To Be Free: Mona Hatoum’s Map (mobile)
To Be Free: Mona Hatoum’s Map (mobile), 20 August 2023
A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
11th Sunday after Trinity
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10-28
There has been a copy of the Faber Atlas in my parents’ bookcase for as long as I can remember. When I flick through its pages, I am reminded of some of the changes through which the world has lived in the six decades since its publication. The contours of the continents and islands have not altered, but what lies within them has. Kiev – still spelt in the same way as the breadcrumbed and garlicky chicken dish – sits within an entity called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Rhodesia dominates the landscape of southern Africa. And Kent, where my parents live, is shown as an active coal mining area.
For millions of men and women, of course, those changes and those that precede them mean far more than a changed colour or a new designation on the pages of an atlas. Many of us have stories to tell of what those changes have meant. My grandmother was forced to leave the island where she had been born and which was her family home when the Great Powers ceded it to Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne one hundred years ago. And I vividly remember stepping into a lift in a university building one autumn afternoon a few years ago. In it was a young woman wearing a hijab. We travelled from the top floor of a library to the ground floor. I asked her where she was from. ‘Nowhere’ she said. ‘I’m from nowhere. I’m from Gaza’.
It’s upon the shifting boundaries of our world that Mona Hatoum invites us to reflect in her Map, which hangs in the South Transept. Pieces of glass are suspended from the vault in a giant mobile. They are constantly in motion. Sometimes they reflect what’s around them. Sometimes they are almost invisible. They are cut in the shapes of the continents and islands of the Earth – at least, of some of them. My grandmother’s tiny island doesn’t feature and neither does the much larger island of Cyprus, where she eventually came to live. That itself is something to ponder. Mona Hatoum’s Map invites us to contemplate a world in flux.
It’s a world that Hatoum knows well. She was born in Beirut, the daughter of Palestinian refugees who fled there in 1948. As an aside, Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, per capita and per square kilometre, despite being tiny and despite being desperately impoverished. That’s something that appears to be lost on opinion-formers and contemporary policymakers in this country. Hatoum was visiting the UK in 1975 when the Lebanese civil war broke out: she has remained here.
My observation is that visitors to the Cathedral appear entranced by the playful beauty of the work: perhaps its novelty conceals effectively the displacement and alienation that its polished surfaces represent. The Palestinian American writer Edward Said writes of Mona Hatoum’s art that it is ‘hard to bear’. But in this case our confidence with maps (whether in the Faber Atlas or on our satnavs), our nostalgic attachment to the mobiles of our childhood – and, perhaps, our ease with where we are in the world – apparently enables us to bear it and even to enjoy it.
Our ease. The story of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman has caused Christians bewilderment and embarrassment for generations. She is bold: she comes at Jesus shouting. She is respectful: she addresses him as Lord. She is faithful: she trusts that he can heal her demon-stricken daughter. She is persistent: when rebuffed she kneels before him and says ‘Lord, help me’. Yet her boldness, her respect, her faithfulness, and her persistence are met with a comment that would today have its maker cancelled – we might think, rightly. ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. No amount of wriggling by the Scriptural commentators – that Jesus spoke with a smile on his face, or that Jesus spoke of darling pets rather than mongrel strays – no amount of wriggling can disguise the blatant racism of the comment. The Canaanite woman and her family are likened to dogs.
In this instance at least, Jesus seems at ease with where he is in the world. He is not exempt from the societal prejudices of his day: that the group to which he belongs is somehow different, privileged, special; that others are inferior. Saint Paul is not exempt either: he is keen to stress to his readership in Rome that he went to the right school and is a member of the right club. He is an Israelite; he is a member of the tribe of Benjamin; he is one of Abraham’s descendants. Mona Hatoum’s beguiling Map may seek to persuade us that this sense of belonging, by which we set such great store, is transient. But it is evidently stubborn, even for Salisbury-dwellers who know that their city has not always been in south-west England but was once on the fringes of the Kingdom of Wessex. I know that when I look at Hatoum’s mobile my first impulse is to seek out the place I know best, and then to look elsewhere in relation to it.
How might we reconcile our profound need to belong with the reality that our attachments will not outlast history’s inexorable passage, and the reality that for far too many of our neighbours, the need to belong is unmet?
In the second of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot writes ‘Home is where one starts from’, acknowledging the instinct for the familiar and the comforting, for the setting which we know and where we are welcome. But home is where we start from, not where we stay, and certainly not where we atrophy in idleness. ‘Old men ought to be explorers’ he continues:
‘We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.’
For Eliot, the journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the known to the unknown is the journey of faith, in which who we trust matters more than where we live or what language we speak. The Canaanite woman meets Jesus on his own terms. She turns his dog jibe aside with one of her own: ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’. And that seems to be enough for Jesus: ‘Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’.
When we look at the mobile, we see the world afresh. We see it from a multitude of angles. We see new juxtapositions. We see new relationships. We belong in it, and, if we are lucky, we know that we belong in an identifiable part of it. But that part cannot be our prison. Being English – or Spanish – is about to be of particular importance to many today. But allegiance to a place, to a flag, or even to a team, is not the whole truth of us. Discovering what is – discovering what it is to be free – will require of us courage and God’s grace. Amen.