Mark and Sami Bryant – Our Pastwn for Hanan Issa, National Poet of Wales20 February 2023
Mark and Sami Bryant have known Hanan Issa for several years and were both pleased to hear the news that she had been named National Poet of Wales. At the Muslims in Britain Research Network conference in September 2022 (working and volunteering respectively), however, neither expressed much excitement at the prospect of the day ending in a poetry recital. They were, frankly, quite rude about the whole thing, privately suggesting that they go home early and whining about how long the day was already without having to pretend to care about poetry at the end of it.
All of which is to say they were both entirely unprepared for how deeply affected they would be by Hanan’s poetry. Hearing the pain and beauty in her speaking about her mixed background resonated deeply with their own complex identities and struck them deeply (not to mention them making them feel a little bashful about their earlier misgivings). This whole thing is, in part, a thank you to Hanan for rekindling an interest in and love of poetry in these two reprobates.
During her MBRN recitation, Hanan mentioned the Welsh poetic tool called the pastwn – a staff traditionally used to add emphasis or beat out a rhythm for their performances. She jokingly commented that despite, her hints, nobody had given her one yet.
Immediately after the conference, Mark got up to speak with Abdul-Azim Ahmed (Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales and Deputy Director of the Muslim Council of Wales and an old friend of Hanan’s). Apparently of the same mind, Abdul-Azim commissioned Mark to make Hanan a pastwn; Sami had started making sketches before Hanan had finished her sentence. Asking their friend Peter Forward (a talented craftsman Sami and Mark knew from the Archaeology department), they got to work producing the piece of art being presented here. While clichéd, it is not hyperbolic to suggest that blood, sweat and tears went into the production of this stick – last minute changes, unexpected repairs, differing artistic visions… well, at time of writing none of the people involved have murdered each other, but things got pretty tense! Despite all this, it was an honour and joy to work on this project, and we are all proud of how it turned out; we hope Hanan can carry and use it with pride, happiness and hwyl.
The stick itself is made of ash wood from a tree in the Gower Peninsula, originally cut by Pete as a bowstave. This has some pleasing resonances. The Bryants’ hometown of Llantrisant provided some of the much-feared British longbowman for the battle of Crecy; there are also narrations that the Prophet (pbuh) used to give sermons leaning on a staff or a bow for support. Sami thinned the stick with an axe, Mark then shaped it with a draw knife, spokeshaves and planes before Pete stitched on a leather handle reminiscent of ones traditionally used for longbows.
Not a “real” coin, but one with some interesting history. The obverse is based on a Victorian crown coin, while the reverse (purporting to be a five-shilling piece) is a modern design. Nonetheless, in a somewhat Iolo Morgannwg-like way, the fiction is compelling itself, as if speaking to the desire for an imagined “legitimate” past. Sami was also reminded of Offa’s coin, an 8th century coin minted in Britain in imitation of an Abbasid dinar which inspired Hanan’s poem of the same name. The dragon coin spent some time attached to Mark’s beloved Series II Land Rover, and as such has travelled on many adventures throughout Wales and beyond. It was set in a piece of mahogany that Mark’s family found in their new house when they moved from Africa to the UK in 1975.
The stick plays around with language quite a bit. Hanan’s poem “Offa’s Coin” refers to the discovery of an ancient sword by a young girl in Sweden, so on the staff the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith) is transliterated into the Elder Futhark, the runic alphabet that would have been in use when the sword was made. Hanan reinterprets the opening of the Welsh national anthem as “mae hen wlad fy mamau” (“old land of my mothers”); Sami’s own mother translated the phrase into Arabic. The pastwn is topped with the Qur’anic phrase “ إِنَّ فِی ذَ ٰلِكَ لَءَایَـٰتࣲ لِّقَوۡمࣲ یَتَفَكَّرُونَ ” (“truly there are signs in this for those who reflect” – see Qur’an 13:3 for example) translated into Welsh as “mae yna arwyddion mewn hyn am rheini sydd yn ei hysteried” – thanks to our friend Ceridwen Luned Jenkins for helping with this. There is also an Arabic letter kha (خ), which represents a sound absent from English but present in Welsh (written “ch”). Hanan commented on this sound in Croesawgar: “The ch of both Welsh/and Arabic tongue has faced rejection here”. Sami’s ability to mimic the sound because of his experience with Arabic was his first encounter with Cymraeg, the Welsh language. Finally, there is an accidental connection to the Biblical story of the “confusion of tongues”: Mark identified Sami’s depiction of the Malwiya minaret (as referenced in Hanan’s poem Lands of Mine) as “the Tower of Babel”. Indeed, many depictions of the biblical story (e.g. Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut) were probably influenced by nineteenth century Europeans’ encounters with Islamic architecture like Malwiya. Although not directly referenced on the stick, the enigmatic statement from the Qur’an that God made human beings “into races and tribes so that you should know one another” informed Sami’s feelings in working with this symbolism.
