasant” who came down from the Alawite mountains to circumscribe the world, who took the name of the god that was slain by a wild boar and whose blood seeded poppy anemones where it fell. The second was obscurer, slyer: Barazi was the family name that Fateh’s mother, a Kurdish peasant woman called Aisho, shared with her sisters Fatê, Nazê, and Randê, and their mother Saliha, all of whom Fateh painted repeatedly. Baraz is the Kurdish word for wild boar and is used to this day as a synonym for courage.

The play is done, let the curtain down

Though he had no patience for school, Fateh al-Moudarres revered his teachers.

One of these was Ghalib Salim, a graduate of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome and Fateh’s art teacher at secondary school in Aleppo. Before the sanatoriums that marked the end of Ghalib Salem’s life, before the Turks carved off the Sanjak of Alexandretta, there was the school trip that Salem organised to the Valley of the Laurels near Antakya. He had invited his students there so that each of them could inspect a single leaf in the forest of laurel where (as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) the virgin Daphne, being pursued by the god Apollo and pleading for help, was transformed into a tree. To be able to draw this new tree it was first necessary to search for the other tree that lay concealed within it. The possibilities were limitless: what mattered was finding the invisible.

His other secondary school teacher, Wahbe al-Hariri, taught him to respect the secrets that lie hidden within things: the slumbering sparks from which every art is born; the gleam amid the wreckage that if set free can alleviate all woes and hardships, before life returns to its routine, sometimes comforting, sometimes frightening. The little secrets that to the rational mind are the very essence of delicacy.

In 1954, Fateh al-Moudarres travelled to Rome, where he lived and studied until 1960. His instructor at the Accademia was Franco Gentilini, of whom Fateh said, “He was hardly productive at all. Just a handful of paintings a year. He was one of the cleanest workers with colour and the most felicitous with composition. In his eyes, you could see all the dreams of Caravaggio.”

As a teenager, Gentilini chose to work as a ceramicist in his hometown of Faenza, and as a young man would produce many drawings of people walking the city streets: the elderly, country folk, passers-by. His friend, the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, wrote that Gentilini’s work brimmed with tradition and tranquility, familiarity and poetry, and saw them as extensions of a sort of primitivist sense of wonder that manifested itself in his use of dust and sand: “They put me in mind of the frescoes that Giotto painted in the monastery of Pomposa, where he worked on the invitation of Dante.”

Like De Chirico before him, Gentilini was a compulsive walker of city streets, though he never built a philosophy around his habit. He painted Rome’s piazzas, its streets and bridges, its marketplaces and shopfronts, scenes from its suburbs where the cars and trucks “run on wine instead of petrol.” Gentili’s singular approach to the composition and production of his art might be attributed to his capacity to apprehend the magic in reality, and his particular interest in churches and cathedrals. However, as Dino Buzzati has remarked: “No one ever enters Gentili’s churches and no one leaves them.” His painting resemble scaled-down stage sets whose actors are like children imitating their elders. Another description: “They show the introduction of the metaphysics of Italian ornamentation into the commedia dell arte.” Life is décor and we’re just passing through. We don’t spend long looking: just a fleeting glance, most frequently frowning, but sometimes happily distracted, the way a man might glance at a beautiful woman passing him on the street (and lucky the man who gets a glance back).

Art is like a game fashioned from the artist’s life, and into whose cracks and crevices an entire existence has been decanted. Passers-by are always more interesting than skyscrapers. House parties are more enjoyable than the last supper. There are no secrets, no inner workings: the only puzzle is life itself. Itinerant vendors, the crowd at the cafe, musicians in parks, a couple walking on the banks of the Tiber, women selling grilled fish, selling roast chestnuts: these are the real rulers of this fleeting kingdom where one of the least contentious features is the uncomplicated joy of gossiping with friends, like a child playing hopscotch on a chalked grid on the pavement.

Gentilli lived through the Second World War in fascist Italy. He experienced misery and death in some of its most terrible forms. If war had been in any way enjoyable, he might have relinquished his pacifism and become a fighter. But violence was banished from his world, even though the war stripped his canvases of their bright colours and left them full of coldness and tense anticipation. Maybe he wanted to turn the most terrible of tragedies into a children’s poem, a kid’s sketch. All that was left of our paradise lost was myth and the wreckage of ornament: the rocky shores of the Sirenuse off Capri, masks and hats made of newspaper, dolls constructed from torn cardboard, shipwrecks on a desolate shoreline.

