Words and Images

"Once upon a time, and not so long ago, in a village of the Middle Atlas mountains, lived a young girl, whose beauty was renown across the land. Her father cherished her like no other, cajoling her with stories of grand suitors and grand weddings. One day, a western woman came to town, a photographer. She spoke Berber, to the great wonder and amusement of all locals. They gathered around her, listening to her tales of photography and magazines. She asked everyone's permission to take pictures of the people and the land, and they all agreed. The white lady promised to send them magazines in return. She took many pictures; some were of the local beauty alone. When the glossy covers arrived a few months later, the inhabitants were disappointed to see only one picture from their village life: a still shot of their local beauty. But there were other pictures in the magazine: advertisements, pictures of western women in little or no clothes. And so the gossiping started, comparing the young lady to the other shameless women in the magazine. The young beauty never married."

I overheard this tale while hiking in the middle Atlas with Pascaline. Our guide was trying to explain why the Berber people we met on the trails were so reluctant to having their pictures taken: they don't want us white devils running away with their pride.

Images, pictures of people and places are quite rare in the Muslim world; in large part due to the Koranic prohibition of depiction. This prohibition evolved over the years, and it took time before theologians imposed it. The most commonly cited justification is the following verse, describing God: "nothing resembles Him; he sees and hears all". Neither God nor the soul, hence no living being can be captured in picture, as this would be mere illusion, and not the real being.

Consequently, mosques are bare of any picture of the prophet or holy figures; and this absence of iconography in religious spaces is replicated in the home: dwelling walls have few pictures or paintings. Generally, images are regarded suspiciously, and people approach them very carefully. Consider the novelist Abdelfattah Kilito's description of a woman viewing a picture: " Just as she usually did when looking at pictures, she held her thumb and finger together and brought them to her eye. Silently she examined the image, but I suspect she saw nothing of it" (La Querelle des Images, p64).

This general phobia of pictures makes the art of photography a rather difficult one to perfect out here. While I easily roam the streets, capturing still lives and inanimate buildings in my lens, I can't help but feel extremely uneasy when aiming my camera at a human being. How many charming scenes have I left unprinted, for fear of offending the participants! So I stare, for long, long minutes, hoping to engrave the special scene into the folds of an imperfect memory. And I run home, with words bursting from my lips; words I set on paper, as a compensation for the image left behind.

My struggles with penmanship are no different than those fought by generations of artisans and calligraphers. While Muslim households have no images on the walls, they do have numerous wall-hangings: handsomely carved or printed verses of the Koran. And the calligraphers have found a clever way of sharing their visions with the reader and spectator: they chose the most picturesque verses, those which speak directly to the imagination and to one's mental 'bank of images'. Hence, you read about Ali with a sword on his lap, riding a horse and cutting his enemy into two neat halves, or fighting a wounded soldier, whose missing leg gushes with blood. Such is their way around the prohibition of depiction. I hope my many words will evoke such vivid images in the reader's mindů.