Lettre Ulysses Award for the art of reportage

Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech 2004 (English)

Abdelwahab Meddeb

Smuggling paths

On the smugglers’ path, my foot stumbles, so many stones and crevices puncture the beaten earth here, I skip around the puddles without interrupting the line of march, as we move along, silently, in Indian file, the path continues upward around the royal palace, the troops that guard the sacred precincts of the ruler, invisible behind the walls that cut across the cliff and its scree of black rocks, savage-looking soldiers, inscrutable faces on bodies of great stature, I sense them capable of turning brutal, my gaze drifts to the mirror of the water, before rising again and roving over the waves in the trench that forms the Strait, between the two seas, between the two continents, where the winds have their beginnings and lend the sky its war-like drama, fronts of clouds forming and unforming, shifting and chasing, overlapping and colliding, racing off into the dark and re-emerging into whiteness, a perpetual change that disconcerts the spectator but has no influence on the state of the light, which is at times veiled by a mist that reduces space to the immediate surroundings, at times limpid, extending the visual field to infinity, attracting Europe to itself, captured by the magnet of the heart, a Europe within sight, within arm’s reach, a simple matter it seems then to make the crossing, easy and posing no danger, yet each day the radio announces deaths, tells of corpses washed up by the sea, as if yielded up to an insatiable god who claims his quota of victims by establishing a sacrificial cult whose priests are the people-smugglers that hide in the shadows, how am I to spot them, to recognize them among the passers-by I meet when I come back to the streets that run up and down into the city, perhaps they are friends to the moonless nights and perhaps, while awaiting the hours of darkness favourable to their evil deeds, they skulk in the shady, disreputable bars, those smoke-filled bars with half-open doors, bars reeking of bad wine and a beer that smells of detergent, places like caves contrasting with the brightness of the outside, scoured by the wind, a wind that cleanses the eyes and buffs up the nerves, tautens them, sharpens them, as if to make them quick to spot the signs of evil that are constantly eluding one’s intuitive grasp, the victims of the sacrificial rite, by contrast, who are destined to appease the fury generated by the commingling of the two seas, are easy to pick out amid the crowd where many disorientated young men are to be seen, displaying their anger or prey to a resignation, subject to a patience that can change, in a moment’s mood-swing, to rebellion, men dreaming of a better world, paradise is just across the way, look, it’s within reach, within walking distance, just twelve kilometres away, those few kilometres can be covered in just a few wing beats cutting through the clouds, a few strokes scything through a slack sea, a sea as flat as a mirror, the blue of the sky reflecting off it, a childhood dream, offering you access to a seagull’s body, a dolphin’s body so that, in seven times seven movements, cleaving through air or water, your feet can be kicking up the dust that covers the land of delight, in fact the visual order offers a cruel mirage clothed in an intrinsic beauty, that face-to-face encounter with the other continent which at times pulls you up short as you turn a corner, as, after easily surmounting the obstacle of some climb, a line of sight is unexpectedly opened up to the eye and you discover with astonishment that the land of Europe is a moving feature in the streets of Tangiers, but how, then, does that land that is subject to the same climate turn out to be so different, why is it perceived as the land attested to by images from another world, images stolen from television, conveying a dream that any active person feels capable of fulfilling, why does this place that is so near lead to a world so distant, why does becoming part of it require the ordeal of an initiation rite, in which the candidate lays his life on the line, a paradoxical landscape this that savours both of death and beauty, the light that has twice transformed the art of painting - in 1832 with Delacroix and in 1912 with Matisse - also lights a theatre of death, a theatre scanned by more than a thousand hungry eyes, eyes darting in sockets set deep in the faces of adolescents turning their backs on their country, peppering the opposite shore with their gazes, watching the cars on crystal-clear days as they move around on what they can discern as the line of a coast road, extensions of the distributed blocks of white that are Tarifa, and it is not just the natives who volunteer for such an exile, I see people from the depths of the continent, black, sub-Saharan, not even French-speaking, coming up to you whenever you stop at a traffic light, skinny and ravaged by hunger, eyes ablaze, begging you in broken English to feed them, not even asking for money, ready to follow you without knowing where, if only they can get something down to fill their empty bellies, they too pay their sacrificial dues, with my own eyes I saw one of their number as swollen corpse, washed up on the European shore, whole