Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures

Earlier this summer I received a book for reviewing, Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection. It is truly a beautiful book that I enjoyed reading; I recommend it to anyone interested in exotic textiles and Islamic culture. Jennifer Wearden is the author of the text; Jennifer Scarce writes the introduction. The collection is a tribute to the grandmother of Altaf S. Al Sabah. In a short note before her preface, she explains that al lulwa means a pearl, which was her late grandmother's name. The book is produced by Paul Holberton publishing. In a press release they state: 'The Al Lulwa Collection has a heritage that reaches back well over a thousand years, and is significant both for its quality and as an illustration of the survival and adaptation of a major industry.'

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures is a paperback with flaps, 200 pages with 140 illustrations in colour. It's divided into four chapters: 1) Floral Decoration, 2) Geometric Patterns, 3) The Written Word, and 4) Applied Decoration. The textiles come from the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, India, and North Africa. Wearden has written a flowing, entertaining description about each item featured. The text is educating without being too scholarly, enriched with historic and cultural details.

Each piece of textile featured in the book is described with an illustration next to it, and the details of many have a close-up view on a separate page. For me, a non-scholar in textile design, this was very interesting; to be able to explore the motifs and patterns in more detail with Wearden's text as a guide. Sometimes she compares the textiles and points out their differences and similarities, which I find invaluable. Occasionally she points out the mistakes of patterns, which make them even more fascinating to look at. The book also includes a glossary with drawings of various stitches.

Detail: Part of a cenotaph, a tomb cover, Iran, early 18th century, p. 140-3.

Altaf S. Al Sabah, 'a researcher and writer in material culture and traditional arts', says she started collecting textiles in the early 1980s and she supports the preservation of the craft. In her preface, written in Kuwait in 2015, she writes how she loved wearing her 'traditional thoubs, Kashmiri shawls, Palestinian, Egyptian and Ottoman dresses' and that 'weavings and embroideries hang blissfully' on her walls (p. 7). Given some of the stunning wall hangings featured in the book I can only imagine the style of her home. She gives the reason for presenting her collection:
In the light of the rapid vanishing of many craft traditions in the Arab and Islamic world in general, and the slow extinction of many of the fine hand skills related to traditional textiles and embroideries in particular, I thought it relevant to showcase some notable pieces of late Islamic decorative textile arts to be enjoyed and appreciated today as they were in the past. (p. 7)

Left: Woman's dress, Saudi Arabia, Ta'if region, Bani Sa'ad tribe, 2nd half 20th century, p. 186.
Right: Part of a woman's shawl, Sindh, 20th century, p. 51.

Mi'zar al-hammam, a wrap, Syria, mid 20th century, p. 126-7.

As someone fascinated with the geometric designs and motifs in Islamic art, I have to say that I particularly enjoyed reading the 'Geometric Patterns' chapter. However, for me, 'The Written Word' chapter with its beautiful calligraphy was probably the most pleasing visually. Before moving on to the textiles featured in the former, Wearden observes:
Geometric designs are the most characteristic feature of Islamic art and are found in their most perfect form decorating both the interior and exterior of buildings, symbolizing the principles of tawhid (the unity of all things) and mizan (balance), which are the laws of creation. (p. 85)

Shawl border, Kashmir, 19th/20th century, p. 44-5.

The text is rich with Arabic words and their meaning and I found myself writing some down in my notebook, such as the word khamsa, or the Hand of Fatima, a common decorative motif. Another common motif, that reoccurs in the 'Floral Decoration' chapter, is the boteh (see image above). In the Western world we refer to the motif as paisley, named after the Scottish town (Glasgow area) that became famous for its patterned shawls. Wearden explains how the motif evolved:
It began life in the late [17th] century as a naturalistic floral sprig, a stem with a few leaves and three or four flowers. By the early [18th] century the uppermost flower was drooping to one side; by the middle of the [18th] century the leaves and flowers were less well-defined and the sprig was fast becoming an outline containing flower heads and foliage; by the beginning of the [19th] century it had taken the form we are familiar with today. (p. 23)

Man's abba, Syria or Iran, late 19th/early 20th century, p. 98-9).

