Compass by Mathias Enard



By Mathias Enard

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

New Directions, 464 pp.

by Yaëlle Azagury

I was perhaps 13 or 14 when I first met Muhammad Asad, alias Leopold Weiss, the distinguished journalist and author of The Road to Mecca (1952)-a memoir of his mid-century travels in the Middle East and his conversion to Islam. He and his wife Pola – her Muslim name was Hamida- had invited my parents for afternoon tea. Their house was located in the verdant Djemaa-El-Mokraa neighborhood in Tangier, also known in my hometown as “la nouvelle montagne”- amidst pretty oleander hedges and dainty bougainvillea, not far from a charming neighborhood mosque. I had tagged along, an only child more accustomed to the poised company of adults than the clamor of my peers. I recall the cultured atmosphere of their residence, its outer walls bathed in suffused light and the interior draped with wall hangings that traced the arc of his travels by camel in the Arabian Peninsula. I recall Asad’s ascetic features, framed by a delicate beard, and his wife Pola’s milky face, pierced by intense, small blue eyes. And then there were their dogs, two fleecy white Afghans. The name of one of them -Shamshir, sword in Farsi, is still inscribed in my memory. So is the taste of the cake we were served –gâteau Reine de Saba or Queen of Sheba cake- and the smoky flavor of the Lapsang Souchong tea. All together these fill my senses with the allure of exotic lands.

Muhammad Asad figures prominently among the pantheon of distinguished Orientalists at the heart of Compass, Mathias Enard’s enthralling novel, newly translated after winning the 2015 Prix Goncourt in France. This literary tour de force is foremost an in-depth probing of Orientalism-the spell cast by the Orient in Western eyes- in the 21st century. Its refutation of the idea of cultural purity makes it a conspicuously urgent text for our times.

An audacious endeavor both esthetically and intellectually, Compass glides through multiple genres. It is at once a travelogue to the Orient in the tradition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem (1811), a biographical exploration of the lives of famous Orientalists, a lucid account of past and current political stakes in a much-disputed region, an encyclopedic treatise on Oriental music and poetry, and an elegiac ode to Sarah, the hero’s unattainable beloved. Lastly, Compass is an epistemological recasting of East and West, a prolonged dialogue with and subtle recalibration of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism.

Enard’s prose is no less exhilarating — pulchritudinous, opulent, lavish with exactitude. The reader visits regions of munificent digressions and lands of vast erudition. The opulent language finds a perfect match in Charlotte Mandell’s minute translation. While the book is well versed in musicology, it also has a distinctive cadence of its own. Enard’s looping sentences spiral like zikr, the hypnotic Sufi rhythm, which “sticks to your ear and keeps you company for hours”, enveloping the reader in its bosom, blurring time and space.

Enard’s previous novels have been compared with Balzac’s 19th-century omniscience or the modernist James Joyce’s dense textures, but Compass has a distinctive Proustian mark, if only in its insomnia motif or its utter rescinding of time. The novel unfolds during a long sleepless night for Franz Ritter, the narrator. As in In Search of Lost Time, time here eschews linearity. Past, present and future are abolished-one night spanning the duration of twenty years. Dreams and realities collapse and commingle. Memories and anticipated moments mesh in a copious stream of consciousness.

Enard has wielded this device before in Zone, his celebrated 2008 novel, which took place during a nighttime train ride, used as a slate for the narrator’s ruminations as well. Here, however, it is less contrived, more organic than in Zone, which relied on the formalistic prowess of a single sentence stretching from beginning to book’s end.

Franz Ritter is a Franco-Austrian musicologist who specializes in Oriental melodies. Ridden with insomnia, afflicted by a mysterious and fatal illness, and addicted to opiates-a legacy of his travels to the East, he is an anti-hero, a misfit and a spurned lover, alternately melancholy, hypochondriac and sickly, in the vein of 20th-century pusillanimous narrators, like Marcel himself. Frequently quoting “Maman”, who still sends him off to his travels with a shoehorn, soap, washing powder, and an umbrella, he is an incorrigible mama’s boy, bittersweet in his self-deprecating humor and gently laughable in his defeats. He is oftentimes lost, confused, dis-oriented.

Like Xavier de Maistre who wrote Voyages around my bedroom (1794), a parody of the grand travel narrative, Franz journeys a great distance while ensconced at his own desk, employing “the djinni Googgle” to trace, in one instance, Sarah’s minute movements in Sarawak, Malaysia, where she is conducting research for her scholarly work.

Ritter’s evocation of famed, if forgotten Orientalists has an epic breadth. We read about Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), the first great Austrian Orientalist, a translator of One Thousand and One Nights, of Diwan by the Persian poet Hafez (b.1362), and Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), with whom Hammer-Purgstall translated Roumi. We pursue, breathlessly, the trail of Lady Jane Digby (1807-1881), an early feminist who escaped Victorian England to find love in the arms of cheikh Medjuel el-Mezrab in the desert between Damascus and Palmyra. We palpitate at Ritter’s account of the adventures of Marga d’Andurain (1893-1948) in the French Levant of the 1930s. And there, of course, is the charismatic Muhammed Asad (1900-1992), the very man I met in adolescence. Here I am immersed in his back story—a Jewish Viennese journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung who was entranced by the Muslim call to prayer, drawn by the immanence of Islam and the humility of Bedouin life in the desert, and ultimately converted. This is an Orient of culture and refinement, poetry and wine, which has bequeathed so much to the West. Pointedly, one of the book’s crucial scenes takes place in Palmyra, where the novel’s main characters enact a Maqâma, a noble genre in Arab literature, taking turns to speak about a given topic. As a locus of sophistication, it is grimly juxtaposed to today’s Palmyra, twice taken in recent years by the “Islamist demolishers” of ISIS ( It is currently under restoration after being seized again by the Syrian government).

A key question runs nonetheless sotto voce throughout Enard’s evocative summations: Were these men and women perhaps nothing other than instruments of the West’s ideological domination of the Orient, as Edward Said fiercely claimed? Aren’t Enard’s biographical vignettes veiled Orientalist clichés themselves: of lust, homosexuality, espionage, knowledge as power? Lastly, didn’t these nomads’ calling “owe a great deal to the fantasy of colonial life”, as the narrator suggests, anticipating criticism?

