Treading On Dangerous Ground

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BY ABDUL HADI

Editors Note: This is a very personal and honestly recounted experience detailing the writer’s encounters with an artwork over time. Please read it all the way through to get the full story.

The work “Please Do Not Step 1” by Hamra Abbas, a Kuwait born artist, stood at the end of a gallery hall in the Chimera Exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. An installation made of four brightly coloured walls enclosing a square-shaped space. What initially seemed to be innocent turned out to have qualities which impossibly enraged my emotions. Moments later I saw myself standing in triumph in the middle of the artwork, occasionally stomping on the ground, or to be more specific, a carpet of interlaced paper strips inked with the words “Please Do Not Step”. Words I had deliberately ignored. Looking back, I am amazed at how I managed to come to this.

The artwork had a particularly narrow entrance, unveiling a new territory to anyone curious about this installation, including me. As I stepped into the space however, I felt as if I had entered a foreign land, and there were rules which I had to follow. I did not even look at the title. The first thing that caught my attention was the floor, the square carpet of paper woven with Islamic tile motifs that you see on the window grills that cover mosques. Instantly I thought that this artwork had something to do with my religion, and I was on high alert. Upon closer inspection, I noticed “Please do not step” inked on every strip of paper. My instinct, being a good citizen and respecting artworks that most of us Singaporeans would typically do, even though we don’t know why, was not to step on it. Thus I found myself, as the artist intended, having to manoeuvre in a tightly enclosed pathway encircling the perimeter of the ‘carpet’, giving attention to the walls instead.

I decided to go clockwise, moving from the first wall partitioned in the middle by blue and grey paint. In the centre was a long rectangular framed panel, and due to the path that I had to take, the panel was very close to me. Encased in each of the panels was a triptych, on the left were Arabic words in the centre of Islamic decoratives,  on the right were Hebrew words with a few floral decorations, and the middle were medieval like gouache paintings. Accompanying them were large quotes written in English, the translations, one on each side of the panel.

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Uneasiness began to grip me as I stared at the Arabic text. These texts were from the Quran, the holy book of Islamic religion, and were simply placed beside the text from the the Bible.  The same was true on the other three walls, and boy was I outraged!

I’m in no position to talk about the bible, but being a Muslim and a student from religious classes on Sundays, I understand the dos and don’ts on the usage of the Quran Never had I seen such a bold attack on Islam and yet unknowingly to many.  Was the artist trying to say that the Teachings of Islam and Christianity are similar when they preach different things? To put things to perspective, Islam does not believe in the Bible because we believe that it has been edited by Man, unlike the Quran which cannot be altered, hence until today, it is the preserved the word of God. So, in the Islamic perspective, it’s an insult to put the two sources together as comparable. For us, they are very different. So different that you can’t make this kind of comparison.

Let me give you an example:

On the left was a Quote from the Quran:

“God does not forbid you to be kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on your religion nor driven you from your homes. God loves the equitable. But He forbids you to make friends with those who have fought against you on account of your religion and driven you from your homes or abetted others to drive you out. Those that make friends with them are wrongdoers”

On the right was this one from the Bible:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

In the Quran, every sentence or verse has its purpose. Before one is able to interpret the Quran, one must know many other factors, from the life of Prophet Muhammad to the history of the Quran. Knowledge about the Quran is so vast that only those who have undergone proper teaching from Islamic scholars are able to interpret properly. We cannot simply take translations of the Quran and Hadith (words and actions of our Prophet) and create our own conclusions relating to the matter. The old Arabic language is so deep that other languages may not be able to reflect everything when translated. Even some Islamic scholars have heated discussions over interpretations

Another thing to note is how the verses of the Quran were sent down from God to our Prophet. It wasn’t a one shot incident, every sentence or verse was sent via the Prophet over 23 years, at different occasions and different settings to allow the Prophet to be able to preach in the correct situation. For the above, the verse was sent when Prophet Muhammad’s wife approached him to ask of his opinion regarding her friend: She chased away her mother, a non-Muslim, who kept visiting her house to give gifts, simply because she wasn’t a Muslim. The verse was sent to the Prophet, who read out the verse to her, and thus told her that her friend should still accept her mother, a non-believer, into the house, as long as she does not fight against the religion and God’s statement.

So, I do not see how this quote can be compared to the quote from the Bible, which bans friendship with their non-believers. Islam seeks peace and harmony, and we are taught to be kind to others, believers of Islam or not. There have been so many extremists who have tarnished the image of Islam, especially in this post 9-11 world, and yet here is an artwork that has been shown around the world, seen by many people, which carries unjustified comparisons of the Quran and the Bible, inciting beliefs that could be hostile  to one religion or the other. What right does the artist have to cause such a misunderstanding across the globe?

