Nasr Abdel Aziz Eleyan was born in Hebron, Palestine in 1941, Nasr grew up in Palestinian refugee camps where he started painting as a child. He studied Fine Arts and Film in Moscow, Baghdad, Cairo and London. Nasr currently lives in Amman, Jordan where he teaches fine are at the University of Jordan.
My oldest memory of childhood was drawing with a pencil. Drawing and manual arts were my childhood toys. Even the other memories that I recall all relate to painting. However, my recollection of certain old thoughts dealt with the world and general life dating back to Jericho and Ain Al Sultan camp for Palestinian refugees. Although I do not remember a lot about the village of Zakaria, my birthplace in 1941, which was occupied in 1948 by Israel, it must have influenced my formation. I do know that Zakaria was a mountainous village in the center of Palestine, and its people were farmers and sheep ranchers; this might have had and influence on my early artwork of drawing birds, cats, chickens, rabbits, horses, camels, donkeys, sheep, and anything that relates to Arabic village life, particularly in Palestine.
In the early 1950’s, upon beginning elementary school, I started reading. At first, I used to listed to certain types of Arabic, folk stories, such as Antara Al Absy and others that the Rababa (an Arabic violin-like instrument) story-teller used to perform at weddings and other occasions. Also, when receiving guests and breaking the fast in Ramadan, the men used to read stories of “One Thousand Nights and One Night” to pass thouse long, cold, winter nights. At the mere age of ten, I was called on to recite this cultural literature at these gatherings since most of the elders were illiterate.
During that period, I found many treasures in the library of the social club at the camp. Books of Arabic literature, culture, current writers, and translated versions of world literature such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain, The Mother, by Maxim Jorke, and many Russian writers such as Boschkin and Mykofsky were available. The Arabic printing houses, at that time, mostly in Cairo and Beirut, gave special attention to everything related to the Soviet Union, however, without ignoring the role of others. The social club library possessed many translations of famous writers from many different nationalities. My financial situation did not allow me to buy books, therefore I did not go through the stage of children’s books like every other child.
Another environment which impacted my educational development at that stage was the Sofiah circles. One of my close relatives was a Sofiah sheik who had a meeting quarter where visitors of the camp met. Most of these visitors were Bedouins whose tents surrounded our camp. The Sofiah people had their own views on the world and life; their special interest, however, was the afterlife. To me, their views were not clear and did not correspond to any theory that could actually be discussed. Later, I realized that they were in fact not sophisticated but naive and inexperienced Sophiahs. Their sheik was big and bulky and the type of person that if you slapped his right cheek he would turn for you his left. Not due to cowardliness but because he believed that everything in life is minor and unimportant. He did not see a difference between every person and, in some instances, between human beings, animals, and insects, all created by God and all pray for him. Some of their arguments were that the human body is composed of the same elements that animals and insects are made of. In addition, the largest element in the formation of the human body is waste in the stomach, similar to any other animal. Also, the holiest component of the body is the soul that cannot find itself as long as it is in the body. Later, I recognized that this is an old saying from Sofiahs of different backgrounds. Through that I realized why the portraits of people in the old, oriental cultures did not contain ranks or medals, were isolated from time and place, and there were no signs of personality, age, or even indicating shadows. In other words, there is no great influence for the body although it is the subject.
I used to imagine that the earth was covered with cockroaches instead of people. Assuming, of course, that the cockroaches with the longer whiskers would dominate over the ones with the shorter ones, exactly as what happens between people who try to differentiate themselves from others. I tried to paint such imaginations but the outcome was not encouraging. The cockroaches were huge and the painting looked like an apple covered with them; this was not like how I imagined it as a star in the infinite space. The idea disappeared, though, when I attempted to reduce the cockroaches’ size. I have to admit that such thoughts still enter my mind after all these years.
The greatest influence that the Sofiah had on my art was their beautiful songs, particularly during the evenings of religious occasions, like the birth of the prophet Mohammed and the killing of Al-Hussein bin Ali. This led me to look for similar songs in Christian churches, where I used to attend religious festivals. Particularly the act of crucifying Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and the walk with the cross in the “suffering road,” although I was convinced as a Muslim that he was never crucifyed .
In Palestine, it was not uncommon for a Muslim to enter a church and listen to Sunday prayers. Also, it was not uncommon for Christian ladies to present gifts to mosques. It could be difficult for westerners to understand this, but who said that the west understood the orient for the last five thousand years. The church had new influences in my artistic development through the great paintings of the churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. During a time period, I used to imitate these painting in water colors and pencil; I noticed that Jesus Christ looked different in each painting. One time you will find him strong like a revolutionary man and another like a quiet, poor man; one time blond with blue eyes and in another brunet with black eyes. One time you will find his clothes simple and clean and yet another either rich and full of design or old and poor. Whatever mentioned here about Jesus was also true for the Virgin Mary. Most probably, those artists were painting themselves, their imaginations, or their personal idols.
