Refuge in Art

The phenomenon of human art has been one with which the best minds have grappled for centuries. Whether it was the puritanical objections raised by the conservatives, the medieval age representations of the divine, the modern day excesses of liberal art that welcomed nudity as the symbol of the freedom of artistic expression, the debates within – and without – the individual and society have been legion. Such strong, indeed, emotional, contentions notwithstanding, art, as an innate calling of the human being, continues to inspire and generate intellectual ferment down the centuries. The world of Islam has been no exception in this regard with questions being continually asked regarding the optimum balance of adl and ihsan that must prevail in the career of the Muslim artist in his creative endeavours: a balance wherein he, or she, does not tread the forbidden limits in Islam’s caution against anything – even art – coming in the way of the correct understanding and worship of God, the al-Khaaliq, the al-Musawwir: the Best of Creators, the Best of Endowers (of colours and forms). The story-essay presented hereunder offers a typical representation of the inner struggle of a committed Muslim who is at the same time an artist of considerable merit. The turmoil of the soul is further depicted in the context of the tragedy in Afghanistan: a more physical, tangible struggle of sacrifice and resistance that has been waged right under the deliberately impotent gaze of a hypocritical comity of nations. As a narrative of his dialogue with the inner guiding voice called the Wayfarer, Max’s case is certainly a poignant one, if not the only one, in the complex panorama that the world of Islam offers us today.


The sea green eyes glared back at him with a ferocity that he had never seen before. No wonder then that those were the eyes that had captured the attention of the world ever since they were first discovered almost two decades ago amidst the pain and suffering of an Afghan refugee camp.

Was it the pain – the indescribable pain of one whose innocence was snatched away – that haunted those eyes and which had so moved him to pick up the pencil and sketchpad once again? But Max had known that the power of striking images; of their lights and shades; of the extreme feelings that they embodied would all be too much for him to resist the temptation once these features came together in any particular visual or photograph. And now, in the photograph of Sharbat Gula, which stared out captivatingly from the cover of the 1985 National Geographic issue in front of him, they did just that. They had come together to tempt him, to challenge him to copy out the feelings and the anguish on that face, the lights and the shades, the contours of that perfectly chiseled expression, the torn dupatta that hung back across her head half revealing the hair beneath: all on to the paper that he had taken into his hand for an involvement that the Wayfarer had once forbidden him.

Max had known then, as he knew now, that the Wayfarer’s advice of caution against his artistic gifts would be something, which he would not, or, more precisely, could not, always heed. For, his was a gift that he knew contributed so much to making him the oddity, the exception, that he was; the one thing that told him over and over again that his endowment was one of those special, uniquely human characteristics, which distinguished man from beast.

How many were there from the people around him who could wield a pencil or a paintbrush with the mastery that was his?

How was it possible that he could be drawn, almost unwillingly, into tracing out, sketching and filling in images with an amazing life like resemblance to the original with such ease as to make his own self wonder each time?

How was it that he could do that without any prior training or exposure right from the time that he first learned to make sentences in the English language in his pre-primary school years?

His was that power: he had known, much early on. An ability, an endowment of nature, with which he had sought satisfaction and acclaim throughout his school, pre-university and, the more recent, university years during all of which he had used his gift to the hilt; and to such telling effect.

Max had gone on to win award after award for his sketching abilities right from his school years until, finally, in those two pre-university years he had capped it off with, what was in those days, the supreme achievement: two consecutive years wherein his college held the rolling trophy for excellence in the national painting contest. Max had been adjudged the winner of the coveted first prize in that countrywide contest, and that too for both the consecutive years. He had hardly turned seventeen then and there he was on top of the world, or at least, his world of that time. His paintings were splashed in the national dailies and he was a superstar on campus overnight. His name, in those days, was on many a lip.

But then things changed. His perceptions about life underwent a gradual, but solid, transformation. It was the year when the Wayfarer caught up with him. The year when Max began to timidly explore the realms of value, morality, sacrifice and commitment as described in the vision that, in its purity, was as old as man himself: the vision of that primordial calling that was Islam, submission to God.

It was then that he realized that with great power comes great responsibility; that, power, in its various manifestations, was never something to be used recklessly, wantonly and without care. It had to be used in the service of the cause of all causes; of informing oneself and the world of humans of the subservience to God, the Endower of all faculties in man. It had to be used in the cause of world transformation in the pattern of God.