A compelling rebuttal is provided by Sarah, both Franz’s dazzling alter ego and luminous beloved, as bold in body and adventurous in spirit as he is timid. Sarah is French, but her Sephardi ancestors originated from Turkey via Algeria, so she partially embodies an Orientalist fantasy, by reenacting the trope of “la belle juive” (literally “the beautiful Jewess”), which hails back to Salome and Rebecca in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

However, like Enard himself who studied Persian and Arabic, she is an indefatigable analyst of the Orient, fittingly distilling the book’s ultimate wisdom (traditionally, Mediterranean and Levantine Jews were the close companions and interpreters of Islamic culture). Orientalism, contends Sarah, embodies “a need for otherness as an integral part of the self, its fruitful refutation”. If the Orient has fascinated for centuries, it is because it enabled us to escape from ourselves, investigate the idea of difference, probe the self within the other. In other words, she concludes, “Orientalism is a humanism”.

Enard is assuredly tearing at the limitations of Said’s model. Said, whom he daringly calls “the wolf amidst a flock of sheep”, and “the Devil in a convent of Carmelites”, was right, he believes, in identifying the ideological underpinnings of Orientalism, but wrong in invariably extrapolating them, without considering the individuality of each of his exemplars. By so doing, he ended up “fabricating a general discourse which becomes in turn an ideological construct, a theory which finds in itself its very vindication.”

Instead, posits Enard through Sarah, we must revisit history as one of diversity and common sharing. East and West do not occur as competing narratives. Rather, the history of this binarism rests on the porosity of their outlines, on a continuum of cultural hybridity and mutual borrowings. Exposing the mirage of purity, which he wittily dissects as “the Wagnerian illusion of the Whole”, he correctly points instead to a cosmopolitan syncretism alive for centuries. He illustrates for instance what Western music and literature owe to their Oriental counterparts. Or the many guises in which Oriental culture ironically began “Orientalizing” itself in response to Western desires. Thus was “Orientalism” born and nurtured.

I think here of myself on that afternoon of my adolescence, an “Oriental” by all possible standards, raised in Morocco after generations of my ancestors, and still susceptible to the lure of Muhammad Asad’s Orient. To each her Orient.

Rather than either idealizing or vilifying it, Enard concludes we must recognize it “is an imaginal construct, a series of representations, where each one of us, wherever one is, draws at leisure”. In other words, inasmuch as they are both fabrications of our own, East and West do not exist.

Enard’s Compass is thus a remarkable love letter to the Orient. Its greatest flaw, and also its greatest strength, is that, much to our enjoyment, it succumbs to Orientalism while unmasking its mechanisms.

Significantly, the novel climaxes in a torrid embrace between Franz and Sarah. This rendering of their first and only lovemaking, an exquisite exercise in eroticism, captures the heart of the novel. Exploring the body of his beloved in Tehran in fleeting and lyrical snapshots, Franz conjures up the metaphor of imaginary voyages. It is love, he and we discover, love as both an impulse to forget oneself and to conquer otherness empathetically, which stands for Enard as a metaphor for Orientalism. Love, and not ideology. Enard entreats all of us to reset our “compass”, remediate the current state of “dis-orientation” of the West, and seek the Orient once again.


Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky


The remarkable story of forger Adolfo Kaminsky encapsulates the Jewish experience in the 20th century By Yaëlle Azagury


FORGERY OF artworks is commonly carried out for financial gain, often exposed in the rarefied atmosphere of the art world, the suave antechambers of wealthy buyers, col- lectors and auction houses. Seldom, however, do we read about counterfeiting for survival.

Sarah Kaminsky’s book, “Adolfo Kaminsky: a Forger’s Life,” narrates in forthright, conversational style the remarkable story of her father, a master forger with lofty ideals, whose vocation was sparked by dire necessity during the Nazi Occupation of France in WWII. He created false papers for the French Resistance, and later for a vast array of revolutionary national movements, such as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), and the South American revolutionary factions of the 1960s.

Kaminsky’s life is novelistic material, encapsulating the Jewish experience in the 20th century, made of displacement, exile and deportation. Born in Buenos Aires in 1925 to Russian Jews who had met in Paris in 1916 after fleeing pogroms, he came to France at a young age with his family, who had decided to return to “the country of the rights of man” after securing Argentine nationality. Settling in 1938 in the town of Vire, in Normandy, to escape Paris’s precarious atmosphere for foreign Jews, Adolfo was a pensive adolescent who, at age thirteen, dreamed of being an artist.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, France was experiencing economic and political instability, so his parents suggested a more useful trade. After finishing elementary school, he dabbled with printing, later becoming an apprentice dyer to a knowledgeable chemist who taught him science “the way you would pass on recipes.” Enthralled by the subject and becoming expert in making indelible inks vanish, he was sought after to treat stained lace, communion gloves, and silk wedding dresses.


Adolfo Kaminsky poses in front of a ‘Lorillon’ view camera at his home in Paris, in 2012

In 1943, after a brief but haunting imprisonment at the Drancy internment camp, the ill-omened waiting room to the German extermination camps outside of Paris, he was approached by a member of the French Resistance in order to make false documents to save Jews. Spanning three decades, his long career as a master forger in the shadows – he was known as “Monsieur Joseph” – had just begun.

Penned in unassuming, unembellished language, perhaps as discreet as Adolfo’s self-effacing personality, and rendered in a smooth translation by Mike Mitchell of the original French work published in 2009, the book is more historical document than literary feat. Nevertheless, Sarah Kaminsky, an actress and scriptwriter, dons her father’s persona seamlessly by transcribing Adolfo’s account to her in his own voice, so the book reads like a memoir. It is a powerful homage, written with a casual, if poignant, simplicity, often masking heartfelt conundrums.

