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Art: Looking From the Inside Out

On Thursday, February 9th, I was finally going to visit the newly reopened wing of Islamic art at the Met!  Katie, AAANY’s amazing English Literacy Coordinator, had planned an excursion for all the ladies in literacy classes, and I was thrilled to be invited along.  As any devoted Middle Eastern History Major I was filled with anticipation to see those delicate hand-painted artifacts from Abbasid Baghdad, and the lavish chambers of the Ottoman Sultans. And of course I could not wait to lay my eyes on the beautiful calligraphy of Arabic and Persian texts from great cities like Cairo, Damascus and Isfahan. In college student vernacular, it was going to be a total geek-out sesh, just me and my history.

But when I met up with the group of excited women in the lobby of the Met I forgot all about the Abbasids. Being a part of a large group of Arab-American women and their children when they entered that exhibit, getting to see the look of excitement on their faces, and be in the middle of that first eruption of camera flashes was magnificent. One look at their faces as they walked into the exhibit and I could see the deep personal connection they felt with that art. One woman said she felt like she was back in her family’s home in Yemen, another lady I saw stood still in the middle of the hall looking around and smiling. I was not really able to pay much attention to the art itself because I was running around helping people turn their flashes off and trying to keep the group together, but everyone in our group was trying to lecture everyone else so I learned a great deal. I heard a teenage daughter explaining to her mother an intricacy of Islamic architecture that she had learned in school. I saw a young mother explaining to her three year-old where Mecca was on a map. I giggled while listening to a grandmother repeatedly telling her grown-up daughter how to important it was to teach her children about this history, and I saw another visitor to the exhibit asking one of the AAANY ladies about the meaning of an Arabic inscription.

If I had gone to see the exhibit by myself I am sure I would have enjoyed it and maybe even learned something. But I would have learned in a very impersonal way about things distant from myself. Reading about history and culture is not the same as being with people and sharing in their culture. Getting to spend a wonderful morning with these ladies and then ride the subway back with them to Brooklyn afterwards let me feel personally connected with the art I was looking at, and see it from the inside out, instead of from the outside in.

  By Megan Tribble