And the carpet! Putting ‘Please Do Not Step’ (with the sarcasm of the word ‘Please’ when she probably meant ‘Don’t Step or Die’) on an Islamic design. What are you hinting? That we’re too controlling? Too restricted? That we have rules that do not have a purpose? That we’re just following rules because it is told in our holy book?

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 To release my anger, I stepped onto the carpet, and felt a sense of satisfaction (So now you know how I got there). I felt that I was doing some justice to my own religion within my own capacity, a performance of sorts, despite stepping on an ‘islamic motif’ paper art work on the floor (Ironically there is a rule that forbids us from stepping on the Quran, or any piece of paper with verses of the Quran printed on them. So even though the paper artwork did not have any, the Islamic patterns inspired self doubt in me when I stepped on them).

People coming in saw me standing in the middle. The first thing they did was to look at the floor, and the “Do not Step” patterns, and then they turned their attention back at me and gave a shocked yet worried look. One woman tried to grab my attention by waving her hand and pointing to the carpet. I replied with a gleeful smile. She hesitated before walking away, pulling her son along.

Afterwards I decided to confirm my understanding of the verses used by Hamra by researching in various resources. And when I went back to the artwork two weeks later, I read the curatorial text and observed the artwork from the center of the enclosed space again, At this point I realized how naive I was. To think that I knew everything, and made a baseless judgement, easily fueled with emotions from my own perspective and protectiveness of my own religion. I was even accusing the artist of using the interpretations of the Quran thoughtlessly when I myself had no right to point the finger at others due to my own limited understanding and knowledge of Islam.

Have I been brought up to be so sensitive to think that the texts from the Quran cannot be placed beside the Bible, or words from God versus what is believed to be words edited by Man? Am I so sensitive to protect my own religion, that I wouldn’t allow it to be openly compared to another religion? What boundaries are we creating in this world where the religion/country/race that you believe in still determines where you stand in society? Perhaps this is where Singapore is now, people pretending that we have racial harmony and that we understand each other’s religions, when perhaps we can’t even react with an open mind or have a conversation to discuss our own beliefs. I still face questions from my friends about eating pork in front of me, and they choose their words carefully when discussing my faith. When and how you step over the line of being offensive is still a very sensitive issue.

The artists’ intention was, I’m sure, to have an open dialogue, to see past our differences and see the common traits that we have, so that we can truly understand each other. For when you know more, you’re able to understand more perspectives, and thus better understand the people that you’re living with. Perhaps the artist was trying to lead the audience, especially the Western society, into an unknown territory. Typically we need to be very cautious as we enter this space and treat it with respect, and slowly move around in order to fully understand what it’s truly is about. Art still remains a universal language that can connect people of various religions and cultures, and spark conversations that can lead to understanding, and who knows, peaceful coexistence between cultures. Coming from an European country with a Middle eastern background, perhaps Hamra was searching for this ideal through her artwork.

As I finish typing this essay, I still can’t help but feel uneasy, confused and disturbed by questions that lingered in my mind.

Are the narrow pathways which the artwork forces us to go through supposed toe refer to a line from the Hadith, which says “Do not salute (greet) them (Jews and Christians) first, and when you meet them on the road, force them to go to the narrowest part of it”. Or is she using the pathways as an analogy to the painful experience of having to follow strict rules that go against your own faith,?

Secondly, I found out that the quote from the Quran I discussed earlier, which states that Muslims have to be kind to non-believers, yet never seek allegiance with them, also says that if possible, you must avoid them unless there are worldly issues that we have to do with them. Do not confide in them, nor seek them as best friends, for supporting them who do not believe is as good as believing in their faith, thus not believing in our own faith, hence deviating away from our own religion. Despite this being a point of view of a minority group of Islam in Singapore, this religiously strict rule is still practiced by many Muslims around the world.

Not only do I realize that the interpretation of the Quran used by Hamra speaks of a very similar idea when compared quote from the bible, Hamra, a Muslim herself, purposely chose such a quote in order to reinforce her stand that we should coexist. I’d been living without this understanding, and with this realization, even I myself can’t seem to accept it fully. Is this artwork about her struggle to accept the ironic gap between her belief and her ideals?

Looking back at the narrow pathways, was Hamra actually trying to lead the audience to take a closer look at the Islam and see that we are no different than them, and it is plausible for them to live under the Islamic rule? Was she doing her religion some justice, and yet again she knew that it’s impractical, and only wished for peace and understanding amongst all instead?

Is the artwork then a long piercing silent cry of help, not only to the world but to God?

I stood there, stepping on the middle “Please Do not Step”, twice, once with anger and triumph, and another with calmness, reconciliation and appreciation for the work. The more I look at the picture of the artwork from my computer however, the more I see the carpet looking like a complex wiring system of a bomb, ready to blow anytime. Truthfully, if I were to stand there again for the third time, I have no idea how I will feel.

Only God is All-Knowing.

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