lumps of his black skin eaten away, leaving the wilted pink of a frayed flesh to show through and the fingers white bones, the ligaments still clinging to them, and what becomes of those who reach Andalusian soil fit and well, I passed some on the outskirts of Moguer, near la Rabida, not far from the estuary that is home to an industrial complex, in the environs of Huelva, in that sphere sanctified by the story of Columbus and the three caravels that discovered America, which were fitted out here and whose crews came from these parts, adventurers whose descendants, themselves lacking offspring, have left empty the little, sparsely populated settlements, whose fringes have been abandoned to these survivors of the Strait, bands of black men ready to lend their energies to fruit-picking and to work in the fields, either in market gardening or in the tending of the vast orchards whose role is to provide Europe with the variety of seasonal fruits that ripen at these extreme edges of a Mediterranean already transformed by the influence of the Ocean, bands of men standing out, isolated, conscious of their fragile novelty, not blended into the landscape, and I wondered to myself whether they represent a bloc of temporary solidarity between individuals at odds with society, adventurers of expatriation, or whether we are looking here at people subjugated by networks that alienate them for ever from the now very distant communities into which they were born or in which they grew up, and what becomes on this same shore of those among the Moroccans who succeed in getting safe and sound across the Strait by night in makeshift vessels, they leave the city by the smugglers’ path where I found myself walking at the end of the day with a band of friends, guided by a photographer who spent part of her childhood living in a house on the cliff edge that stands where one such path begins, a woman who, from her home, looks out over the Strait every day, a familiarity that has led her to form a bond with the candidates for clandestine emigration, whom she first came to know, desirous to get to Europe, in Tangiers and met up with again, the survivors among them, in Marseilles where they had not fitted in, filled as they were with that intense violence of the unarticulated that is engendered by non-self-reproduction through language, and whom she awoke to introspection by enabling them to represent their plight by illustrating their own images, images well-fitted to that ravishing of light that comes about when the click of a camera-shutter freezes the picture in the black box, an act that affords them access to the analogy of the Christ-like miracle that saved them from drowning, as though they had walked on water, or enables them to reinvent a “depth strategy”, as though they had crossed the abyss in a submarine, passed through the gates of the unknown, the impenetrable dark world, the enshrouding yet expanding end that the Ancients believed consisted in two columns guarded by the colossus, Hercules, what horror do you have to experience, what despair must you internalize to make you leave the place where chance decreed your birth, risking everything, as though you had fled a war zone, a deserter bent upon some act of treachery, hollowing out of yourself an unfathomable gaping hole that experts in sedition can fill with the project of sacrificial terrorism, to the point where some particular survivor might be seen merely as having delayed the sacrifice of his body while simply awaiting a reorientation - from the simple wastage of one person drowning on his own individual account in those waves and currents where, at their meeting, the two seas ferment, to the fanatical conditioning to a crime committed in the name of religious identity - what is this horror which prompts the subject to leave everything behind, can I imagine it, identify it as I walk around Tangiers or in the hinterland into which it extends, as I speak with people, assess the contradictions of the city, its paradoxes, its aporias, its hierarchy, its rich, their arrogance, their irresponsibility, their inhumanity, its poor, its down-and-outs, its flotsam, its despised, its beggars, its prostitutes, its transvestites with their painted faces, its servants, obsequious or dignified, its high masters, its sewer rats, its dung-eaters, its carrion-eaters, its fierce or corrupt cops, its insidious stool-pigeons, its imams with their vehement preachings, sputtered out by loudspeakers that assail your senses, its rowdy weddings, horns blaring, breaking into your sleep at dawn, its crooks, its traffickers, who build tawdry villas left untenanted, its dealers, the patent signs of the money-laundering by which dirty money slips in, finding embodiment in rental properties that flaunt the flashy materials of their construction, the fact that the dysfunctioning of a society is visible to the naked eye adds nothing to the drama, does not justify the tragic nature of a situation, contemplating the scourges besetting Morocco I shall summon up the distress of India, recall the poverty of Egypt, evoke those figures worn down by poverty one sees in the urban landscape across the Atlantic, does poverty constitute a reason for desertion, for running a risk that leads you, if not to relinquish your life, at least to drive a hole into an