The pattern featured on the cover of the book in detail can be traced to its former owner. It's the gold and purple man's abba in the image above that belonged to Major-General Sir Percy Zachariah Cox (1864-1937). He was a British Indian Army officer and diplomat, a key figure in the creation of Iraq. Wearden observes that this robe would unlikely fade into the background. 'Royal purple and bright gold thread send out a clear message of wealth and power, they attract attention, they say "look at me"' (p. 98). Oh, we see you indeed!

Tegeia, Tunisia, Mahdia, probably 1920 to mid 20th century, p. 182-3.

The fourth chapter, 'Applied Decoration', is short and contains a few beautiful pieces for women. The Tunisian tegeia is one of them, a headpiece worn by 'a bride on the day henna was applied to her hands and feet' (p. 183). As seen in the image above, the fringe has a star-shaped medallion and its filigree work has a small English gold sovereign with the head of King George V.

Top: Shawl, Syria, Damascus, dated 1855, p. 146.
Left (detail): Part of a woman's shawl, Sindh, 20th century, p. 50-1 (see in full in image No. 5 above).
Right: Khayamiya, a hanging, Egypt, late 19th century, p. 172.

If you happen to be into calligraphy you will likely take in more slowly the textiles featured in 'The Written Word' chapter, which is decorated with Arabic calligraphy by Jasser AlShammari. It has gorgeous cloths and e.g. Egyptian hangings called khayamiya in blue and red that I couldn't stop admiring (see below and above right). Wearden explains the importance of calligraphy in the Muslim world:
The art of calligraphy, Khatt ul-Yad is the practice of hand-writing based on the Arabic script and for many Muslims is the most admired and esteemed form of Islamic art, because it links the people with the language of the Qur'an and through that with the spiritual world. (p. 135)
She points out embroidering mistakes, or broken strokes, which were probably the result of either the embroiderer's carelessness or illiteracy (an example is the textile to the right in my bottom image: the vertical strokes are incorrect).

Khayamiya, a hanging, Egypt, late 19th century, p. 174.

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection is a wonderful addition to my slowly growing collection of textile books. I was especially satisfied with its layout, how each selected piece of textile was given its proper place with an informative, flowing text. The close-up illustrations were a welcome for a reader interested in the details. I believe Altaf S. Al Sabah has paid an astounding tribute to her late grandmother and I think anyone who reads this beautiful book will want to view the entire Al Lulwa Collection in person.

Three panels, possibly Syria, 1928, 1933, and one reduced in size, no longer showing the date, p. 154-5.

images by me | except for No. 4-7, courtesy of Paul Holberton publishing | credit: all images in the book are by Stephanie McGehee
- words and views my own

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Store Street Espresso, Bloomsbury, London

Last week we went to London, where I got to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern - not a chance I was going to miss it! I needed a city trip before tuning into autumn. We dined at the Wild Food Cafe in Neal's Yard, walked in Covent Garden, Westminster and St. James's Park, and went to the Whole Foods Market on Kensington High Street, which always feels like our London food-home. The kids even asked, We are going to WFM, aren't we? And there was coffee. In the heart of Bloomsbury I had the best latte. I had promised a coffee-geeky friend to go to Store Street Espresso at 40 Store St (to be exact, it's part of the Fitzrovia district). It was a promise I happily fulfilled during our Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia stroll and the coffee shop lived up to my expectations.

I was under the influence of the Bloomsbury group upon entering Store St Espresso. We had walked from Bloomsbury St into Gower St and at No. 10 I spotted the blue plaque of Lady Ottoline Morrell. I knew it was there, yet my heart skipped a beat. She wasn't exactly a member of the group but she was a patron of the arts and if you have read the diaries and letters of e.g. Virginia Woolf you will know Ottoline. This was my state of mind when I ordered my latte.

