Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Hallelujah for abstract thought and ways to make those thoughts concrete through the use of imagery. Hallelujah for my international students speaking my language, English, and for bringing me, their teacher, new ways of thinking about this glorious world! Especially when it comes to writing metaphors in a creative writing class! Hallelujah!
As a way to jump in writing metaphors (a comparison between two seemingly unlike things), I asked my students to “pull” an abstract word like faith, hope, anger, or courage out of an envelope and to compose a 3-lined poem based on the following guidelines (taken from Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, by Janet Burroway).

  • The first line is an abstract word, plus a verb, plus a place.
  • The second line clothes the abstraction.
  • The third line summarizes the action in the poem.

At first, the oxygen left the room. No one knew what to do, where to go, what to write. After all, this kind of writing is a challenge even in one’s own native language! After a pause and some composing in pursuit of “active” verbs and leaving behind the verb “to be” (Language teachers will understand this quest!), there were some jubilant moments. My students were nailing down their abstract words with meaningful and active images! See some examples in the following blogs: Pitch Your Guts writes about sorrow; The Green Mountain about courage; and Blueberry Cellophane about faith.

In my earnestness to get students excited about metaphor, we watched excerpts from a 1991 Star Trek episode about their encounter with an “enigmatic” race called Tamarians (See the beginning of the episode.). As the episode progresses, the Star Trek crew figures out that the Tamarians are speaking in metaphors, ones that can be understood only if one knows the cultural and geographical references being made (See the excerpt where they figure this out.)!

Success! My brilliant class of diligent students “got it.” For homework, I asked them to bring in metaphors from their language and cultures. These were the results:

I’m sincerely saying it to you with my heart in my hand. (Spanish)

A leaking drop can penetrate a stone. (Chinese)

A pearl in the mud. (Korean)

I never knew that the burka would seduce me. (Arabic)

Yes! Hallelujah! We discussed what each one meant to us. If you are stymied at all by the last metaphor, you are not alone! First, we had to clarify for the entire class what exactly a “burka” is—much to the amusement of the Arabic speaking students in the class. Luckily, a female student from Spain was wearing a large scarf secured around her neck! Thus using her as a model, we were able to show the distinctions between a “hijab” –a scarf covering the hair, ears, and neck— and a “burka” –a scarf concealing everything but the eyes.

After class ended, because I wanted a better understanding of this burka metaphor than our class discussion had offered, I pursued the Arabic speaking student, who had translated this metaphor from a contemporary song (Listen to the mesmerizing music from the Middle East and its Arabic lyrics). Here is my student’s translation of the song into English:

I never thought the burkas would ever seduce me
Until I saw Al Nofood Mountains wearing them.
All mighty God when these eyes looked at me
Charming, sleepy, magical....
In their magic, Saad how they put me to my knees!
My time was wasted in loving those eyes.
If they hurt me and also heal me
I'm sure I'll die soon.
Saad tell those charming mountains
If they want me to live longer,
If they see me,
I am just thinking about their magic
Even when I am asleep
I am still thinking about the burkas…

Translated by Meshari Alabdulkrim (See his blog, Smoking Hookah.)

I am smiling right now because I am remembering the Star Trek episode with the Tamarians and their geographical and cultural references. To better understand this burka metaphor, we have to understand the Saudis’ feeling for Al Nofood Mountains and much, much more.

To be honest, I am far from completely understanding this metaphor, but I like struggling with the image, its meaning, and the complex culture it comes from! I believe this comparison of a burka to a mountain will “haunt” me for some time.

Already, I have spent time in the last week drawing and painting women in headscarves. One woman is wearing a flowered hijab and the other a green burka. I’m intrigued by this cultural difference of  “the headscarf” that my Muslim students bring to my classroom. One might say, “I never thought the burkas would ever seduce me,” but they have!

In my search to SEE and UNDERSTAND and to CREATE, I looked on the Web to find images of women in burkas and found an amazing “girl band” from Afghanistan, the Burka Blues! If you want to increase your experiences of seeing women wear burkas, watch this video! The rhythm of the drums, guitar and kitschy lyrics has been with me all day!

Hallelujah for LIFE and LEARNING and CREATING! SOUL BLOG with me! Let me know your feelings and understanding of the burka metaphor! Share a metaphor with me!


  1. Dear Ruth. Metaphor is an interesting topic. I still have a metaphor: Grandmother Liu walk into the Daguan Garden. Could you guess what's the meaning?

  2. Jing, thank you for the gift of this metaphor! I need to know who Grandmother Liu is and what is the significance of Daguan Garden. Can you tell me this information so I can piece together the meaning your metaphor?

  3. Ruth, have you known a very famous Chinese novel, called "Hong Lou Meng". Grandmother Liu is a character in this novel, but she is not important. Daguan Garden is a rich person's house, which is so big.

  4. Okay, Jing, thank you for the information! I think that I've got it! Does your metaphor mean the following: an ordinary person entering an auspicious place? Somehow the person is humbled by the enormous wealth and made to seem small and unimportant?

    I love it! You have just made me think! And taught me something about your culture!

  5. Ruth, I love what you're doing with your students. I look forward to reading more of their blogs.

  6. Ruth, the metaphor is not the meaning you think. A rural old lady went to a rich and powerful person's family. It is the first time for her to see this kind of big and beautiful house. So everything is unknown and curious for her. However, it is common for people living in that house. So they think this old lady is stupid. it is Just like someone asks you what is football. you will feel wired because every body knows football.

  7. JIng! I got it! Thanks! Now, I have a new metaphor to express this kind of feeling. You just expanded my experience of being here on this PLANET!

  8. Ruth,Your burka paintings are like metaphors in themselves...containers for timeless stories or secrets it seems to me. They have great weight and volume and saddness too. They seem like dolmans or mountains too, reflecting the Al Nofood Mountains in the burka seduction poem above. I'm reminded of the enigmatic monoliths at Stonehenge.

  9. SEESEE, I always appreciate your insights into my artwork, my spirit, and my writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here by SOULBLOGGING.