Tem is part history, part make-believe. Every culture has creation myths that explain how the world emerged.
The nuanced meaning of “tem” in Arabic is to finish; to complete. This massive project was undertaken by Wided Khadraoui that was about pre-Islamic mythology and history in the region. In Khadraoui’s collection, stories dart in and out of the narrative, demonstrating how unable it is to ever truly be done with your past.
Here’s an interview with Wided as she shares more about her interesting project:
1. Why did you decide to start this project?
This project was complicated. I spent several years in Saudi Arabia and took this project on initially as a creative endeavor after coming across Najmah Sayuti’s work on the concept of Allah (God) in pre-Islamic Arabia which led me to start researching Arabian polytheism and its relationship with the region’s monotheistic traditions, as well as myths and storytelling techniques in Bedouin culture.
I’ve always been curious about old stories but this collection is a bit different than other mythological works; there were no myths to retell or restructure – rather stories of these pre-Islamic gods and goddesses do not exist. This whole project has mostly been fueled by footnotes, endnotes, and small obscure mentions.
I was interested in creating a narrative exploring the development of Bedouin religion and highlighting its’ conflict between pre-Islamic religion and the region as a whole. The collection ended up being an archive of figures and mythological figures from Arabian polytheism. The gods and goddesses of the pre-Islamic Arabs were tribal deities, ancestors, jinn, physical manifestations of natural phenomena -rain and thunder, for example. The collection takes these deities and creates a progressive narrative of them reacting to a combination of actual historical events, my fantasy, and contemporary society
2. How have people in Saudi reacted to this project?
People mostly have given a positive response, and are mostly intrigued by the content. There have been some raised eyebrows with highlighting the region’s polytheistic past but that is fact – it happened. There were actual deities that existed and were prayed to in the region. This collection is based on the period of time where idols reigned supreme in the region – the period where modern Islam was being created and codified. The old gods had to be destroyed in order to make space for the new religion – this is a fictional version of that story.
3. What was the most important finding you made in the pre-Islamic mythology and history in the region?
I was surprised of the extent of erasure of fact and history. I was shocked at the extent of what I didn’t know. There is a whole legacy of stories and ideas that have completely been shuttered away.
The entire region has a tendency to destroy the past – especially things that might be contentious within an Islamic context. I think this fear is counterproductive to both creative and societal advancement. There doesn’t have to be such a battle between ancient stories and modern-day beliefs. This pattern is seen throughout our history – this attempt at complete eradication and it is to our detriment.
5. What do you want others to learn from this?
My biggest wish is that the projects work as a conversation and an entryway into not only how religious practice shaped human interaction and experience in the region but also to show how amazing the indigenous inspiration is for creative opportunities in the region. Beyond the usual penchant for traditional calligraphy, there is a whole stock of alternative inspirational material in the region. The region has it’s the potential to make their own stories – not everything has to revolve around the Western canon and Greek and Roman myths. The world is massive and we can be part of creating a more inclusive global narrative. Our stories matter too.
6. Is there anything more you would like to share?
The poem’s narrative structure is inspired by the hakawati; the traditional style of oral storytelling from in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a bit of a convoluted plot. Stories dart in and out of the narrative; like Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights.
The nuanced meaning of the title in Arabic is to finish; to complete. The intention of this collection is to give readers a sense of where separate but intertwined paths start and end in history. The idea behind the title is to illustrate how unable to ever truly be done with your past.
I am writer and curator. I regularly write on art, culture, and politics in the MENA region. My interests lie at the intersection of cultural representation, arts, and politics.
I was born in Algeria and raised in the Washington D.C. area, and am temporarily based in Australia after spending four years in Saudi Arabia. I am currently pursuing my second masters in Arts and Cultural Enterprise at Central Saint Martin- UAL to further my research interest in increasing access for traditionally marginalized groups in the creative sector.