It may happen that Poet and Photographer meet at first in the course of their activity, that is in the truth of an instant captured by word or image, and then, also, because they have followed a similar path, where departure is linked to return, wandering to staying, both having left the same country and having chosen to reside in the same foreign city, which they have made their own.
The one and the other thus share a double genealogy, at least on a spiritual plane, and feel in their flesh the interweaving threads of East and West, while their eyes can adapt as easily to northern as to southern light. They are confronted around the world with places that provide them with inspiration and a perception of the subject (in order to photograph, to write) without any interference obscuring the link to the native country. In simple terms, the suspension of a feeling of belonging is followed by the proper distance for a critical dialogue with the native place.
And, although it is removed, such a native horizon, whatever one may think, remains that of choice and preference. As much as one may have accumulated visions arising out of a hundred climates traversed by the nomadic artist or poet, nothing in the myth can succeed in obliterating the saffron dust that rises at every step from the scene of childhood or from the floor behind the scenes other than those steps on the hinterland, that prolong it.
So it is a question of paradise. And the context does not oblige me to ask the ritual question, that is whether such a paradise is lost or if it lasts forever. Simply, this paradise proposes the adherence to a pact which consists in making one’s own the art of giving account in the midst of the alternating play of presence and absence, between what fades away and what emerges, between what perishes and what persists. Often the childhood scene is circumscribed, it becomes one with a space that is limited, reduced to sensations and emotions, to scents, sights, sounds, associated with a house, a courtyard, a street, a square, a neighbourhood, a town, a shoreline or even with the different levels and areas of an urban settlement and of the surrounding countryside. There will always be, on the periphery or at the extremities, recesses and margins that elude the knowledge we have of the native country, precluded from the experience that populates the childhood scene,that which remains essential in the making of the myth without which there can be neither the vision nor the writing. We shall see that this initial ignorance can be precious for a widening of the field, one which opens up deposits of a reserve from which it is possible to draw out the terms destined to remould both the myth of childhood and the native pact.
It would be tempting moreover to think that the best solution would be to leave the childhood scene forever and nourish oneself on whatever has been internalised according to the whims of constructions and deconstructions, of redeployments and restorations, by the fertile visitations of scraps, fragments, traces, vestiges, suppliers of situations and faces, dramas and characters, that are subjected to the law of displacement, in between substitutions and sublimation.
But how can a man be in accord with that which he carries inside himself when he returns regularly to the real place where the origins of the inner landscape lie ? The transformation of the place instills a renewed strangeness with regard to that which is familiar.
And amidst the constant comings and goings, you finish up no longer following the stations of pilgrimage, you no longer update the catalogue of ruins and transformations. Returning from exile, and inspecting what remains of the realm, you no longer even try to imagine the transfiguration of forms which inhabit a space that has been subjected to change without soliciting your participation. In this way, there you find yourself a stranger twice over: first, I repeat, the place has not waited for you before undergoing its transformations ; secondly, the network of signals that signposts the approach awakens in you neither approbation nor connivance: does it not direct the senses towards an iconography that is illustrated and defended by a class of guardians and priests to which you don’t belong and which labours to substitute an official imagery for the reality of the country, one which clashes with the truth of the myth that you carry living deep down, in the labyrinths of exile ?
Since the ancient signs are eroding, being damaged, disintegrating; since, by their very nature, new forms can’t be shown ; since it is impossible to turn them into signs (at the very most they conform to the economy of the signal that can neither be the remedy nor the necessary stimulant for the preservation of meaning); all that remains is to quit the shore and the home port in order to continue our wanderings in search of meaning through the enlarged landscape of myth all the while remaining within the tracks and itineraries that fall within the frontiers of the native country where, in a plurality of accents, the love of one language is shared.
And it will be by appropriating the inner strangeness that the myth of belonging will be revived in its very relativity.
Before leaving the shore, the photographer exploits the possibilities it offers. His choice indicates in passing that he travelled up and down the maritime front from east to west, north to south, and that his gaze was retained only by those stopping-places that escape from conventional and somewhat obligatory imagery.
What has been fixed by the photographer would certainly not serve as an advert to sell sunshine, not even the chatty notice which proposes to some foreign passenger to make himself at home, precisely targeting his identity, through a message correctly expressed in his language : the happy anthropological denial appears on all sides, as much in the medium as in the forms surrounding it like the personnel who give him their support.
And the other retained images offer only relics which are not true to the label of the sunshine-factory : to a few remnants of structures on piles immersed in water where algae agglutinate into masses ; to the derisory traces of a child’s game produced without purpose by the chance encounter with scaffolding on which hangs a sign high up, imitating the apprenticeship of the pictorial act ;to this add scenes which recall the continuity of certain arts and certain archaic and magic practices, such as the sign which refers to falconry, or the vapours that veil the bodies around the boiling-hot spring, or again the visit of holy men to a secluded mausoleum, falling into decay at the end of what is locally perceived as a promontory, far behind the disused port, enclosed by the lagoon, surrounding on the northern side the mouth of the greatest wadi that crosses the territory from west to east.
