Iqra’ o Tasa’al (Read and Inquire)

September 2015

A one-on-one interview with artist and professor Fareed Abdal. We discuss the critical
role that spirituality plays in his work, and how he continues to overcome the social
taboos of living and practicing as an artist in the Arab world.


Noura Alsager: From looking through your work, it is evident that you are a reader. What do you read? And what language do you read in?

Fareed Abdal: Growing up I remember spending a lot of time in my father’s library. It might have even worried him as I remember him taking me out and saying, “I want to teach you how to read the sea like a fisherman or sailor,” or, “I want to teach you how to read the desert like a hunter or a bedouin.” Thanks to him, I read beyond books. I read the environment. I read phenomena.

In terms of writing, I read mostly Arabic literature and poetry, the Holy Quran and other sacred texts. Literature that spans from ancient civilization, to the middle ages, all the way to the modern writings of Nizar Qabbani, Abu Shakra, Mahmoud Darwish, and other contemporaries. Poetry feeds my soul. I enjoy Sufi literature and poetry tremendously. I occasionally read in English, as well as translated Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. I find much joy in discovering new forms or possibilities that arise through translation.

NA: How are you influenced by what you read?

FA: Reading for me isn’t a passive activity; it is a dialogue with the text. My books are filled with notes. They’re not good for reselling!  Actually, I would never sell my books. They are extremely valuable and full of memories, from when I spoke to so-and-so (referring to the text).

It is a multilingual activity for me. I read and translate simultaneously as I move forward with a book. The translation and translatability of ideas I find very engaging and inspiring. Sometimes when an idea is conveyed outside of Arabic, I say ‘Wow, I can’t imagine it in Arabic.’ Each language is a world, and they don’t always intercept. There are overlaps and disparities. The exercise of mitigating between languages often takes me on an amazing journey. I have translated complete books for the sake of deciphering an idea. Sometimes, I’ll take sides with a language and say, ‘This line, I want to see it and digest it in Spanish, for example,’ and you experience another depth to it. I used to be a common person about translation, but now I respect it a lot. And transliteration and interpretation…whoa!

NA: Do you feel words?

FA: Oh yes. A single word can send me flying! I perceive words like I do sounds; as voids and spaces. It’s like listening to music. Through words I experience [other] dimensions.

NA: I heard that you meditate on a daily basis. How do you meditate?

FA: Rumi says, “There are a thousand ways to bow and kiss the ground.” Meditation as in salat [prayer] is not only a religious practice; it’s an art. It is the art of meeting your original spirit and being in the presence of your Creator, the Beloved, the manifestation of beauty and majesty of the universe. You take time to go meet with It. I say It out of convenience, but it’s much more than that. The point is you take time to sit with your ultimate and universal reality. In Arabic we call it “thikr.” It is a very special time. Daily living can be a distraction, but even this with enough experience you discover can become a form of meditation if you practice a state of being. You could be tending to your garden, taking care of a plant, or be brushing your horse, and suddenly you forget who you are. You realize the horse or the cat or the tree is a universe, a cosmos, and you forget yourself and you tune in [to it]. As you are brushing your horse you experience oneness.

NA: One of the works on the website, “Life through the eyes of an animal,” features a quote from the surrah of The Spider in the Holy Quran: “It is the life of the hereafter that is the true life, if they but knew it.” Of course the full verse is: “The life of this world is nothing but a pastime and play! It is the life of the hereafter that is the true life, if they but knew it.” (Trans. Farook Malik) Is art for you “pastime and play,” or is it a means for you to reach a higher reality?

FA: Worldly life is not true life, and the Hereafter does not occur later. The Hereafter is already present; it is all one life, only in layers or spheres. In relation to the universe, eternal existence is not something that happens later. The soul never dies. It’s the ego-self that confuses things. When you are authentic, selfless, and hard-working, like an ant, life and death also become more authentic.

NA: Then what do you think is “pastime and play?” A common criticism of art in our part of the world is that it is a kind of pastime or play.

FA: Words carry different shades of meaning. There are people, particularly in our part of the world, who feel threatened by art and are prepared to go far to repress independent-thinking and expression. They invest so much time in trying to prove that art is sinful and ‘derailing.’ They look for cheap examples to devalue art and defend such allegations.

