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The idea is simple and, like its central element, forcefully attractive. Ahmed Mater gives a twist to a magnet and sets in motion tens of thousands of particles of iron, a multitude of tiny satellites that form a single swirling nimbus. Even if we have not taken part in it, we have all seen images of the Hajj, the great annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca. Ahmed's black cuboid magnet is a small simulacrum of the black-draped Kaaba, the 'Cube', that central element of the Meccan rites. His circumambulating whirl of metallic filings mirrors in miniature the concentric tawaf of the pilgrims, their sevenfold circling of the Kaaba.
Al-Bayt al-'Atiq, the Ancient House, to give the Kaaba another of its names, is ancient – indeed archetypal - in more than one way. The cube is the primary building-block, and the most basic form of a built structure. And the Cube, the Kaaba is also Bayt Allah, the House of the One God: it was built by Abraham, the first monotheist, or in some accounts by the first man, Adam. Its site may be more ancient still: 'According to some traditions,' the thirteenth-century geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi wrote, 'the first thing God created on earth was the site of the Ka'bah. He then spread out the earth from beneath this place. Thus it is the navel of the earth and the mid-point of this lower world and the mother of villages.' The circumambulation of the pilgrims, Yaqut goes on to explain on the authority of earlier scholars, is the earthly equivalent of the angels' circling the heavenly throne of God, seeking His pleasure after they had incurred Hiswrath. To this day, and beyond, the Kabah is a focal point of atonement and expiation; in the Qur'anic phrase, 'a place of resort for mankind and a place of safety'.
Ahmed Mater's Magnetism, however, gives us more than simple simulacra of that Ancient House of God. His counterpoint of square
and circle, whorl and cube, of black and white, light and dark, places the primal elements of form and tone in dynamic equipoise. And there is another dynamic
and harmonious opposition implicit in both magnetism and pilgrimage – that of attraction and repulsion. The Kaaba is magnet and centrifuge: going away, going back home,
is the last rite of pilgrimage. There is, too, a lexical parallel: the Arabic word
for 'to attract', jadhaba, can also on occasion signify its opposite, 'to repel'. ('In Arabic, everything means itself, its opposite, and a camel,' somebody once said; not to be taken literally, of course, although the number of self-contradictory entries in the dictionary is surprising.)
And yet all this inbuilt contrariness is
not so strange: 'Without contraries,' as William Blake explained, 'there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion
... are necessary to human existence.'
But Ahmed Mater's magnets and that larger, Meccan lodestone of pilgrimage can also draw us to things beyond the scale of human existence, and in two directions at once – out to the macrocosmic, and in, to the subatomic. In the swirl of Ahmed's magnetized particles and the orbitings of the Mecca pilgrims are intimations of the whirl of planets, the gyre of galaxies.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Sana'a, Yemen
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