His hands are constantly moving. Controlled like a good mechanic or someone who has spent a lifetime serving in the military. He talks as he works, methodically trimming and preparing the meat, then sliding it onto stainless steel skewers. At intervals, as if determined in some prehistoric era, he glances back towards the fire to examine its heat. His cigarette joins in the dance and adds allure to the fluid and precise movements of the speaker. The smoke from the meat fire combines with the Winston and frames the scene. His hair is dark, dappled with grey in all the right places, he wears a manicured mustache and his skin is tan like most men in the region. Short but solidly built. Round shoulders and rough hands, hardened by 30 years of work with wooden handled tools. But unlike most men I’ve met, he carries himself like a poet, seeing radiance when the rest of us see routine. Shrouded with mystery and magic and protected from the harsh shapes and bold outlines that often define the existence of lesser men.
His name is Saladin. He has agreed to share his story with us and a meal with me. The story began centuries ago in the
Middle East, when a charismatic leader won a momentous battle at Hattin that marked a turning point in a historic struggle. On a Roman road near Tiberias, in present day Israel, Saladin the first sultan of Egypt and Syria defeated the Crusaders, delivering a crippling blow that paved the way for the re-capture of in 1187 by the Ayyubid dynasty. Saladin founded this Muslim empire centered in Palestine and of Kurdish origin. His chivalry and vision distinguished him as both a leader and adversary, a unique man then and now. Despite being the nemesis of the Crusaders, King Richard the Lionheart spoke of him with respect and even today he is a celebrated example of the principles of chivalry in both eastern and western cultures alike, a legacy of balance in an atmosphere pitching with conflict and contradictions. Our Saladin is also a king, both in name and character. Situated in a new crucible of conflict, but also marking a turning point and acting as a catalyst for change still to come. Egypt
Commanding chisels and gouges, instead of armies, our Saladin spends his days carving doors, staircases, and moldings, for
After dinner he demonstrates his process by taking a blank walnut panel and quickly sketching out a scene in pencil. He escapes into his work as I wonder about the simplicity of his success and the elegance of his hand. He continues talking about the direction the picture could go, as well as commenting on the direction of art and creativity in
. He agrees that there is a need for more imagination in this culture struggling with its past and path. Like shaping a piece of art, he carefully encourages his children to be artists in a political and economic environment unfriendly to imaginative means. Back at the table with tea, we travel back in time with him as he lays out pictures of past projects and a life time of work. But according to our leader his work is not work at all, but rather a release. When I ask what he thinks about while he labors, he describes a flight to a new world surrounded by the scene he wants to create. Fashioning his future with each thrust of the hand and sealing his heroic fate. I’ve traveled enough to know how rare it is in both this culture and abroad to enjoy your occupation. Most men can’t see beyond the nearest supervisor or the era’s social expectation. But like a King, our Saladin rules his work and inspires, building his empire out of imagination and love of details and the ability to escape into a fantastic world swirling with regal white birds silhouetted against a purple sky. Azerbaijan
Our Saladin’s story may not appear in the history books, but he has left his mark on me.
Saladin has artwork for sale and can be contacted at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Peace Corps Volunteer