It was a very warm and sunny day in the city and we had done a lot of walking when I sat down and had my first sip; it was superb. Store St Espresso is my idea of a good café. It has that minimalist, rustic look with industrial touches. The atmosphere is ideal; it's an unpretentious café. The guests seem to mind their own business, on their laptops, phones or reading. I guess some would call this a place for hipsters but while I sat there I noticed all kinds of people with one thing in common, there to enjoy their coffee.

The location of Store St Espresso is great. The street is quiet, close to parks and The British Museum. I urge you to grab a coffee if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. Well, I urge you to eat in. There is a great window nook if you like people-watching and in fine weather you can sit outdoors.

I am not done with my trip on the blog but during our stay I certainly got my London fix. My mind is still wandering the streets of Bloomsbury, thinking of Virginia Woolf and her circle of friends. It's also lingering at the Tate, admiring O'Keeffe's paintings. Fortunately, the Scottish summer turned on its charm when we got home, enabling me to start writing this on the patio with a cup of coffee, and finishing on a chair in the front of the house, next to the hydrangeas, while admiring the sunset.

How I love August days like these!


Thursday, 28 July 2016

late summer reading list

I felt it was time for another reading list, for late summer. I haven't finished the Virginia Woolf books on my last one; I don't read her letters and diary entries in one go. My new list contains two books I wanted to read again, Love in the Time of Cholera, which I had only read in Icelandic, and The Sheltering Sky (earlier this summer I watched Bertolucci's film again and had to re-read the book). I'm loving Patti's memoir, Just Kids. Her writing style is pure joy. This is my late summer list:

· Just Kids by Patti Smith
· Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
· My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
· Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir
· The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
· Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

I just finished Gloria Steinem's memoir My Life on the Road and, oh my, was I disappointed. I hadn't read any reviews and had the feeling I was about to read a thought-provoking masterpiece, given her calibre and the publicity of this book, a NYT bestseller. Don't get me wrong, her message is very important but the book has large sections of chaotic and surprisingly bad writing. What a shame! I was expecting more from an experienced writer and editor like Steinem. (Something must have gone wrong during the editing. I'm guessing there were too many yes-people involved.) There is no chronological order (fine by me) but such memoirs demand a well-constructed text to help one connect the dots. Sometimes it reads like a memoir, sometimes like an article, and sometimes like a PowerPoint document with a bullet list. It's filled with anecdotes, random moments in her life, that are disorganised. I often wanted to toss it but I think I continued reading in the hope it would get better. For those who have read it, I have to mention the taxi driver chapter: Apart from teaching one the importance of really listening to people, it was pure agony. There are little gems in between, e.g. a beautiful passage about a friend who died of cancer, but I'm sorry to say that I cannot recommend this book. Just watch interviews and lectures with Steinem online if you want to learn about her pivotal role. There are plenty and they will leave you much more inspired.

It is wonderful to be re-reading Gabriel García Márquez, which I'm reading in English for the first time. I'm starting with Love in the Time of Cholera and moving on to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I got the former at the library but I was thinking about buying this beautiful hardback edition of the latter.

And, yes, go Hillary Clinton!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

On 1 July when the Battle of the Somme centenary commemorations were taking place I happened to be reading the last pages of Testament of Youth, the First World War autobiography by writer, feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain (1893-1970). Her Oxford dream comes true when the war has broken out and after one year at Sommerville College she puts her studies on hold to volunteer as a nurse. With the help of diary entries and letters, her book describes the horror of the Great War and its aftermath - she lost a fiancé, a brother and friends. First published in 1933, it has continued to reach a new generation of readers.

The film Testament of Youth (2014) is adapted from the book, with actress Alicia Vikander in a leading role, superbly capturing Vera's serious tone. I have to mention the film and, while bending the rule of using my photos only, feature part of its beautiful set design: Her bedroom and its gorgeous bookish paraphernalia in her parents' home in Buxton, Derbyshire, is the work of set decorator Robert Wischhusen-Hayes.

