The woman’s faces, half-formed, seem to swim in the pictures below several layers, interposed with cuttings from newspapers ads. Many pictures contain arrows, pointing off stage, out of the picture. They make me think of ways out, escapes and exits. The women lean back against each other, or lie, posed, on their sides, their bodies little more than grey outlines against twisting textures and colours.
Ilsa, Donn and I are visiting an Iraqi couple. Their apartment is like many others we’ve been in; it’s small and a little dank, but spotless, decorated in other’s discarded furniture but neat, lots of oak and glass and, always, an arrangement of silk flowers. The wife brings us glasses of juice, cups of strong Turkish-style coffee (which I love passionately, a la folie), chocolates, two slices each of a chocolate and vanilla layer cake decorated with elaborate swirls of frosting. “Eat! Eat!” she urges us.
Her husband was an artist. Is an artist. It’s his paintings we’re looking at, stacks of them, all done in the 10 or so months he’s been here. We ask him to explain them to us but he smiles slyly and shakes his head. “I don’t like to say,” he explains slowly. “If I say, then you only see what I say.”
It’s easy enough to apply the little I know of his story to his paintings and collages. In one, the red doesn’t seem like a vivid but neutral colour but instead like blood, soaking into a woman’s arms. In another, done in shades of grey and brown, there’s part of a clipping. GET OUT it shouts across one corner. An arrow, a picture from a street sign, points the way.
He was well-known in his home country but here, he doesn’t expect much. He smiles shyly, that secret happy smile that one tries to hide when one is complimented, as we admire and enthuse over his work. He is very, very talented in a variety of styles. I have never learned to write about artwork so I can’t really describe it to you; I know a few terms, like acrylic vs. oils, but I don’t know how to describe his work of folk lore and patterns vs. the extreme realism in paintings of birds vs. the more abstract work he’s doing now, here, in exile. But he is extremely versatile.
She was an art director in Iraq. She designed sets for plays, and made several films. She speaks Italian but very little English, and she doesn’t expect much of life in America. “You know,” she said to me once, “there we had furniture, rugs. Many things. We just left them. Here, we have nothing.”
I mention this to someone else. “Does she regret leaving?” the person asks me. No, I say. I don’t get that impression. Regret is the wrong word. But she is grieving. I understand this grief, of things. Life is more precious than things. A man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. Having escaped with family, you are happy, grateful. That is the main thing.
But, having had, you remember. And sometimes, you ache with it, as you stare out small streaked windows into the grey skies and uninspired parking lots of your new home.