Going back to your question though, there are two kinds of play: futile play and fecund play. A knife that I use to sculpt a piece of artwork is also one that I can use to commit a crime, or one that I can use to dig a plant. Words are like instruments: their uses are multiple.

Our society is going through a transition. We live in a peculiar part of the world. To be an artist, poet, or philosopher carries a stigma that scares people from wanting to explore the possibilities of investigative, critical thinking. I was always shuffled away from my inclination towards anything involving aesthetics. Fortunately I was allowed to study architecture. There is something subversive about architecture in how it is a discipline with a very honed sense of aesthetics with equal emphasis on function, equally balanced. For those who see no value in aesthetics, it fulfills a utilitarian demand. I had the grades to either go into medicine or architecture. I just couldn’t see myself working in a medical setting. I said to my parents, “I think I can help people, but not in this way,” and picked architecture. I couldn’t dare tell them that I wanted to study art.

When I was 18, I took a sculpture class with a professor who had noticed me drawing. I felt conflicted about creating/modeling forms/shapes. He asked why I wasn’t in the art program. I said, “I have an architecture scholarship, I’m committed” to which he responded, “You are going to be a good architect, but a happier artist.” At the time I didn’t understand.

In general throughout grad school I experienced a great deal of difficulty in expressing ideas. My appreciation for art was certainly there, only dormant/repressed. I was discomforted by the concept of creation/creating, because we were not the original Creator and only Allah can create. My professor, Harry Van Oudenallen, used to tell me, “Look for the creative theory in your culture.” I will never forget how much he stressed that idea. I asked him how, and he told me to reconcile that within myself. Through research I found out about a scholar called Seyyed Hossein Nasr. He studied Physics at an undergraduate level at M.I.T, and then geology and geophysics at a graduate level at Harvard University, followed by a Ph.D in the history of science and learning. He is one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, religious and comparative studies in the world today. His books became references for a journey I was about to embark on relating to Islamic cosmology. It was through his writing that I was led to Islamic science and philosophy, Sufism, and to the Safa Brothers, movements in Abassid times that later became underground and talked about concepts that mainstream Islam did not talk about. And that opened a big door that led me into Sufi literature and poetry— and Oh my God, there was a lot of creative theory! There was a lot of love theory, not love in the mainstream sense, but love of the Beloved, of the universe. Whoa— I found myself in a big, big room with many years of reading and enjoyment.

I also had a professor who taught me Systems Engineering who practiced yoga. At that time I was doing martial arts (Taekwondo and Aikido mostly). Whether it’s visual arts or martial arts, art is about exploring different realms of consciousness including suffering. In hindsight I understand why higher-ups often warn us about entering the world of art. It’s because in the path, you might lose yourself. But also because they didn’t know how to tell you to prepare yourself through that. For me it was a journey I took on alone without really knowing. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, “Oh, I want to be an artist.”

There was something inside of me that was guiding and correcting me. A creative urge that whenever I expressed an idea communicated back saying, “No, I’m not a building.” I was on to something. I just needed to figure out the right format. I think my conservative background was sitting on it. And still now, I have to resolve [some things].

NA: Your calligraphy does not follow a specific style; it’s not Uthmani or Kufi. Do you feel a sense of liberation from the formalities of such traditional scripts?

FA: Absolutely. I mean there is merit in continuing traditions, but I’d rather explore how traditions can evolve. Because my work doesn’t resemble a recognizable style nor strictly follow a tradition doesn’t mean it lacks discipline. Actually it is very disciplined in terms of elements, colour, and composition. The way I evaluate the work of a calligrapher is in his or her capacity to interpret. Say like a composer in Sydney, Boston, or Muscat – reinterpreting the work of Telemann or Tchaikovsky. How does the artist analyse the existing sound? How does he or she present it from another angle? Calligraphers have a lineage that we should maintain, but this tradition should not stop here. We need innovation.

It’s good that some calligraphers can imitate Ibn Muqla from the Abbasid period, but eventually you have to come out of that phase. Replicating and imitating is a helpful way of understanding and learning, but we cannot keep imitating the [calligraphic] heroes a million times. Doing that is like saying ‘This is what Arabic calligraphy stands for, now and forever.’ It’s stagnating.

NA: Do you feel that you are rebelling?