And even the most well-known place-names are subverted by an insignificant subject that is wary of the spectacular and refuses to pick up the smallest sign of recognition.
Sometimes, the place resists this erasing of recognition, either by a certain something creating its atmosphere, or by the ostentatious manifestation of one of its archaeological remains which, moreover, had to be retained, as an exception, only because of an ambivalence which would assimilate it to some Roman work : it is probably the monumental dimensions that maintain such an ambivalence ; as for the shape of the broken arch, it indicates uncontestably the islamic profile of the Fatimid arch.
The strategy of subversion is verified elsewhere: as in the holy city where the photographer does not seek to throw a different light onto the often represented scene: he turns away from the monumental in order to offer only a single shot taken on the level of vernacular architecture. The eye is caught by a pair of earthernware bowls left on the threshold of a mihrab divided by the curve and counter-curve of a line of shadow, mark of a fleeting hour, a privilege that fixes the ephemeral while recalling at the instant of its recording the dividing line of the Yin/Yang vortex.
Very soon in his itinerary, the photographer turns his back to the sea, he enters the interior of the country. The territories through which he roams are those of the plateau, the steppe and the desert. At the heart of these expanses, the photographer remains vigilant, he makes no concessions, he bypasses the areas which are set up there to systematise the despised imagery. The discourse which this imagery spreads turns into a noise that pierces the hearing and perturbs calm listening. Furthermore, an agent of uniformisation remains, eating away at the domains of internal otherness.
The photographer lingers in the vast and empty spaces which make the word precious and rare. Around his retreat prowls the vow of silence.
Is it not said that throughout depopulated landscapes destined to deepen the act of listening to silence, one plans the staging of a crime?
Faced with these views of emptiness (which subtle marks barely distinguish from the commonplace, that is to sag, from everywhere and nowhere), some kind of alchemy forces me to leave the logic of the land that I people with figures come from elsewhere. I see Oedipus in his various stages and ages.
I see his shadow, before the crime, tread the steppe in juvenile impetuosity, fleeing the oracle’s prediction, at the crossroads, hesitating between the wags ; I see his ghost, after the crime, a blind, staggering old man, a stranger, banished and cursed, in search of a land that will receive his remains ; I see him bound to the sacred stone, near death, already sanctified even before his dissolution into the secret of the gods.
Perhaps this imaginary presence was evoked by the emergence of a Latin inscription engraved on a lintel half-buried in the loose earth, and which is a reminder, among so many other remains, that the soil of the fatherland, the patrie (I use patrie deliberately, coming from patri(ae), a word partly visible on a fragment of white marble, part of one of the points of time fixed by the photographer) participated in the culture of ancient tragedy. In order to wake the land from the forgetfulness in which it sleeps, and which separates it from tragic emotion, shouldn’t we reanimate the echo of the dead word that is recorded in the memory of the stones, at least where the theatres are, or what is still left standing there, between the stagefronts and the tiers that are raised on terraced arches or dug out of the hillside ?
In the desert there is no need to bring in imaginary figures. The images which are offered to let us enter this territory are filled with the very people who live there. It is here that frontality is established and an accord with the image preserved by convention is accepted: how can I explain such a change of strategy if not by the fact that this space must be both that which is strangest to the photographer and that which resists, most remarkably, the despised imagery?
There is a kind of fraternity rediscovered through these up-front frank presences of men and women, young and old, self-assured and discreet, giving themselves up to the trust of an eye that places and appraises; perhaps this shared giving ought to carry on as a kind of hymn, offered to the last splendours of two survivals, the nomads and the Berbers, whose future extinction would contribute to the impoverishment of a land no longer able to register the ancestral closeness of the simple gestures which link the shepherd to the new-born lamb, which by assimilation give the camel driver the face of his animal, which extends the person of a man into the land he tills.
Thus in the desert the photographer best harmonizes the alternation of emptiness with population. In paying off the debt to the native country, by such an enlargement of its horizons, he could not refrain from making his testimony by the miracle of the garden : instead of his offering a succession of columns and a series of naves and aisles, he presents us with the contours of a mosque as its shadow falls across the rows of tall trunks and the falling curves of the palm leaves that join together and suggest an outline of the forthcoming arch.
Faced with the injuries and damage undergone by the childhood scene, it is these strange things, offered and appropriated, that have led the photographer to provisionally pay off the debt that is claimed by the native pact. He can thus obtain further respite to go on roaming the countries of the world with the freedom granted by the certitude of a realm that the country grants when it is revisited, reconsidered, redisplayed throughout its territories, according to the choices, the urgencies, imposed on you by the contingencies of being alive.
The Logic of the Land
Abdelwahab Meddeb, Paris, September 1997