 

Looking back

For many years, Fateh al-Moudarres taught the philosophies of ancient Greece and pre-Christian Eastern civilisations at the College of Fine Arts in Damascus.

In his Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus describes the philosopher descending sacred Mount Carmel, “calm, sure-footed, never looking back”. No one had ever seen him look back. Fateh plays with the myths, leavening their boredom and horror and making them bearable. Instead of turning local objects of veneration into petty idols, or constructing grand idols out of more universal images, he restores all idols to their true nature: to dolls and playthings. Perhaps, like the native Americans, he saw the future as being behind him and the past still ahead. In their North American forests lived an animal spared extermination. No eye had ever seen it and no ear had heard it because it always kept hidden behind something. No matter how, or how often, you looked behind you, it remained unseen. No language, however potent, could encompass its description. There would be no point in turning to lenses and mirrors, no point in lying in wait or rushing out to take it unawares. It was, perhaps, a creature that lived behind sight: silent in its perpetual presence, with no form to speak of.

Is this intuition?

 

The shadow’s other face

The worlds that Fateh al-Moudarres made went beyond their maker, losing nothing of the substance of his ideas and dreams. Then came the eye of the viewer and clothed these things in something that lacked all substance, like someone searching for the voice’s shadow. My guess is that he found the question of colour more difficult than that of form. The atmosphere of his paintings are more important than their subject, their totality more precisely realised than their parts, as though with each new picture he were attempting to recreate everything that he had experienced and imagined from nothing—the same scene again and again. He once wrote: “The wonder of one is born from zero.” This was his promise to himself, and maybe the root of his disgust with his present moment. Because the zero point is what is noblest about every beginning and the source of its unique purity, and because, “prior knowledge writes a work’s obituary before it can be born,” and because, “memory cannot give birth to art.” The eye is caked by the dust of foreknowledge. Like an error, like a secret, the zero is the point from which Fateh sets off on his impossible quest to the limits of sincerity, the ultimate in feeling. Zero is the final refuge of innocence, because the mind bobs in refuse, it seeks out the truth only to kill it; because murder is the mind’s hobby, and theories rise off it like smoke from the battlefield amid the madness of our current, embarrassing civilisational moment, dedicated to peddling ideas as commodities; because the mind is like museums, stuffed with crimes and thefts and censors; because the mind is a slave to murderers and thieves, setting its limits to match theirs, pilfering and bribing and seizing anything it can lay its hands on, then forcing itself on art to create cliche—and the artist, overwhelmed by a sense of servitude, cannot breathe, and memory becomes a well brimming with trash. Which is why the inactive, broken parts of the mind caused Fateh to pause. Which is why he came to believe that intuition is the only possible way to remain open-minded.

Fateh believed that the line which runs through all his work, from birth to death, was hidden from the mind: “I have just one work, painted over the course of sixty years”; “However much their methods might change over time, the painter produces a single picture cut up into thousands of pieces.” The light he paints has its source in every light he has ever seen and stored away, the way plants trap sunlight. His yearning for place is like the root’s need for fresh soil. The soil is the air he lets breathe through his canvas, cleansing his mind the way village women wash their dishes when the dog licks them.

Fateh Moudarres, The Shadow's Other Face, Oil on Canvas, 70 x 50 cm, 1988.

Image courtesy of the archive of Atassi Gallery. 

Fateh Moudarres, The Shadow's Other Face, Oil on Canvas, 70 x 50 cm, 1988.

Image courtesy of the archive of Atassi Gallery. 

An April afternoon

He would never forget the creatures he saw in the meadows by Afrin. The mosaic of his world, those tessellated faces that pave the ground of his paintings, are seen as through the fiery eyes of the fly, which observes an object from multiple angles simultaneously, dividing up reality like a cubist without breaking or disfiguring the image. The majority of the insects that Fateh chased after as a child, and which allowed him to catch them, had eyes that see this way: mosaic. Thus the bee and the hornet and the antlion; thus the damselfly with the sky-blue body and ebony wings which never strays from the banks of River Afrin, hovering stock-still in the air, as in those hymns of the resurrection that describe the earth inverted over the waters.