This was one of Sami’s first sketches for the pastwn. Mark – once a diving instructor in South Africa – has passed on an intense relationship with the ocean to his son; it has always been a great source of joy and wonder for him, and informs his art, spirituality and identity. This is part of why Hanan’s poem on the plight of refugees crossing the Channel hit him so hard, reflecting the juxtaposition of the positive awe and wonder and joy of the sea with the awful reality of people forced by human actions to face its ferocity. The near invisibility of the boat is intentional, in reference to the largely unknown or at least un-thought-of perils of those forced to make these terrible journeys. It is also a nod to the fact that western viewers of Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa tend to “read” it in the wrong direction and miss the peril of the boats on first viewing.
“We say qalbayn for ‘two hearts’.” (My Body Can House Two Hearts)
“Kisses drift from Iraq, dandelion seeds I have spread for you.” (Paradise of Poets)
“but I have swallowed too many dandelion seeds” (Ble Mae Bilaadi?)
The cover of Hanan’s book of poems “My Body Can House Two Hearts” features a woman displaying tattoos (colloquially known as daqq or dagg in Iraq) that were once common in the Levant for both beautification and magical/medical purposes that have since largely fallen out of fashion; Mark suggested that these patterns should form a part of the pastwn’s decoration.
Leeks and palm fronds
Opinions differ as to the origin of the leek as a symbol of Wales, but one tradition holds that St David used to eat only leeks when fasting (Christian fasting has tended not to be as absolute as the Muslim practice). Muslim tradition holds that the fast is best broken by eating dates; the contrast and connection between the two traditions of pious fasting informed these images inclusion on the pastwn.
There are a few “Celtic” motifs used on the stick to resonate with Sami’s relationship to Wales and Ireland (the country of his birth). Some of the bolder patterns on the stick are inspired by real archaeological finds from the Iron Age (“proper” Celtic art). Wales is home to some very impressive bronze chariot fittings decorated in ornate red enamel; these were the most direct inspirations to some of the patterns included. The La Tène style of these artefacts displays a beautiful sense of balance between intricacy and boldness that Sami modestly tried to aspire to.
Although Sami is not a complete stranger to woodwork, for the most part his work has focused on stone jewellery he carves by hand. As such, he could not resist adding some cabochons of Welsh slate, displaying some of the array of colours that the material is known for in Wales despite otherwise being so famously associated with greyness.
Craftsmen throughout the centuries have proudly signed their work with their own particular marks. Mark and Pete use cyphers of their initials, whereas Sami uses an upside-down T shape with a dot beneath it (he has been using it since he was very young and does not know how it started – in recent years he has embellished it with lines that look like a primitive drawing of a scallop shell). Sami initially hid his maker’s mark in the runic shahada, but Mark gently admonished him for false modesty and insisted that he sign more prominently.
Nancy Collis stepped in at the last minute with this beautiful contribution. The bag is made from recycled fabric bought in the Islamic Relief shop in Cardiff. The cord that secures it is wool that Mark spun on a wheel that Sami plaited by hand.
Mark Bryant is the Development Officer for the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. His interests concern ecology from faith-based perspectives.
Sami Bryant is a former Jameel MA Scholar (2019-20) and worked as a volunteer chaplain with the Cardiff University Chaplaincy. He produces folk handicrafts as the Wayward Pilgrim.