This day one year ago I was whining and complaining once again over the detailed drapery I was supposed to draw tied in the background to a bottle and a jar.
“Sharpen your pencil! I keep asking you to sharpen your pencil.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did. You saw me.”
“That’s not sharpening your pencil. Let me show you how.”
And he took my pencil and knife and sharpened it to a needlepoint, then he made me get off the chair and began to set an outline for the shadows and the curves that were evident in the drapery. He pointed to details I could barely notice. Thus began my first lesson in the most important prerequisite for art: patience. There was no chance for a good drawing with a real life looking outcome except with precision, and precision comes with patience.
He then walked away from my easel and left me to what was my third or fourth attempt as I silently cussed and cursed until it was time for me to leave. I was more or less satisfied with the result. The guy was right, I never sharpened my pencils. Before I left I decided to show him what I managed to accomplish and looked for him in the studio. I could overhear him talking to someone from his private room so I decided he was too busy. No big deal, I thought, I’ll see him again in two days and then I can show it to him.
Only he never got to see it again, and I never got to hear his voice again. A few hours later after I walked out of my last class with him, Saleh, that assertive, fiery, funny artist who walked into my life and shook it vigorously died of a heart attack at the age of 37. That bolt of lightening that used to show up suddenly behind my shoulder whenever my lines began to shake and dwindle out of frustration, was snuffed out as easily as a candle.
Before I met Saleh I had a liking for art, but as much as I used to enjoy drawing as a child my attempts never went too far beyond what they were; an eight year-old’s drawings. In the last few years, however, my liking turned into a passion, and I was always the type that needed to get physically busy, I needed to be able to express myself with something that was other than words, because sometimes emotions can run so sore it’s hard to find the right words to express them, or sometimes silence can be your best cry. Drawing can deliver emotions of love, anger, and serenity with the strokes of a pencil, and that was what I hoped to achieve but never dared to express for lack of confidence. So when I first walked into Saleh’s studio and looked around at the paintings and drawings I stood in awe as I stared at a detailed pencil drawing he told me was at entry level. “Could I possibly draw like that just by the end of the course? I can’t imagine,” I said with my eyes popping out with wonder. “Yes you could,” he replied, “and you will. You’ll see.” He said it with so much confidence that I felt a little puzzled and, to be honest, motivated.
Saleh was actually glad that I had no proper background except for my childhood drawings. Students of this kind are so much easier to teach, he said. It’s always easier for a beginner to learn new techniques than it is for an established artist to change to new ones. Art is always very subjective and affected by the person who delivers it to you, but a good messenger would take you bit by bit, hand in hand, until you’re strong enough to stand on your own and go on alone, developing your own approach and technique. That’s the kind of messenger Saleh was.
There’s not a day that goes by whenever I think of my drawing that I don’t see Saleh and remember the sound of his oud as he played for us in the background while we struggled with the shadow outlines–that incredible technique that, to me, is the whole difference between a real life picture and a drawing that is just a drawing; one that borders subjects with actual lines. Sometimes his dog, Picasso, would wiggle his tail and sit at his feet whenever he reached for his oud and begin to sing along each time Saleh began to play. His favorite song was Zorooni (visit me), a famous old sad Egyptian song lamenting loneliness: “visit me once a year, do not forget me.”
Little did I know then that I would be visiting Saleh every moment of every second I’m holding a pencil and staring at a blank page.
I recently went through my old morning pages and found that I had written this three days after Saleh had died:
Third morning I wake up with him gone. The emptiness surrounding me and the lump in my chest grows bigger everyday. I’m still left hanging from a cliff, his hands are no longer holding me up, I’m holding on to nothing but a thin rope we were supposed to strengthen together. Now it’s just me, my grip, and the rest of my body and soul in the air. Just what am I supposed to do now? I feel lost and helpless, but I can almost hear him say “Hold on with a stronger grip, pull yourself up and you’ll get there, and I’ll be there. You’ll find me when you try. I’ll always be there.”
After Saleh’s death, and at the very moment I walked into his empty studio to finish the drawing, met the grief-stricken eyes of his assistants and took his lonely, confused dog into my arms I resolved to turn my grief into art. There was no better way to honor his memory. So I set my easel and looked at that drapery that used to give me so much pain with much more determination. I could feel him looking over my shoulder as I did my layering with the perfectly sharpened pencil he had prepared to show me, and I began to draw with my tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. Luckily there was no one else to watch me except Picasso, who sat huddled in a corner with his eyes over me until he fell asleep. From that day on I decided to turn his loss into a positive energy that simmers within and brings out the best that it can.
When my drapery was done I left out the background where the outline he had done for me to illustrate his technique was on the side. A small, unintentional gift that I will continue to cherish.
And from that day on I didn’t put my pencil down. I had found that unspoken language I could use whenever words were nothing but a fuel for war. In a time when Egypt was even more turbulent in the summer of 2013 people were becoming more and more polarized as I felt more and more alienated from everyone. My only refuge was the art that Saleh taught me, so I grabbed my pencils and tried to draw some more on my own. I decided to draw my cat, and since there was no way I could keep him still I had to copy from pictures. Later I decided to draw Saleh himself. It was a rather ambitious project for me, he hadn’t gotten to a point where he explained human skin and how to depict it. I put every bit of emotion I felt for his memory out there, and I know that if it hadn’t been for this, the madness that was happening around me and the unsettling words that came to me from the social media would have killed me. I could see Egypt on the verge of a civil war and I had never felt more frightened. My friends may not have realized it, but without uttering a single word I let my passion bare itself for the world to see, and miraculously I was able to pull everyone together to agree at least on one thing: my work. It was a chance for me to remember the important things, and I thought perhaps it was a way to remind my friends to cherish the people they love every second, because life is very, very short.
For that reason and for countless others I thank Saleh. He may or may not know it, but I do visit him everyday.