During the late 1950s, when I ceased to draw small animals, like cats and birds, I replaced them with Palestinian village women in their daily life and local dresses made up of classical colors. This suited me well because I was a teenager. During that time, it was my first participation in an actual art exhibit for children, held in Jerusalem; I presented three water color paintings. They were well perceived by critics and journalists; I vividly remember a writer, Yousef Al Najar, who wrote an encouraging article about my portraits in a local, Jerusalem newspaper. In response, I sent him a letter thanking him for his interest, which he also published in the same paper and described me as an amazing, one-of-a-kind child. The most I benefited from taking part in that exhibit, however, is my discovery of oil paints. Before that, I tried to use it but it just seemed too thick and difficult to deal with. My father, the carpenter, had advised me to dilute it in gasoline; this succeeded to some extent, however, the colors became dull and without dimension. In the exhibit, they introduced me to cotton seed oil, and since then oil paints have been my favorite choice of painting. As a result of that small exhibition, the UNRWA (United Nation Relief and Working Agency for Palestinian refugees) had sent their filming crew from Beirut to film me while painting at home and in my natural environments. From these flicks, the UNRWA used to develop educational programs as advertisements for their educational activities in support of the Palestinians.
During that time, I met several educated people; through them I learned the meaning of art, the responsibility of the artist, and the common language between different arts. Dr. Nadim Al Nahawy, a communist physician and a decent human being, taught me to confide in myself. Mr. Abd Khalaf, director of education in the Jerusalem area, encouraged me to look deeply into the Islamic culture and to read books by Sartre, Hemmingway, and Destiofsky. He was one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Jordan; then, he became a minister in the Jordanian government. Ms. March, the wife of the first secretary at the American embassy in Amman, gave me the key to her country house in Jericho to use it to work on my painting, instead of our crowded, small home. Two of the most significant people in my life, though, were Aunt Amina Al Husseini, the mother of Safwan, and her husband, Dr. Mohammed Al Naqeeb Al Husseini. Amina, at the time, was an astonishing lady in addition to her aristocratic, noble beauty. In their house, I understood the meaning of the creation of art and its relation to mathematics, which I admired just as much as painting. Dr. Mohammed was a lover of classical music; he spent tremendous efforts attempting to explain the meaning of music, its harmony with painting, and the relation to mathematical balances to a naive, country child, like me. From him, I learned about Beethoven, his deafness, and the way his mathematical equations were played by different musicians into the most beautiful music known to man.
Through such personalities, which I have much gratitude towards, I was recommended for more than one scholarship at a time. I went to Baghdad to study arts in the Academy of Fine Arts on the expense of the American Society For the Friends of the Middle East. I truly loved the city of Baghdad due to its culture and historical flavor; in it, lived Sinbad, Ali Al Zaibak, and the puppets of “One Thousand Nights and One Night,” which I read during my early childhood. Shortly, I met a lot of young artists there. However, I faced some what of a problem; there was, practically, no Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad just advertisements in the newspaper about its future establishment. There were meetings, articles, and a beautiful building to show for it on the side of the river, but only God knows when they were planning to open it. I became worried that I would miss that academic year before they open the academy. I decided to return to Amman in the hope that I would find a solution with Ms. March and the Society For the Friends of the Middle East. They refused to send me to Cairo, which had a great status in my imagination. A reason for this was that the Americans did not like President Abdul Nasser too much.
I finally found a scholarship to Moscow waiting for me which pleased me greatly because it was not restricted to studying the arts. I was under the impression that I could be an artist without actually studying arts academically. Moscow, for me, was a fascinating place; it was a very clean city without beggars, pick-pockets, and gangs. It contains numerous museums and for the first time in my life I witnessed the original paintings, of famous artists, face to face, instead of seeing bad quality photographs of them. I requested to study chemical physics there. After the first semester, of language studies, though, they declined my request and I learned from fellow Arabic students that this particular subject was forbidden for non-Soviets. Therefore, I enrolled in architecture. There, I learned the meaning of sophistication in art and the balance between the shape and the contents. After less than a year, an order was issued to deport a large group of Jordanian students, including me. Until now, I do not understand the real reason for such actions. They told us that the Jordanian communist party withdrew its sponsorship for us and the Soviets had a condition which required that students be sponsored by an organization. Since Jordan did not have an embassy in Moscow to look after our affairs, the Union of Arabic Students Studying Abroad decided to sponsor me and provided me, as I requested, with a scholarship to Cairo. I was convinced from my experience in studying architecture in Moscow that I had to choose between art and any other subject. Hence, I selected art and overlooked any other subject.
