Archives par mot-clé : violence

Le milieu de nulle part

Difficult to translate the title of this restrained but insistent book, Le Milieu de nulle part, which combines photos by Philippe Bazin with text by Christiane Vollaire and was published by Creaphis in 2012. The problem hangs on ‘le milieu’, which fills out the ‘nulle part’ to make it a space of inhabitation, an environment, as well as a way-station, ‘à mi-chemin’, implying against the negation of the ‘non lieu’ that there will be another station in these lives encountered. This is one of the things the book is insistent about – the irrepressible linearity of a projection towards a future in a different place. Another is the different perversities of the judicial and administrative apparatuses that distort and frustrate that direction, engendering all sorts of pockets of suffering and erosion of vitality on the way.

Pockets would be one way of describing what we see in the photos. Contrary to Bazin’s extraordinary, frontal images of human faces, here there is at best a sense of curvature given by bodies to unwelcoming spaces. The bodies themselves aren’t visible, nothing is very visible, except the intense stillness achieved by Bazin and a sense that someone might previously have been sitting on the bed with the tightly tucked in blanket, or have stepped out of the abandoned pair of slippers. A jumper, a child’s toy half way under a bed, trousers hanging from a string. Rooms where humans have weighed only very lightly on the meagre furniture, where there is nowhere to store anything and little evidence of anything that would need storing anyway.

Organised in three sequences through the book, the photos move from shots of self-imposed order – neat, flat surfaces of communal tables with dishes stacked next to well-made beds and folded piles of covers and clothes – to curtained quarters, vaguely reminiscent of hospital conditions but held together with bits of tape, a different version of the same effort to enclose some sort of privacy in the least accommodating of spaces, and finally the third sequence in which the pockets have ceased to offer any hidden depth, becoming grids ready to receive bodies for variable lengths of time. This final sequence is where people get so flattened that even their outline is difficult to imagine, their spaces reduced to a minimal conception of bodily functions which crushes any projection or project. It is in this sequence that the photos prolong most insistently the passage from Hannah Arendt that circulates through the latter part of Vollaire’s text: ‘Rien ne nous expulse du monde plus radicalement qu’une concentration exclusive sur la vie corporelle.’

I have described the photographic dimension of this book because the images were difficult for me, resistant, withdrawn. The residual pathos that animates the clinical precision of Bazin’s earlier work is here lurking in forms that are radically unfamiliar. It took me time to see them and that process is uncomfortably extrapolative. Vollaire’s text is as carefully orchestrated, its arc through its three stages tending perhaps more towards amplification as the passages of speech recorded in the different transit and retention centres for asylum seekers where this work was carried out in Poland in 2008, recur, get longer, and re-absorb shorter fragments already quoted back into fuller, more complex statements, in this respect miming the experience that she describes of the swell of speech that gathered in different ways, often despite administrative and linguistic obstacles, around the occasion of their presence. Some of the forms of pathos are more familiar here, and the task of the text lies partly in hearing beyond the apparent familiarities – often expressions of religious dissension and intolerance – in which much contemporary media- and political-speak deals. It does this task very finely, superbly, with an attention that doesn’t fully disguise a sort of bewilderment while summoning the resources it has – Arendt, but also Abdelmalek Sayad and Foucault – to listen carefully to what is happening, growing, in this new space.

‘Quelque chose de l’ordre d’une scénographie se nouait toujours autour de ces entretiens, comme autour du moment de la prise de vue. Et cette scénographie était souvent aussi éclairante que la parole elle-même. L’apparition ou la disparition, de certains intervenants, les silences ou les regards de certains autres, leur mode d’intervention dans le dialogue, leur retrait de l’espace de l’image, la manière dont une collation était apportée, dont une table était disposée ou une chaise avancée, nous disaient qu’en ces endroits-là nous étions les invités de ceux qui n’étaient invités nulle part. Et ces lieux de relégation, par un effet d’aberration de l’espace-temps, s’ouvraient à chaque fois sur l’immensité d’un nouvel espace : celui d’un projet d’existence dont tout, dans nos dispositifs juridiques, vise à obstruer la réalisation.’ (Le Milieu de nulle part,  p. 10)


Hoda Barakat in conversation

Whosoever has not killed remains prey to fancies, prey to suffering, captive to an enervating search for wondrous salvation.”

