Son of a computer and encyclopedia, vulcan, half breed…that anyone would want to be.
He made growing up and ‘unaccepted’ cool in america!
Recently, I read Teju Cole’s eye-opening story on Roy de Carava ‘s great love and commitment for shooting black life when ‘black’ and black presence were not fashionable [nytimes Teju Cole ‘what is dark is not empty…” feb 22 2015]. De Carava was an intriguing and poetic photographer who died in 2009. Cole and De Carava brought me back to a time and place when I didn’t like seeing myself in pictures because they tended to be dark, or fuzzy, or faded or a combination of all three. In a society where lighter skin is better among the indian population, I avoided the camera’s gaze; avoided being shot in dark light which made me darker. As an appreciator of photography then with friends who were amateur photographers, I suspected the printed photos to be victims of calibration issues, but wasn’t sure. Only later, when I came to the US and dabbled in portraiture and general photography development, did my suspicion turn into truth. I discovered why the camera disliked shedding light on me, and others like me, and I saw how technology arose out of specific circumstances. I understood how mechanical tools [ex light meters, under or over exposure, darkroom techniques including developing] were manipulated to see the subject behind the lens, and that it wasn’t the advanced amateur shooter at fault as much as the system set up to see the image. It was the system of inherent calibration which was manipulating the shooter and every corner photo studio, which would print photos for customers like me, as is, as they were shot. I discovered here that seeing was calibrated to the white skin.
Cole’s article explains that seeing was invisible to black or dark skin because the dynamic range of film emulsions were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensibility to brown, red, yellow skin tones. Whiteness was normal behind the lenses of all cameras, whether movie or SLR, whether in my country, or in the US. Therefore, the camera would always suggest that dark skin always needed light and improvement, and it was the task of better photo studios to shed light on dark skin during development. The eye behind a camera or a person saw white or light skin, and pink skin for women. Once, during one of the first weeks of my arrival in the US, someone at Bloomingdale’s [clearly not de Carava!] told me I had yellow tones and makeup would even out my yellowness and endow me with pink skin. I do like pink, but wondered about the unnatural combination of pink skin on a brown body. I got used to being ‘yellow-skinned’ and while she spoke I was thinking of curry, which is also yellow, but so delicious. Why would I want to change curry or my skin?
De Carava’s work explained why my photos were the way they were. Looking at his work showed me just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph or how much could be imagined into the shadows. He resisted explicitness, and concentrated on human dignity and soulful. He found life situated in the inner spaces of the subject, and though De Carava came into prominence during the Harlem renaissance, his photography reminds me of the the seventeenth century french painter George de la Tour whose paintings reflected nocturnal effects of light and shadowy effects of his subjects. De la Tour was influenced by Caravaggio, whose close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro was radical.
I see de Carava’s photographs as a black and white version of de la Tour’s paintings, but in stark crisp, deeply contemplative comparison.
Cole’s article also made me see and think how biased mainstream culture still is in the way it shoots people whom it wishes to condemn tout de suite: Trayvon Martin hooded, dark and dangerous compared to a white hooded man who looks hot and studly. Or Michael Brown murdered in Ferguson recently, often described and shot as a demon. Or the many hijabed women in our xenophobic world ominously shrouded in black, shot and presented in photos or cartoons sans beauty, sans dignity. These were/are shot as either guilty, criminal and oppressed. If the camera wishes to criminalize, it will. The camera is still contemptuous and still desires to shoot white or light skin, sometimes killing dark skin consciously or unconsciously or perhaps by default [setting].
Artists like Andrew Dounmu, Steve Mc Queen and Ava du Vernay continue the tradition of de Carava, whether in color or black & white or sepia: Dounmu’s Mother of George , Mc Queen’s 12 Years a Slave  and du Vernay’s selma  are full of the intensity of black presence that de Carava depicted so beautifully in his photography. The black presence and skin in these 3 films are exquisitely shot, and explode with beauty, light and color. The visages are striking in their composition.
I will now go back to my old photos to re-see my opacity a la de Carava, and bask in the shadows which embraced me. What is dark is neither empty nor blank, but full of light and with the right see-er can open into many glories and beauty.
Ahmed Merabet's eulogy delivered by his brother Malik was addressedto racists, islamophobes, anti semites:
One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Madness has neither color nor religion. I want to make another point: stop painting everybody with the same brush, stop burning mosques or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won't bring back our dead, and it won't appease our families.Thank you.
Every religion has had – and still has – pretend Muslims, pretend Christians, pretend Jews, pretend Hindus etc, who terrorize and kill.