The first half of this account, which deals with his time in the Resistance, is the most engrossing. The reader learns about Adolfo Kaminsky’s technical prowess with inks (“There is no such thing [as indelible inks]. They can all be removed.”), his sleepless nights, his all-consuming work ethic – he lost the sight of an eye as a result of working many hours on the microscope – or his self-denial in the service of humanist ideals: “Stay awake. For as long as possible. Fight against sleep. It’s a simple calculation: in one hour, I can make thirty blank documents; if I sleep for an hour, thirty people will die…”

As Kaminsky becomes one of the greatest forgers of the 20th century, intriguing questions crop up along the way: What is an original? What is a fake? “Anything that’s been conceived and made by one man can naturally be reproduced by another,” professes Kaminsky, whose forgeries included the Swiss passport, then thought to be impossible to imitate.

There are suspenseful encounters with the French militia while transporting false papers for Jewish children before an announced raid, and incognito rendezvous in anonymous hotel rooms, as in a film noir. Unsavory characters menace Kaminsky. Aloïs Brunner is one, the sinister commander of Drancy who, in an instance of chilling comedy, spares a defiant Adolfo because of his name, the same as the Führer’s. Though he never had direct dealings with him, Maurice Papon is another, a civil servant and collaborator with the Germans who sent hundreds of Bordeaux Jews to their death, and was later in charge of the Paris police in the 1960s, when Kaminsky was helping the Algerian FLN.

Kaminsky’s personal account is key in supplying invaluable insight into the history of the Resistance. The underground organization, whose mystique conjures up stories of sabotaged trains and guerrilla warfare, has long remained a shadowy subject because of a lack of documentary evidence (resisters destroyed the paper trail; Adolfo himself literally swallows it in one scene).

Kaminsky unearths previously little-known facts such as the existence of different interconnected groups within the Resistance (communists, Jews, extreme-right French anti-Semites who wanted to clear France of the German invaders), often at odds over goals, methods and leadership. In France, the myth of a unified front against the Nazis was first punctured in 1969 with Marcel Ophüls’s film “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a seminal work which investigated French collaboration with the Nazis in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. It was followed by several other unyielding examinations of Vichy France, culminating this year in Olivier Wieviorka’s comprehensive and accessible “History of the French Resistance,” which sheds light on the identity, allegiances, numbers, motivations and impact of the resisters. Kaminsky’s story illuminates this complexity from a personal angle, as when he speaks of Goumard, a Jew-hating photo- engraver from the extreme right, and one of his masters, also a member of the Resistance.

Though sparked by extraordinary adversity, his skill as a counterfeiter became a willful political project after the war. Refusing payment for his services – he believed it would turn him into a mercenary at the mercy of his employer – he grew to be a humanist forger, a utopian outlaw, the Robin Hood of false papers, preparing passports and identity cards for the world’s oppressed.

His commitments were not lacking in contradictions. He was a pacifist, but helped revolutionary struggles; he respected the law (even asking his daughter if there was a statute of limitation for his own activities),but infringed it throughout his life. The sec- ond, somewhat repetitive half of the book is devoted to his work for revolutionary caus- es. He accumulated various movements of all sorts just as he collected lovers.

A LUKEWARM Zionist, he nonetheless provided forged documents to hundreds of orphaned and disenfranchised Jewish children, who survived the Holocaust, upon vis- iting a refugee camp in Germany, to facilitate their emigration to Mandate Palestine. He helped both the Haganah whose nonviolent means he upheld, and the Stern group whose aggressive methods he eschewed.

In an astounding story, he even agreed to manufacture a bomb to kill Ernest Bevin, the postwar British foreign minister, who opposed the withdrawal of British troops from Palestine. But ever averse to terrorism, he played an eleventh-hour deus ex machina – using putty instead of a plastic detonator – to corrupt the mechanism. Ultimately, he chose to remain in France, a secular democracy whose flaws he had experienced firsthand.

Kaminsky’s incongruities are the garb hiding his profound humanity. If the book lacks a full-fledged, more vivid portrait of him, it makes up for it by posing deep ethical and philosophical questions with a light touch, preoccupations which shaped his character. Is legality always legitimate? Is civic obedience an ill or an imperative when faced with iniquity? What is the difference between resistance and terrorism?

Take for instance the story of Madame Drawda, a Jewish widow with four children, French for generations, who declined the false papers handed to her by Kaminsky in 1943, in anticipation of her arrest the next day. She claimed she had done no wrong, and mindlessly trusted the authorities. Conversely, as voiced by Ernst Apenzeller, Adolfo’s friend and more combative alter ego in this story, also in the Resistance, “If Jews had been persecuted since time immemorial, it was quite simply because they were the ideal victims because of their attitude of resignation, submission, and their aversion to combat.” On the topic of patriotism, a widely diffused propaganda pamphlet for the Resistance framed these issues in a tell- ing paradox: “To obey is to betray, to disobey is to serve.”

There are other predicaments too, more inextricable than wartime ones, and ever relevant in our times, also burdened with similar issues. Take the problem of refugees. Kaminsky recounts his own scarring story when as a 5-year-old child, he and his family were expelled from Marseilles upon arrival from Argentina and forced to take refuge for two years in Turkey, in hopes of obtaining permits to immigrate to France. Adding to the Kafkaesque documentation saga, his young sister, born in Turkey, was refused both Argentinian and Turkish nationality, thereby putting her in legal limbo, unable to go anywhere. “It was then,” he says, “that I really understood the signification of the word “papers,” those indispensable documents that allow you to move legally from one state to another […] Without papers, one is condemned to immobility.” Who are we without documentation? Is our identity to be conflated with our “papers”?

Often cogent, his beliefs border nonetheless on a vexing libertarianism, as when he observes, regarding the student unrest in Mexico in 1968, which ended in a bloodbath carried out by the police, and the subsequent forced exodus of hundreds of people, “We were going to open wide the gates of Europe and freedom for them.” Perhaps, in their radical quest for the free circulation of documents, the Snowdens and Assanges of our times are his spiritual heirs.

