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Art in Memoirs: Setting Forth

What is the role of language in expressing what artistic inspiration and the creative state seek to achieve? Can human speech even allude with limited letters, imprisoned words, and narrow sentences to the insanity of the artist whilst they reside in a space outside of place and in a moment distant from time?

This is how I introduce the chronicle of my journey with the creative process, Art in Memoirs: Setting Forth in the preface. This collection of short artistic bursts, each of which mirrors itself in Arabic and English renditions, is the first of a series that I myself, the author, have no clue as to its eventual length or number.

I like to think of my art as unique not in terms of medium, but rather content. I am visited by joy anytime I contemplate the creative process, its glorious summits and mundane messiness, between cups of coffee and wardrobe malfunctions, day in and day out. And so, I write about the creative process itself, my art revolves around its birth and hearkens mostly, I hope, to artists who are not only poets, painters, or actors, but those who seek to become poetry, a painting, or the craft of acting itself.

As I often mention whilst discussing the creative process, I like to think of myself as a manifestation of the artist as translator. We, tribe of artists, try to render what is ineffable into the tangible. Yet, ironically, it is these plebeian details of our lives that conjure and send us forth, mysteriously, towards the ethereal, in the land of imagination and drown us in the ocean of the fantastical.

Artists remain, I am convinced, as a last hope, a standing bastion and memory of a universe once enchanted, amidst a globalized world that feels otherwise. But we are also a reminder that this enchantment need not be otherworldly, abstract, or irrelevant. On the contrary, the whole fun of the creative process is how spirits dance with bodies in front of the artist. They put on a show exclusively for us, then ask us to inform the world about what we tasted.

But what power do words have to describe the sweetness of honey, much less how that differs from the sweetness of oranges and apples? So, what do we do? We keep going, to what seems like an eternity, trying to reach the depth of an ocean of meaning, even though we continue to feel that we are still at the shore.

Every poet, I feel, spends a lifetime exhausting their words in order to reach one that is the Truth for them. Similarly, all painters, musicians and actors likewise sacrifice breaths to reach what Sufi mystics call an ocean without a shore, and a shore without an ocean.

I remember asking a friend once, an accomplished saxophone player, Mike Monford, about his journey into the depth of music, he said: “It’s like diving in the ocean, every time I feel like I have reached the deepest part, the ground underneath me gives away and I find myself going deeper.” This is the journey of art, one without a destination. Or, as they say, the journey and the destination are one.

In Art in Memoirs: Setting Forth, I try to take the reader on a coastal drive across the frontiers of my creative process. It is a journey that is intertwined, rather couched in the very dance of my past, as a first-generation migrant who involuntarily experienced war and diaspora but was gifted creativity as compensation. This is ultimately the redemption of any suffering: an art that triumphs and immortalizes the very soul of the oppressed.

My performative choice to include every reflection in both Arabic and English is an attempt to triumph over imaginary borders and bring together seemingly disparate memories from my past, across oceans, time zones, languages, religions, and cultures into a kaleidoscope of meaning. Isn’t this the magic of writing and art generally? Its ability to collapse time and space into an amorphous unfolding reality. The past is present now, while the present gives way quickly yet gracefully to the future.

In actuality, however, I tried to mold all of Art in Memoirs: Setting Forth, in both body and spirit, into a performative emanation of my story. The cover, which you can see at the beginning of this piece, is my mother’s artwork, Sawsan El-Gamal. She probably has the clearest and strongest influence on my creative upbringing. She is the citizen artist of our family, alongside my father Zohair Mohsen, who although is an entomologist, has also — and more so lately — made nature photography his favorite pastime.

And just as attending my father’s photography shows in Jordan is a childhood memory of mine, as well as more recently in America, I have older memoirs of visiting my mother’s office in the National Art Institute in Baghdad, and prior to that in the Iraqi television, where she worked as a set decorator. My sister’s career as a potter and brother who is an architect has delivered me to this shore today, where I am trying to retell my story as a narrative of the creative process itself.

Sufi mystics often say that the tongue of our state is more eloquent than that of our speech, and I am convinced that this applies to art and the creative process completely. I want my writing to perform its objective in a visceral, almost bodily, symphony before the reader attempts to engage with this movement vicariously, through the words on the page, and the spaces of silence between them.

I would like to end by returning to the presence of Arabic and English, side by side, in this series. I have no control over the linguistic land where my daily inspiration originates. Some days, an idea in English or Arabic will breathe its way into a living reflection. Other days, it is the sound of Arabic that subjects me to its sweet pain of creative birth, whence I find myself blindly weaving a thread of words with a needle of subtle sounds that carries me into the horizon where sound, color and word become a single syllable of creative silence.

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