Terrorism, radicalism, Nazism, fascism or insanity are ideas that shouldn’t be novel to any one religion. Today, we are in the path of violent lunatics, but history shows us that we’ve always been battling in the name of power and religion. What we are seeing today is not ‘radical Islam’ are so many are wont to say and point out, but ‘medieval behavior’ upheld by modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and political power through violent means. Before the separation of the Roman Catholic Church and State, the western world was a ghastly reminder of what we are seeing today. But the roman Catholics weren’t radical Christians, but ‘Christians’ or ‘crusaders’ or ‘warriors’, seeking conquest in the name of their god.
Yet, all that the terrorists or fundamentalists are exhibiting is the same medieval behavior which began in the middle ages.
Heidegger argues that a poem is a special kind of building, the original admission of dwelling. Gaston Bachelard [Poetics of Space] argues that a building is a special kind of poetry and ‘one of the greatest powers of integration of the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind”.
In Kim Longinotto’s 2012 film Salma, this building for the poet is a small room which contained thoughts, memories and dreams, and dreams of womankind.
Salma is a south Indian Emily Dickinson mapping her poetics of space. For Dickinson, the door emerged as a richly layered metaphor for loneliness, loss and death, but also for memory, secrecy and safety. The window through which little Salma looks at life outside is ‘her door’ to poetry. Through her constant gaze, we see and hear her deep thoughts stirring. The film Salma is not only about Salma and her poetics of space, but her imprisonment has resonance in all girls who are locked up in a building or space the moment they reach puberty. But for these girls the door isn’t reversible like Dickinson’s: there’s no crossing over or crossing through for most girls, except extraordinary Salma.
Salma’s parents gave her away to an aunt who was only 7 herself because she wasn’t what they wanted- a boy. Salma’s aunt hid her own period from her parents so they wouldn’t lock her up. Salma went back to parents at 5 for school and at 13 she was locked away, stopped from studying and forced to marry.
The window was created and made to shut women off from the outside world.
Tamil Muslim girls lose the outside world when they reach puberty. When Salma was locked up she wouldn’t eat, only cry, hunched in a corner when she wasn’t looking outside the window. When they reach puberty parents snatch everything away from their daughters: school, books, friends, escape, socializing and life. In the western worlds, socializing is of the utmost importance for children and is encouraged, and if it doesn’t occur, sometimes social services intervene. In Tamil Nadu, girls have no one to share sadness with, except four walls. But Salma’s imprisonment became bearable because she would dig up and read the bits of newspapers in which her parents’ goods came wrapped from the thrash.
Salma was locked up for 9 yrs until she agreed to marry, and only acquiesced to marriage because her mother was stressed out and her life was threatened. After marriage however, Salma discovered that her mother lied, and had the doctor also lie for her. Because of this deception, she didn’t speak to her for 2 years and married Malik who, together with family, controlled her. Her mother in law complained that she refused to wear the burqa, Malik shouted at her and hit her, but all she thought of was writing. At night, after he went to sleep she would write in a notebook, but the next day it would be discovered and thrown away. She would then write on scraps of calendar paper in the toilet where she hid a pen. But they would take that away, too. “Living through the years, but saying goodbye to life. All you have is time, but no life.” She hid her poems under saris and when she filled a notebook, her mother sent it clandestinely to get published. When the book was launched they made excuses to meet the publisher: they said they were going to a wedding. The mother sent Salma’s book of poems because she didn’t want Salma to be locked so young, like an old lady.
Salma’s poetry stunned the publisher. Her legend had spelling errors because she didn’t really go to school, but they were extraordinary. When the publisher met her, everything was new for her, including crossing the road by herself and eating a meal out. Malik continued to shout all night for her to stop writing and even threatened to kill himself then throw acid on her face, but she slept with her male child across her face to prevent that.
Salma’s poems caused sensation: no Tamil woman had ever written about her life as honestly.
She wrote about the gulf between wife and husband; “where they sleep together, but could kill each other”. The physical proximity between husband and wife carry with them a deep, insurmountable emotional distance. A journalist got a hold of her photos and went to her village to do a piece on her and saw her how young, sad and beautiful she was, wearing a burqa and asked her to take a photo. She refused initially then quickly let her burqa down, and 2 were photos shot. When her photo hit the news, it identified Salma as the writer of a book of poems that exposed village culture, and Malik made her vie for village leader which she won. His family was then forced to allow her to go out.
One day, Salma asked Malik why he stopped her from writing and going out and then suddenly decided that she should run for elections. He explained that for his mother and father reading, writing and not wearing burqa brought dishonor to the family. It is a criminal act for women to not wear a burqa in Tamil Nadu and other places.