HIS CONVICTIONS are tinged with a kind of earnestness, as when he seeks refuge for a senior official of the FLN at the well-appointed apartment of his Jewish friend Philippe, who was in favor of Algeria remaining French (presumably, the two got along famously). But there is also a fundamental moral probity. Seeking to incite the French government to open negotiations with the FLN for Algerian independence, he had resolved to inundate France with forged banknotes to destabilize the economy, because, ever a pacifist, he considered it “an excellent way of applying pressure without getting caught up in a spiral of violence.” The bills were never put into circulation thanks to the Evian agreements, which granted Algeria its independence, so he destroyed the forged money, much to the dismay of some of his co-workers whose greed had been aroused by the flawless 100-franc fakes.

A well-known story in Plato’s Republic known as the parable of the ring of Gyges is about a ring conferring unlimited powers on its wearer, the shepherd Gyges, making him invisible and hence impossible to apprehend. Given the choice, contends Plato’s narrator, someone in his position will choose to act according to their own interests, to the detriment of others, and do evil.

Kaminsky’s faultless forgeries are arguably his own ring of Gyges, granting him prodigious power while allowing him to remain unnoticed. Yet given the option to spread havoc thanks to his exceptional capacities, this tall, lanky man with a high forehead, an intense gaze and the beard of a prophet remained against all odds unblemished, and on the right side of history.

“I didn’t change the world,” he says humbly, “but the world did not change me.”

It is surely a lesson for humanity. 

Yaëlle Azagury is a frequent contributor to The Report. Her reviews and essays have also appeared in Lilith, The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post

 Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life
Sarah Kaminsky DoppelHouse Press 253 pages; $15.23


How did American artists respond to the horror of WWI?

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By Yaëlle Azagury August 19

With its use of modern warfare from trenches to submarines, World War I claimed millions of lives and drastically changed the geopolitical structure. But the war also rocked Western culture, from altering the status of women to sparking new artistic movements such as Dada and surrealism. America, which suffered relatively fewer casualties than Europe, was regarded as somewhat impervious to these seismic shifts in the artistic realm. The beginning of a distinctive American art severed from Europe is usually dated to or around World War II, roughly with the rise of Abstraction.


David M. Lubin, a professor of art history at Wake Forest University and a curator of a forthcoming exhibition on World War I and American art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, seeks to upend this narrative. “Grand Illusions” comes in the wake of a reappraisal of the Great War’s effect on American culture.

Lubin’s book is an ambitious albeit unequal undertaking that investigates the variety of American art — pacifist and bellicose alike — from the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 to the rise of the Third Reich in 1933. An eloquent writer who came of age during the Vietnam conflict, Lubin juggles a formidable array of visual media in this knowledgeable study. He rescues photographs, posters, paintings, sculptures and films from oblivion to reenergize the debate and offer a new, if revisionist, perspective perhaps more fashionable in cultural studies departments than among museum curators. Delving deeply into popular and highbrow culture, he often draws inspired connections, situating artworks in a crucible of fresh references, and his readings, which may be irritating to the political conservative or the more classic-minded, are intellectually provocative.

Pleasantly surprising, for instance, is his rethinking of George Bellows, who patriotically adhered to the Bryce Committee report on German atrocities and allowed his old-fashioned realism to yield to phantasmagoric war scenes. Or Lubin’s reassessment of John Singer Sargent’s late, remarkably modern work, such as “Gassed” (1919), a large painting depicting a dozen or so soldiers who have been blinded by poison gas.

Also aptly reconsidered is Horace Pippin, a forgotten self-taught painter and a soldier in the 369th Battalion, consisting of African Americans. His naive style provides an arresting contrast to the grimness of war. Lubin’s reclaiming of Claggett Wilson, one of the eight illustrators of the American Expeditionary Forces charged with documenting the war for posterity, is equally felicitous. Although the work of the “AEF Eight” was more reportorial than artistic, Wilson’s modernist style was an exception, transmuting the unfamiliarity of war into new aesthetic forms.

Despite hinting that Wilson’s work was erased from the annals due to a mishap and Pippin’s on account of his ethnicity, Lubin fails, nonetheless, to consider broader issues that a work of this scope should have warranted: Why are some works retained by history and others blotted out? What are the ideological assumptions behind aesthetic canons, especially ones dismissing American art of the time? Brief references notwithstanding, his study is also missing a sociological map of the artistic milieu.

Instead, his focus is oftentimes squandered on overwrought exegesis, and his interpretive frenzy frequently substitutes rigor for mere stylistic cleverness, even fallacy. His reading of Childe Hassam’s patriotic flag paintings is conspicuously strained. For example, he views “The Flag, Fifth Avenue” (1918) as “ ‘flagging,’ so to speak . . . deflated, dispirited, limp,” proof of America’s fatigue with the war while also a sign of the artist’s “phallic deflation.” His understanding of Greta Garbo’s famous 1928 photograph by Edward Steichen — in an otherwise compelling chapter about masks as the face of postwar mourning — is too speculative and conflicts with current findings showing 1920s America fortified by providential exceptionalism rather than disheartened. And his apprehension of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal — “Fountain” (1917) — as an antiwar outcry on the grounds that it flushed out patriotic illusions is outlandish, even by Dada standards.

While attempting for art what Paul Fussell notoriously did for Anglo-centered literature in “The Great War and Modern Memory” (1975), Lubin ultimately lacks the latter’s exacting lucidity. Looking at artworks solely as pro-war or antiwar “images,” he delivers a disparate collection of essays while failing to conclude whether, indeed, a cohesive national style emerged in the aftermath of the war.

Yaëlle Azagury’s writings about art and literature have appeared in Lilith, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times Book Review.


American Art and the First World War

By David M. Lubin

Oxford. 366 pp. $39.95

A New Trend in Israeli Fiction: Diversity

Yaëlle Azagury

A New Trend in Israeli Fiction: Diversity

Two books — one a novel, another a collection of short stories––underscore a new trend in Israeli writing, which seeks to give a voice to Sephardim and Mizrahim, ethnic groups often underestimated or whitewashed in Israeli history, culture and society.

9781250078162In The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) her best-selling and award-winning family saga about the Ermosa family, Israeli journalist Sarit Yishai-Levi sheds a welcome light on the Sephardi community established in Jerusalem (via Salonika, then part of the Turkish Empire), shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, well before the advent of 19th-century political Zionism.