Hoda Barakat’s second novel, The Disciples of Passion (2005) – in French Les Illumines (1999) and in Arabic Ahl al’Hawa (1993) – set our recent discussion in ULIP’s new series of library talks under the shadow of human capacity for violence, a shadow that has had decisive impact on Hoda Barakat’s life and writing, but one to which she has succeeded in bringing strange and compelling illumination. Barakat has made her home in Paris since she left her native Lebanon in 1989, yet has continued to write in Arabic, even tending towards a much more idiomatic Arabic in her latest work Le Royaume de cette terre (Malakût hadhihi al-ard, 2012). We were intrigued to discuss this choice, to know whether it was indeed experienced as a choice, and how she thinks of her writing in relation to the languages that people her everyday existence in Paris, as well as those that translate her work for readers around the world. These questions cannot be approached separately, implied Barakat, from their background in violence and upheaval. Any easy delineations we might have wanted to invoke between a state of exile or of belonging were kicked over by her insistence on the fact that she was ‘déjà partie’ when she was still living in Beirut. ‘Partir’ meant first withdrawing from her society of friends and colleagues as they became embroiled in the civil war, realizing that she had hardly exchanged any words with people other than her children for days on end, negotiating the complexity of crossing the city by displaying different passes at different checkpoints. ‘Partir’ also meant giving up all of the fluid circulation between cultures and languages that had characterized the city of Beirut. It meant finally reaching the conclusion that this was no longer a country, that there was nothing for her to do there: ‘Quand je suis partie, je détestais ce pays, j’étais malade de ce pays… mon sentiment d’être un étranger dans mon pays était beaucoup plus pénible que quand j’en suis sortie… Ici, c’était juste la sécurité, pour moi et pour les enfants. Je n’avais pas vraiment de projet, pour la France… Et puis j’ai continué à écrire comme si j’étais restée là-bas. Je crois, vraiment. Après on ne peut pas savoir. J’ai aussi le sentiment que cette distance m’a donné beaucoup de cruauté, beaucoup de radicalité, dans l’écriture… Heureusement qu’il y avait l’écriture…’.

‘Partir’ meant essentially moving to the space of writing. A therapeutic process? Undoubtedly. Also a form of resistance, or a means of shoring up a certain cultural heritage? Barakat was less willing to take that idea on board. Perhaps a form of resistance is a consequence, she replied, an indirect result, of her work, but it’s not a motivation: ‘Pourquoi je vais écrire en français ? j’ai une langue… et elle est capable de tout. Et, au fond de moi, ce n’est pas un acte volontaire, d’écrire en arabe, c’est une envie qui vous envoie vers une langue ou vers une autre. Moi, l’envie est la langue que je rêve pour mon écriture, et c’est la langue arabe. C’est vrai que ça me maintient dans la marge. Je suis traduite en français, j’ai beaucoup de bonne presse, j’ai même des décorations, mais je sais que je ne rentre pas sur le marché des ventes du livre comme un écrivain français… je suis loin de tout ça, des prix et tout ça, mais je suis bien comme ça.’

Our gathering was small, a group of students and academics all interested in the ways writing and speaking in different languages happens in this city that we share, but as Barakat talked in an increasingly expansive way and we settled into a more relaxed exchange, we found ourselves slipping away from the context of our encounter. Paris is for her, she insisted, purely contingent, and always has been. Beirut in every respect, not just as place of violence, but also of cultural and linguistic cosmopolitanism, was the more significant location of experience: ‘Beirut était une ville poreuse à toutes sortes de langues, donc je n’ai pas du tout eu l’impression d’avoir été étanche dans mon pays pour arriver ici et du coup m’ouvrir à d’autres langues, pas du tout.’ This was not to suggest exactly that she practices a sort of ‘impermeability’ to Paris, but her disinterest was striking in contrast to the effort she expressed to find analogies to help us – a non-Arabophone public – understand the modes of free circulation and invention still possible for her within classical Arabic. Rejecting the assumption that Arabic is largely conditioned by the sacred nature of the Koran, she evoked an image of a great garment made of all sorts of fabrics and trimmings, lace and nylon, none of which are straightforwardly more noble or prestigious than others, before admitting that she was far from conjuring up the possibilities she enjoys for self-fashioning in Arabic. The most important thing, she concluded, was to realise that Arabic was a language that had not been ‘saccagée’: ‘c’est comme si vous avez une matière qui a été filtrée, au lieu d’être mélangée brutalement, tout est resté, tous les termes sont d’usage, il n’y a pas eu de perte…’. It is also, she insisted, a language that remains ultimately distinct from any of the spoken forms, which in part explains this preservation.

The library reading room where we were gathered, had gradually emptied of the last students working in carrels around us, and as we sat on in the gloaming the city did indeed seem remote. Between us was a vision of a linguistic continent reserved for written experimentation, stretching out like a dream with radical implications.