FA: Yes, and because of it I have to reconcile a lot of things inside of me. I still get doubts. When I’m not in a state of meditation, my cultural and historical background jumps at me and yells, ‘You’re doing a very dangerous thing.’ There’s a talker inside of me from past/previous preparation that tells me to stop – my previous ego is very scared. But I dialogue with it and try to reconcile. I don’t repress it, but rather I say we’ll investigate that. [Sometimes] it starts: ‘The Creator will be very angry with you.’ And so I started to befriend the Creator. I see the Creator, “Allah” in our language, more like a true compassionate friend rather than waiting for me with a court. There’s a part of me saying that now that I’m a part of the artists and poets, I’m in the circle of immorals. There is a struggle to reconcile within. That’s jihad. Jihad of the spirit, [the jihad within].

NA: In (فاستقم كما أمرت) and (العدل اساس الملك) both titles are derived from Islamic teachings. The first is a verse from the surrah of Hud from the Holy Quraan: {فَاسْتَقِمْ كَمَا أُمِرْتَ وَمَن تَابَ مَعَكَ وَلا تَطْغَوْا إنَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ} {Therefore, stand firm on the Right Way as you are commanded, together with those who have turned from unbelief to belief in Allah, and do not transgress; surely, He is watching all that you do}. (Trans Farook Malik) The second is a statement based on Islamic teachings: justice is the foundation of power. Have we entered into the realm of morality here?

FA: I don’t see it the way most people who take things as a given see it. Sometimes words become cliché but I don’t see them like that anymore. Even the concept of righteousness is not to me like a ruler, but more like a river. You could be zigzagging a lot but in the end, moving in a linear direction. It is water-like, flowing, fluid, and not rigid. But that’s why I did it, because some of our notions have become static.

NA: What is the relationship between you as an artist/creator, and the Creator?

FA: It’s a relationship that started to change from me fearing that I have committed the prohibited, to saying, ‘Forgive me God for challenging some ideas, I know that you are a friend and a beloved, and you are more merciful than our mothers and fathers.’

The artist, poet, or person of literature, travels an internal journey. He reaches very fine understandings and feelings, which formal clergymen, regardless of religion, don’t like. Because we go beyond the boundaries society has marked for us [and] that formal religion has created. [But] when you falsify, forge, mutate, or forge art, you kill the spirit of religion in your culture. It’s much more dangerous than destroying buildings. Superficialities die, the way our bodies die. But when you know what to keep or save, [you can come back]. They respect tradition, but they respect the evolution of tradition too.’

NA: The Quranic text is about you reading phenomena. {والليل اذا عسعس} {والصبح اذا تنفس} Translation: {And the night as it closes in} {And by the dawn when it breaths} (Sahih International).

FA: Yes, the Quran is teaching you to read the universe – not just the text. Learn to see the fish in the eyes of the fisherman, a poet, a biologist. Follow the path to knowledge even if it takes you all the way to China. The Quran used to be open, a piece of art; now it’s like a closed manual. Now I see the sacred as if I were a child playing, not as someone with evil intentions. I see the Creator as my friend, my beloved.

NA: Do you feel alone as an artist? Do you feel isolated?

FA: I feel blessed more than I do alone. I’m fortunate to have come across this realization before passing away. It would have been a waste if I hadn’t. It would have been a serious waste. I read something the other day, “You are not born to be perfect, you are born to be more authentic.” I don’t really care about being approved by others anymore, as much as I care about being authentic. The ‘loneliness’ that I experience now is not the loneliness that I used to feel. It’s not even loneliness, its solitude. I cherish this time, it’s sacred. I started realizing why there’s a pattern of people who go to prisons or caves or people who distance themselves from society — as if returning to their mother’s womb — the original paradise. Plato talks about the people in the cave. [Prophet Mohammed] goes to the Cave of Hira’a. Mandela goes to prison. Mohammed Ali goes to prison/or get’s himself in prison – a kind of self-exile.

NA: What message do you have for people who are just starting out?

FA: Don’t be afraid. There are two kinds of fear: fear that’s instinctive/cautionary and healthy, and debilitating fear. It’s legitimate to have the healthy fear, but the other kind, forget about it! I used to fear the Sacred, but now I have befriended Him and love Him. In the end, art is the expression of your deepest self.


Edited for length and clarity.