It was Japanese haiku that drew Fateh’s attention to what are known as “the profoundest dimensions of sensory fields”. Maybe he encountered the story of the student who read Basho a haiku which he had composed during their walk in the field surrounded by dragonflies:

A red dragonfly.

Pluck its wings off: it becomes

A red capiscum.

at which the peripatetic hermit replied, “The dragonfly is dead. Is this how you make life?” then recited:

Take red capiscum.

Place on it a pair of wings.

See: a dragonfly.

Basho’s advice was full of paradoxes: “Avoid comparisons: increase your love for the world and lessen your desire for it.”

 

The little prayermaker

Al-Moudarress was constantly evoking the inhabitants of the villages on the slopes and peaks of northern Syria, especially those to the north and west of Aleppo. Women there swaddle their children so that their hands and feet are hidden, and so tight that their eyes bulge like the statues of gods from Ebla and their little bodies look like bandaged fingers, showing only the pad at one end. It soothes the tearful, the warmth of the too-tight wrapping putting them to sleep till we might believe them dead. It preserves them through time: silent and still as they are carried forward into the future where they are made children again, put to sleep by poison gas in East Ghouta, whose children and farmers and vineyards Fateh once painted.

His swaddled babes look nothing like mummies or worms in their silk cocoons; more like rain brides, the dolls the peasants use to summon water from the skies during droughts. The bride is a dry stalk of kochia, which little girls wrap with strips of coloured cloth torn from their mothers’ old dresses. One of the girls is the prayermaker, who asks that in spring the fields be dressed in wheat and the meadows of Cilicia made bright with red anemones. It is the prayer of a girl, standing amid the ruins of all the faiths, whose Lord lives in her heart. Sometimes art begins when the prayer ends.

 

The bullet and the witness

To the question of why he preferred to stay in Syria, Fateh’s answers varied over the years:

“I came back to the tender sky that built me and the earth that formed me.”

“Just a touch of green is enough for me so that I might see the sunlight moving over the rocks.”

“I can’t leave the mulberry tree in my house, the frogs croaking in the River Queiq, the clatter of the irqsous seller Abou Kanjo banging his metal cups together—it’s as though I don’t have the strength to bring these things with me.”

The Kurds of Afrin say that the house sparrow refused to join the flocks of birds that flew east in search of God, because it couldn’t leave its home. Its excuses failed to persuade the expedition’s leader, the hoopoe, and the sparrow’s punishment was an invisible shackle that prevented it walking on the soil of its home.

In the following prayer, the house sparrow begs the Prophet Suleiman to help him:

Your March has warm sun and cold wind.

King of Men and of Djinn,

you have cursed me with fear,

have set my chicks naked before the cats,

have given my nests to the snakes.

Oh companion of the buffalo, I am the sparrow,

the sweetest morsel grilled on coals,

rapid chatterer, reckless and bold.

I am your jester,

fleeing from chimney-top to chimney-top

in little hops.

Oh ye who knows the ways of the birds,

in your shackles my two legs are one.

One leg is sunset, the other leg is dawn,

one leg is love and the other is fear.

On which red peg shall I set out,

and on which will I end?

I bounce on them from stone to stone,

to cross the river of my days.

I bound my soul to home,

so you loosed my wings and set my legs in chains.

Break my bond.

Break it with your ring,

oh Suleiman, my king,

whose crown is a palace for birds, whose heart is a temple.

For a thousand thousand years you’ve had me chained,

have left the crow to strut and me restrained.

You speak with the ant

while my lot is your silence and its pain.

I disobeyed you, so release me.

How could I leave this house, though it be sown with death,

With rifles and snares?

How could I leave the dirt of its yard

when my feathers are formed from it?

There is no east or west.

My only desire is this small plot,

and my two blind witnesses are the sun and moon.

I shall stay here.

My home is abandoned and I am the djinn who haunts it.

I bicker the sun goodbye, the goodbye of those

who call for it to rise.

My throat is whetted by patience

and my song goes unthanked.