Salma’s four years on the council upset the village, but made her popular with women. Her post as welfare board president changed her life as well as others': it got her out of the village to the world outside, the world she longed for when she was locked up as a little girl, and she went on to help and counsel other girls to get out of imprisonment and suicide when they felt they had no other choice but to choose marriage or some form of suicide.
Women and girls like Salma can only dwell in the dickensonian possibility of writing their pain, loneliness and lost childhood in verse. Words are their only salvation. Salma wrote poems and is the most famous Tamil poet today, with her poems which challenged the traditions and codes of conduct in her village, and the treatment of women in our society. The image of a young Salma locked in a dungeon with a tiny, barred window stays with you long after the book has been read.
“This bed, which reminds me of pregnancy and fills me with fear, is the weapon my Master wields.”
“My bloated body and belly creased by stretch marks are truly repulsive, you tell me; and that my body will not change – not now, not ever my voice, long buried in a trough of silence, mutters to itself: Yes, it’s true. Your body is not at all like mine, with its fanfare and its flagrancy.”
ISIS asks huge ransoms for those they hold prisoner, and if they don’t get the money, they kill by beheading and filming the beheading to show what they can do if monies aren’t paid up. A few Americans have been beheaded when USA has refused to fill ISIS’ coffers, while prisoners of other nationalities have been saved because their countries handed over cash to ISIS. ISIS is about money, as Kareem Abdul-Jabar observes in “Paris was not about religion” in TIME magazine January 26th 2015. I’ll add power, too. Power to control those weak of mind, and those in search of a cause, or purpose.
Abdul-Jabar raises an excellent point in his article: when the KKK or Klu Klux Klan burns a cross in a black family’s yard, prominent Christians aren’t required to explain how it ‘isn’t’ a Christian act. Most people realize that the KKK doesn’t represent Christian teachings. And acts like Paris [and elsewhere] are performed by thugs disguising themselves as Muslim much like bank robbers who wear masks of presidents to rob. We don’t really think it’s the actual president robbing the bank, do we?
Similarly, if someone wears a Jesus mask to rob a bank does the world go up in arms and think that the Christian god did the robbing or blame all the followers of that god – Christians – in the world? If they did, then Hollande, Obama, Cameron, Merkel etc who run the world would all be terrorists. But we don’t even pause to ask such a question, or even think of it, whereas we don’t hesitate to blame Muslims for all acts and crimes of terrorism. Terrorism as a descriptor does not enter the mind of anyone in France, America or Germany etc when a white American student opens fire on 26 children or when a white PhD student kills off 12 theater goers, superhero batman-style, armed with the sophisticated machinery and whose apartment looked like an arms factory, or when a Norwegian white man who is fascist, anti immigrant, and christian kills 8 people, then takes a boat over to another venue and kills another 68 people. Hitler was not a terrorist with all the deaths he caused nor Lenin who carried out the Red Terror, but was still not known as a terrorist. They were all Christians, but not terrorists, or radicalized Christians or christian jihads.
Why are jihadists or extremist actions recognized exclusively as Muslim domain? Granted that some would believe that it s a ‘Muslim thing’ because those committing murderous acts recite Allahou Akbar which most recognize as Islamic. But why can’t it be due to insanity as exists in USA when someone like Terence Holmes or Adam Lanza kills terrorist style? Is the christian, logic-thinking world sure about the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly being 100% sane or of sound mind?
The world, especially Europe, but particularly France in the face of the recent Charlie hebdo attack, and the discontentment and alienation of 5 million Arabs in France, must seek to disassociate Islam from terrorism, and refuse the confusion or conflation of Muslim and terrorist. As Manuel Valls suggested recently [Braden Hoyette in Huffington post “French Prime Minister Manuel Valls: we are at war against terrorism and radical Islam” on 1/10/2015]: French compatriots and citizens who are Muslim by confession and culture are also victims of terrorism. Malala, the 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the school children just shot in Pakistan, the women raped and girls genitally mutilated everyday…the list goes on. There’s fundamentalism everywhere in history and the present, in god-fearing and peace-loving religions like Hinduism, Christianity and even Buddhism.
Antoine St Exupery’ lesson is very pertinent here and beautifully said : C’est une folie de hair toutes les roses parce q’une épine vous a piqué… C’est une folie de condamner toutes les amitiés parce qu’une d’elles vous a trahi…
Translation : it’s foolish to hate all the roses because one has pricked you…it is foolish to condemn all friendships because one of them has betrayed you ».
