musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Shaarif the Artist

My girlfriend recently showed me an article her boss wrote. It is a simple piece about one woman's taxi cab journeys in DC, and how short discussions with drivers were symbolic microcosms of the larger world events arena. Whether Somali, Pakistani or Bolivian, each cab driver in our city has a unique story and an opinion on most everything. Maybe it's because they listen to NPR 24/7, but I would venture to say that DC cabs, albeit terrible drivers, are some of the most learned and cultured I have ever encountered.

I have been in countless cabs like the ones she describes in the article, yet it never crossed my mind to document them. Indeed, if it weren't for that article I would not even be writing about my new friend, Shaarif the Artist...

Sitting at lunch, minding my own business while devouring a Cosi Cobb, a heavily accented voice simply states that "Cosi has the best salads in town." After casually looking around to see if anyone else around was eating a salad, I realize that the comment was directed at me.

"I agree, Cosi has great salads..." I respond awkwardly, still not fully turning around to see the initiator.

"How would this look on a 2 meter canvas?" inquires the mystery man, at which point I put down my fork and turn around. Sitting behind me is a short African man with dreads, several necklaces, and an all around Bob Marley-esque aura. No one else in the restaurant seems to notice him there. Not an islander, he probably hails from somewhere I know very little about. His speech, gruff yet seemingly educated, is a convoluted mixture of French and English, all heavily influenced by an African dialect that I can not understand.

I look at the sketch. A human form is slouched on the ground, one leg bent, the other straight, arms folded on the bent leg just high enough to mostly cover an indistinct face. The sketch is deliberately washed out... haunting, yet strangely beautiful. "What colors would you use on your canvas?"

This seems to have thrown him off a bit. "I don't know actually, I haven't thought about it."

"I think you should make the background dark, almost like a shadow, with the body slightly illuminated by a dull light."

"Hmm. I agree. You are an artist..." The last comment was a question.

"No. But I do take a photograph here and there."

"Then, my friend, you are an artist."

"If you say so."

After a few quick attempts to show me his other work, perhaps in hopes that I would purchase one, he realized that I was not interested in any sort of business arrangement. "My grandfather is a painter," I say to assuage his disappointment.

"Ah, so it is in your blood. Where is he from?"


"Ah, he is a great artist. Turkey was a stop on the silk road, full of art. Yes, your grandfather is a great artist." After agreeing with him and having just finished my salad, I stood up and prepared to re-enter the bustling reality of Connecticut Avenue. "What is your passion young businessman? What is your art?"

"Writing. I like to write."

"Then, my friend, you will be a great writer. What is your name?"

After giving him my name, he responded with "My name is Shaarif. I will see you again. You are a great artist."

As I walked out, back into the chilly afternoon sun, I couldn't help but feel as though I had just been transported directly into Paolo Coelho's latest philosophical masterpiece. Shaarif, the oddly-dressed roamer with rough hands and a wispy beard, did not know me from Adam. He had no idea the inner turbulence going on in my head, not about art per se, but about life, direction, and purpose. He did not know me, yet he told me exactly what I needed to hear. Art is a beautiful thing, but more important than art is the inspiration one receives from doing what one loves to do. This man probably had very little earthly possessions to his name, but by painting, sculpting, and sketching, Shaarif was a happy man. Art is what he is most passionate about. It is what inspires him to wake up and pay attention to life everyday.

I turned at the front door, hoping to catch his eye once again. He was gone. Or perhaps he was never there...