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Leaving Sidi Bou Said.

By LORAND GASPAR.

Translated from the French by Amine Mouaffak and Sahar Taghdisi Rad.

Photo © Lorand Gaspar

 

The houses I had, they took away from me.
The times happened to be unpropitious: war, destruction, exile.

– George Seferis

FOR, FACED WITH this sea which embraces the heights of countless civilisations, and guards the memory of mankind’s most brilliant achievements over so many dark depths, if we want to be able to be part of this light, we must learn to be simple, to be open within and without, mindful of the common root that is the life of our bodies, the life of our minds, of trees, of seas and of the air.

DO YOU KNOW Sidi Bou Said? There are perhaps only a few dozen places in our world where such a miraculous masterpiece took place, born of an interaction between the mind and the experience of the men of an era, their skills, as well as the complex nature of the site itself.

From the heights of this promontory the view overlooks the bay where the boats enter and leave the port, those of La Goulette today and of Punics and Romans previously…

“It was at Megara1 a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar”2… Was this high promontory, four or five kilometres north of the Punic ports and the ruins of Carthage, indeed a suburb of Megara? Some think it was, but we have no proof. But it is obvious: from the heights of this promontory the view overlooks the bay where the boats enter and leave the port, those of La Goulette today and of Punics and Romans previously. The latter have left traces of their presence on the western slope of the hill: pipes, cisterns.

For about a century after the foundation of the Husainid dynasty in 1705, the hill of Sidi Bou Said was a military site. Let us give thanks to peace and to all those who have been able to preserve it, for having made it possible for human nature combined with nature tout court to consent, in this place, to heed their minds and hearts. The fruits of such encounters, of such skills, could sometimes be called beauty, wisdom, truth, love.

Let us be fair: the spiritual heart, the centre of true life who gave his name to this village is a man, one of those mediators between human weakness and the power of the One, a Sufi. Sheikh Abu Said Al-Baji lived, meditated, prayed, taught and healed the ailing in this place. He died here in 1236 at the age of seventy-seven, revered as a saint. In his footsteps, other great souls sought to approach perfection; one of them, Sidi Abu Abdullah Abi Bakr, nowadays better known as Sidi Dhrif, was a poet and musician.

Let us be truthful and recognize that the first to have the idea, or rather the possibility, of building summer houses on the cliff in the seventeenth century, initially at a respectful distance from the earthly remains of the Saint and then gradually approaching it, were princes and notables who only came there during the warm seasons in search of a bit of fresh air. The village, with its simple houses, concurrent to a way of life, to a climate, to a tradition, has flourished through the furrow opened up by them in the vicinity of the shrine.

Just as we know it is not enough to know the words, sounds and fundamental techniques of a language to write a poem or a melody that holds enough power to speak to others, to help us live, it is also not enough to whitewash the walls, to paint the doors and windows blue, to copy the main catalogued features of a traditional style or any other in order to give birth to a living place, a set of buildings, streets, squares, shops, fountains, gardens, etc., expressing with strength that very element that makes the place a coherent and dynamic whole. Here, the solutions are clear, conceded through a life experience that matured in close touch with real things, with basic human relations and needs. There, in another such ensemble or transformation imposed by success on an authentic place (in the way a great poem is authentic), what remains is no more than a juxtaposition of shapes and volumes dictated by the flattest and the most pretentious conformism.

But these “works”, born from countless encounters between beings, things and circumstances, what happens to them over time? A work of art passes through an era and is exposed to different gazes and experiences, and is able to perceive different movements and meanings based on their own nature, but a place where a human community has achieved the same kind of miracle as a poem in words or colours that speaks to successive generations, can hardly continue its existence without undergoing changes to its elements, even to its composition, since its textures, its forms, its own movements, are so much intertwined with those of a society’s history: events, economic developments, ideologies, etc. In earlier times, that is, before the invention of industry, before the explosive growth of sciences, technology and demography, the slow pace of change could allow for certain places to transform smoothly enough to preserve their essence; such almost organic transformations seem the realm of wishful dreams within the hustle and bustle that we live in today. We would like to ‘safeguard’ the ‘sites’ that are places of life and not only monuments or ‘playing fields’ for billionaires, yet we have not found ways to escape the great brutality of the laws of the market. Everything takes place as if there were only three possible ways for such sites to evolve: to transform into a museum that one visits; to become an economic stake, and hence handed over to speculators; and, finally, if possible and if circumstances permit, to live in poverty and oblivion.

