By Salmon Friscia
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If I am not paying close attention it means I’ll probably miss the narrow dirt alley, smelling of urine and traces of garbage. Not this time. I abruptly turn off the busy street and slip into the passageway. I move down a tenebrous stretch, into an open space, then under an arch between two buildings, circuitously wend my way through narrow thoroughfares, emerging finally into a small clearing surrounded by three dwellings.
I am in the Medina.
The three buildings are of uneven heights. Each could use a fresh coat of whitewash. The ambient ground is unpaved. Everything has a shabby, rundown appearance.
At the lower level there are doors but no windows. It’s odd. None is painted the ubiquitous cerulean blue, nor do any display on their surface the decorative black-capped nails hammered into intricate patterns. Each has, however, in the center, a black Fatima’s hand, a heavy iron door knocker, in the shape of a clenched fist.
The ponderous key which opens my door, painted a fecal brown, is ancient, with an enormous pin and web, and must be navigated carefully into the keyhole. The massive door, much taller than I, grates as I push it open. Once inside, I slam it shut and throw the bolt. A vaulted, steep incline leads to the rooms above. Smooth, wavelike hollows define each of the thirty steps, proclaiming their age and hard usage. The space quietly reverberates as I ascend.
This is where I live.
Viewing the inner courtyard from the landing, I’m always astonished at the creativity and sheer beauty flowing from its interior. Here is an magnificent, unsuspected treasure hidden behind an impoverished and ill kept exterior.
Most houses in the Medina are centered around a courtyard open to the sky. This courtyard is covered. The former arrangement, found throughout the Mediterranean, allows the sun and rain freedom to come and go, exposing the inhabitants directly to nature’s vagaries.
What would normally be open space is enclosed. From the ceiling an extension of more than fifteen feet soars and forms a kind of tower. It is layered with ceramics. The uppermost perimeter has a band of windows framed by swirling iron arabesques.
Light pours into the room.
Dazzling tiles in bright cherry reds, rich indigos, CÚzanne apple and olive greens, pale oranges, earthy ochers, umbers and siennas, some with floral fantasies, others with geometric schemes, encircle the walls, its visual opulence engaging, then capturing the eye no matter where you stand. A delicious shock is experienced each time I see it.
The sun in its quotidian movements plays its part too. The effect is enhanced as its rays, in celestial motion, slide and caress the surface.
There are nine other rooms, rectangles of various sizes, none alike. Some are blind-without windows, many are tiled from floor to ceiling, others have painted cerulean doors decorated with powerful nail studded designs. One room of slender width, whose function I could never guess, faces the front of the building. Along its entire length are narrow windows with blue shudders, and charming ornamental iron work.
The entire house has a rambling feeling, a dream like quality. Many of the floor tiles are uneven or worn down to the underlying foundation. Wall tiles are missing, chipped, or badly damaged, wooden edges are worn smooth, beams sag, paint peels, yet nothing is diminished. It bears its almost two hundred years well, having miraculously escaped the relentless gnawing of time.
Leaving the courtyard, I enter a spacious, walled terrace which, when the weather is good, becomes an extension of the house. There is an entrance to one of two primitive kitchens. A door on the opposite side gives access to a small lavishly tiled room. Another door opens to a flight of stairs connected to the roof, a space functioning almost like another room-the sky is its ceiling.
An astonishment equal to what I felt when entering the courtyard the first time overwhelmed me as I opened the door and stepped onto the roof. The view spread out before me revealed another world.
It was a world, not only of buildings, but of people moving about, conversing in pairs or groups, laundering, hanging fluttering wash, beating rugs, preparing food, eating, sipping tea, flirting, lounging, sleeping, dreaming--day and night just about everything happens up here.
This building is higher than those surrounding it, which gives me a partially unobstructed view of hundreds of roof tops. Nothing can be compared to anything I’ve seen to the jumble of square and rectangular boxes piled one on top of another or jutting off precariously to the side. I see orange, terra-cotta roofed extensions, white terraces and oddly shaped boxes, shudders, barred windows, retaining walls, sharp, crazy angles, and sensuous rounded forms of endless shapes, all of which seldom conform to any architectural rules. If an additional room is needed it is simply grafted on.
I gaze out on a vibrant, white panorama accented with cerulean blue, an occasional splash of green, and an ocher building, here and there.
The way the buildings constantly evolve creates an organic feeling, so different from the fixed and static impression of western buildings. They appear, instead, alive, growing, and ceaselessly changing. I could not help but feel I was connected and not separated from it.
