:: Article

Muhammad Ali Came to Tea (A Discordia Concors)

By Salma Ahmad Caller.

The author (far left) and her family with Muhammed Ali.

The author (far left) and her family with Muhammad Ali.

 

A Cut Across Time

Look closely and you will see that this is a photograph of a photograph that is in two pieces.

Here we all sit in a row with Muhammad Ali on a sofa in Riyadh in 1989, a year before we moved to the UK in 1990, just in time for the Iraq war. My sister and I, my mother and my father and Muhammad Ali (his secretary is taking the picture).

My father was a scholar of Islamic studies, Arabic and philosophy, lecturing at King Saud University at this time, before we were asked to leave the country, as my father was a radical and regularly criticised the Saudi government at Friday Prayers. Later my father would meet Osama bin Laden in Algeria, years before all the terrorism, and describe him as quiet and charismatic. Little did he know what was to come, but my father’s fight was always a scholar’s one, against Orientalism. But for now my father had the honour of showing this distinguished guest, Muhammad Ali around, and taking him home for tea. It was a bit like The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, in the sense of a charismatic elemental force entering the everyday world of the home. My father was another kind of charismatic elemental force, more like an electrical storm that gathered silently and ominously before breaking, or like a sudden earthquake, erupting into your existence, shaking ‘home’, shaking everything to its core.

Life in a storm, or in the quiet before the storm, or in the quiet after the storm, or in a sudden shaft of storm light where everything shone too brightly.

Muhammad Ali’s secretary later sent the photograph to my father. My father then showed us the photograph before cutting us out of it. He gave my mother the half with the three of us and kept the half with himself and Muhammad Ali.

Many years later, after my father passed away, my mother found this other half among his things and glued it back together with the her own half. She then took a photograph of this, and gave me and my sister a copy each to put with our Muhammad Ali autographs.

Why did he cut us out? So he could show the photograph to other male colleagues without showing them his wife and daughters? Or did he want to remember the moment without us? We never asked.

Does it really matter that Muhammad Ali is in the photograph, I ask myself? What would this photograph mean if it were just our family together in a row on the sofa, with a fault-line down the middle? But then I realise, we never sat all together like this in a row on the sofa, ever. My mother and father never sat so close like this. Because of Muhammad Ali we all sat together, closely, in a row, and I perched on the end. I was studying pre-med and my sister English literature, at King Saud University at the time.

It was such an exciting moment, an honour to have this man, ‘The Greatest’, in our living room, with a bunch of excited kids outside our apartment door, in a ball, pressed up, listening, waiting to see this great man. Perhaps that is part of the power that this photograph has over me. It was a moment of shared joy and excitement for our family, an extraordinary moment, which was a rare thing, glowing for a short while before being snatched away by the act of the cut. A reminder of what our family life was like in reality.

This photograph is both that moment and that moment being taken away. It is at once sweet and painful, whole and fragmented. It is a photograph of three events spanning time. The day Muhammad Ali came to tea; the day my father cut the photograph; and the day my mother glued it back together, shortly after my father’s death. This photograph shows us all together, yet split by a fault-line. Together and not together. Both/And, not Either/Or.

 

Discordia Concors

My father was isolated and isolating, frequently angry, often bitter, sometimes cruel, sometimes surprisingly kind. He was intense, inspiring and uplifting about Islam, Arabic, and his mythical tale, possibly true, that our Egyptian family was descended from Moors in Al-Andalus. Expelled from Spain, they travelled to Morocco and from there to Egypt. Hence our family name, which could mean Crow, or Stranger, or from Morocco, or from the Westerly Direction. My father studied Andalucian Arabic poetry for his master’s degree. He talked of Cordoba and Granada with a light in his eye. I have since visited Alhambra and Granada many times. Did my father ever go there?

My father’s grandmother was Turkish. I saw faces like my father’s in Istanbul on a visit a few years ago. Dreamy grey blue eyes, black hair and a certain set of features and a faraway look. He visited Istanbul when we were young, and my sister and I wrote careful letters to him in Arabic. He was our stern and strict Arabic teacher every evening after school for 11 years in Kano, Nigeria. On my father’s return from this trip to Istanbul, he returned our letters to us in small pieces, in a narrow envelope with our names on, carefully placed on a pretty round tray.

