Mounira Al Solh

Embroidering a monument to women’s stories and sorrow

Mounira Al Solh, A day is as long as a year, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris.

Growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Mounira Al Solh witnessed firsthand the ways in which war and conflict upend all aspects of life and wrench a region’s sense of history from its own hands. For “A day is as long as a year,” on view from April 9 to October 2 at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, the Beirut and Netherlands–based artist invited over thirty women to plumb their own personal heritages in order to collaborate on a prismatic display of their own traditions and contemporary realities. History may be written by the victors, but its most powerful tales are so often told by its survivors.

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER growing up in Beirut, I was always rushing around, staying so busy, trying to accomplish everything all at once. Time seemed to move so quickly. One day, I went to visit my grandmother, who was bedridden at that point. I must have been a bit frantic, because she said, Mounira, relax, a day is as long as a year. That phrase really stayed with me. I had never before considered how different that time must feel to this wise, elderly woman, and how prolonged her days must be, lying there. Everything, even the experience of minutes, hours, and days, is intensely relative.

That phrase became the title of the tent that, in turn, gives this exhibition its name. The tent is a collaboration with thirty women and is a personalized replica of an imperial tent that was made for Muhammad Shah during the Qajar dynasty in Iran, in the early nineteenth century. I first encountered it online, in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s digital collection. These tents had many ceremonial and practical uses and were a symbol of power and sovereign authority. But they were generally the province of men. I thought it would be meaningful to copy Muhammad Shah’s tent, in a similar way to how art students are often required to copy the Old Masters. These tents are my heritage, and by copying one, I am learning. It felt like an especially powerful venue for women to share their stories and express their sorrow. 

The embroidery on the ceiling panels of the tent was done by Lebanese women who live in the high mountains. Most of them aren’t married and rely on their embroidery for income. I also worked with women from Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco, Turkey, South Africa, and the Netherlands, where I currently live. The Persian women were very proud to be able to restitch an Iranian tent. My collaborators are asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, and supportive locals. We were meeting weekly; the women would take segments home and embroider while in bed, or in front of the TV. Then we would reconvene and put our pieces together, compare them, let them evolve in tandem. Inside the original tent, the name of the Shah and the artisan were embroidered inside; I asked each woman to embroider her own.

The banners above the tent are made from fabric that, in Lebanon, is typically used to make curtains for balconies. Balconies are everywhere in Beirut—they’re considered semipublic property, actually. But curtains went out of style after the war, during reconstruction; pollution had become so bad in the city, and glass windows replaced curtains. I had been reading an essay by the Lebanese sociologist and writer Ahmad Beydoun about the origins of Arabic words and letters, so I became fascinated with wordplay. One banner reads mlik (ملِك), or “king”—a small tweak turns it into lakam (لكم), which translates to “punch.” Another banner reads raghab (رغب), or “desire”; the other way around it says ghabar (غبر), which means “dust.”

Language and history are quite similar. The closer you look, the more you can see how every small strand is connected. During my research, I saw cypress trees appear in Palestinian cross-stitching as well as being used as a common symbol in the embroidery of the Greek island of Rhodes. I listen to people tell many different stories of their lives during the same wars. Because I am half Syrian, my family fled to Syria during the Lebanese civil war. Now, Syrians are fleeing to Lebanon. I met someone from Afghanistan who lived in Iran as a refugee, and later, as an Iranian, had to send her son to fight in the Syrian civil war, where he perished. Every story is linked.

With “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous,” 2012–, I wanted to document people affected by the wars, and how they fled to Lebanon, and how Lebanon treats them—lifetimes spent amid conflict. I wanted to recapture the history of Lebanon and Syria and Palestine and Iraq and the neighboring countries through the people’s stories. I sketch my subjects and write down our conversations as we sit together. It’s not a formal interview or portrait sitting; we drink coffee or tea and have a nice chat. Sometimes, you can capture someone just with their eye, or a simple movement. These moments of talking and sharing are restorative. Growing up during the war, even when there were bombs falling on our city, we had to find ways to laugh, to crack jokes, to experience something else together. The explosion in Beirut on August 4 of last year was another huge devastation. I immediately thought that no one survived. I wanted to then dedicate A day is as long as a year to recognizing pain and loss. People forget that planet Earth really is one large tent that we have all stitched together, and that we must care for it together in order to survive.