“The Tale of Migrants”

Senna Yousef

Object: Lamps. Material: Clay. Found in Bilad E-Sham (The Levant). Manchester Museum inv. 1983.113 (left) and 1983.114 (right). These two lamps are typical of the cultures of both the Byzantine and Umayyad empires (4th–8th centuries AD). Such lamps were produced in large numbers during this time. Photography by Julia Thorne / Tetisheri.

Stories have been a huge part of my life. I grew up hearing about my grandfather’s stories of Palestine and how the disastrous 1948 Nakbeh (the permanent displacement of most Palestinian Arabs) impacted his and his family’s lives. My grandmother would sing my Syrian village’s tribal songs that often told the stories of many of our ancestors, and each had its own occasions and tales to tell. My parents spoke of what it was like to live a life as a diaspora due to war, occupation, and conflict. And now that I am old enough, I hope to tell a story that encompasses the shared experiences of so many people like myself and my own family. Through my artwork, I show the stories of two lamps, valued but forgotten, wanted but unused. I emphasise that they are more than just simple lamps, presenting them as a metaphor for the shared experiences of migrants and displaced people.
Senna Yousef

‘The Tale of Migrants’. Creative Producer and Director: Senna Yousef; Artist Mentor: Abas Eljanabi; Fieldwork, Editing, and Music: Clive Hunte.

Lamp 2: I hate this. Why should we be stuck in this dark box for such a long time.
Lamp 1: We used to light up their lives.
Lamp 2: Listen listen, I hear something.

[Curator] These are the collections of lamps we have from many parts of the world. We have some from Italy; some from North Africa. These lamps originate from the Levant. We believe …

Lamp 2: I can’t see, it’s too bright
Lamp 1 [Arabic]: Look at those things above us 
Lamp 2: They call them lights 
Lamp 1 [Arabic]: How creative 

Lamp 2: How do those … lights work?
Lamp 1 [Arabic]: Witchcraft 

[Curator] Many of these lamps will share similar features due to continental trade and the expansions of different empires.

Lamp 1 [Arabic]: We have stories too! 

Lamp 2: Hello darkness my old friend.
Lamp 1 [Arabic]: There’s more to us than just lamps.
Lamp 2: Why do you refuse to speak English?
Lamp 1 [Arabic]: I am speaking the language of the last nation who valued me correctly. 

Lamp 1 [Arabic]: We’ve both seen much happiness and sorrow.

Lamp 2 [Arabic]: A potter from Bilad a’ Sham worked day and night on me you know. His son was a trader so he often saw the Byzantine items that the Ummayeds brought with them. He worked day and night on me. Once he had finished making me, he presented me proudly to his wife. I celebrated 20 years of marriage with them.

Lamp 1 [Arabic]: I lit up the paths of soldiers and warriors. They would carry me around, placing me before them to protect them from the dangers of the dark. I fought many battles with them and grieved many deaths. Passed around from soldier to soldier, I was their lifeline. 

Lamps 1 and 2 [Arabic]: But in the end, we lost our worth. We’re discarded as useless and unhelpful. Backwards, not forwards. They shun us away into these drawers. But claim we are an important piece of history.

Script of ‘Tale of Migrants’, by Senna Yousef