July 23rd, 2010 20:57 EST
Father-Daughter Project Reveals a Timeless Algeria in Poetry and Postcards
(Deserted Memory, Christine and Dominique Fasse, 77 Books, UK, 2010)
The future may not be completely unknown to us. "
These are the concluding words of Deserted Memory on the back cover of an extraordinary collaboration of father and daughter portraying a colonial Algeria that refuses historical segmentation.
The words suggest that the bell cannot be unrung. Colonialism happened. Its politico-military aspects have been supplanted by a more varnished commercial-military adventurism. But its predatory nature remains. The formerly colonized can either use what they have so bitterly learned, as India does, or make a national career of regression to a time that did not really exist.
For example, terrorist demagogues may be heard calling for a new caliphate, but the best caliphates would have been intolerant of them and their dogma. Demagogues always revise history to suit their purposes. In America we often hear a nostalgia for a time that was in truth harsher and far more unjust than our own.
Dominique Fasse was born in Paris in 1948. He lived in postcolonial Algeria from 1969 to 1987, working in agriculture and traveling throughout the country. Passionate about the rich literature and history of his country`s former colony, he has collected a vast array of documents, including seven thousand postcards from the colonial period, 1830-1962. These mostly sepia postcards and accompanying poetry written by father and daughter comprise this album-style book, eight and a half inches wide and six inches high.
Christine Fasse, whose mother is Algerian, was born in Paris in 1975 and spent her childhood in Algeria until 1987. She studied anthropology at Sorbonne University, specializing in Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa. She then studied architecture and design in London, where she lives and works.
Together father and daughter constitute a cultural bridge between France and Algeria, and they have fashioned a new bridge to the anglophone world with the help of Peter Stickland, an editor and architect. The work was originally written in French and then, with Stickland`s help, translated into English. It was written before the postcards were selected for it, a protocol evident in its precise, seamless construction.
I share with Christine Fasse a mixed heritage, an Algerian Arab father and an American mother of German-Polish descent. But, unlike the authors, I have no memory of Algeria, having come to America as an infant and never returning to Algeria. Nonetheless I have studied Algerian history and appreciate the poignancy of this sand-toned excursion into Algeria`s fabled and troubled past.
The postcards bear careful, thoughtful scrutiny. They were designed, to be sure, to promote commerce and the salutary aspects of the French occupation. But they do so only superficially. The more one studies them the more one sees that the French, like the Arabs, are making a passage. There were others before them, among them the Phoenicians and Romans. Other architectures, other literatures, other triumphs and tragedies.
The French did not succeed in Gallicizing the country as well as the Arabs succeeded in Arabizing it. But the Berbers, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Jews and others all remain. Algeria cannot erase the French. India cannot erase the British. The Arabs could not erase the Berbers. Each nation must embrace its entire history or fall victim to tragic redactions and propagandized history.
Algeria is helped in the task of considering itself holistically by its shifting sands, reminding it constantly of how many civilizations have arisen and been ground to grains of sand and swept away by the wind. Whatever it learned from the French should be no more despised than what the French learned from Algeria, and in many ways Deserted Memory instills this recognition in its readers.
This work is not an illustrated meditation about colonial Algeria. It is much more ambitious and searching than that in its own fleet way. These postcards have been studied by loving contemplatives for the revelations inherent in them. For example, the Foreign Legion crosses a stream with its Arab cohort. The Legionnaires are about as suitably dressed for the climate as the Wehrmacht besieging Leningrad. They are stiff in their saddles, wary, while the Arabs look born to their horses.
Throughout the French are geometric in posture, like Roman numerals, while the Algerians are fluid, like Arabic numerals and sand dunes. The French look less comfortable in their blues than American Marines wearing keffiyehs around their necks in Iraq. Their body language is statuarial. The Algerians` body language is supple, their ideas of discipline visibly divergent. This remarkable dissimilarity in body language was to reappear in the bloody Algerian war for independence.
I readily imagine Christine Fasse culling the postcards for their architectural gems and her father exercising a fine eye for terrain.
Toward the end of Deserted Memory there is a breathtaking photograph of waves crashing against high buildings accompanied by this line: History will return, tied to tragedy . . .
The last photograph, one of the few colored photographs in the entire book, appears at the end of The Chronicle of Stones, " the second of the book`s three sections. The line accompanying this photograph of a palatial building "the pictures are not identified "reads, And the poets awaited the end of arrogance.
All poets in all times.
If these pictures had been captioned in the book, as the postcards undoubtedly were on their opposite sides, the eternal sentiment of the work would have been blotted up by words. The data are insignificant. We do not need to know the names of the cities or the troops or the palaces or the mosques. Just as we do not need to know names when we walk into a room to take in the ambience of the place, the mood of the occupants. We see more in a glance than we would ever see from a name tag.