This historical novel chronicles four generations of Ermosa women from 1920s Turkish Palestine to 1980s Israel: Mercada, her daughter-in-law Rosa, Rosa’s three daughters, Rachelika, Becky and Luna—the “beauty queen of Jerusalem”—and, finally, Luna’s daughter Gabriella. Through the travails of the nascent Jewish State, a relentless curse afflicts them all: none of the Ermosa women will be loved by her husband.

The novel’s semi-ethnographic chronicling of the mores and manners, idiosyncrasies and superstitions of a distinctive community uses narrative colorfully punctuated with Judeo-Spanish expressions such as “pishcado y limon” (literally “fish and lemon”) to avert evil eye, or “wai de mi sola” (take pity on me).

There are some fascinating historical and sociological tidbits here, such as how Jews in Turkish Palestine were ruthlessly enlisted by Turks to fight for the Central Powers in World War I, or how under Mandate Palestine the English were disliked by the Jews more than the Arabs, or the community’s aversion to intermarriage with Ashkenazim, which was viewed as a social demotion. The historical documentation thins out as the novel progresses through the soap-opera-like hatred between Luna and her scapegoat, her mother Rosa. The original premise — the curse on the Ermosa women, which was unleashed by Luna’s great-grandfather because of his secret love for an “Ashkenazia” — becomes increasingly nonsensical when the reader arrives at Gabriella’s story.

best-place-us-coverThe Best Place on Earth (Random House, $26), is a fine first collection of short stories by Ayelet Tsabari, winner of last year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Tsabari succeeds in engaging with her heritage as a Yemeni Jew in Israel where Sarit Yishai-Levi seems to be using hers as little more than a means to exoticize the narrative. Tsabari’s writing is openly yet delicately militant, speaking about the invisibility of Mizrahim (the so-called “Oriental Jews”) and Sephardim (Jews of Spanish origin) in Israeli society, against the established Ashkenazim.

In “Say It Again, Say Something Else,” a story of friendship between Lana from Bielorussia and Lily, a Canadian girl whose family is from Yemen, Lily articulates an ostensible incongruity: “In Canada people sometimes thought my mom was an Arab. Was she? Well, no, but my grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews.”

Tsabari delves further into politics in the story “The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” playing social class against ethnic background. Teenage Uri muses about being a pilot — which gives him elite status in the Israeli army: “He knew there weren’t many Mizrahi pilots out there — he wasn’t sure why.” Uri’s true dream is to be a poet, though that seems unattainable too: “The poetry they taught at school, the books he found in the school library, were mostly written by old Ashkenazi men. He had never heard of a Yemeni or Iraqi poet, or any Mizrahi poet for that matter.” His universe suddenly opens up when his sister gives him a book by Rony Somekh, an Israeli poet born in Baghdad.

The characters here are mostly young or youngish, many free-spirited, bohemian nonconformists. The stories have drugs, and a lot of casual sex in bathrooms and parking lots, as well as some spiced-up romantic clichés. “Tikkun,” the opening short story, is about two ex-lovers whose sexual re-encounter takes place after they closely miss a bomb explosion in a café.

“Invisible,” about Rosalynn, an illegal Filipina in Israel who takes care of an old Yemeni woman, expresses dislocation most poignantly. Working in Israel to support her daughter in the Philippines, Rosalynn suddenly takes notice of her change: “She couldn’t pinpoint when Israel had started to feel a bit like home, when she figured out the way of the seasons, when the conversations on the streets were no longer gibberish…Some nights, like tonight, delighting in the cool air, tipsy after an evening among friends, she felt guilty, wondering…if by staying in Israel she had chosen her own life over her daughter’s.”

Tsabari excels at encapsulating the immigrant experience in general, as an existential condition, the push-and-pull, the wrenching equilibrium between looking back and being present, a universal longing for home(s) past or new, for finding “the best place on earth.”


Yaëlle Azagury’s essays and reviews have appeared in the Jerusalem Post,
The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

Choosing which language to live in

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Yaëlle Azagury

Choosing Which Language to Live In

Roiled by her culture’s hidden messages of colonialism, patriotism, alienation and intimacy, a Moroccan Jew comes to terms  in Connecticut.

azagury“I feel closer to an Arab from Morocco than to a Jew from Brooklyn or Boston.”

My mother is a Moroccan Jew, born and bred in Tangier, where she also spent most of her life. Her words rang clear as I asked her to leave Morocco for the United States, where I have lived for 18 years. Although she no longer has any relatives in Morocco, I doubted she would ever settle in the manicured and uneventful Connecticut suburb where I live with my family.

Being Sephardi means something powerful to my mother: a kinship of spirit rooted in the Mediterranean, a shared grammar of tastes, flavors, sounds and idioms, a vocabulary of cultural and regional affinities threaded together bit by bit through the centuries. For her it is a complex closeness with Arab and Spanish cultures. It is less so for me.

I used to envy her the emotional clarity about her identity I lack. Morocco is her country. I, on the other hand, left when I was 18 to study in France, and I never came back. She grew up in a thriving Jewish community in the 1940s, I in a waning one in the 1970s. I felt in exile before I had even left. It was a time when almost all Jews had left their homes in Arab countries for France, Spain or Venezuela, incited by subtle economic pressures to depart.

For years, I looked towards France, where I went to pursue my literary studies. My touchstone references were Voltaire, Hugo, Baudelaire. I wrote a dissertation on Marcel Proust and became a French teacher, effortlessly passing for French. Although I am a descendant of the well-regarded Toledano family (Rabbi Daniel Toledano was a sage who lived in Fez in the 16th-century after his family was expelled from Spain in 1492), I viewed my Castilian ancestry as a distant origin, an appendix to myself. Even though colonial times were long bygone, I, a native of Tangier, was a pure product of French education, and my alienation ran so deep that I looked at my non-Gallic being with wariness. From Albert Memmi’s brilliant analysis of the colonized self, I knew that “Portrait of the Colonized,” c’est moi!