But he also brought back Turkish Delight and a blue glass evil-eye on a silver chain for my mother, which I now wear. Amidst an Arabic lesson he would sometimes suddenly turn the living room upside down so he could play games with my sister and I, tipping the dining table up over the settee so we could slide down it onto a pile of cushions, or turning a chair into a throne for playing the game ‘Queen of Sheba’ One of us would be made queen and get dressed up, and he and the other sister would bow and perform obeisance while grand music played.

He was an inspiring teacher who made you understand by feeling, and by making stories in the Quran and of the Prophet come alive, but he was also terrifying and severe. My English Protestant mother was not allowed to speak at dinner, as my sister and I had to speak only Arabic to my father at mealtimes.

My father loved Beethoven, and Mozart. He took us for walks in the moonlight, or we would all sleep in a row on the veranda whilst listening to the Moonlight Sonata and watching shooting stars falling out of a sky so full of stars. He told Egyptian Juha jokes and constructed a mini shadoof in the garden for us and planted a hundred trees around our house in Kano. Darkness and light, entwined.

A discordia concors is a device where opposites are juxtaposed or brought together to reveal and enhance the qualities of that opposition, while also being a form that harmonises opposites in some way. This photograph is a discordia concors. I wrote my master’s dissertation on grotesque ornament (grotteschi) and marginalised hybrid art forms as part of a critique of notions about the Italian Renaissance and how non-Western cultures influenced Renaissance aesthetic categories. I wrote that the discordia concors is ‘a decorous indecorum, a harmony that is obtained by combining disparate or conflicting elements. It is a hybrid form that contains within itself opposites, harmony and discord, rules and chaos. It embodies control of chaos’. I wrote my dissertation, really, to understand this juxtaposition of opposites ingrained throughout my life.

 

Fault Line

This photograph is a photograph of parts forced together and held together by force. It is a hybrid form, like my sister and I, like our family, our life, containing within it a harmony of contradictions and oppositions. Not a tranquil pleasing harmony but a harmony of a kind all the same. Strands wound together into one entanglement. It shows me my family and my early personal history, of painful divisions, between mother and father, between father and daughters. But the fissure is part of a wider history of invasion.

Personal history here is intimately tied to a deeper rift created by historical events: the British colonial presence in Egypt. The British forces occupied Egypt from 1882 until 1956. Young Egyptian men were rumoured to like going out with British officer’s wives. Someone told my mother this. Those kinds of ‘colonial goings on’. The Denshawai Incident of 1906 was a vivid scar in national memory that my father related to us. The painful dynamics of colonial presence.

This is the force that brought my mother and father together and then kept them apart emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, culturally.

My father came from Egypt to Britain to study. He came from a well-known family in a village in Egypt where as a child of ten he was carried on the shoulders of men for memorising the Quran in its entirety at a young age. He received his DPhil with Distinction, in Philosophy and Comparative Religion, at Oxford. My mother was from a small Oxfordshire village, brought up as a Protestant, she was a Florist, and managed a Florist shop in Broad Street in Oxford centre. She helped my father choose flowers to take to his tutor’s house for the tutor’s wife, a convention at the time, when visiting your tutor for tea. That is how they met.

 

Omar Khayyam in an English Village

How did my mother, a young woman from a small village in Oxfordshire, take such a risky and dangerous step, to start travelling the world married to a radical scholar of Islam and Arabic?

Once upon a time there was an elderly ‘upper class’ lady living in my mother’s village. Children thought she looked like a witch my mother said, ‘a smokey raggedy old lady’, living in an unkempt house on her own, with cats and piles of books. My mother as a girl, along with others, threw stones one day, at this ‘smokey raggedy’ intellectual elderly lady. My Grandfather was so angry he sent her to apologise. This is how my mother ended up looking after this lady’s cats during a hospital stay from which she was never to return, to atone for the throwing of stones.