A gold worm that I plucked from the dry dung writhes in my crop

and my egg is a sugar-coated almond.

I sip mirage. My eye is a drop of light that beams out through the terror of the days.

Words, like wounds, have limits, and there is no limit to grief.

For my small errors I’ve paid the highest price.

Does no one take mercy on fools, oh you

who covers all faults with love? Oh you

whose name opens doors,

I beg you, break my bond:

The finger that pokes insults and points to God

presses the trigger

and the little bullet goes whistling

its way to my little heart.

Fateh Moudarres, The Bullet and the Witness, Oil on Canvas, 90 x 70 cm, 1983.

Image courtesy of the archive of Atassi Gallery.

Fateh Moudarres, The Bullet and the Witness, Oil on Canvas, 90 x 70 cm, 1983.

Image courtesy of the archive of Atassi Gallery.

His unique weave

For Fateh, abstraction is purity. “I stand on the lip of abstraction,” he once said: “Looking down into its depths,  you see a hidden form. Two colours are juxtaposed and from their juxtaposition a third is born that exists nowhere but the mind of the viewer.” We might be pulled in by the soft pliancy of soil in some of his paintings or the dewy sheen of plaster before it dries, the eye practically inhaling what it sees, refreshed and cooled. Other paintings brush the eye with a glowing light, as though conveyed by the rough surface of a wool carpet hanging on a sunny wall. However garish the red, the painting remains calm. Its figures clothed in evenly spaced bands, thick as the striped carpets which women weave from old clothes and scraps in the villages around Aleppo. In spring they could be seen around the edges of the salt-lakes and marches with vast cloudy bundles on their heads, stuffed with herbs or the feathers of migratory birds (waders and pink flamingos, kites and bald ibis), from which they’d weave rugs and stuff covers and pillows. Imagine one of these women coming across Fateh’s Kafr Janneh: would she recognise herself, a silhouette on the horizon like a dog gathering itself to howl?

Beneath the April sun, in shearing season, the shepherds take out their huge clippers, and the women comb the cut wool with their big wooden-handled, iron-toothed combs, each one longer than the children they were used to measure, then they wash and dye and weave the strands, then shrink the weave by steeping it in cold spring water. No two strands take the dyes the same way—endless variation mixed with the scents of April: coal-black from boiling pomegranate husks and marsh mud, a pale and delicate yellow from apricot root, light red from the sticky roots of the sugarcane, earthworm pink from carob, the iron water grey which eats at the fabric like moths, a garish scarlet from the market known as “brothel dye”.

The weavers of the Aleppan countryside follow no pattern in their work. They follow the dictates of happy accident, their fingers translating the horses in the heads into cockerels, narcissi into daisies, the burning sun into a lemon whose fragrance the eye can almost smell. And all this beauty rides on the back of hidden strands, crisscrossing like crucifixes.

The Kurds weave locks of the hair into the carpets, and their Nawruz rugs are a cheerful orange. But every woman has her own secret pattern. They play with the rigidity of form: in the forms they choose, the patterns and flowers and fish, symmetry is absent. They might add a lark or sandgrouse feather to a baby’s blanket because both are sedentary birds, both are the same colour as the ground they nest in and can only be seen when they fly, and because the lark will abandon its nest amid the wheat stalks should a stranger touch its eggs.

The Circassians’ rugs have cotton borders patterned with the talons and beaks of the Caucus mountain eagles that their ancestors carried with them when they came here, whose shapes have never left their memories. They tuck stork feathers through the strands, whose barbs drop off leaving rough shafts like fingernails. They collect them in the salt flats of al-Jabbul, which Fateh made an encaustic painting of in 1961.

The Armenians, unlettered like all the others, might weave in the date back to front, or sometimes upside-down. Monks are apprenticed to them. Turkoman women of marriageable age weave rugs like walls sown with thorns and roses, with a guardian eye in the heart of each bloom. You find similar forms across Central Asia. Rugs like these are used to carpet the ground, cover cradles or furnish weddings. Dead children would be wrapped in undyed prayer rugs (sugary cream, brown, grey) or with their baby blankets, bright and clean and rough as monks robes. Warm as the hands of village women.