YES, CHANGE. NATURE, on earth, knows seasons that return faithfully, even though they are never quite the same. After a greater or lesser time of desert and sleep earth is covered with a new green, flowers bloom, fruits ripen, then everything dries out, the leaves fall. Many insects go through cycles of sleep, hatching, mutation, breeding and extinction for a time. For the more evolved species, including humans, generations succeed one another, seasons are within each life, unique. Human societies change too: engrossed in pain, they grow, flourish, bear fruits, sometimes freeze sterile and enter lethargy, disappear or reappear. Has human nature changed fundamentally since the emergence of homo so-called sapiens? Knowledge, whether it is the simple fruit of experience or the specific knowledge of some laws of nature, changes our way of life, and when a society has the chance to taste a fairly long period of peace and prosperity, it happens that humans produce other values than those concealed by the passion to subdue, dominate, exploit, spread hatred and fear. The seasons of the earth and of the living species that it supports and nourishes, we know that they are not eternal either. Stars and planets, galaxies and universes are also born and die. Meanwhile it is man, it is our lives, it is “us” as human beings and our environment, to which we are naturally connected, that interest us, as if we were eternal. Is it just a dream to think that man can become sufficiently perceptive to realize that his true interests and values are neither in display of possessions and power, nor in intolerance and hatred? That the light of the spirit, the beauty of the sea, of mountains, that of gardens and deserts, of the invisible drawing of the flight of swifts in the sky only appear to those who are willing to open their eyes, ears and mind? Is it utopian to think that human changes and those that depend on us could evolve even slightly towards a better understanding of ourselves, of the other and of nature?

I AM ONE of those millions of people that wars, large and small, have driven out of their homes – and continue to do so. When one starts off by being torn away from the places of one’s childhood, we say to ourselves that, having after all survived this first brutality, such a radical uprooting, there won’t be any more surprises on the way. We turn ourselves into nomadic souls. Therefore, having chosen a language, a culture and an occupation as homeland, when circumstances so require, then again it is a new departure. Then one day, without warning, something in the air, in the faces: the colours of the evening and the earth, the morning light, the laughter of children, make us feel at home and we unexpectedly let our roots grow once again. Time to believe that it has happened, and already it is a new war, new hatreds, a new beginning. Did I betray the nomadic teachings despite my repeated stays among them in the great deserts where God spoke to men? Did I forget that I was only a passer-by? Indeed, but experience has taught me that leaving when we feel at home is painful, even when it is not childhood that one leaves. The friendship and trust of some humans, of stray cats, of a tree, but also of a desert, the mysterious familiarity and intimacy of landscapes, are no less generous sources than childhood.

But human nature is peculiar. Having, some two thousand miles away, found a new place of work, then gradually new friends, landscapes of another essence, perhaps more humane in this particular location designated by fate, across a space so rich with encounters, ideas, tastes of living and creating, I thought, once again that I was allowed to feel ‘at home’ in a place.

Photo © Lorand Gaspar

ENTICED BY FRIENDS to Sidi Bou Said, I had found there something unexpected: one of those moments of balance, of mysterious harmony between the human know-how, the movements of the earth, the sky, and the sea. A silence where, from barely noticeable folds to barbarous roars, the chords and dissonances of the huge plateau of water, trees and winds come to be inscribed. A genuine village with some real shops, a very old cafe leaning against the mosque, perched on a staircase flanked by two balconies overlooking parts of the village and the sea. Inside, the painted spiral columns surround spaces for contemplation, listening and conversation. Simple people that we meet at the grocery store or on the street, who entrust you with their joys, their worries, who listen to you. Old-fashioned bourgeois, enjoying the cool evening in the streets along the sea, dressed in their spotless white djebbas; some artists devoted to the spirit of the place. Bitter orange, jasmines, agaves and bougainvilleas. An old house at the end of the village, tucked away in the hill, part of it cracked, leaning like a balcony over the sea.

In the second century of our era in China, in his Treatise on Music, Ssu-ma Ch’ien recommended the wise to respect the order of nature, preserving Heaven, Earth, and all beings in their places in the cosmic whole.

Our technological advances intertwined with greed, with financial speculation, open the doors to more than one delusion. Building a house, a village, concealed in a way of life and in conformity to the real needs of a family and a community, is altogether different from building a place of grand splendour.

