Amanni Hassan Hollands' letter from Venice

I came to Venice to find you. I always want to know more. The little flat here - with its kitchenette and courtyard, and bathroom across the hall - is all at once a comfort and uncomfortable. My French landlady is warm, kind, and I think a fan of Galland, for every surface is adorned with figurines, carvings, tapestries - ornamentation undoubtedly orientalist. The pretty handmade paper cutting screening the casement window with silhouettes straight out of 1001 Nights, reminds me of the two translations of the text I’ve struggled with. You told me you’d never read the stories, which says it all. These European versions aren’t for us.

I’m working at the British Pavilion in the Giardini - one vast garden dotted with the pavilions of so many countries exhibiting for the Biennale. You would like it. A visit to the Archivio Storico and I discover your Emirati contemporaries wanted desperately to build their pavilion here, but were allocated to an existing plot at Arsenale. It’s interesting there too, I went to see the work being shown by the Emirati Arabi Uniti. Reactivation of the abundance of aridity, prompted me of the ancient irrigation systems developed in the desert which you taught me about not too long ago.

Back at the British Pavilion I cry dancing before the moon, consoled by the celebration of cultural exchange over the so often scolded, scuppered or scoffed at connections we make grappling with our mixed parentage to belong. Under the same moon, the moon you set your day to, praying with its subtle shifts under the same sky that sends forth San Lorenzo’s tears, where I stumbled upon Simone Fattal and the tale of two ships racing. Her iridescent pearls inscribed with a lingua franca our forebears may have uttered. I become nostalgic for a father you never knew, whose treacherous journey to trade pearls and dates for silks and spices ended his short life in India. You tried to find him as I try to find you.

Venice is a bizarre labyrinthine souk, where the doge marries the sea, dropping a ring into the lagoon’s depths as an act of dominion, a fairytale as restless and uneasy as any union. The pearls grandfather swapped in India were also brought here, to the ports, along with so much else that’s intangible - songs, stories, poetry. I wonder if you felt as I do when you came to this place, enveloped by imprints of our ancestors as domes dominating the skyline cast their shadows. When I discover my favourite pizza is thrown by two brothers from Yemen, and a new friend finds halwa gelato; when I learn that glass blowing has roots in Syria and paper marbling in Iran, I know Venice continues to act as interface between Western Asia and Western Europe, as perhaps I do between an Arab father and English mother.

Picture of Ammani with the Venice Biennale logo