 

Stories from the northern mountains

Long after the poverty and the fear were past, the two tenacious curses that he finally outpaced at the start of his adult life, Fateh al-Moudarres climbed the steps up Monte Testaccio in Rome. This so-called mountain is just a rise on the east bank of the Tiber, the haunt of those few who love desolate places in which to wander. It was built up over the centuries, formed from the millions of empty jugs and pots and pitchers that the Romans threw away then covered with lime and earth to bury the acrid reek of wine dregs and olive oil. Which reek took Fatih back to the stone wine presses in the ruins of the Dead Cities in northern Syria.

“The Mediterranean ends where the olive groves run out.” The word “planting” is well-known as a synonym for “waiting”. In Syria, the villagers plant their dead on the hilltops. Death is both present and hidden away; it looks down on them from the most beautiful of vantage points. They see it in the distance, in every direction, like the towers of ancient temples. The seasons in sequence paint over their dwelling places like passing clouds, shadowing and brightening the ravines and the trees at the feet of their hills with shades of purple, silver, sky-blue, crimson, lilac, burgundy, pomegranate, lemon, pistachio, mould green: the light has a taste, the shadows a smell. Fateh found endless inspiration in this land. His soul wandered freely here, the vistas occluded by a light mist, like the steam of a word which is uttered and heard by no one.

 

The game and the dead man

Throughout Syria, the past overlays the past. Finds from every era still lie on its rain-carved slopes carved by rains. Children collect them. They play draughts with old beads and coins and beat their elders. They stack chips of glass and pottery into little towers between the gravestones. Each player must throw stones at his tower till he knocks it down, then run away, while the rest prevent him returning to rebuild the scattered heap. The faint scent of wine floats off one fragment, another is soaked in olive oil, a third bears a Greek letter like a cap. Slivers of green marble once fell from Roman tear ducts; they are dusted with a powdery blue that is the salt of these dried tears, shed by orphans and widows and mothers over their dead.

 

Celebrating poverty

To gaze extends the body through the air. The air is a gaze that we enter, and to enter through the face is to return to the self.

Want and overcrowding and lack of space are the face of poverty and abnegation. In Fateh al-Moudarres’s work the faces are uplifted, sometimes pressed together beneath the crushing passage of time, and slenderness is coupled with solidity and breadth, like the pennies that children place on the tracks for a train to stretch them out. Or perhaps his stacked faces are like the squashed, inverted faces on the bases of Byzantine pillars, patiently enduring the great burden of their pains, their lines that describe them holding the traditions of Assyrian relief, the features of village women from the Orontes basin or the straight-backed Bedouin of the Euphrates. The architecture of his work is symbolism and clarity, dialogue and a refusal to countenance dialogue at one and the same time. It is disequilibrium in balance, and one of its pillars is that, “the image offers a psychological gift.” Fateh says: “I painted the faces of the displaced women whom I encountered with their children on the pavements, the platforms of their ongoing journeys. They had no idea where they were going or what awaited them there. I watched them staring into a future that did not exist. At least, that is how it seemed to me. I thought back to my aunts in the northern highlands, waiting for someone who had left and would never return. These were faces that accused me, who accused everyone that saw them. They spoke in silence, and their smiles contained many questions for which they sought no answer.”

 

As beautiful as a yellow leaf on an olive tree

Fateh al-Moudarres hangs his faces on a broken pillar. Not so very different to the faces of the dead that have vanished into the earth. It will never rise to meet God’s face. These are the leaning pillars in the palace of his childhood, roofed by the wide skies, or perhaps in his tombs in Tadmur, or in the refuge of his imaginary creatures, his monsters and peasant women, his shepherds and monks and lunatics. His stylites. He was raised among shepherds, among wild Kurdish uncles. Kid goats licked salt and sugar from his palm. He reared animals and ate the same herbs that they fed on. He spoke to the butterflies and horses.

The greatest of these stylites was Simeon. Like most saints and holy men, Simeon also started as a shepherd. As a young man he lived in a well, then a cave, before spending the remainder of his life fasting, moving between the capitals of pillars. He would stay put until the pillar was supporting a church, a captive who overheard the weakest call of the soul, forever gazing out at the miracles of changing light, at the terrible beauty of the crags and ravines of the dead cities. Nature knows no mercy. It is a stranger to degree and aspect and angle. Atop the hill that bears Simeon’s name, the monks would imitate their saint’s example and dress their sores with dust. Each monk owned a jar of repentance, in which he’d conceal the semen split whenever Satan would visit him in his dreams. Purity is the essence of seclusion, and when the water of life flows from the body’s prison it must be interred in a place of purity.

