A legacy of light from the sorrow of death
By Robert Fisk, Saturday, 16 April 2011
There are some individual things in life so terrible, so unspeakable, so hideous that ordinary language no longer works. A few days ago, Isis Nassar, a 54-year-old British-Lebanese artist, a woman who paints portraits and landscapes filled with so much colour that they almost glow in the dark, was following her habit of travelling the world, teaching art to the poor and painting their lands.
She was in Belize. From Korea to Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Nigeria, “Palestine”, Libya, Indonesia, Papua, she had painted thousands of works of ever-increasing sophistication.
I first met her years ago when the Barbican hung her devastatingly painful landscape of the 1982 Palestinian massacre at Sabra and Chatila, carried out by Israel’s Lebanese militia allies. It was wide scale – as it should have been – but when the Israeli Symphony Orchestra came to play at the Barbican, it insisted it be removed. The intriguing side to this, of course, was that the orchestra’s demand recognised the guilt of its own country in this war crime. Israeli troops had watched the massacre by their allies, and had done nothing. But, needless to say, the Barbican cravenly caved in and removed the canvas. I broke the story in The Independent at the time.
In any event, a few days ago, Isis was in the small home where she was staying in Belize when someone broke into the house, stripped her, tied her hands and feet together and cut her throat. The friend with whom she was staying found her body. An American sex offender was arrested for deportation to the US while a Belizean was questioned by the local police who – working in what I have since discovered is one of the murder capitals of the world – are probably pretty awful at their job.
Isis’s 85-year-old father Edward, of whom I wrote in January this year and whose son died several years ago, travelled to Belize with a young relative, Nada Nassar, to bring Isis home via the US – a process which involved the usual heartless bureaucratic delays in Belize and an equally heartless initial refusal to allow Edward to travel through Florida because, though English, he didn’t have a US visa. Isis was buried last week in the beautiful family cemetery above Beirut.
I noticed that the Belize newspapers used the usual clichés. Isis had been “brutally murdered”. But I somehow found this uniquely unsatisfactory. Yes, all murders are brutal. But her own murder was so iniquitous that the phrase didn’t work. I was simply speechless. And then, last week, I was reading a terrifying history of the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union in the Second World War and realised that Isis’s cruel end was faced by tens of thousands – indeed, millions – of Russians. The Nazis were like that. That’s the way they treated women. The Russians took their own terrible revenge in 1945, of course, but that’s another story. And that’s when I grasped what had happened to Isis. She was the victim of an atrocity every bit as terrible as the war crimes committed by the Nazis.
So when Isis’s father invited me to see him again a week ago – for a chat and then for lunch – I was stricken with the old question. What do you say? I’m tired of the limp “sorry”, how terrible, etc, that we use with the families of innocent victims. He said something most eloquently – and frailer than ever – in his little antiquities museum which is partly dedicated to Isis’s work: “I am 85 and I should be dead and Isis should be alive.” I apologised for not coming to the official condoléance gathering on the grounds that in Lebanon this usually involved a lot of families who all hated each other. He burst out laughing. “Robert, I’d rather take you to lunch.” I did tell him that I thought the Second World War word “atrocity” was what fitted this terrible act and he thought about it and agreed.
On such occasions, I usually let a grieving relative talk – to find out what they want to talk about – and sure enough, Edward wanted to talk about the brilliance of his daughter. He had decided to open a second museum dedicated to Isis’s work. He had even brought a large number of sketches from her now deserted home, many of them, I thought, of women who must have been Papuan and Nigerian. “I want to dedicate my life to her work,” he said to me, “and I want someone to write her biography, using so many of her colour paintings in the book. That is the only way I can give my further existence a meaning, you see.” I said that, alas, I knew no one skilled enough to write the biography – if Independent readers can think of one, by the way, please write to me (snail mail, of course) at the paper in London – but I agreed that his project was a fine one. In any event, we drove up to Edward’s lovely home over the Mediterranean and smoked his Cohiba cigars and ate wonderfully on heaps of Lebanese kibbé and sambousek jibneh and fine vegetable tahina laced with onions. Isis’s empty family chair was at the table opposite me. And all the while, we were surrounded by dozens of Isis’s paintings.
I remember reading recently that the German artist Hans Hofmann once wrote: “In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light.” And Edward agreed with me that this description seemed to apply almost uniquely to Isis’s work. There was a painting in front of me that I guessed – correctly – was of the Irish coast. And behind Edward a spectacular mountain made up of every colour of the rainbow. I could smell the oil paint. And so, as they say, I took my leave and drove back to Beirut and Edward went for his afternoon siesta. An atrocity it was. But no more words to say.