Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Plain talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din I have to confess that I have an attachment, call it a weakness, for Ireland and things Irish. It is due, in the first place, to the fact that like most of my generation I was brought up on Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and the Celtic twilight. I also had the pleasure of attending performances at the Abbey and Dublin Gate theatres in Dublin. I met Michael McLiamore, the Irish actor, when he came to Egypt at my invitation. Indeed his book, Back to Hecuba, records that visit.

Over and above I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Yeats in Dublin in the early forties. I was attending a conference when I saw a stand with Yeats's books. While I was examining them a charming old lady approached me and asked me if I were interested in Yeats. I told her that my interest went further than just reading his works; I had actually translated a short play into Arabic. She was Mrs Yeats, and she asked me if I had all his books. When I said that I did not have his autobiography The Trembling of the Veil she asked me to meet her the following day at the stand. I did and to my jubilation she presented me with a limited edition of the book signed by the author.

I was reminded of this when I received a copy of CIRCA which, according to its sub-title is devoted to "Irish and International Contemporary Visual Cultures". The contents range from a detailed report on the Venice Biennale to a full list of art activities in Irish cities, as well as other activities in London, Scotland, New York and Tokyo.

Significantly, the magazine was launched in New York. This is not surprising since, in the words of Gemma Tiupton, "more than 40,000,000 Americans claim Irish descent." This constituency, "around eight times the population of Ireland, is the driving force behind US support for the peace process... as well as a significant number of cultural projects and initiatives."

The article, "A Constructive Lack of Agenda", deals with a symposium held in New York which included a number of Irish artists. What was novel about the symposium was that the organisers did not specify a theme. Instead speakers were asked to discuss any project or idea of immediate special interest to them. One of the issues brought up by artist Brian Hand related to translation. He referred to 19th century translations of oriental poems. The discussion moved around the "crisis of authenticity", central to questions of ethnic identity.

Another article dealt with a difficult and on going question: How to commemorate tragedies? Does such commemoration demand new modes and models of artistic engagement? The writer discusses the issue of a memorial for the Omagh victims killed on 15 August 1998 in a bomb blast which "made a mockery of both the cease-fire and the referendum in which an overwhelming majority of the people on the island of Ireland voted for peace."

Memorials to the dead, says the writer, "are there for the living." The concept of memorials comes from earlier ages. Historically erected in triumph, huge men on "enormous horses, unreachable warriors aloft on pillars and magnificent marble arches balance the loss of life against the great battle won." War memorials were built not as a reflection of senseless slaughter, but of glory, power and the cause or country for which these people died.

The writer's argument is that monuments for Omagh need a new "aesthetic, and part of this new aesthetic is to be found in the process by which the memorial is produced." The tradition of equestrian statuary cannot adequately memorialise the sufferings of the mothers and fathers of murdered children, those whose deaths were hardly the stuff of legend.

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