identity that is already dented, and what should represent an impassable frontier between the two continents is in reality one of the busiest, most recognized, most open borders separating two respectable, legitimate states at peace with one another, states capable, depending on the political situation, of further honing the alliance between them, a border crossed by a continuous flow of travellers at the rate of one ferry per hour, if not more in the summer months, when the cars flooding in can be counted in tens of thousands, and the coaches and lorries in hundreds and thousands, transporting the millions of Moroccans living in many different regions of Europe, a great many of whom have acquired the citizenship of one or other of their host countries in accordance with the territorially-based law that has supplanted law based on ties of blood almost everywhere on the old continent, to the returning Moroccan nationals is added a host of European visitors, not forgetting those who follow in the wake of that population implied by Hispano-Moroccan hybridity, a population that in itself forms a world and in which one of the elements that makes up the city receives its authentication, suspended as it is, in multi-coloured order, between sky, earth and sea, ultimately, the question of the impassable frontier, of the well-guarded barrier, lies in the supplement and remainder into which the unresolved problems are condensed - first those of Moroccan society, as an under-developed, corrupt African entity, affected by the crisis besetting Islam, then those of Spain, which emerged from underdevelopment barely forty years ago, completed its modernization only in the last two decades with the aid of European subsidies and continues to work at “de-africanizing” its spiritual heritage (this expression, coined by Miguel de Unamuno, still haunts the Spanish mind) by repressing the fertile Jewish and Arab contributions to its history and, lastly, the problems of Europe, endlessly worrying over what strategy to adopt in response to the pressures from the south created by the opposition between wealth and poverty, intensified by two inverse, but objectively complementary, demographic trends, all of this exacerbated by the heterogeneity of the identity referents (what place to accord Islam in relation to the Graeco-Judeao-Christian constituents of the archaeological site on which the vestiges of European civilization stand?), otherwise, there is no shortage of reasons for living in Tangiers, I shall not restrict myself merely to the aesthetic quest which was what drew Delacroix to these shores, he who, though he thought he was journeying to the East, said what he found was antiquity, a remark which registers how much of the ancient world remains alive here despite the transformations brought about by the universal spread of technology, there is something resistant here, I am myself sensitive to what remains of that aristocratic attitude that elevates the humble, a care of the self that fascinated Delacroix, in the gesture and costume of a certain cobbler, a particular mule-driver he recognized the breadth and magnificence of a Cato or a Caesar, and I see the descendants of the protagonists of his Jewish Wedding among the musicians who meet on Sundays just before evening prayers in an Andalusian café in the al-Marshân quarter, not far from the medina, so close to the shore, what is virtually an informal academy perpetuates the classical tradition left to us by Muslim Spain in the rigour of the instrumental playing and the vocal variation, similarly, the sounds that lend their pitch to the vaticinations of the Convulsionaries of Tangiers (also painted by Delacroix) still spill out from the zawiya, that home of the brotherhood on which the procession of the Aissawa converges, seized with the spirit, many and varied forms of expression that nourish the city’s ancientness are still vividly present, existing alongside others that characterize some of Tangiers’s other inhabitants, who have taken into their innermost being the time-scale that governs the imaginary and the symbolic, the techniques of performance and representation that stand at the very forefront of the contemporary, it is this plural cohabitation of time-scales that gives the city its density, in the variety of its levels and its types, in spite of the metamorphoses any particular area may have undergone, I enjoy the shade cast by the rounded bays of the seventeenth century mosque, built within the city walls by Moulay Ismael, I decipher the monumental calligraphy decorating the cedar cornice of the door with its ample cursive strokes, painted letters that disclose the restoration ordered by Moulay Hassan at the end of the nineteenth century, nuances of colour echoing the glossy ceramic tiles that beat out the rhythm of the minaret, the outline of which is projected on to the lateral platform that I like to compare to a narthex, affording the catachumens a view towards the port, and in the rue Ben Abbou, in the heart of the Kasbah, I perceive the fauve contrast between the yellow, green and mauve tones that illuminate the ribbed dome of the Sidi Berraisoul marabout, with its serrated base, as it appears in Matisse’s painting, and it is in the bushy, wild areas beneath the buttressing walls of a private garden in the old Montagne