A Reply

You pine for the city that was once made of seven islands, and you are not alone. Another friend, who now lives in the city people some years ago likened to a large garden, has similar emotions. Yet another, after a not-so-pleasant stint in a city labelled with aristocracy, is back to living by the sea, and cannot stop talking about it. And I, never having known a city, long for such obsessions.

You wrote to tell me that you shall soon encounter Snow, after putting An End To Suffering. You will be curious, then, to learn more about the one whose Name is Red. Read on – I shall not betray anything that robs your reading experience.

Among other things, My Name is Red is about an encounter between two radically different cultures. It speaks of a time when the culture of Islam, at its heights in the Medieval Ages, is struggling to hold on to its beliefs threatened by the diametrically opposite culture of the West, of Christianity. The illuminators, who for centuries followed strictly orthodox practices and painted the world “as seen by Allah”, are awed and shocked in equal measure when they encounter portraits of living men and women in houses of Venice. Describing a scene where he is left alone in a gallery of portraits in a Venetian house, an old master tells his apprentice:

“….I saw that these supposedly important infidels had attained their importance in the world solely on account of having their portraits made. Their likenesses had imbued them with such magic, had so distinguished them, that for a moment among the paintings I felt flawed and impotent. Had I been depicted in this fashion, it seemed, I’d better understand why I existed in this world.”

Hearing these words, the apprentice understands the master’s fears.

He was frightened because he suddenly understood – and perhaps desired – that Islamic artistry, perfected and securely established by the old masters of Herat, would meet its end on account of the appeal of portraiture.

And the master continues to express his own desire to “feel extraordinary, different and unique.” He hates it, and yet finds himself drawn towards it:

“It’s as if this were a sin of desire, as if growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the centre of the world.”

The conflicts brought by this exposure of Islam to the ways of the West may have started in the Middle Ages, but continues even today. Is it, I wonder, because of the exclusivity preached by this faith? Is it because it does not embrace other ways of life? Is it because it says, unequivocally, that there is no God but Allah?