Intersecting Words

Sarah Jacobs

I had been studying Arabic for a while when the poet Beau Beausoleil put out a call for artists to make bookworks in response to the bombing in 2007 of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad. The street was historically a street of booksellers and stationers, and it was also a place where people congregated to drink coffee and discuss ideas.

The bombing killed people. It destroyed books. The attack was targeted.

I don't usually make works that are directly provoked by events, but I felt I wanted to contribute something. At the same time I was reluctant, in some sense, repelled.

In any event, I didn't think I possibly could make a response. This had nothing to do with modesty. I am not a modest person. However, when I think of Iraq, my first feelings are of rage and shame. These are not emotions that help me to make art.

Then I remembered that in Arabic, word puzzles of all types are called  , literally, "intersecting words," and the word for intersecting is also often used in the context of intersecting streets. I remembered how, when I first learned to read and write Arabic, I enjoyed doing word searches, hunting for specific words hidden within a field of letters arrayed in a grid.

So I decided to make a book of word-search puzzles and to include a search for Al-Mutanabbi Street and other streets and places, real or imaginary, that intersect one another in my mind, though not in the real world, in geography. The grid seemed particularly apt because the Arabic word for grid, can be read as meaning window, and a cognate word, ,  means entangled. Grid, window, entanglement: all there.

Soon other patterns suggested themselves, and happier associations came back. I gathered clusters of words in English and in Arabic and poured them into software that makes word searches of whatever size is required without the need for the puzzle's originator to do anything more. The words are arranged vertically, diagonally, horizontally, backwards, forwards—whatever arrangement the software determines as most efficient. Any unused spaces are filled with random letters, junk.

Ten word-search puzzles were produced, and if you do them you will discover that they all work. Each of these puzzles has a fixed solution.

A small amount of text was added, and I arranged the sequence of text so that it reads almost the same if you approach it from the left, as with an English book, or from the right, as with an Arabic one. The main difference is that the text that starts the book, if you take it as being an Arabic book, ends it if you take it as being an English book.

The English title, "Intersecting Words," is a literal translation from the Arabic expression used for word puzzles, but the expression strikes the ear of an Arabic speaker as referring to something banal. So I decided to make a quasi-pun and call the work  in Arabic. This is a literal translation of the English "intersecting worlds." I am amused when speakers of Arabic and English assume I have made a mistake by writing worlds instead of words, and then do a double-take.

A printed book was produced. The calligraphy is distinctly word-processed, and it's nothing much to look at from the outside—particularly as the printers refused to let me put the barcode on both the front and back covers—but the inside is bright and crisp. If you do want to try doing the puzzles, you needn't be inhibited about marking it with a pencil or scrawling over it.

The webwork has been translated from the book. It is recognisably the same but very different.