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Mohieddin Ellabbad’s Notebook Transcript
When Mohieddin Ellabbad was a boy growing up in Cairo, he dreamed of becoming a streetcar conductor — driving his imposing, clattering machine down the center of the street. But what happened is that the boy became passionate about creating art instead of driving streetcars. It wasn’t an easy journey for him; his father wanted him to become a doctor and be, in Ellabbad’s words, “the first person in the family to wear trousers and have a respectable, middle-class job.” But instead Ellabbad became one of the Middle East’s foremost illustrators of works for both children and adults.
Ellabbad’s Illustrator’s Notebook, recently published by Groundwood Books, provides us with several dozen stunning glimpses into the rich imaginative life of this complex artist. The book reads in the traditional, Arabic way, from left to right, back to front. And it attempts to describe Ellabbad’s creative process in a thoroughly non-linear way. This is not a narrative concerning how he came to be an artist, though we certainly know quite a bit about his calling by the time we have reached the end of the Notebook. Rather, we move by mysterious steps, through his beautiful collages and pictures that blend dazzling, classical Arabic calligraphy with very modern collages and drawings.
We begin, even before the memory of Ellabbad’s streetcar conductor, with the associations that he makes between picture postcards and the smells that are evoked for him by each of these photographed places. A view of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, for example, reminds him of floor cleaner; a scene of a Mediterranean port town has the aroma of anise; and a Cairo shop window suggests rose water to him. In these stunning pages, Ellabbad gives us unexpected lessons, in both text and pictures, about how to draw a wolf, or a cat, or a flower, or a chicken. In essence, he urges any budding artist to look at all of the pictures he can find of, say, cats so that he can ultimately set them aside and draw his “very own cat.” At another place, Ellabbad recalls a fleeting moment from his childhood when the shadow of an airplane passed over him, sending, he writes, “a shiver of pleasure though my body . . . . like I had just received a wonderful gift.” And that’s just how we feel after the journey that we make with Ellabbad through these pages — bursting with visual vitality, with the astonishing old and the brand new, with the extraordinary ordinary — like some wonderful shadow has passed overhead and made us want to go places, too.