Here in the dusty gloom, amongst the piles of books, my mother finds a most strange, exotic, mysterious and beautiful book. She finds the Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, the FitzGerald version. Was it here that a longing for the exotic mysterious ‘other’ was born? My mother tells me it opened her eyes to other worlds. And so began my mother’s adventures, Egypt, Iraq (where I was born), Lebanon, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the biggest, darkest adventure of all, my father.

My mother then shortly after finds a second-hand Ruba’iyat to call her own. All this before she meets my father. She gave that copy to me. I now also own several copies of the Ruba’iyat, translations from the actual verses rather than Edward FitzGerald’s interpretation, because at some point as a child I found my mother’s copy on a shelf amidst my father’s piles of books, and became obsessed.

The FitzGerald version my mother gave me starts with:

Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night, Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight: And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

It has gorgeous illustrations by Anthony Rado, of minarets, golden tracery upon white and turquoise domes, lions and Persian warrior kings, a Muezzin leaning out to call to prayer under an eerily lit sky, a naked woman swirls inside her rose coloured translucent robe beneath the dark hooded shadow of death. Orientalist tropes abound, yet I still love this version.

My Penguin Classics copy, translated by the Persian scholar Peter Avery and the poet John Heath-Stubbs from the original verses of Omar Khayyam is the one I now read. It is pantheistic, fatalistic verse that shines a light on religious hypocrisy. It never offers answers. Perhaps that is what drew me to it when I was younger. It is the work of an astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet in the 11th century, questioning the universe, fate, death, God, and desire. It is about the human condition, and the body as part of nature, part of the material around it. I find it sensuous, uplifting and devastating.

I love the idea of the ‘potter’ in these verses, and the recycling of beings in clay. The body as a pot, a vessel, made of other beings from other times. In my work as an artist the body is always this, a vessel or space or a volume, or a texture, that is connected sensuously through the bodily experience, through touch, to the world and to the universe. This notion that the mind is not imprisoned within the head, but is a tactile consciousness within every part of the body and reaching out into the world and beyond, searching, was a powerful one. It released me from the constrictions surrounding me as a child and now as an adult, of rigidity and dogma. For me it allows contradictions and oppositions to live together. It is a fine unexpected silvery chain linking my parents to each other in my memory.

 

Snakes and Angels

Ultimately, Oxford rejected my father, in favour of Englishmen whom he knew he surpassed, in knowledge, qualifications and intellect in his field. He had a brilliant, wide- ranging mind. He felt he had been relegated to a wilderness. When I was two years old we went to live in Kano, Nigeria. He took a post at Bayero University. It was, for my sister and I, a beloved if very troubled childhood home, but he was desolate there. I know that now.

Attending a Catholic missionary school run by Irish nuns, a mysterious blue and white Virgin Mary with a green snake coiled beneath her feet in the garden, the Lord’s Prayer at assembly, eating the off-cuts from communion wafers. This was by day. By night, Islamic studies, memorising Quran, and Arabic lessons. Nigerian folklore, beliefs, and Nigerian ways of seeing and being were absorbed, they seeped into my sister and I, from our Nigerian friends, from the other girls at school, who were from Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and Fulani ethnic backgrounds, and from our teachers. Nigeria seeped into my bones and my imagination, from the auras of the animals and plants, from our many cats and other pets, and our trees, the Tamarind, the Mango, the Guava, the Elephant, the Neems.

There was the Civet cat who fell through the ceiling into my father’s bed room, and was later seen dancing in the moonlight; the dark coil of a snake that my sister almost stepped on, if it wasn’t for the intuition of my mother; and the scorpion that I almost sat on, but for my sister who saved me. My father whispered protective prayers in the darkness of our bedrooms while we slept, after checking for snakes and scorpions under our beds, and my mother had an unshakeable faith in guardian angels.

The storms of the rainy season, the cold white dusty Harmattan, the ancient mud walls of the old city, visits to Sabon Gari market, the ebony carvings the motorcycle traders brought to our house, and Tuaregs riding camels and villagers on their donkeys passing down by the end of our garden. The ‘medicine man’ following the Emir on his Eid procession past our house. Our ‘house boys’ and ‘garden boys’, colonial terms for house help, were many and varied people, Christian and Muslim Nigerians, who helped us out and told us stories and made us laugh over the years. I felt that we imbibed another kind of knowledge from people, objects and unseen elemental forces in our surroundings.