Perhaps the idea of occupancy is crucial to the mood of the book. The Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Jews, Tuaregs, French "all occupants. They come to belong to the land, but the land refuses to belong to them. This idea is implicit in the story of France`s pacification " of the Algerian interior. The French built a string of forts and garrisoned them. But the Arab attitude was that if the French chose to build a series of ovens in which to bake themselves, what concern was it to the Arabs? In other words, you can claim you have possessed the land, but it possesses you. And the Berbers in their turn could have said this of the Arab invaders.
The elegant sentiment of this book is that Algeria has survived all such sentiments and shapes its occupants more than its occupants shape it.
The sepia tone of the pictures reflects the work of sunlight, wind and sand. The tone seems more suited to North Africa than it would be to Europe. In higher latitudes photographs would bear a pervasive blueness, like the light in snow. But here in Algeria the sun has gotten into everything, which is perhaps why the pagan Arabs were moon-worshippers, the moon rising in such stark contrast to their sun-blasted geography. The symbol of Islam could easily have been the sun. Saracens are, after all, the People of the Dawn in Greek, but moonlight must have suggested an alternate, more spiritual world to the Arabs, the Bedouins being night travelers.
The poetic and prosodic structure of Deserted Memory is fascinating. I corresponded briefly with Christine Fasse and was tempted to question her about this, but I decided that it would better serve the reader to try to apprehend the authors` purposes without help.
The Birth of Mirage, " the first section of the book, is named for one of the most memorable phenomena of desert travel, the mirage. The paintings of my aunt and my mother were profoundly influenced by this optical illusion caused by heat and light. It struck them as the outward aspect of a metaphysical truth. I suspect the Sufi idea that we live behind a veil of illusion may have been influenced by mirages.
The prologue is left-justified free verse, beginning:
In times past,
Thousands of years ago,
Then comes a two-page poem redolent of the book of Genesis. The first page is justified on the right hand; the facing pace is justified on the left. This is important, because it presents a kind of celestial engine that is going to spin out line by line and image by image for the rest of the book.
Thus the celestial engine stirs to life. And then each image is preceded by a line of poetry on an otherwise blank page so that all the images are on right-hand pages and all the succeeding poetry on left-hand pages. The poet speaks, the image appears. Or, as the Sufis say, when the student is ready the teacher appears.
I haven`t asked the Fasses if this is so, but I suspect the book owes not a little to a child`s fascination with her father`s preoccupations. I suspect, too, that Christine Fasse is unlikely to have considered Algeria in the same light as her French father and her Algerian mother, just as I never shared my mother`s particular vision of Algeria.
The child must surely have wondered about the difference between the Algeria in her mother`s mind and the Algeria in her father`s mind. Perhaps she even wondered if it was her job to reconcile the two. If so, it strikes me that she decided against such a course. Deserted Memory is very much a collaboration, an alchemical work of kinship, an homage of father to daughter and daughter to parents, and as such a thing of exquisite beauty.
Algeria and France do not have this precise relationship, although they are inextricably bound to each other. Perhaps we can say as humankind that we are civilized when we can enjoy such a relationship, rather than one embittered by the ephemera of history. There are no good guys in history, but there are plenty of bad guys. Evil is so easy, goodness another story entirely.
How can the French have recovered from their confrontation with the grandeur of Arabic, Islam, the Amazigh civilization, the Roman ruins, the Tuaregs, the desert? They can`t. It`s in their marrow, however it happened to get there. No nativist boobery is going to erase it. The French are forever transformed by their experience in Algeria. And the Algerians are forever transformed by their encounter with the French, their language, their art, their intellect, their religion. There is no undoing this, just as Spain can never eradicate the Arabs. Anyone reading the credits of a French film sees that Algeria has gotten into the blood of France. Nor can the Algerians erase France from their midst.
And this is one of the glories of the human experience, not a tragedy, not in the larger sense. Tragedies in time become a kind of grandeur, just as base elements become precious gems. And resentment against this plain truth is a kind of adolescent tantrum. In this sense Deserted Memory sends us postcards from a history still being written. History keeps changing according to the lens through which we see it.
Here we see through the refined minds of father and daughter more than through the lens of commercial photographers. What the photographers wished us to see is now irrelevant. What the Spahis and their French officers wished us to see, what the hoteliers wished, is all irrelevant. Algeria slips through the intent of the lens to stand before us too grand to describe or interpret.
Deserted Memory is not ultimately an homage to Algeria but rather to time itself, moving backwards and forwards. It is a testament to how limiting our linear concept of time is. What has happened keeps on happening, the book seems to say, and nothing is left behind.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers New review of Far from Algiers
Artists Hill, Literal Latte fiction first prize
Djelloul Marbrook Blog
His mother`s art: www.juanitaguccione.com His aunt`s art: www.irenericepereira.com