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Güler Ates

Isimsiz, 2008, Archival Digital Print, 51 x 51 cm, Collection of the artist, © Guler Ates, courtesy of Bridgeman Images; Photo: courtesy of the artist

Mona Hatoum

Impenetrable, 2009, Steel and Nylon monofilament, 300 x 300 x 300 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Purchased with funds contributed by the Collections Council and the International Director's Council, with additional funds from Ann Ames, Tiqui Atencio Demirdjian, and Marcio Fainzilber, 2012, 2012.10, © Mona Hatoum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY

Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Oxford Tree, 2001, Pen, ink, and coloured ink on Bristol board, 34 x 34 cm, Private Collection, London, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London; Photo: Courtesy of Vigo gallery and the artist

Transgression to Transformation

Comparative Commentary by

The brevity of the book of Ruth belies its significance. It offers an answer to some of the most important questions the people of Israel grapple with throughout the Old Testament. How are we to respond to outsiders? How should we understand and inhabit boundaries? Are we allowed to transgress them? Mona Hatoum, Güler Ates, and Ibrahim El Salahi grapple with similar questions in the contemporary context.

While its date is disputed, Ruth was written at a time of precarity. If authored before the Israelites’ sixth-century BCE experience of exile, this was because of threats to the Davidic monarchy. If post-exilic, this was because people were trying to come to terms with the profound trauma of forcible displacement.

Uncertainty and fear tend to provoke concern about identity and material resources, and an ongoing debate concerning how to respond to those defined as ‘other’ to Israel rumbles on behind this text. Who was to be included and given access to the holy places and rights to land, wealth, and power? Who should be legitimately excluded? How tightly were boundaries to be drawn between ‘us’—Israelites, the people of God—and ‘them’—the others, foreigners? Can we intermarry with outsiders or will they pollute and threaten us?

Two trajectories of response solidified over time. One urged exclusivity. We glimpse it in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, where intermarriage is condemned and foreigners are prohibited from entering the Temple. Another urged inclusivity. It encouraged care to be offered to the alien and hospitality to be showed to the stranger (e.g. Leviticus 19:33–34). It envisaged the mountain of the Lord being one to which all people and nations of the world would come and dwell together (Isaiah 55–56). The book of Ruth epitomizes this second strand.

Ruth—the book and the character—interrogates and transgresses borders. Borders create others, and Ruth is the ultimate outsider. She dwells on the wrong side of religious, cultural, and social boundaries of her time. Moab was considered to be an archenemy of Israel, as the Moabites had refused to help the people of Israel on their way to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 23:4) and Moab was born through an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:36–37). Also, Ruth is a woman, and—what is more—a childless widow at a time when being barren was a sign of divine disfavour.

Hatoum’s Impenetrable evokes the stark inhospitality that outsiders like Ruth—past and present—must overcome. It is an inhospitality which eats away at the space it purports to protect even as it is projected outwards, for the barbed wire borders do not just demarcate the cube’s edges. They constitute the cube. Borders become, so to speak, all that the cube is. So too the costly navigation of—and tripping up on—hostile borders can imbue the lives of migrants long after the physical crossing of a particular nation state line is over. And this infects the lives and experience of non-migrants dwelling in these spaces too.

But Ruth transgresses boundaries to become an agent of transformation. Through bearing Obed, she brings joy to Boaz and fills Naomi’s emptiness (4:13–17) and Obed’s name, meaning serving, underlines his role in God’s salvific plan. Ruth also encourages Boaz, and through him the broader community of Israel, to enlarge his understanding of the Torah law concerning the role of the kinsman redeemer (go’el) and the inclusion of outsiders. As Bergant puts it:

[t]he strange and potentially dangerous woman has become the agent of God’s salvation … the blessing of salvation comes from without (God) not from within (ourselves). (Bergant 2003: 52, 60)

The borders so menacingly evoked in Impenetrable—the vertical barbed wires that exclude and harm those that seek to pass by, over, or through them—turn metaphorically, then, into the life-giving vertical lines of El Salahi’s The Oxford Tree. His lines connect earth and heaven, transgressing the boundary between mundane and holy, to form the haraz tree that bursts with vivacity unexpectedly when all else has dried up around it. Just as El-Salahi’s tree fuses the vegetation and colours of Sudan with Western modernism—blending cultural, national, and aesthetic categories—so Ruth’s hybridity and boundary-crossing are the source of new life for Israel. She is like the woman in Ates’s Isimsiz. Resisting being fully known by others, Ruth’s gift begins with her otherness, courage, and movement. Both The Oxford Tree and Isimsiz suggest the strength and possibility that can come from without.

While human beings in their full subjectivity are noticeably absent from the three works of art, Ruth 3–4 is full of them. Fifty-five out of eighty-five verses in Ruth are spoken conversation, which is the highest proportion of dialogue to narrative in any biblical book (Sasson 1997: 320). Human relationship and conversation is where the key work of transgression towards transformation takes place. And it is through this presence of the characters to one another that God’s presence is made manifest.

 

References

Bergant, Dianne. 2003. ‘Ruth: The Migrant Who Saved the People’, in Migration, Religious Experience, and Globalization, ed. by G. Campese and P. Ciallella (New York: Center for Migration Studies), pp. 49–61

Sasson, Jack. 1997. ‘Ruth’, in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. by R. Alter and F. Kermode (London: Fontana), pp. 320–28