In those years Max understood, and not without some reluctance, that the vision of Islam had, to a great extent, been distorted and blurred over the centuries by man’s obsession with images and sculptures. An obsession that was ever to make him fall into the Demon’s snare and, whereby, he forgot, time and again, the unity, the uniqueness and the singularity of the Divine force that had arranged his life in such intricate perfection in the first place. The prohibition against images had, thus, come in with uncompromising force through Muhammad’s message. It was another matter, however, that this prohibition never prevented the development of art and architecture within the Islamic civilization, per se. It had, in fact, only given that development a different direction so that the world now had, as part of its heritage, the glories of Islamic art.

‘But surely, it were only the images of living figures like the human and the animal that was forbidden to be reproduced by the hand of man.’ Max had stressed the point.

‘That, Max,’ the Wayfarer confirmed, ‘is the whole point!’

‘And what a point at that!’ Max was far from satisfied. ‘What is the point in art if you cannot make a portrait? If you cannot go see where life resides? If you are restricted from reproducing, or from attempting to reproduce, to share, the emotions and grievances of the subject that you are working with?’

‘Art is not all about making portraits, Max. The possibilities for the artist are still endless even with the prohibition on live images in place. Art, Max, is a nostalgia. It is a memory. And there is so much more to be nostalgic about than the expressions of the human face.’ The Wayfarer’s argument was persuasive.

‘But the human face is where life is, Wayfarer. And what better theme can an artist work with?’

‘If its life you are after, Max, then every art, and for that matter, every science, that attempts to recreate life is a blasphemy against the creative power of God. In that sense, no art can be complete, Max. No art attains to perfection. To life. And every such artist who makes such an attempt is guilty, Max. Guilty of attempted creation.’ The Wayfarer’s voice was harsh.

‘How do you plead, Max?’

‘Guilty as charged, Wayfarer. Guilty as charged, if intentions do not count!’

So that was that, and Max had decided from that day onwards that he would stay away from doing portraits, no matter howsoever touching – with all its lights and its shades – to his senses. That is until the day he saw that photograph of Sharbat Gula on the cover of the National Geographic.

The haunted face of that Afghan refugee had brought Max out of his restrictions, his inhibitions, and, quite helplessly, he soon found himself busy in copying out the outlines of the portrait before him and of the varied suggestions of each delicate facial muscle, every depression and every crest therein. And, of course, in doing so, he would seek to experience for himself what it was to be a child of war: a war that has been waged with the bitterness of over two decades of hate, love and patriotism by a heroic and gallant people who took to the desperate struggle for their country as fish took to water.

The sadness was there in those challenging eyes, Max saw, as he had filled in, with his pencil lead, the pattern of the iris and that ghostly sparkle that lay in it.

That lay in wait.

But as the sadness, so also the defiance of spirit.

A defiance which called upon the world to come in and take away more of her family, if there were any left to be taken, and then to look her in the eye, undisturbed.

At the time Max did this portrait, Sharbat Gula’s face was that of a child of perhaps twelve years of age. The photographer was the Geographic‘s Steve McCurry who, in 1984 had captured those unforgettable glaring eyes on film; the face that gave a new meaning to what it was like being a refugee, a victim of war. Seventeen years later, in 2002, McCurry was destined once again to meet, in person, the same child of war, the only difference being that she was no child anymore. She had become a woman of nearly thirty years, but the eyes still glared at a cruel world that had undergone little change in those seventeen summers. For, Afghanistan – her country – has known little peace in the last three decades of its sad history. Three decades! That was her age and then Sharbat Gula could not be anything but a child of war!

There was a pause in the strokes of his pencil.

The eyes were beginning to shine by themselves now.

How could they not burn with the ferocity of the original that Max was trying to extract for, Sharbat Gula was Pashtun and the Pashtuns, Max knew, are the most warlike amongst the Afghan tribes. Indeed, it is not without substance that it is said that the Pashtuns are only at peace when they are at war!