One doesn't pick up Vera Brittain's book for entertainment. It's a serious, emotional read, about love and friendships during war, and how war steals youth, forcing young people to grow up faster than they should. Sometimes I didn't understand how Vera could go on as a volunteer. The hours, the workload, the conditions; it got beyond exhausting - she worked in England, Malta and France. On top of that was the constant fear of losing someone dear:
Even when the letters came they were four days old, and the writer since sending them had had time to die over and over again. (p. 121)
On more than one occasion she fell apart or got sick but always got back on her feet and kept going. She did it for those she had lost and those still fighting.

Without going into too many details, before going to Oxford she meets Roland Leighton through her brother Edward. With him at the front, their relationship develops through letters. Constantly lurking is the fear that he will be killed in combat or forever changed by war:
To this constant anxiety for Roland's life was added . . . a new fear that the War would become between us - as indeed, with time, the War always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward, linking the dread of spiritual death to the apprehension of physical disaster. (p. 122)
Those who have seen the film probably remember a scene by the beach with Roland turning violent. In real life it didn't happen. It was one of the dramatic licenses taken to tell a true story. In fact, the lovers had a short row through letters but I thought of that scene when I read this particular description of her brother:
[H]e was an unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled nor spoke except about trivial things, who seemed to have nothing to say to me and indeed hardly appeared to notice my return. (p. 324)
The siblings had a beautiful relationship and this was a very different Edward. He was one of the soldiers wounded in the Battle of the Somme and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in it. The war claimed his life in 1918. When I reached this part of the book I thought that screenwriter Juliette Towhidi had done a marvellous job. That beach scene is quite powerful.

Back to the book. Despite the horror of war there are a few stolen moments of joy. My personal favourite is when Vera enjoys a break from work, goes to the theatre, and afterwards writes to Roland:
Do you ever like to picture the people who write to you as they looked when they wrote? I do. At the present moment I am alone in the hostel common-room, sitting in an easy chair in front of the fire, clad precisely in blue and white striped pyjamas, a dark blue dressing-gown and a pair of black velvet bedroom slippers. (p. 199)
From the trenches Roland affectionately replies:
I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas. You are always correctly dressed when I find you, and usually somewhere near a railway station, n'est-ce pas? . . . It all seems such a waste of Youth, such a desiccation of all that is born for Poetry and Beauty. (p. 200)
This was in 1915 and they were engaged. Only a few pages later Roland is dead, shot by a German sniper right before his Christmas leave that same year.

In Downton Abbey there is a scene during the Great War where Lady Sybil [Findlay] says to Isobel Crawley [Wilton]: 'Sometimes, it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead' (series 2, about 10 min. into episode 1). That sentence has stuck with me. I think it has to do with my home country Iceland having no army. We don't have this collective memory of sending our young men to war, of its human cost and sacrifices (sons of Icelanders that had emigrated to Canada and the US died in the war but that's another story). Since moving to the UK I feel as if I have been gradually grasping the sense of the First World War and its impact on the British nation. Vera Brittain's book certainly gave me new insights.

After the war Vera went back to study at Oxford. At one point, when nerves and nightmares were taking their toll, these were her thoughts:
Why couldn't I have died in the War with the others? . . . I'm nothing but a piece of wartime wreckage, living on ingloriously in a world that doesn't want me! (p. 448)
Eventually, the emotional scars of the war faded. She got through the experience with the help of Winifred Holtby, an Oxford friend (both became authors; Holtby died in 1935). Vera finished her studies, spoke publicly for the League of Nations, got married, and became an advocate for peace.

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander as Roland and Vera in Testament of Youth (2014)

1: photo by me | background image of a field of poppies by Andrew Montgomery, from the book Country by Jasper Conran
2-5: screenshots by me (production stills of bedroom unavailable) | 6: still via Alicia | credit: BBC Films, Heyday Films, Screen Yorkshire + BFI | director James Kent · screenplay Juliette Towhidi · costume design Consolata Boyle