The most significant, utterly startling element, was a huge white dome, with neat cupolas hugging its sides like little bubbles. It floated above and dominated one quadrant of the horizon. Its silhouette was outlined against a powder blue, cloudless sky. Big... solid... intensely plain and simple, it resembled no other mosque I had ever seen.
Maybe a hundred yards separates us. The dome’s diameter?....a wild guess....perhaps ninety feet.
What a thrill. Having such an unusual and venerable neighbor in my own backyard was almost too much to believe. The harmony of the forms held me spellbound and I knew I would come back again and again.
After three or four days, the initial wonder of living in a house straight out of The Arabian NIghts slightly ebbed. Slowly, accommodation and adjustment to a new life became normal. I could now think more about exploring the rich photographic possibilities around me.
The early morning hours, which I love, are probably the time I do my best thinking and work. I had been up for a half hour before climbing the steps to the roof, cup of tea in hand. At that hour a special light bathes the Medina. The buildings seem asleep, contained and calm, under a just awakened sky. The sun, on its way up, would change all that. I looked at my watch; it was six-thirty.
Despite the hour, there is a stirring, a few figures dotted the roofs. Nothing goes unnoticed here. The inhabitants were curious about me, wondering who I was and what was I doing there.
Some minutes after finishing my tea, I returned down stairs.
The roof continued to beckon. The following morning I stood leaning against a dividing wall gazing raptly at the dome. The sun had barely risen. In the hushed glow the mosque appeared suspended, ethereal, so still and beautiful. It was an unusual moment, one which affected me deeply.
Instinctively, I headed for the stairs. Once downstairs I grabbed a bag containing one of my cameras loaded with black and white film, selected some lenses, picked up a tripod and rushed up the stairs. After setting up I worked quickly. It went smoothly.
I was sure I recorded what my brain saw. It was chance, pure chance, which had allowed me to preserve the dome’s image before its sudden and imminent transformation.
I never tired of my roof top visits. It was around seven, a few days later, when I climbed the stairs. Opening the door my first thought was the mosque. Turning towards it I was astonished at what I saw.
High up, near the top of the dome was a figure in a blue worker’s smock. He had managed, in some ingenious way, to wrap a rope around the the ornamental metal rod upright in the center of the dome. A kind of bosun’s chair, in which he sat, was attached to the rope. Hanging by his side was a large bucket. His legs were braced against the curved surface. In his right hand he wielded a pole. I was not sure if there was a brush at the end of it. What happened next was extraordinary.
The dome, its cupolas, the walled extensions, were white-- an indisputable fact. But one small action by this figure was enough to reshuffle some long held ideas.
The worker dipped the brush into the bucket and in measured passes began applying broad swaths of paint over the sensual surface. My perception of what he was doing took on new meaning.
What his magical brush touched instantly turned a lustrous white. The vast, unpainted surface of the dome, which a few moments ago I would have strenuously argued was pure white, when viewed next to the freshly painted area, could only be described now as gray, a dark gray at that.
Because of the dome’s scale, and the unfamiliarity of the architecture, my attempts at comparisons were hopeless. I had trouble accepting what was happening before my eyes. The white dome, in effect, was not really white any more. When viewed next to the alien color beginning to dominate it there now existed two but completely different whites side by side. The contrast was decisive and disturbing. It made me question once more the true nature of color and its dependence on its surroundings.
It also ignited my imagination.
Brush stroke by brush stroke, a transformation would occur, in the course of which, the dome and its cupolas would assume a fresh mantle of white. An exchange would take place. Instead of the aging white already there a brighter white would displace it. The structure would not change, of course,.... only its skin. This has to be photographed, I told myself.
As I watched the paint advance, a plan began to take shape. I wanted to capture the entire process, the gradual and daily changes. I’d have to start immediately.
I already had, I hoped, the first in a triad of sessions; it was the roll of film I had shot the other day. This afternoon and evening I would complete the first set. Each of the following days, I would start shooting about six in the morning, when the worker was absent and the light even and not compromised by the sun. This afternoon’s shooting would take place when the worker was gone. The sun would, at that time, be mercilessly beating down on the freshly painted area which would blur the differences between the old and new paint. Late this afternoon when the light was not harsh and the shadows deeper I would conclude the shooting.
My objective was to record the quality of light bouncing off the paint as it crept downward bit by bit until it covered the entire surface. It would be a chronicle, a timed sequence, if you will, recording the progress and transformation of the dome’s metamorphosis.
It had to be shot in black and white, nothing else would do. In the darkroom I could manipulate and achieve the grainy quality of the already envisioned prints.
