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Qatari artist Yasser Al Mulla: Drawing a Sufi controversy | News

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Doha, Qatar – Yasser Al Mulla’s colourless, intricately lined drawings chromatically compliment his crisp white ankle-length thobe and ringed black egal.

As a Qatari agricultural engineer, Al Mulla spends his days developing the greenery around Doha and perfecting grass pitches in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. But in his evenings, he delineates themes of Sufism and various cultures with discursive black lines on a vast white canvas.

Though his artwork has been praised for its mystifying attention to detail, some have questioned why Al Mulla, a 38-year-old Sunni Muslim, depicts the philosophies of the Sufi tradition for leisure.

“I get a lot of comments from people asking ‘why Sufism? Are you Sufi?’ which they don’t like,” Al Mulla told Al Jazeera in his studio recently. “They don’t understand that it is a way of life more than a religion, but I don’t mind. It opens the door for them to do more research.”

Since high school, Al Mulla has been fascinated by the poems and teachings Mansur Al Hallaj, a Sufi preacher who is best known for his saying: “I am the truth.” Many have interpreted it as a claim to divinity, while others believe it to be a mystical defeat of the ego that allows God to speak through an individual.

“I’ve been in love with Al Hallaj for a very long time, ever since I had questions of creation and read for the truth,” said Al Mulla. “The amount of peace and philosophy in his writings have inspired me.”





Al Mulla seen here in his studio in Doha [Ayilah Chaudhary/Al Jazeera]

From a distance, Al Mulla’s drawings resemble inky scribbles. A few steps closer reveal a religious or cultural motif, such as Whirling Dervishes or The Khalifat Visitors of the Abbasid Caliphate, with meandering lines and geometric shapes rippling around them. The figures are doodle-like illustrations, while the lines are contrastingly opaque, undulating and parallel, similar to a moire pattern.

In all of his drawings, Al Mulla attempts to “raise questions” in his art and depict his thoughts through the use of discursive, achromatic lines. “With colours, an artist can say a lot of things,” said Al Mulla, who has a colour-mixed optic condition. “But the line technique is limitless, you can attract people to the ideas inside your brain through endless lines.”

Al Mulla began creating Sufism-inspired line drawings as a 2017-18 resident of the Doha Fire Station, a former emergency services headquarters-turned art hub in the Qatar capital.

His studio furnishings do not deviate from his monochrome theme – the couch is black, the white walls are used as canvases and the floor is sprinkled with ebony black pens that Al Mulla decides not to be used twice. As he commits hours to a drawing after compelling inspiration presses his mind, Beethoven’s piano compositions gently play in the background.

“This is not work for me; it relieves me from the stresses of work,” said Al Mulla.

He studied engineering at Qatar University and law at Cairo University, but did not begin drawing until 2015, at age 35. One night, he had a vivid dream about a tsunami and chose to sketch it with a coal-black pen, and consequently discovered his artistic ability. “After that, I never looked back. I am more balanced after I started art. I am happier than I was years ago because I have my answers now, which I try to put in my paintings.”

He finds his reputation shift to an artist difficult to reconcile with since he was previously known as “the engineer guy”, working on landscape projects from Doha’s Aspire Park to those commissioned by Qatar’s emir himself.

Al Mulla has gained significant popularity for his landscape art, which is an external representation of his artistic ability. His agricultural work for the World Cup beautifies otherwise barren areas of Qatar and was recently profiled by The New York Times. Regardless of his success, Al Mulla does not want his career to be his “only thing”.





The term Sufi stems from “Suf”, the Arabic word for wool, and refers to a garment in which Sufi mystics are often depicted [Ayilah Chaudhary/Al Jazeera]

He dedicates certain days of the week entirely to his wife and three children, a certain day to his parents as the eldest son and certain nights to his drawings.

“I don’t follow an exact schedule, but I know I don’t want to be consumed by work.” Similarly, Al Mulla doesn’t have an exact plan in mind before he draws, but rather a preliminary abstraction of what to include. “I have an idea, then it will just come to me on the canvas.”

According to Al Mulla, he paints “under the influence of [his] whole life”. He said that all people are “accumulation of knowledge, experiences and culture” and he attempts to present his own through ambiguous thin and thick black lines against a once-vacant white space.

When asked whether he believes in Sufism, Al Mulla said, “People need to have the spirit of the Quran and the Hadith. In Qatar, nobody will ask you why you are Muslim, but we need to be more open to the good things in other thoughts and ideas.”

In addition to the personal motivations behind his art, Al Mulla said the controversy of the Sufi influence in his drawings helps with creating open-mindedness in Qatar.

The colourless nature of Al Mulla’s drawings makes them appear two-dimensional at a first glance. However, Al Mulla claims to hide philosophical messages in his long, contoured lines to prompt viewers to learn.

“People don’t need to change, but they need to read more and know more, and then judge,” he said. “I am opening the door for them to do that.”

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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