Where the coexistence of men and nature has produced and developed a living whole, the intrusion of this breed of predators called promoters means the death of coherence, of an “individuality” whose desire is expressed in the simple things in life that will be ruthlessly destroyed by the relentless logic of market forces. Selling, as many times as possible, a specific flavour, a unique complexion, a limited space that has a certain harmony, an essence; this can only be done by destroying them.

PAUL KLEE, DURING a trip to Tunisia in the spring of 1914 — on 13th April and Easter Monday to be exact — visited Sidi Bou Said with his friends (and painters) Macke and Moilliet. I read in his diary that, ‘The city ascends with such majesty, looking far across the sea with a deep breath, rising on the horizon as we approach. Stopover at the entrance of a garden, where I sketched a watercolour painting”. They have a coffee somewhere in front of the mosque. Would it have been the Café des Nattes already?

The wind carries the clouds, the wind chases them away. And no one wonders where the wind blows from, where the forces collide, jostle, agree and transform, before us. The same goes also for our lives, intertwined with each other like the sun and the earth, rain and germination.

Early in the afternoon, the last basket of books loaded into the car, I turned away from the entrance to the garden located at roof level: between two cypresses the sea seemed to rise from an invisible source. And, slightly away from the centre of the blue-grey space shaped like an amphora with a very wide neck, the tiny white dot of a fishing boat.

No one can take away from me the lightness of a wing that flaps over the sea, seaming and sewing vast expanses in the one movement, nor the sounds of water in a bottomless night or my conversations with one of those lonesome strollers that no one knows if they are mad or wise, nor the glorious call of wrens at the first light of the dawn, eternal moments.

IN THE HOURS of insomnia I learned one of the languages of the people of the waters and winds.

Folding fabrics of silence. If the demonstrations of reason are the eyes of the soul, the music we hear in ourselves and in all nature, that of all languages, is its ear. The air and water together breathe in the infinite body of the night, which is not a place. What is it that suddenly feels familiar to the ear, so close yet so immeasurable?

Of what essence are they the fruits, these clusters of sounds thrown against the rocks where they burst into freshness and light?

And where does this dense foliage come to us from, flooded with the cries of unknown birds, on pilgrimage to a holy unfound place and coming down with the weight of their unspoken prayers?

The poets of ancient China sometimes went looking for Tao through paths lost in the mist of mountains. In our world of “sound and fury” we must rebuild paths and places within ourselves. Or in a smile. In listening to others. In a poem.

I take with me the silence of old houses, so fair, so real even in their ruins, demolished one after another.

Photo © Lorand Gaspar

THE VARIETY OF THINGS produced by nature is boundless. It is no less striking when we observe only human nature. Obviously, variety already appears to the simple glance that perceives shapes and features, but the differences in composition, skills and experience lead to a diversity of views, and, hence, of behaviours barely believable. What one admires, praises, his neighbour fears or despises. And tomorrow, a gust of wind, a few speeches or images will be enough to change that. This diversity of looks, tastes, opinions is the naïve, immediate expression of the singularity of our complexions and of our own journey, testifying to the richness of the vast fabric of humanity, but it can only be beneficial to the extent that we do not impose on others our tastes and opinions as demonstrated truths. To the extent also that we do not deny the effort to understand ourselves, to better understand the other, and the needs, the interests of our human nature that we actually share.

Did the beautiful paintings and engravings that appeared…thirty thousand years ago belong to places of residence or were they reserved for places of worship?

Most living creatures, born out of a seed, an egg, a mother’s womb, seek or build a shelter, unless the laws of nature have equipped them with a habitat attached to their bodies from which they never separate. One imagines that our ancestors’ shelters were sought or built primarily to protect against animals and climate. Did the beautiful paintings and engravings that appeared (at least those sufficiently sheltered, resisting the destructive force of men and elements) thirty thousand years ago belong to places of residence or were they reserved for places of worship? But isn’t the sanctuary a type of shelter, the refuge par excellence? In any case, today we are certain that the people of the Upper Palæolithic knew how to pitch a tent, build huts and shacks.

I remember my excitement discovering in the fifties the excavations of Tell es-Sultan in Jericho, led by Miss Kenyon (the site had already been partially excavated from 1907 to 1909, then from 1930 to 1936). Imagination is sensitive to these musings of a descent into the depths of time; it loses footing only when it seeks to establish time itself on ’something’. The site, founded about ten thousand years ago has witnessed, like all such places, successive occupations. Overlaps and crossroads of many living layers. As if we were all passing on the same stage, within Life itself.