Like Memmi — a Jew of Tunisian origins — I spoke multiple languages, but this was no mere useful multilingualism. It was confusing and alienating. Each language came with a price. It was a Mephistophelian bargain. French — the tongue of thought and flight — ranked high on the list. By contrast, Arabic was low, the locus of backwardness and deficiency. We did not speak it at home, though I later learned it at school in its “high” form — “Fusha,” or classical Arabic — versus the “Darija” spoken by most Moroccans. Instead, at home we used Spanish, but that too came with strings attached. There was “high” Spanish, with its soft Castilian inflections, and our own hybrid form, Haketia, which was the vernacular of Moroccan Jews from the North, and a byproduct of another exile, 1492. Preserved through the centuries like a jar of marmalade, it consists of Old Spanish, with accretions from Hebrew and Arabic.

As a result, by the age of 18 I had created a tacit hierarchy of languages, with unspoken labels assigned to each such as “high” and “low,” “pure” and “impure.” Like Jekyll and Hyde, I took on different personalities depending on which language I spoke. It was a disastrous split in personality. If one considers Sephardism as an intrinsic form of expatriation, then exile made up the very structures of my psyche from birth, so I was bereft of a mother tongue from the outset.

Language is a condition of national identity. But in my case, a single reality took on multiple translations as through a distorting mirror. One object came burdened with manifold designations. It was like being in Plato’s cave, tirelessly groping for reality’s true essence. No definition was fixed, and unity irretrievably lost.

Was colonialism to blame? Partly, but hold the vagaries of history responsible too, with its victors and victims, and the special status of Tangier as a cosmopolitan center and as an international zone until Morocco became independent in 1956. This had made me, and other Moroccan Jews of my generation, the last links in an evanescent community, a chronological error in time and space.

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As a result, I forsook Sepharad.

My guardedness against things Sephardi was flagrantly exposed during my wedding to an American Jew in Tangier in 2005, the first Jewish nuptials there in 25 years. We had a traditional Sephardi ceremony called in Northern Morocco “noche de Berberisca.” The place was the garden of the house where I grew up, with its cornucopia of gladioli, hibiscus trees, plumbago and bougainvilleas. My parents’ home — now razed and in its stead an unremarkable building of disharmonious proportions — was located in what was then known as the Parc Brooks, an area of Tangier developed by my grandfather in the 1950s.

Our wedding took place on a balmy June night, the air was bursting with the fragrances of early summer, jasmine and lemon trees intermingling with a flower I knew by its evocative Spanish name, dama de noche (lady of the night), or night jasmine, because it smells only from dusk to dawn.

As required by tradition, I wore an elaborate eight-piece costume, the “traje de Berberisca,” all deep velvets and embroidered gold threads, whose origin can be traced back to medieval Spain. My mother had been collecting the parts for over 50 years, painstakingly assembling ancient rags of dazzling fabric found in dusty bazaars. It is a splendid gown (mine was deep amethyst), with a symbolic meaning for each of its parts, and donning it should have made me content, connected to my past, conversant with history. Instead, I was ill at ease and self-conscious in it, an impostor. Feeling exoticized, I wore it grudgingly.

I was having a destination wedding in my own land.

When the moment came for me to come down from the room where I had been expertly dressed in my cumbersome attire by the woman responsible for preparing brides, my uncles came to escort me. They sang the Shojanet Ba Sade, the bridal hymn also chanted in the Sephardi rite on Simhat Torah to honor the Torah as metaphorical bride. Instead of pacing slowly with the procession, I rushed down. I just wanted to get it over with.

Then, a peculiar and unorthodox thing happened.

As I walked out into the gardens, our Muslim friends broke into song in Arabic, reciting the verses used in Muslim weddings: Slah u Slam ‘aalik ha rasul Allah, Illah ya Sidna Mohammed, Allah maa ja el ‘Aali (May prayer and peace be sent to you from God. Our lord Sidna Mohammed has arrived from the heavens). This moment provided an instant of unusual intensity, because it belonged perhaps to another era, the time of convivencia between Jews and Muslims in the old 14th-century Sepharad, a reenacted and updated hour of harmony between rival religions. But, alas, I missed the point, just like Fabrice del Dongo in the fog of the Napoleonic wars.

My thoughts were turned instead towards the civil ceremony my husband and I had enacted a month prior in New York — primarily to get our paperwork in order, since I was in possession of a Moroccan passport. A Justice of the Peace came to our apartment and married us in a swift, purposeful ceremony. He was of Irish descent, and the intricacies of my heritage were lost on him, which was of no consequence to me then. The ceremony was clean, and simple, and from that moment on I had felt the binding vow that proclaimed us husband and wife.

I have now been married for over 10 years, and I look back at our Berberisca night with lingering regret, because I failed to embrace a meaningful tradition. I had just been a spectator all along.

Change, in the form of reappraisal, came to me slowly and unannounced. In America, I encountered small alienations daily. I often felt “Jewishness” — predominantly Ashkenazi — was a different planet. Language, yet again, offered me ample opportunities for loss of meaning and misunderstanding. For example, the final words of the Kiddush, the blessing of the wine on the Sabbath, are pronounced: bore peri haguefen with an “é” sound by Sephardim, but haguofen by Ashkenazim, a remnant of Yiddish, which Sephardim do not speak. A difference in a single letter encapsulated diverging universes. I wasn’t going to “snoga,” my Judeo-Spanish for synagogue, but to “shul,” the word in Yiddish unfamiliar to me. In America, there is meager collective imagination left to Sephardism, often ignored — or simply terra incognita, and thus viewed as lesser, simply a foil to the Ashkenazi experience. The rites, traditions and melodies were so different, I felt once again lost. I still could not find my place.

A decisive blow came last year, however, when I read in the Forward that a new law in Spain granted citizenship to those of proven Sephardi lineage. The reporter, an American Jew of Sephardi ancestry, had travelled back to Spain in search of his family’s roots. He concluded his somewhat erratic travelogue with strange advice, proclaiming it useless to look back at our past, because it is only our present actions and our future that matter. I was baffled: is rediscovering and reappraising our past, our roots and our history, a disregard for our future? It seemed rather the opposite: our past propels us forward because it enriches and densifies who we are.

