Speech at the Symposium with Drs. Saperstein and Nasr George Washington University, Washington D.C., November 11, 2004

Speech at the Symposium with Drs. Saperstein and Nasr
George Washington University, Washington D.C., November 11, 2004

First of all, I'd like to thank my hosts here at the Gelman Library and George Washington University for all the help and support that they've given me in presenting the Shalom/Salaam Project. There have been an awful lot of people working with me on this show, and I appreciate the assistance of each and every one of them.

It is certainly an honor for me to share the stage with Doctors Nasr and Saperstein - and the fact that my art show has provided the motivation for this symposium fills me with a great joy.

In a general sense, this next couple of hours represents one of my highest aspirations as an artist: that my visual work will spur the coming together of scholars, students and others to see relationship between Muslims and Jews in a fresh and more positive light. This is my goal, to move the ideas of peace and understanding that underpin my artwork outside of the narrow confines of the art world, and to a more general audience.

The show downstairs in the main hall of the library is the inaugural exhibition of Shalom/Salaam: The Untold Story of a Mystical Entanglement, and it represents one aspect of a project that I hope will begin to insert this story of into the contemporary dialogue between these two peoples.

The show itself has been a very long time coming; with my first interest in this subject sparked all the way back in the winter of 1999, when I discovered the connection between the Sufis and Jewish mystics. From reading offhand remarks about the interrelationship in Idries Shah's wonderful introduction to Sufism, entitled "The Sufis," to quite recently finishing the draft of a 400-page quasi-academic study of this subject, I have come to know well the important, even vital influence of the Sufis on the development of Jewish mysticism from about the 10th century down to our current times. My Shalom/Salaam Project has used a variety of media, including writing, art, the creation of notecards, collaborative work with other artists and even the inclusion of these good doctors, sitting right here by my side, to bring these ideas to a wider public.

The art show, 245 text and image panels, exhibits not only the similarities between Jewish and Islamic mysticism, but also attempts to capture the gentle love and spiritual realization that define both mystical paths.

The artwork grew out of two other painting series, one each based in the Sufis and the Baal Shem Tov's Hasidism. Currently on view at G.W.'s Eckles Library, these precursor works portray the mystical intent of the individual spiritual pathways, using the abstract visual language to express the burning love and open-minded philosophy that define both Sufism and Hasidism.

As my understanding of the profound rapport between Jewish and Islamic mysticism grew, I realized that these individual series didn't fully capture the importance of this tale of a mystical entanglement. Borrowing imagery and ideas from both series, I created the Shalom/Salaam work, to further represent this history.

The works in the installation are based in the circle. Throughout the panels, the circle looms bold and omnipresent, the image of the single, unifying God that brings all peoples from all religions together. Additionally, it respects the beliefs of both religions, where the representation of specific, figurative imagery is proscribed.

The Sufis believe in the legitimacy of all manners of worship and respect all saints and prophets from every religion - feeling that each small spark of spiritual light draws its current from the same source: God. Jewish mystics, building on their study of Sufi ideas over nearly a millennia, moved their own beliefs in this direction, ultimately fusing Jewish and Islamic mysticism, and creating the Kabbalah and Hasidism.

Ultimately, I hope that the art show, and more importantly, the ideas behind this project, can begin to subtly influence the dialogue between Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. I have no doubt that the answer to the conundrum that is the current Middle East situation does not lie in my project, or the ideas of inter-religious coexistence that inspired it, yet I do feel that there are definite things that an art project such as this can offer by way of an impetus for peace, and by providing a fresh manner in which to view the relations between these two peoples. And it is my hope that by adding this voice to the cacophony surrounding the situation in the Middle East, I can help move the conversation towards the positive - and away from the energy that drives the current war.

Reading today's newspapers, it's easy to believe that Jews and Arabs have never had a period of mutual enrichment, a time of peace and reciprocal respect.

Yet, looking into the past, we find a wonderful co-mingling between Jewish and Muslim mystics. For instance, when medieval Jews wanted to understand the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides' work, they studied with Muslim teachers, as Maimonides' thought was so influenced by Sufi and Islamic philosophy, that Muslims had a better understanding of it than did his contemporary Jews. And then there's the story of the 13th century Sufi teacher, Ali Ibn Hud, who taught Jewish and Islamic mysticism to Jewish and Islamic students in Damascus, all while wearing both a turban and a Jewish head covering, to show his respect for both paths!

Shalom/Salaam represents a reality of shared roots that we can no longer afford to ignore. As Elie Wiesel, the passionate human rights activist, has said, "I still believe human bridges can be built between the Jews and Arabs, through reciprocal visits between students, teachers, musicians, writers, business leaders, journalists and artists." This project answers his call.

I feel that this endeavor can offer a literal bridge between Jewish and Arab communities and even governments. At its very best, art can proffer a non-threatening method of bringing people together, one that operates outside the boundaries of the current political and social fray. After all, the greatest political minds of our generation have only succeeded in bringing the Middle East to a fervent boil; we clearly need a different stimulus in the dialogue between these two peoples. And as we can see from this symposium itself, art can provide the motivation to bring people together around these ideas of reconciliation and coexistence.

It is my hope to exhibit the artwork from this show not only in other venues in the United States, but also in the Middle East itself - and specifically, in Israel and Syria at the same time, illustrating in the most temperate of manners the highest possibilities between these two peoples. Much of this story took place in Damascus and the Holy Land throughout the Middle Ages, and it seems entirely appropriate to hope that this exhibition might - might, mind you - be able to provide some small, but specific step of rapprochement.

While art will never change the world in the classical sense that, say, a political or military action will, it can offer a quiet link that is so hard to find in those other spheres of social interaction. This bridge is the true purpose of my art show, and this project in general.