The gaze is broader than any image. A thousand years hence, amid the ruins, a shepherd breaks open a sealed jar and finds it empty. When he tips it upside down the breeze sends a fine dust flying and carries it into vineyards and orchards, or swimming through the blue air of the valleys towards the Amanos mountains, over the Jouma plains through which the Afrin river cuts. There, one moonlit night in May, the peasants sit with their Bedouin guests in their saffron robes atop the purple and brown rocks spotted with yellow lichen, rejoicing at the sight of olive branches in bloom asway at the foot of the hills. Among them is a boy, squat as a djinn, spelling out destiny: “From yesterday’s drop of sperm to the ashes of tomorrow.” He has just watched his mother press a cross into the rising dough with two blows from the edge of her right hand, then cover the tin with an old headscarf. Alone of them all, he sees the remnants of the monks and goats and tears rising up the high slopes in the moonlight. This dust will silver the olive leaves and creep into the little blossoms to settle in the heart of their fruits.

And one day it will end its journey: the dust will settle on the shelves of a basement studio in Nejmeh Square.

 

 

REFERENCES

These texts are the product of a long and still ongoing reading on and around Fateh al-Moudarres. It began with a text I wrote in 2019 as an introduction to the English translation of Fateh al-Moudarres and Adonis: A Dialogue, which was published in Arabic by the Atassi Gallery in 2009.

Everything between quotation marks was either written or spoken by Fateh al-Moudarres, with the exception of:

“Miracles are God being lazy” from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa.

“From yesterday’s drop of sperm to the ashes of tomorrow” from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, whom al-Moudarres adored.

“Trucks that run on wine instead of petrol” by Alain Bosquet.

“The introduction of the metaphysics of Italian decoration into the commedia dell arte” by Alain Jouffroy.

“The Mediterranean ends where the olive groves run out” is inspired by Predrag Matvejević.

Many of the headings are taken from the titles of painting by Fateh al-Moudarres:

3am Icons (1993), Wedding procession in the Qalamoun mountains (1977), Christ recrucified (1980), Christ and the Trojan dog (1967), The red light and its fire (1974), Lady of the Mount of Olives (1981), The death of Adunis (none of the sources give a date for this work), The shadow’s other face (1988), An April afternoon (1973), The little prayermaker (1972), The bullet and the witness (1983), Stories from the northern mountains (1980), The game and the dead man (1979), Celebrating poverty (1993)

The titles and dates of other painting mentioned in the text: The angel (1971), Israfil carrying the golden trumpet (1995), The last supper (1964), The skin of the earth (1955), The virgin and the dove (1970), Eve (1965), Kafr Janneh (1952), several paintings over the years entitled Mother and childand The annunciation.

The Trojan Dog: My friend Khalil Hemê was with me when this incident took place and witnessed it himself.

“The play is done, let the curtain down,” are the last words that one novel attributes to Beethoven. It is also claimed that he said, in Latin, “Applaud my friends, the comedy is over.” This section was written in response to various texts on the works of Gentilini by Giuseppe Ungaretti, Dino Buzzati, Alain Bosquet, Alain Jouffroy, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Moravia.

Some of the information in the section on weaving in the villages of Aleppo is taken from the Danish poet Jesper Berg who owns a valuable collection of these rugs.

Oriental Moon on the Western Shore is a collection jointly authored by Fateh al-Moudarres and Chérif Khaznadar in Arabic and French (al-Jumhurriyah Press, Damascus, 1962).

Fateh al-Moudarres’s collection The Glow of Spaced Images 1980-84 with an introduction by Jacques al-Aswad, as described in Samar Hamarna’s valuable bookHow Fateh al-Moudarres Sees (Damascus 1999).

Last but not least, my grateful thanks to the books, documents, recordings, and interviews with Fateh al-Moudarres held in the Atassi Foundation’s archives.