And it is foolish to blame everyone whose god is Allah if a few who believe in Islam have committed atrocities. It is foolish to condemn all Muslim because a few have radicalized and committed massacres. That is the essence of conflating terrorists with Muslims or KKK with Christians. Neither confusion or association is just nor does it serve any purpose but to create further divide.
Yesterday, I listened to Harlem Desir – french secretary of state for European affairs – at Columbia U about his commitment to fighting an old problem, antisemitism. He cited incidents such as the Jewish children in Toulouse and the 4 people in Brussels as proof of antisemitism. But, antisemitism isn’t the problem in the Charlie Hebdo affair; although it is in the Coulibaly affair. Nor should the Charlie Hebdo attack be called a fight for free speech, but rather demeaning speech, and demeaning humor as rabbi Lerner suggests, editor of Tikkun magazinewww.tikkun.org. Lerner has been sent death threats by pro-Israel fanatics, and his home was attacked and painted “nazi” and “self-hating jew” on the gates for denouncing acts of violence against the Palestinians [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html.
One professor at the Desir talk yesterday – Harcourt- launched islamophobia [as though the term was a ‘new’ idea] as a third problem and discursive intervention re the problems in France vis-a-vis alienation by certain groups. The other two problems Frances faces, according to Harcourt, are racism and discrimination. But no one in the panel took up his lead to explore the question of islamophobia. No one got his or her hands wet even with questions about Dieudonne M’bala M’Bala vs Charlie Hebdo: why is Dieudonne’s antisemitism different from Charlie Hebdo’s. Desir responded in one line that ‘one’ is hate filled. And the other? Not? I wonder which “one” that might be.
It cannot be the object of Charlie Hebdo’s derision, the French Muslim. who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded, as rabbi Lerner says.
In the context of islamophobia as a cause of ongoing and deepening alienation in France and Europe – when someone says jesuischarlie they’re saying noussommesislamophobes, too. Desir said that four million people demonstrated for freedom of speech after the attack; Desir said that they’re at war against extremism and jihadism, not Muslims or Islam, even though the two are sometimes interchangeable.
This islamophobia question could easily have been explored on a Columbia platform. That’s one of the reasons I attend such talks, and this one particularly. It is a conversation that is long overdue and much needed in and by France, without anyone being locked up in light of the new french law of November 2014 which prohibits anything resembling hate speech. The talk was at a space – NYC- where freedom to ask was indeed tres permissible.
There was no mention by anyone in the panel or audience of Charlie Hebdo firing cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for having made an anti Semitic remark [http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mehdi-hasan/charlie-hebdo-free-speech_b_6462584.html]. No mention of Charlie Hebdo’s racist depiction of Christiane Taubira as a monkey [she is the ‘black’ minister of justice in France of French Guyanese origin], and no mention of the crude caricatures of bulbous nosed Arabs in various sexual positions splayed across Charlie Hebdo’s pages particularly since post 9/11. No mention why cartoons mocking the holacaust can’t run. No mention of the Danish newspaper – Jyllands-Posten – which published caricatures of the prophet in 2005, but rejected cartoons of Christ because they feared it would ‘provoke an outcry’. No mention why Charlie Hebdo didn’t run cartoons of victims falling from the twin towers. And why? How would the crowd have reacted worldwide, but especially their number one ally, America? Would that be considered free speech or downright offensive and in poor taste? Would it have profoundly offended the dead ones’ loved ones? A resounding yes!
Many have quoted Voltaire’s ” I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” in order to support France and Charlie Hebdo’s free speech. But, as a paper bird suggests in her excellent blog “Why I am not Charlie” these same people forget how much Voltaire loathed Europe’s ‘barbaric immigrant minority’, the Jews, at the time he lived [http://paper-bird.net/2015/01/09/why-i-am-not-charlie/]. When people say they support Voltaire’s words they’re supporting antisemitism, too, since Voltaire spoke ill of Jews. He is dead, but not his ideas, and French live by the words of their “great men” as any: Germany or India or Russia or Italy. I, too, love words, and great words, by great men and women, including Voltaire’s. But let’s not forget that this free speech that Charlie or Voltaire depict is framed by western media as a horrendous threat to Western civilization, but they are also part of the same ‘race’ of people [in the camusian sense] that condones horrendous acts on the ‘Other’, repressing the Other’s freedom to speak and their freedom of assembly when convenient or inconvenient. Sometimes what is ‘outside’ a frame is more important than what’s ‘inside’.
True free speech is a radical idea. JenesuispasCharliedutout.