district, areas clinging to the cliffs, that I re-find the spontaneity, the surging vigour, the blaze of colour of the acanthuses, periwinkles and palm with which Matisse pays his homage to the spring in what some call the “Moroccan Garden Tryptich”, and something other resists and endures in the examples of humanity painted by Matisse, how many echoes there are in the features and costumes which, right here in the present, evoke Zohra, Fatmah the mulatto, the Riffian, but it is in the Café al-Hâfa, “the edge, the precipice, the cliff”, that I recover the calm, the serenity, the ecstasy, the simplicity of The Moroccan Café, which depicts two contemplative individuals, the one seated, the other reclining, remaining for hours as though floating, as though in a state of levitation, before three flowers and two goldfish, so marked by inaction, so deep into the convoluted mysteries of the fanâ’, a process that leads to the obliteration of selfhood, that their features are absorbed by the ochre hue which we see also in the skullcap, where it is a counterpoint to the white of the turban, in the hands and the shins or calves, where it contrasts with the pearl grey of the jellabas, the pair of figures in the centre of the space being accompanied in the background, on the same green platform, by four musicians and singers, figures smaller in stature (the only concession to perspective), picked out with the same three-colour palette (the ochre of the skin, the white of the turban, the grey of the jellaba) from the portico-shaped balustrade, its arch and little columns standing out black against a grey-green background, the painter is sensitive to the human attainment of serenity and ecstasy by force of humility and patience within a nature that is harsh and vigorous, returning the most domesticated of flowers to the wild, two characteristics which distinguish the southern shore from the one facing it, as though the truth of a single climate had to be split in two to register the truths relating to the continent and those relating to the spiritual interpretation of belief that moulds hearts and frees the flights of the mind, wild Africa and the Sufism of an ecstatic people were what won over Matisse and what reconcile my origins with the European part of my make-up in the nostalgia of loss and the desire to experience the diversity that peoples our world, but then why don’t these same virtues restrain those among the natives who are gripped by the desire for Europe, a desire torn between fascination and repulsion, an ambivalence in which that crack opens up that may lead, through the bad energy of ressentiment, to crime, as was the case with those who committed the attack on the approach to the Atocha railway station in Madrid on 11 March, almost all of them came from Tangiers, from lower-middle-class districts we have barely explored here, from other outlying districts that are rapidly eating up the orchards, gardens and woods that once surrounded the city, or from shanty towns where we are told the fundamentalists succeed in winning hearts and minds by meeting the elementary needs of a deprived population that is abandoned to its hopeless plight, a friend of mine who is a UNICEF expert assures me, faithful to his communist ideal, that one has only to do the same thing to turn this marginal, poverty-stricken population from the lure of fundamentalism, and so, as a consequence of his competing activities within their recruiting grounds, activities based on a similar strategy to their own, he is for the fundamentalists a marked man, it remains to diagnose the ills gnawing at the body of this society, and I cannot but see the spread of the wearing of the veil among women and girls as a symptom of those ills, the mark of a malady in which I see the effect of a voluntary servitude that prevents you from seeing the treasure you are sitting on and has you, rather, hankering after the promise of a treasure that calls you to leave and go elsewhere, and then, when you have arrived somewhere else, you realize that the treasure is buried at the place you have left, and it will be in the movement back and forth between the two, in the gaining of a freedom that allows you to pass with indifference from the luxury hotel to the hovel, from the chateau to the cottage, that you will slough off this fable once and for all, and, shunted about between here and elsewhere, you will enjoy the knowledge that the treasure is nowhere, a knowledge that destines you to wander the earth, to move through mazes and labyrinths, to cross borders, to journey nomadically from one continent to another, ceaselessly discovering the diverse and the heterogeneous, in a world which the age of Technology wishes to bring under the authority of a single power and whose uniformity you will disrupt by the questioning of the foreign to which each of your halts gives rise on whichever of the two shores it might be and whatever the dwelling in which you are a guest.

Translated from French by Chris Turner.
© Foundation Lettre International Award

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"These things happen, to some extent we know they're happening, most people deny they're happening and then we find out they happened, then we write how they happened, then we memorialise them."Mark Danner (jury member 2005)