May/June Feature: An Ekphrastic Explosion

Pieter Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the muse for W.H. Auden’s famous poem “Musee des Beaux Arts”

Ekphrastic art responds to work from another medium: a poem commenting on a painting, a sculpture interpreting a song, a mural depicting a myth, etc. In April, the Honors College at the University of Houston held its fourth annual Ekphrastic Arts Festival, an event featuring works from UH undergrads. A central part of the festival, organized by Honors College professors Kimberly Meyer and Gabriela Maya, was an ekphrastic art competition. In commemoration of Homer’s Iliad, this year’s themes were war and rage. Students submitted their best ekphrastic pieces and the winners shared theirs at the event.

We at The Aletheia are honored to share those artists and works with you. This year’s winners are: Sarah Rodriguez (Visual Art), Archie Parks (Music Performance), and Hayder Ali (Literary Art). See their works and bios below. To learn more about the Ekphrastic Arts Festival, its sister event, Dionysia, and the Honors College in general, visit Enjoy.

Edward S. Garza
Editor Emeritus

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Futility by Sarah Rodriguez

Sarah Rodriguez is a senior in the Philosophy department who often spends time wrecking things on camera.

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Soldier by Archie Parks

Archie Parks is a junior studying Philosophy with a minor in Creative Work. For over a decade, he has performed both individually and in bands.

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The Old City by Hayder Ali

Originally from Latakia, Syria, Hayder Ali lives in Houston, where he spends his days sweating under the unforgiving sun and eating large amounts of watermelon. He is a Political Science major (B.S.) who plans to work in medicine one day.


My father often said, “If you listen closely, you can hear a thousand different voices singing a thousand different songs.”

I believe that those songs must be songs of anguish. I am convinced that it drips more freely from the stuff of the Earth than anything else.

After living in the shadow of the Old City, I see every tragedy as nothing more than another inconsequential chapter in the monumental tome that is the Old City of Damascus. The Old City, however, cannot be read conventionally. Instead of words, there are cobblestone streets and austere corridors that conjure up images of a past that probably never existed. Instead of pages, there are disparate neighborhoods that groan under the weight of millennial pain. There is no index to consult—the only way to “hear the voices” of the Old City is to walk its streets.

The Old City had charm. Before he was killed, my father used to take me out to experience its streets. We would spend time chatting with market vendors, exchanging news and haggling for treats. An Armenian man called Alexandros had a candy shop that he operated with his wife. He woke up every morning at sunrise to begin cooking his confections. Sometimes, if it was late in the evening, he’d give us leftovers for free. He lived in a quiet Christian neighborhood not far from the Old City. He had kids. I knew them.

Sometimes my father and I would pass the entire night outdoors, on our backs, staring into the sky. I gazed with wonder at the stars that must have been witness to the journey that my city has taken. Now, those stars look away.

As a child, I spent a lot of time roaming the streets and cutting across alleyways, in search of a busy afternoon. I did not spend much time at home. My father was always at work, and my mother was not good company. Our hara, or neighborhood, was small and quaint, but the markets were never far away and provided ample opportunity for a curious child to create mischief. Benyamin, an elderly fruit vendor from Palestine, hardly ever went a day without turning many shades of red in frustration at my repeated attempts to take what I called a “free sample.” In my defense, I was a child, and the summers were hot. But he was a good man, and eventually I went to work for him, passing my days in the markets and making gossip with the women.

Despite the years, dark memories linger.

Not long after the fighting broke out, my father began paying me regular visits at the marketplace. He would often bring me a meal or stand and chat with me as we passed the idle hours together. Then he would go home and I’d see him later, after work.

One day, I didn’t see him. I assumed he had gone on to run errands, or visit with friends. Then my cousin walked in, tears in her eyes, and took my hand in hers. She looked ghostly as I held her and felt her ragged breath against my neck. I don’t remember who prompted whom, but I do remember the hazy, meandering trip we took through wet cobblestone streets, her firm grip leading me on. After turning a corner, I noticed a burst of color—a red river oozed along the pavement, as fiery tears began streaming down my cheeks. We held each other closer.

To this day, I don’t know how he died. In retrospect, I see that my father’s death was a harbinger of the dreary skies that paint the day.

After a while, I witnessed the markets thinning out. It was a gradual process. At first, people went on with their lives. Over time, vendors left. Fewer and fewer people packed the open air. Then nobody showed up, and, instead of fruit, the only things that were left to take were shell casings and shrapnel that still read “MADE IN USA.” I didn’t respond to the war. I still don’t. The sea of blood that has been spilled in the political ardor that grips my country does not bother me. The wrecked houses do not evoke sadness in me. The midnight fires do not scare me. The rage of men shouting in the distance does not move me.

I am complacent. The smooth stones and palm trees of the Old City will survive. They have to. They are not as weak as the men who live among them. ♦


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