In June Ahmad Abumraighi messaged me asking if he can come to my community studio, Studio Pause, with his friend and filmmaker Anas Tolba. Anas was making a documentary on Ahmad as a Palestinian artist, whose work is about social justice and community.
I asked Ahmad, “Why the Studio?”
He replied “… it’s about being around honest company where I can be myself, without experiencing the feeling of having to defend myself or my beliefs. At Studio Pause I feel safe and creative when I’m with Sush and other community artists who care to bring love and light to everyone in the community.”
Anas would bring his assistant, Mohammad Saffouri, and Hanan would join them later. I agreed happily. I was going to have my first group of people at the Studio since lockdown. What better group than this?
I had first met Ahmad at Hanan Seid’s Mic-Less Night Series. Hanan, a local spoken word artist, activist and the Studio’s first artist-in-residence, had started her Mic-Less Night Series here in 2016 finding the space perfect for people who are intimidated by the mic to share their poetry and stories. Since then, Ahmad had had two shows here sharing his love for Arabic poetry and his mastery in calligraphy with the community, while he attended university as an international student.
Before they arrived that day I reminded them to wear masks. Susan Sterner, a PAUSEr who visited once a week, had brought in extra masks and hand sanitizer. She had figured out how we could safely work at the ends of the 6 ft long art tables. Ahmad and the crew arrived masked and with bags of goodies. I made coffee and set out the refreshments. Our last reception had been in Feb 2020, for Susan’s show, and this was the first four-month gap in seven years of the Studio. The AC was out, the windows were open, and a noisy bird sang from a tree.
The filming started with an interview. Ahmad asked what I had worked on during the pandemic. I showed him my calligraphic explorations in Hindi and Bengali. I told him how his art had inspired me to return to my languages and scripts reconnecting with them through my art. Then it was time for art-making. I introduced him to water-soluble graphite. “As I play music in my Studio,” I said, “a Hindi movie song might speak to me, and I make the lyrics into art.”
He got an idea. “Why don’t you play your music and I’ll play mine!” he said. “You do your calligraphy and I’ll do mine!”
The songs played and we wrote directly on the butcher paper taped to the table—Arabic and Devanagari. “What did you write?” I asked.
“Take me to Palestine,” he read.
I texted a photo of it to my friend, Sughra Hussainy, a calligrapher from Afghanistan, living in Baltimore, MD. She created a calligraphic artwork and sent it to me. Take me to my dear Kabul, it read. I showed it to the men.
I caught a few Arabic words from Ahmad’s songs. They were the Hindi/Urdu words duniya, mushkil. Ahmad painted with the coffee too.
“What is that? Looks like mountains and valleys,” I observed, as the wet paper warped.
“It’s the map of Palestine,” he laughed. Later, he started to dance.
The air was magical, yet, I was quietly panicking. What if someone caught COVID-19? Had I done everything right? I went and looked out of the window, tears rolling down my face. Was I being pessimistic as the friends chatted away, laughed and worked? I had missed people, even strangers. Every month, between an artist’s reception and Mic-Less Night I met 20-50 people here and it was always awesome. And here were these wonderful people and I was … what’s the word?
They continued their shoot downstairs in the community center. I had worked alone during the lockdown designing and producing handmade copies of Hanan’s first full-length poetry book, Catalyst: A Collection of Poetry by Hanan Seid. Now again, I was sitting at my table, alone. But my heart was racing. I breathed deeply, folding the printed pages, reading snippets of Hanan’s powerful poems.
Soon the group returned to the Studio along with Hanan. At the opening reception here five years ago we had 40 guests and now five made my heart race. But she was so excited to see the copies of her books and sign them. I noticed the red mask she wore over her hijab. I couldn’t see her smile let alone give her a hug. Who was I now? I could hardly recognize myself.
An excerpt from her poem Tsunami spoke to me:
“Which character will they remember?
I’ve been them all
The good and the bad
Wonder if my soul is as claustrophobic as I am
If it’ll fit nice in the coffin
Then my eyes open
And the nightmare supposedly over
I gasp and wonder
Who will I be next
and will she be remembered?”
When they left, I helped the community center staff put the furniture back the way it was. They worried about what had been touched. I stared at where the woman sprayed the Lysol, and what she wiped. So much remained unsprayed and unwiped! I remained silent. I couldn’t recognize myself, a total stranger! But it would be fine, I told myself. We were all doing our best.
Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.