A few hundred meters from the perennial and still-abundant spring, were deployed, and still are deployed, the precarious constructions covered with corrugated iron sheets of a large Palestinian refugee camp.

All excavations in the Near and Middle East — where, together with the Indus Valley, the oldest historical sites are located — that I have seen or have read the archaeological description of, speak to us of successive occupations; newcomers, conquerors of course, settled in the ruins of hounded, slayed predecessors. Ever since we discovered writing, since the winners engraved the memory of their precarious victories in stone or annals, we call it history.

History, yes, it is the invention of writing in Sumer; poetry, myths, beliefs, battles, covenants, laws, experience, knowledge; the exchange of thoughts and even more of goods, curses and blasphemies.

Our civilizations have produced thousands of masterpieces, developed phenomenal knowledge that speaks of the constructive power of the human mind, but we are still unable to control (among other things) our insatiable desire to own (more than another) — visceral intolerance of the vast majority of humans to these differences arising from the uniqueness of each one, the particular history of societies and individuals, of beliefs and of customs.

Photo © Lorand Gaspar.

PALLOR OF SIDI BOU SAID on some evenings, shortly after the sunset. How can all this white, that punctuates and accentuates a faded blue at this late hour, become pale or even paler? There is something like a deepening, a waning of forms and volumes that are slowly absorbed into the previously invisible clarity of their essence.

I would like, before leaving this place to the bulldozers that are going to demolish this dismal little house, fractured on all sides yet so charming to my eyes, in order to build “luxury” apartments or a Beverly Hills style villa with Moorish doors, windows and patios, to erase any bitterness off the heart and mind.

Things and events are at every moment what they are and nothing else. We are, each and every one, like the furrow of a drop of bird-life looking for a passage in the currents that alternately lead and threaten us. Looking for a little more energy, light and love. One day, having survived a few storms, we realise that the only steady source of things that really matter to us, and from which only an ailment of the soul and death can separate us, is in our mind. Yet the path from this abstract realisation to practice is arduous.

While I was trying to shape my thoughts I heard on the radio that humans capable of responding to hatred with love existed not only in books of holiness and wisdom. On the roads of Calabria, attempting to board a car of tourists, attackers fatally wounded the seven-year-old son of a couple. With the child facing no chance of survival, his parents have donated his organs. Eight other children have now regained the hope to live…

Responding to a letter from Miss Leroyer de Chantepie, found at Croisset on his return from Tunisia in June 1858, Flaubert while recommending her to work “excessively at a long and hard occupation,” continued: “and then travel, leave everything, imitate birds. This is one of the sorrows of civilization to live in houses. I think we are made to sleep on our backs watching the stars. In a few years, humanity (through the new development of locomotion) will return to its nomadic state. We will travel from one end of the world to another, as we used to, from the mountain to the meadow: this will bring peacefulness to the mind and air to the lungs.”

It is true, there it is, the world travels. And it is good for the lungs and for business. But as for peace of mind…


 

 

Lorand Gaspar, ca 1985. [Photo © Stéphane Gaspar.] Click to enlarge.

Born in 1925 to a Hungarian family in Marosvásárhely in Eastern Transylvania (currently Târgu Mureș, Romania), Lorand Gaspar enrolled in Engineering at the Palatine Joseph University of Technology and Economics of Budapest in 1943, but was mobilized after a few months. Deported by Nazis to a labour camp in 1944, he escaped in 1945. He then completed his medical studies in Paris and became a surgeon at the French hospitals of Bethlehem and Jerusalem where he lived for sixteen years. From 1970 he was a surgeon at the Charles Nicolle hospital in Tunis and resided in Sidi Bou Said until 1994, when he returned to Paris. A poet and essayist, Lorand Gaspar is considered one of the major French-language poets of the last third of the twentieth century. His writings are studied widely at academic institutions across France and the French-speaking world. He has translated D.H. Lawrence, R.M. Rilke, and George Seferis, among others, into French. As a result of his long years working and residing in the Middle East, Gaspar has produced a wide range of writings on the region, mostly not yet translated into English, including A History of Palestine (1968, 1978), Jerusalem Diaries (1997), and Arabia Felix and other travel journals (1997). ‘Leaving Sidi Bou Said’ was first published in French in 1995. Peter Riley assisted in this translation.

NOTES.

 

  1. Translator’s note: Megara was the name of an agricultural area adjacent to the ancient city of Carthage.
  2. Translator’s note: The quotation is from Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô (1862), set in Carthage during the third century BC.

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