Yvonne Wakefield is a spirited artist with a can-do attitude, which helps explain her decision in 2004 to leave behind a secure life in the Pacific Northwest and head to the desert state of Kuwait. Over the course of six years she taught art to university aged Muslim women, earned their trust and learned the consequences of freedom of expression. Yvonne shares her extraordinary experiences in her new book, Suitcase Filled with Nails: Lessons Learned from Teaching Art in Kuwait, and this excerpt gives us an inkling of the riveting, revealing and enlightening read…
“Ramadan, the fasting month, is supposed to begin this year about October 4, although the exact date is never clear until a cleric sights a new moon, that celestial hangnail scratching the Middle Eastern sky at some point. Some say a high-ranking Kuwaiti declares the start of Ramadan to best suit his business or travel plans. His decision must agree with a Saudi of equal standing. I don’t know if there is any truth to this because I am an observer, not a follower of Ramadan.
I do not fast during Ramadan, but I respect those who do and abide by the no eating or drinking in public from sunrise to sunset required by Muslim practice. In the privacy of my air-conditioned office, I sneak imported bites of Power Bars and Gummi Bears, pieces of food that carry no smell and are small enough to quickly swallow or hide under my tongue while I speak to whoever unexpectedly walks into my office. Still, I feel criminal staving off thirst by gulping from a water bottle in daylight, hiding the evidence of my indulgence under my desk.
Later during this Ramadan when the Sri Lankan cleaning lady empties my wastebasket, she scans the room and points to the water bottle. “Ah, Christian,” she says with a smile.
She takes the wastebasket, pulls out an empty cellophane Gummi Bear bag hidden beneath jettisoned official memos, and nods. “Good,” she says, though most likely she has never tasted a Gummi Bear. I do not offer her one, because it is Ramadan.
I sympathize with my students during Ramadan. By afternoon, they are unkempt rows of wilted life. They have partied or prayed till the wee hours, grabbing a wink or two before heading to class on an empty stomach. They have not brushed their teeth or sipped even a drop of water since waking, which makes having close conversations more appealing after sunset.
As a teacher during Ramadan, I must factor into lesson plans sleep deprivation, dehydration, low blood sugar, and the even lower morale and aptitude of my students and the general workforce. I use my painting class to put a fresh perspective on this Ramadan, a month of days I assume fasting Muslims regard as a hardship.
“Symbolic color,” I explain to the painting class of twenty-one prior to the start of Ramadan, “is the use of color in art to express or make people feel emotion, connection, or detachment. In America, red and green, sometimes silver, symbolize Christmas. Orange and black relate to Halloween, a bit similar to your Gergai’an. When a woman gets married in America, she usually wears a white dress.” I look out at the class. “So why do you wear black abaya? What does the black symbolize?”
“The black makes me not stand out,” says Marwa in nigab. “It is a color we can hide behind. It is the symbol of not letting our self be known or making our self known outside of our family.”
“Then white,” I say, comfortably cool in my linen blazer, nylons, and below-the-knee skirt. “Why do the men wear white dishdashas? What does it symbolize?”
“It symbolizes cooler,” several girls chime in at the same time.
“What I’m going to ask you to do is mix colors to create a color that you feel represents Ramadan. Write why you chose certain colors to mix and then give this color a name.” I pass out pieces of pre-cut print-making paper, and the studio falls silent as the students blend thought and pigment together.
As each girl finishes, she puts her paper on my desk. Some colors derived from water-soluble oil paint soak through the paper and bleed into their written descriptions. At the end of class, I ask Fatoom to help me carry the papers and slide projector to my office. In the hallway, I ask her if Ramadan is tomorrow or the next day.
“I don’t know, Doctora.”
“When will you know?”
“Maybe when we go to mosque. Maybe we hear on the television.”
“I don’t go to mosque. I don’t read or speak Arabic. How will I know?”
“I will call you.”
“Only call me if it will be Ramadan tomorrow.”
That evening, while reading through the lot of paint-splattered papers, I find my thoughts on Ramadan changing.
Hayat’s dark green mixture is entitled Night Ocean Reflection. On the back of the color mixture, she has written, “I used titanium white for the religious purity during the month of Ramadan. Ultramarine blue for the moon and clear sky and weather. Lemon yellow for the happiness, joy, and closeness that grows between family members. Also for the beads of the dara’a worn in Ramadan and Gergai’an.”
Latifa’s two-inch swab of light violet is accompanied by the following explanation: “The first color is the blue. It’s the color of the day (the time we are fasting). Second color is what is the feeling that the people have to be, not just in the time of Ramadan but all of the years and to feel and be aware of the poor people. And its meaning to stop all the bad things and to start again. The name I call my color is New Beginning.”
The colors of Ramadan are spread out on the dining table alongside that day’s newspaper. Half of the front page is covered with photographs of four Pakistani men hung from ropes at Nayef Palace, where public hangings are held, their cotton trousers urine-stained in a final release. Their lifeless and black hooded bodies were left hanging, their bare feet dangling, for the public to view.
The accompanying headline reads, “Four swing for heroin smuggling.” Among the four, well over ten million dollars’ worth of heroin-filled capsules were discovered either on or inside their bodies.
Beside the article is an opinion column, the author questioning how these poor, uneducated Bangladeshi guys were capable of running a million-dollar smuggling operation and suggesting they were merely mules for well-connected and protected natives.
The cotton trousers on these hanged men match one of the Ramadan colors mixed by Shaikha, a dark maroon color she labeled Cozy Ramadan. She describes the color as “The warm color of the darkness we share because we stay up late for gatherings and prayers. The warm color means how we feel for all people, especially the poor people who we try to help.”
My mobile rings. It is Fatoom. “Doctora, tomorrow is Ramadan.”