The ‘Shock and Awe’ bombardments of the Second Gulf War, and the wonder of a five-year- old reflecting on the creation of each new day, seem like an unlikely marriage of inspirations, yet between them they gave rise to ‘Sound Palimpsest’ by Christ’s College Artist-in-Residence, Issam Kourbaj. The work is currently on show in the British Museum as part of the special display, ‘Iraq 's Past speaks to the Present’, complementing the Museum’s major historical exhibition, Babylon: Myth and Reality.

The dictionary definition of Palimpsest is ‘a parchment or the like, from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text’. Historians are beginning to use the term as a description of the way people experience time, that is, as a layering of present experiences over faded pasts. Issam Kourbaj Perhaps had both uses in mind when he created ‘Sound Palimpsest’ – an installation which layers fragments of books, children’s graffiti and Arabic songs on medical materials such as veterinary and hospital x-ray plates. The layering is then augmented with aural fragments of ordnance-sounds.

The inspiration for the work came in late February 2003, when Issam’s five-year-old son Mourad awoke and, as only 5-year olds can, asked his father: “How does the day come?” Issam says he didn’t dare answer such a universal question, resorting, as many parents do, asking his son how he thought day did arrive. Mourad answered “Is it the same as snow? God throws snowflakes, and God throws light flakes. Then God throws clouds and at night, he throws stars. But when it rains God throws rain flakes. And when it’s windy, God throws paper.”

The imagery of the answer resonated and lodged in Issam’s head, to be drawn on in the following days as America launched its ‘Shock and Awe’ bombardment of Iraqi targets.  In his own words: “Sound Palimpsest originated in thoughts welling up in me in reaction to the second invasion of Iraq, which have continued to preoccupy me since. The sheer brutality of the war-machine, and the fragility of the humans facing it, was the trigger for the project: I etched on x-ray plates and melted and cut them about and attacked their surfaces, as an echo of the war’s images of mutilated bodies. The first piece produced was called ‘Book of the dead, dismembered’. It was an angry and grim response. My son, fortunately, didn’t know that ‘when it is windy, God throws paper’ isn’t the all of it; in such times, bombs get thrown too, and human remains, and jarring voices – and the inventory of these events is on scorched, and blackened, and burned paper.”

Issam Kourbaj is Artist in Residence and Bye Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Sound Palimpsest will be on show at the British Museum until mid-March. 34 Islamic Gallery Booklet FINAL.pdf


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