I thought of the many artists in the past who returned to the same landscape again and again to paint the inevitable changes as each season pushed the other aside. Other artists selected the path and effect of light on an object or group of objects during the span of a day, or a week, or longer. It was all about change. My basic idea was not novel, by any means, I was simply following an already established tradition.
The figure worked quickly. The whiteness slid down the curvature of the dome hour by hour, the gray area retreated with each brush stroke. It was as if the dome were slipping on a white pullover.
A pristine dome was born.
The supporting bases and cupolas remained to be finished. The painter working on the hidden side of the dome occasionally appeared to join the one I saw daily. Both of them, of course, were aware of my presence,. Besides, they probably realized their work had some value to me otherwise why would I be taking pictures, no one else was.
I was packing up after completing the morning’s shooting, correctly assuming the job would be finished that day. The two men had arrived and were preparing to start work on the remaining areas. They awkwardly stood gazing at me across the open space. It was as if they were posing for a picture. I felt a bond towards these fellows and began waving to them. They waved back. Were those smiles on their faces? I couldn’t tell.
That afternoon and evening I took the last exposures. My job was done. The workers finished sometime late in the afternoon when I was downstairs. It was a missed opportunity. How I would have liked to have photographs of those final brush strokes.
Every artist, I believe, upon completion of a work in which he has invested so much of himself, often knows with a provisional certainty that what he has done is good, has merit. In my case, a lot could go wrong in the developing and printing stages, but I felt that what I filmed was what I was seeking....the interplay of light and change on an architectural gem. It isn’t often one sees a mosque get a new paint job.
The next day I rested. I had no commitments.
My tranquility was short lived. Three peremptory knocks. Big, booming, sounds. There was someone banging at the door. It was Fatima’s hand, no mistaking her.
The vaulted stairwell amplified the sound, and turned it into a muffled but thunderous reverberation that rumbled throughout the house. But I loved it right from the start. It had such a commanding personality. No tepid Western knock could compare with it. What I didn’t like was the trip downstairs to open the door. Once more Fatima summoned, three more powerful knocks filled the rooms with her rolling voice.
I ran to the windows up front to peer out. My God, it’s those painters. What in the world could they possibly want?
My French was passable. I knew little Arabic, greetings, numbers, that sort of stuff. Leaning out the window I shouted a greeting and asked what they wanted. They were all smiles. We wish to speak with the monsieur, one of them shouted back. What do you want? We wish to speak with the monsieur, he stubbornly answered. This could go on forever, I thought. There was no helping it, they would remain right where they were until I came down. Wait, I yelled.
Once at the bottom of the stairs I unbolted the door and pushed it open. The two stood there smiling affably. Both were in their late forties or early fifties, hard to tell.
In my best French, I asked what they wanted.
In much better French than mine the younger got right to the point, no apologies. He said they wanted me to take their picture on the roof with the mosque in the background.
Amazed I asked why should I take your picture?
The spokesman, the smile never leaving his face, pleaded. How many pictures did I have of their work? He emphatically answered his question...many, many. Were they not deserving of a picture? he asked.
I don’t understand, I protested.
The two of them began talking at once, a jumble or Arabic and French. I was on the point of saying thank you, goodby, and close the door. That would end the matter. But I was wrong, it wouldn’t end there.
My neighbors, attracted by the noise and novelty of situation, came out in ones and twos. They gathered together and although I understood not one word of what they were saying it was clear their sympathys were with the painters.
There was no way out. I was trapped. If I wanted to remain on good terms with my neighbors I would have to aquiesce.
Suddenly it occured to me. Here was an opportunity to unravel something which puzzeled me the moment they began working. How in the world had they fastened that rope around the ornamental iron shaft on the dome, and then hoisted themselves up?
I turned to them and said, stumbling badly, I would take their picture but first they would have to explain how they got the rope around the top of the dome and pulled themselves up. Agreed?
They both laughed. Oui, Oui. They would explain it all to me but only after I took their picture.
I was no match for these two. Ca va. I motioned for them to enter.
The palaver and bargining over the three of us began climbing the stairs. Our mood had shifted. The three of us were smiling in concert, and I was already thinking how I would frame the shot.
It was crazy logic. But in a way they had a point. I’d go along with it because here was a chance to clear up in a simple and painless way something which had puzzled me from the moment they started work.
OK. Tell them I’ll take their picture under one condition.
What is it? she asked.
Listen. They have to explain how they managed to get a rope around that iron shaft or whatever it is on the top of the dome and hoist themselves up. I don’t see how they did it.