Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Freedom Fries

An American and a Chinese were arguing about their freedom to talk in their countries.
American : The Constitution gives us the freedom to shout that George W. Bush is an idiot right in front of the White House!

Chinese : Thats nothing. We can shout that George W. Bush is an idiot right in front of our president... and get a reward too!
It's getting near the 4th of July weekend, and I suppose I am reflecting on the idea of "Freedom" more than I normally would. I have met many amazing people but there are only a select few that I would consider free or whose pursuit of freedom manifested itself in ways that were interesting to me.

One person that comes to mind is Dr. Ala Bashir, former personal physician to Saddam Hussein and respected artist who also penned "The Insider", a book based on his experiences inside Iraq.

Dr. Bashir is tall and thin and possesses a stillness of character one usually associates with men of great spiritual discipline. He moves slowly and speaks with great thought and gentleness and his calmness creates a subtle magnetism that tugs you a little closer.

Dr. Bashir's relationship with freedom was something I witnessed during an exhibition of his art in New Haven, CT. Surrounding him were local real estate developers, magazine publishers, Yale professors and more than the fair share of the idle rich.

The showing featured works he painted during the Hussein regime and they are extraordinarily powerful in symbolism and dramatic use of primary reds, blues and greens. I often felt my breath involuntarily leave my lungs as I came upon one of his paintings in the gallery.

Surrounded by people bearing wine glasses and fruit plates, Dr. Bashir would introduce each painting, giving the audience the meaning of the symbols as he knew them and the circumstances under which he was inspired to paint them, which were usually in his dreams.

After Bashir spoke, the audience would ask many questions,

"Did you mean this when you painted it?", "Could the use of this symbol mean....", "Was this a political statement of...", "Do you believe in God?"

I say the audience asked questions, but the truth is most were statements disguised with a question mark, designed to aggrandize the intelligence of the speaker rather than a call for understanding and I silently suppressed many cringes as I listened.

To each question, Bashir would politely say no, I did not mean that, I did not mean this, I do not think this work shows I believe what you say, I do not feel that way. This painting was in my head, and I needed to paint it.

As I stood there with a glass of red wine and a pressed white shirt, it occured to me that as Dr. Bashir battled these attempts at philosophical rationalization of his art, he was actually engaging in a personal battle for his own freedom.

Instead of being surrounded by a group of wealthy Americans, it seemed to me that Dr. Bashir was in a sea of tiny dictators, each one saying "You must be this! You must think this! You must believe this! You must be what I believe you to be and nothing else, because I say it must be so!"

Bashir replies, "No."

I hope Dr. Bashir will forgive me if I imagine him thinking that the word 'no' is unique in all the world because it is only free men who can can speak it without fear.

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