Last week I was preoccupied with the implications of Vayeira and the aqedah, but Abraham’s tent and his encounter with the three angels still resonate in my memory.
While Chagall’s etching of the episode (left) are familiar to many, the images of Chinese printmaker He Qi (right) often inspire my reflections. Unlike Chagall’s Ashkenaz elder, Qi envisions a Semitic tribal chieftain, brown-skinned and colorfully-robed, and includes Sarah in the encounter; in addition, the scale of the figures in Qi’s print reflects engagement with relationships, rather than the distance implicit in Chagall’s illustration. Sarah’s presence in Qi’s tent is unusual – so many illustrations of the angel’s visit only acknowledge Abraham visually.
The role of women in the power of the tent, their ability to create the medium, even opportunity, for human experience of prophecy is clearly reflected in an exhibit of Suzani tapestries sponsored by my neighbor Maryanne in her Philadelphia textile gallery, the Maryanne Conheim Gallery. We have known one another for nearly twenty years, have made music together, and share a love of contra-dancing. My desk chair rolls along one of Maryanne’s Kilim rugs, and a favorite hand-woven winter hat was purchased at one of her gallery’s holiday events.
For the past few months Maryanne’s gallery has featured an exhibit of suzani, women’s tribal textiles from Uzbekistan. Their name derives from the Persian suzan (سوزن), which means “needle”; the art of making these textiles is called suzankāri (سوزنکاری), or “needlework” (in Persian Farsi, at least). These wonderful embroidered tapestries are made by women in a number of other central-Asian countries, including Kazakhstan and Tajikstan. According to one source, the name in Aramaic may also mean “tribal beautiful”.
This “tribal beauty” is very much a part of why Maryanne Conheim values these textiles, pursues them, purchases them, and purveys them. She believes that we
should be introduced to the work of people we regard as hostile …. the lands where they live are hostile, pretty much rock and scrub grass, so their textiles are like their gardens – but in this case, made of linen and silk. Like the rugs that come from their area, these are part of their aesthetic expression …. These artisans are nomadic; suzani are their portable art, their visual gardens, and they can carry them wherever they go.
Now that autumn has finally arrived, and there is a persistent chill in the air, I am glad to find moments of warmth and respite in these tapestries made by Uzbeki women. I am in no way hostile to the gardens of these Muslim embroiderers. Rather, I am drawn to their singular beauty, and I smile at their depiction of the ordinary moments of life. Abraham and Sarah, in the relative stability of their tent, must have been thankful for the same pitcher of water or tea urn, or smiled at the cock and hen strutting, as are illustrated in these silk and linen treasures (there are more photos here); after all, this is the impermanent world of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Torah.
And Maryanne’s point is well taken: it is possible to find beauty and respite in these tapestries, in the expressive culture of the Muslim women of Uzbekistan. How reassuring it is that we share a love of imaginary gardens … for me, my sukkah and other needlework, for them (perhaps) the suzani.
This is the tent of peace we can make for ourselves, and like the Uzbeki carpets and tapestries, we can carry this tent wherever we go.