So I started reading about Sephardi culture. Ammiel Alcalay’s book After Jews and Arabs, published in 1990, provided illuminating background, with material often disregarded by history, or dismissed by Israeli wariness for things Sephardi. I became fascinated by the world of the Levant this book described, of a Jewish and Arab symbiosis so implausible today, of Jewish and Muslim poets versed in Spanish, Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Portuguese, Dutch and Greek. I drew parallels to the Mitteleuropa of the early 20th century with its Babelism and vibrant intellectual life. I read Judeo-Spanish Romances, and found rich literary forms that differed from the Western canons. I’m still unsure how I will make all this a part of my American life, or how I’ll transmit it to my American children, but I’m now intrigued by aspects of a culture I had never fully seen as my own. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir about womanhood, one is not born, but rather becomes Sephardi. At least, in my case, it has been so.

Tellingly, the final transformation occurred as I was also becoming more American. Language was once again the vessel holding my crisis. But it now took on a redemptive power. English, which I acquired late in my twenties, was slowly growing to be mine. It became my language of intimacy and affection with my husband and children. I began writing in English. Words came without the burden of history or power dynamics between nations, or generations. They were a clean slate — my own — like a reset button. English was neutral, equitable, open-minded. No high and low, no pitting of heart and brain against each other. In English, I can look back at my roots with a composed heart.

Through English, I felt I had conquered the New World, where I could be whomever I chose. It was the great equalizer and the artful revealer of my own origins, and it was liberating. I was no longer anxious about who I was. I even acquired a U.S. passport. Ironically, becoming more American had allowed me to become more Sephardi.


Yaëlle Azagury is a book and art critic. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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IMG_3211Walid Raad’s exhibition at MOMA is unsettling, subversive and highly sophisticated. Toying with audience expectations, the Lebanese visual artist who was born in 1967 and lives in New York City, uses the wretched history of his war-torn country as his subject of choice. Steer clear of this impressive show however if you are expecting, like often for the Middle East, raw photojournalism, first-hand accounts from victims and reportage, complacent political correctness or an overall exoticizing of the war experience in the Levant.

Raad is far too shrewd to settle for the glib pitfalls of art with an agenda, artworks as political avatars who seek to activate straightforward outrage. He grapples with his subject obliquely, filtering his vision through a deadpan sense of humor. His art is an alteration of the real, rather than its conveyance at face value, mimesis subsumed rather than merely bestowed to an audience.


Like Alice through the rabbit hole, the viewer soon realizes she has stepped into an idiosyncratic reality, where things fall short of traditional ways. Take for instance the first multi-media montages on display: These are photographic enlargements of scaffolding with fragments of sculpted objects, interspersed with Raad’s cryptic drawings (white pages with a few sibylline words) whose goal is to point at an elusive meaning ever failing to materialize. The caption-which we take as curator’s explanations- tell the story of “Islamic” (sic) objects shipped from the Abu Dhabi museum on Saadiyat Island to the Louvre in Paris. We learn they underwent a peculiar transformation upon transportation –“it looks like they were discolored or revealed an older paint when they got there”-, and zany explanations involving art experts from both the French and the Arab side and the theories they proposed follow, much to our bewilderment.

Raad is a master at instilling doubt in the mind of the viewer as to the veracity of his narrative, relentlessly piling on clues to further mystify us, while citing the work of “the Atlas Group”, an organization handling data about the Middle East. Moving deeper into this unconventional exhibition, we realize the Atlas Group functions as what is known in literature as “a reality effect”-an object considered true in reality whose mention warrants the authenticity of the narrative. It becomes clearer however that the Atlas Group is a falsification concocted by Raad, as are the captions (allegedly the museum’s, but actually Raad’s fabrications) supporting each art piece throughout the exhibit.

Though ubiquitous in the rest of the exhibit, the subject of the war is touched upon tangentially, as if to deflate its emotional charge. Take for instance a series on photographs of car engines-all of which remained intact after car bombings. Or another display of six enlarged photographs of bombing devices, which Raad succeeds in making esthetically alluring despite their sinister properties. Or yet another series of photographs of the bombardment of Beyrouth by Israeli planes, black and white prints with unlikely splashes of pink, turquoise, and powder blue in their midst, eerily reminiscent of Monet or Turner, as though the mud of war suddenly turned into gold. Raad does not spare either his irony or dark sense of humor: In that same series too, Israeli soldiers are seen relaxing next to war tanks, in a quasi bucolic, even idyllic scene. In another montage, figures from the Lebanese political scene are grafted into a horticultural display of plants, rare species of sorts with their erudite Latin names.


Many may find irritating, even offensive Raad’s use of parody on a subject as serious as the war, or his deliberate mystification of the viewer. To what effect is he confounding us?

The first montage discussed above may be for instance a critique of the carelessness and neglect often witnessed in public institutions in the Arab world-Waad was banned from entering the United Arab Emirates for criticizing work conditions at Saadiyat Island’s Abu Dhabi museum-, and his work, as the MOMA website proposes in somewhat imprecise fashion, may be “dedicated to exploring the veracity of photographs and video documents in the public realm, the role of memory within discourses of conflict, and the construction of histories of art in the Arab world.”

Because simplistic explanations are to Art as pointless as biographical keys are to literature, Raad’s puzzles thwart reductive narratives of victors and victims. His inventiveness brings to mind the verve and vitality of Jorge Luis Borges whose literary hoaxes famously disoriented the reader.

Another conspicuous influence is the German writer W.G. Sebald also concerned with the memory of disaster, and how to tackle it through labyrinthine fabrications. In his novel Austerlitz, his often monotonous, even anonymous prose speaks about the Kindertransport of Jewish children to England during World War II with detached coolness, but to higher effect than prim sentimentality, logorrhea or pathos. Tellingly, Sebald inserted drawings within his writing as a means of creating a prose distanced from emotions, almost technical.

Raad’s back and forth between text and picture serves a similar purpose. And his playfulness and fictions are supreme barricades against his country’s calamitous history. For understatement and ellipsis are often our quintessential defenses against tragedy.