Sharbat Gula was again on the cover of the National Geographic after she had been rediscovered by McCurry who accompanied a special expedition that went out in search for her in 2002. But Gula’s photograph in 2002 did not hold Max’s attention like the one in 1984. Of course, her eyes still burn with feeling, but the ravages of time and hardship have all taken their toll, her skin is as leather and the structure of her jaw has softened. But above all, the expression of one whose innocence is suddenly lost, of a child forced to age in a hurry, has been lost forever, Max was sure. And the precise point at which that innocence seems to have been lost, so dramatically captured by McCurry, was that which made her face so special in 1984.

The pencil began to move again slowly over the imaginary bridge of the nose that now struggled to be born in lead. And sure enough, within a matter of minutes, Max had recreated it in the sketchpad laid out in front of him.

In a land where stories shift like sand dunes in a desert, it is tragic that Gula’s story is not an exception. In fact, it is the norm. The numbers speak for themselves: twenty-six years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees.

‘There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war,’ a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat’s photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day, the sky bled terror. And by night, the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, creating in her a dread that has stayed with her all through her adult life.

‘We left Afghanistan because of the fighting,’ said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. ‘The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice.’

Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.

‘You never knew when the planes would come,’ he recalled. ‘We hid in caves.’

The journey that began with the loss of their parents and a trek across mountains by foot ended in a refugee camp in Peshawar amongst strangers.

‘Rural people like Sharbat find it difficult to live in the cramped surroundings of a refugee camp,’ explained Rahimullah Yusufzai, a respected Pakistani journalist who acted as interpreter for McCurry and the television crew. ‘There is no privacy. You live at the mercy of other people.’ More than that, you live at the mercy of the politics of other countries. ‘The Russian invasion destroyed our lives,’ her brother said.

This, then, has been the continuing tragedy of Afghanistan.




Will it ever end?

‘Each change of government brings hope,’ said Yusufzai. ‘Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors.’

In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting, Sharbat Gula went home to her village in the foothills of mountains veiled by snow. To live in this earthen-coloured village means to scratch out an existence, nothing more. There are terraces planted with corn, wheat, and rice, some walnut trees, a stream that spills down the mountain, but no school, clinic, roads or running water.

‘School, clinic, roads, running water: things we take for granted in our lives here faraway from the land of the refugees and the oppressed.’ Max sighed, unable to reconcile the contradictions, which their worlds represented. ‘And for what have these millions like Gula been suffering?’

‘For the freedom to live their own lives, Max.’ The Wayfarers voice shocked him for an instant before he looked down once more upon the drawing before him.

He was surprised that much of it was over even as he was going over the tragedy, which the face represented. The lighting from the right had come in so that it left the left portion in relative darkness: so much the beauty of it, as it were. The hair had been filled in and so had been the torn dupatta and its folds. And, of course, those eyes, the iris, that disturbed the world; that stirred its sleeping conscience: they were done to near perfection. So that they sparkled with life in the flashlight that reflected off their surfaces.

Max smiled reluctantly and in wonderment: it had been sometime since he picked up his pencil for a portrait and one thing was certain – time had not diminished his skill.

His gift was independent of time.

It was timeless.

‘Now, would that you give her life.’ The Wayfarer’s voice cut into him again. ‘Finish the job, Max.’ The sarcasm rang loud and clear.

‘You know I can’t do that, Wayfarer.’

Max put the drawing and the pencil down onto the table besides the open window. ‘That was never my intention. Besides, have you not taught me earlier that the basic premise of religion and art is the existence of another world in addition to the natural one? Did you not teach me that if there were only one world, art would be impossible? Is it not also true that every work of art is an impression of a world to which we do not belong and from which we have not come, but of a world into which we have been cast? Does not art validate the existence of two worlds?’

‘But what of the example you might set in making such portraits. People with lesser understanding might misunderstand such an act and take in the wrong conclusions.’ The Wayfarer stuck to the point as he did a couple of years ago when he persuaded Max to stop doing portraits.

‘That, Wayfarer,’ Max sighed, as he picked up his creation again, ‘is only if people get to see my work.’

He lifted the drawing up before his eyes, stared wonderingly, into that mesmerizing gaze, into the pain and the sadness, as if for the last time and almost as if he sought his own shelter, his refuge, in it.

And then, he tore it apart: first, in two, then, in four and then, in eight.

That done, he then made an offering of the pieces to the wind outside the window and watched it carried away to be mingled with a greater creation.

In making the portrait, his had been an act of disobedience, Max agreed.

But then, disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.

A la Oscar Wilde.


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