Snakes and angels. In the end, all of this allowed a more potent and embodied way of comprehending life to seep in and mix with the didactic forms of school and religion, turning us into syncretic beings.

Syncretic or hybrid forms are those that bring about a reconciliation of opposites. Reconciliation of opposites, darkness and light, is both painful and rewarding.

 

Submerged Bodies

We were all, my family that is, submerged in a deep complex psychological and emotional ocean of fall out from a colonial impact. We were washed up as fragments on a strange shore. I do not mean Nigeria was the strange shore, rather that we were all marooned, on our own shore, strangers to ourselves and to each other. Strange objects tossed up from a colonial past now in another country, Nigeria, equally marked by this same colonial past, that is not so past.

(As part of the “scramble for Africa,” the so-called Northern Nigeria Protectorate was given to the British in 1900 by the Berlin Conference. The Biafran War ended in 1970, a year or so before we arrived in Nigeria.)

Bits of this and that become imbedded in a colonised mind while the rest of the so-called modern world moves on and thinks of colonialism as something mostly to be read about in the ‘history’ books. But we lived its consequences as a family, in our altered ways of seeing and touching, feeling and believing. We later left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia: two years in Jeddah, five in Riyadh. In 1990 we all returned to the UK. My father wrote many books and papers. He became a member of the Muslim Parliament before he passed away in 1996.

I often feel as if I am from the past, not the present. That what I think and feel, how I think and feel, are from another era. The colonial British education embeds in its subjects all sorts of fragments that are dissociated from their original time zone or context. A bit of Catholicism, a bit of Protestantism, Peter and Jane, Enid Blyton, quite a few odd Victorian notions, the Queen’s English, fairy tales about creatures with flowing hair of spun gold, tales of exotic beings from the ‘East’. I still say things like hither and thither and bathing suit, even though I was not born in the 1950s. My world felt like a submerged one, like living in a strange Atlantis, and I still often feel I am floating in some deep expanse surrounded by flotsam and jetsum, a postcolonial sea of fragments from many cultures and many pasts entangled within my being.

In the context of the globalized uncanny—the context of my life—my photograph with Muhammad Ali, a stranger and unknowing witness to our family back then, is only fitting. ‘Can that really be him?’ people ask. Yes, it can.

I keep this picture close, always. It embodies my sense of past history in ways I cannot fully grasp, how I see and feel and make art, because like me, like my family, it is a hybrid form that brings together conflicting and conflicted elements into a strange painful harmony. My mother put the parts back together, so we are all reconciled, we are together again, we were all together in this shared history.

These days, I am revisiting The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam and developing a series of drawings, using graphite and Indian ink, that explore notions of body in relation to those ‘potter’ verses in the Ruba’iyat: cups, jugs, bowls, vessels, gourds, touching, pouring, liquids, fluids, flowing, lips, hands, circles, cycles, spinning. Body as apeiron – infinite and indefinite, limitless and without end:

The bodies that occupy the celestial vault, These give rise to wise men’s uncertainties; Take care not to lose your grip on the thread of wisdom, Since the Powers That Be themselves are in a spin.

 

"Untitled" – graphite and Indian ink on cartridge paper – 59.4cm x 84.1cm

“Untitled” – graphite and Indian ink on cartridge paper – 59.4cm x 84.1cm

 

"Untitled" – graphite and Indian ink on cartridge paper – 59.4cm x 84.1cm

“Untitled” – graphite and Indian ink on cartridge paper – 59.4cm x 84.1cm

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Salma Ahmad Caller is an artist and a hybrid of cultures and faiths. She is drawn to hybrid and ornamental forms, and to how the body expresses itself in the mind to create an embodied ‘image’. UK based, she was born in Iraq to an Egyptian father and a British mother and grew up in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. With a background in art history and theory, medicine and pharmacology, and several years teaching cross-cultural ways of seeing via non-Western artefacts at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, she now works as an independent artist and teacher. Twitter: @salma_caller

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 19th, 2016.