The true journey began in Cairo. During the first year at the College of Fine Arts, I participated in the annual Cairo Saloon with two paintings. The participation in such a Saloon was and still is considered an important but difficult step because of the very careful and tedious process in selecting the participating artists. My painting, “The Death of a Small Cat,” won a possession prize, meaning the government had purchased the painting; the ultimate of hope of every artist in Egypt during the last half century, the age of the Cairo Saloon at that time. Naturally, some critics wrote about this painting and others wrote about the other one. I do not recall the names of these critics, but I do remember that they were written in “The Educational Evening Newspaper” and “The Radio and Television Magazine.”
In Egypt, I lived the essence of the Islamic art. Cairo is still the living museum for this great, humane art. Also, I was introduced to Pharaonic art and its original sites in Luxor. Without any doubt, I recognized what I used to feel before; there is no way to catch up with time in art. Plus, there is no need to try because either it has already passed and there is no way to retrieve it, or it will arrive without any possible way to speed it up. This was my entry for understanding oriental arts, in general, and the Pharaonic and Islamic arts, in particular. The artist draws what he knows not only what he sees. Therefore, the value of the painting is not only judged by the professional capability of the artist, but also by his knowledge, understanding of the subject, and most importantly his undeclared objective for painting.
My first, own exhibition was in 1969, in Jordan, which consisted of my paintings, mostly from Egypt. The following year, I participated in the Binaly Exhibition For the Mediterranean Countries, held in Alexandria, Egypt. I won a possession prize in this exhibition from the district of Alexandria. In 1971, I earned a scholarship from the British Ministry of Information to study design, as per the recommendation of the Jordanian television which I had been working for as a decor designer. In London, I spent six months and got acquainted with the contents of the National British Museum and the Teet Gallery Museum. Also, I studied the art of cartoons which I practically never practice until today.
After my return to Jordan, I held a combined exhibition with a ceramic artist, Mahmoud Taha, and a photographer, Yousri Al Dowaik. Then, I held my personal exhibition. During that time, I used to write to the Jordanian television short dramas on art and artists. Also, I would direct interviews with different artists. Finally, they requested me to be the director of whatever I had been writing. I was sent, by the Jordanian television, to London for another training course during which I was exposed to the work at the BBC, Times, and the Independent Television. Naturally, I spent most of my free time in the National Museum and the Teet Gallery. During this trip, many people from different nationalities in Europe, the US, and the Far East possessed several of my artwork. Some of my paintings ended up in museums. In addition to what was indicated earlier of possessions by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, in Cairo and Alexandria, the Ministry of Culture, in Jordan, maintains several of my work: Some are kept in the Royal Palace and others at the National Museum. The Cultural Museum in Moscow also owns one of my paintings. During then, a lot was written about me but it was not my habit to keep such articles. However, several textbooks on the art movements in the Arabic world did not ignore me.
In 1974, I joined the United Arab Emirates’ television, in Dubai, as a decor designer; I still hold this position. Meanwhile, I found enough time to be with myself away from the chatter of art and the theories of beauty included in books. I continued the education of cinematography in the Arts Academy, in Cairo, until I obtained a higher education diploma. I did not practice movie direction because I was away from Cairo, the capital of Arabic movies. Also, it was difficult to convince producers to finance, at least, a million-pound movie in order to test out the expertise of a new director. Hence, television was my only choice; I directed two short dramas, one that I wrote and the other written by Fayez Ghalli. Also, I wrote another text which was sold to a production company and was directed by Ibrahim Al Shakankiri. Although obtaining several contracts, I did not finalize any of them since I was convinced that producing art or becoming rich is very difficult through the Arabic television drama. This is purely a production issue and has no relation to the capabilities of the Arabic artists. I found an opportunity, though, in cultural studies where I wrote and directed a study, in seventeen episodes, on the history of the World Theater and the Arab’s relation to this art. I completed thirteen episodes on the history of movies in the world. Also, thirty-three episodes on costumes as a cultural appearance and its relation with the overall development of civilization, naturally with special focus on the Arabic region, were concluded.
Meanwhile, many studies were published on the Arabic art movement and several books were issued on this subject as well. Several of these studies made a mention to me, either briefly or in depth. During this period, which I still live through, old issues still have no definite resolutions. I can claim that I formed myself some thoughts on the boundaries of the story and the composition in painting; since several of the major paintings in the world tell a story or their values are linked to a story. The escape from this shortage would, in many ways, bring the artist to the area of poetry, which is a slippery path and not less dangerous than the path of the story.
The fundamental issue still holds: Why do people choose to draw or paint? We will find many historical answers, which only make it more difficult to understand both the questions and the answers. Despite all of this, artists, including myself, will probably never cease to paint, carve, or shape.