In her rolling, trilling, chatterbox Arabic, Rosa likes to repeat a story she’s heard. She describes a dashing man making a perilous journey. The man might have succeeded in rescuing people he set out to save, but he never returned so we don’t know his fate. “Maybe he was caught by police. Maybe he drowned in the sea.” That’s all she knows except that she also knows he was a hero. This she knows because her Mama has told the story many times.
Rosa is four. Her father returned to Syria two years ago to lead other family members to the safety of Turkey. He never returned; Rosa has no memory of a father.
Jasmine, by contrast, is the bona fide, grown-up, vivid-eyed, smart young woman who studies Environmental Engineering at university in Istanbul. She also has been in Turkey for two years. She does not say if she fled the fighting or if her family is safe. She speaks instead about the tutelary effects her father has had on her life. He thought his children should simply know things, anything, many things, so he insisted on English tuition, piano lessons, swimming class. Jasmine, unlike her younger sister, loved all these studies and, when the family moved to Damascus, she continued her English conversation at the British Council. Soon she surpassed her father, a feat she relishes still. Indeed, her English has become so good that, when she came to volunteer at the Yusra Center, she was directly employed as a translator. Meanwhile, she enrolled in university without a working knowledge of Turkish. Happily, she says, maybe 30-35% of Arabic and Turkish are closely enough related so she could muddle along for the first semester. Now she’s fluent.
Jasmine has a vivid memory of her father.
So we have order and disorder; memory and the failure of memory to train up a toddler’s sensibility. The ships of human interaction pass each other in the night this way, every night, every day.
At the center where I met Rosa and Jasmine, we witness generosity that provides so much for the refugee community that the tiny center and its volunteers are swamped.
We try to create a little order with something as simple as a cabinet or bookcase to store the books, toys, coloring pads, crayons, pencils that can divert the children’s minds, give them a bit of schooling, permit them safe, noisy place. Within seconds, the new cabinet becomes a ladder, a stool, an easel, a drafting table for two, three, seven scrambling kids, all of whom would figure out the most complex gym equipment without a second glance. (My own plan for coming here was to provide books, bookcases, school supplies. Donors have been so generous that I will also be able to supply air conditioning to get us all through the terrific summer heat. Is it the heat or something I’m learning: but I simply don’t care if the good IKEA bookcases I’ve assembled myself double as ladders, easels, stools, drafting tables, drum sets, mural walls, snack tables, play kitchens, doll fashion runways, balloon storage. You get the idea.)
Meanwhile, across the Golden Horn, the lovely little Pera Museum is holding a show of the eleven finalists for the annual Jameel Prize. The Victoria and Albert Museum sponsors the prize to encourage links between traditional Islamic art and contemporary design practice. If this sounds like an odd interest for the venerable old V & A, she’s happy to remind you that she houses the largest collection of Islamic art outside the Middle East.
These projects remind me that the Yusra Center’s struggle to beat back disorder is mirrored in highly sophisticated art, too. Some samples:
David Chalmers Alesworth, a Brit, designs gardens in Pakistan for a living. His day job is subsumed into his novel artwork: he salvages an antique, mostly frayed, discardable Persian carpet woven with a traditional Persian garden design. He repurposes it by weaving into the original a precise map of a famous western garden. On display at the Pera are a view of the gardens at Versailles, and this one—London’s Kensington Garden.
Iranian Sahand Hesamiyan creates sculptures inspired by traditional Iranian architecture, taming complex geometric forms before they launch out of control.
Lucia Koch creates sliding panels, plexiglass sheets of different colors cut into intricate patterns. By covering windows and skylights with such panels, you can change the color, pattern, direction of light and heat in an infinite number of shapes and tones, sliding one or two or three panels to overlap or separate from each other. Koch is Brazilian and takes her cue from the Islamic arts imported to Brazil via Portugal.
Wael Shawky is an Egyptian puppeteer and filmmaker. His entry relates the story of the Crusades. Rather than choosing to lionize or demonize either the Crusaders or the Muslim defenders, he traduces both sides, reducing them to bizarre, rather loathsome looking puppets with bloodthirsty and greedy motives.
Perhaps in the long run, Yeats is right: the center cannot hold. But it won’t be for lack of trying.