“The Honorable Woman” on TV: an Earnest but Convoluted Look at the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

“The Honorable Woman” on TV: an Earnest but Convoluted Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

With passions about the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict running at an all time high, the BBC/Sundance channel series “The Honorable Woman” available on DVD is a compelling addition to our televised programming. The British mini-series directed and produced by Hugo Blick gives the spotlight to the issue, rather than using it as a backdrop as in series such as “Homeland” or “24”. It is a shrewd and sagacious thriller where one feels more clever at the end, although not for its wise grasp of the political context.

The story starts with a flashback: the murder by a Palestinian terrorist of Eli Stein, an Anglo-Israeli arms manufacturer who provided weapons and bombs to Israel in the first years of the State. The crime perpetrated in revenge for the Palestinian lives he helped kill is witnessed by his young children Ephra and Nessa, who will be scarred for life, less for watching the gruesome murder of their own father though, than because they feel guilty for what their father embodied. This is not the Oresteia: Blood will not be paid for blood. Instead, Ephra and Nessa lay down the grounds for the elimination of one of the most visceral conflicts of our times.   They build the Stein Foundation, whose liberal goal is to give equal opportunity to Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East region and foster reconciliation. So far, so good.

But when the Palestinian who has just been awarded a major telecommunications contract by the Stein Foundation is found hanging dead in his hotel room, all hell breaks loose. Who killed him? Is it the Israelis? The Americans? M16 starts investigating and the delightfully named Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea)-a witty and high-class inspector Columbo-type leads the way, as Nessa Stein who heads the Foundation finds herself in the midst of a vast and intricate espionage scheme. But the sub-plots (the rivalry between M16 and the CIA) and personal traumas of the characters mixed with frequent flashbacks are often so complex they threaten to obscure the political stakes Blick strives to lay out with mixed discernment.

Newly anointed Baroness for her philanthropic work, Nessa Stein is played with a mix of coolness and vulnerability well suited to her off-screen persona by the American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. She has been praised for her perfect rendition of an upperclass British accent, but I found it a bit contrived. Nevertheless, the affectation ironically befits the stiffness of Baroness Stein. She is the honorable woman, almost too earnest, and I hope Mr. Blick intended some irony in the epithet (but I doubt it). For Nessa Stein has baggage, her personal traumas often obscuring and muddying her political inclinations.

For instance, her relationship with her brother Ephra is quasi-incestuous, while carrying the seeds of a fierce Biblical strife. They are an Abel and Cain pair, and while Ephra (Andrew Buchan) used to head the Foundation eight years ago in somewhat pragmatic fashion, Nessa usurps the title replacing his line with a stauncher idealism that favors the Palestinians. When Israeli businessman and long-time friend of the Stein family Shlomo Zahary-an obvious father figure- hopes to get the telecommunications contract that is once more up for grabs, Nessa holds it back from him because she thinks he has been compromised with terrorists (and perhaps because he is Israeli?). She has to prove her authority, metaphorically killing the father once more.

There are hints and withheld information about a traumatic event which happened to Nessa eight years ago while in captivity in Gaza after being kidnapped by a faction of the PLO. But her ordeal (I wont disclose what it is, although you could guess) which no woman, let alone a feminist in the West would accept with resignation, spurs masochistic feelings in her. She seems to suffer from acute Stockholm syndrome, and I could not help feeling disturbed by her submissiveness. Is it poise or folly that makes her so eagerly defend her executioners?

When at the end of the series, the Palestinian terrorist who admits to having ordered her father’s murder and other tragedies that befell on her confronts her, her answer is shockingly meek: “I deserved it.” One would hope for a little more combativeness in the matter.

The series is often an exercise in Western guilt about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with fairness in the treatment of the conflict mostly obliterated in favor of exclusive Palestinian grievances. It does not help that Israeli characters are portrayed as caricatures (they are steam-rollers and threateningly ubiquitous, or else extremists) while Palestinian terrorists are given noble motives.

Lubna Azabal is a revelation as Atika Halibi, the Palestinian nanny of Ephra and Rachel Stein’s children. The Belgian actress of Moroccan and Spanish descent has a raw beauty that captures beautifully the Palestinian plight: she still keeps a piece of shrapnel from the Israeli bomb that killed her family as a child. She is also superb as a third piece of the erotic triangle between Nessa and Ephra, while Jewish Rachel-Ephra’s wife- is fastidious as a stereotypical British JAP.

And there is no one on the other end of the argument to represent the Israeli claim to the land, or what Israel means for Jews, so it makes up for a one-sided picture. If the series is commendable for tackling an inextricable issue, it is also solipsistic for it fails to place the conflict in historical perspective. While putting up a facade of political sophistication, it actually misses its goal, confusing the personal traumas of the main character with a much wider and more complex conflict that ends up oversimplified, to the point of dangerously obscuring the issue. In the end, this is about Nessa Stein’s Way of the Cross, which is a bit strange for a Jewish character.

There is a fashionable varnish to the series certainly adding to the overall appeal: Ms. Gyllenhaal’s chic wardrobe of Roland Mouret, Stella McCartney and Burberry pieces, leaves all of us women drooling. I also loved Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer), Hayden-Hoyles’ boss- for her no-nonsense feminism. Here is what she says after meeting with her American counterparts at the CIA: “In a room full of pussies, I am the only one with a vagina.” There is a refreshing honesty in her character, unlike Nessa Stein’s bizarre fascination with the other side.

With its oriental notes, the music acts as an ominous lament much as the chorus does in Greek tragedy. It is also an attempt to add a cool edginess to the overall atmosphere, but it is pompous. As Edward Said would have said, it is a fantasy of Orientalism. Consider it a metaphor for the series itself.

“The Honorable Woman”:

Produced by Eight Rooks and Drama Republic for BBC Two and Sundance TV. Written and directed by Hugo Blick; Greg Brenman, executive producer; Mr. Blick and Abi Bach, producers.

WITH: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Nessa Stein), Andrew Buchan (Ephra Stein), Stephen Rea (Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle), Igal Naor (Shlomo Zahary), Lubna Azabal (Atika Halabi), Tobias Menzies (Nathaniel Bloom), Eve Best (Monica Chatwin), Katherine Parkinson (Rachel Stein) and Janet McTeer (Dame Julia Walsh).

Garry Winogrand, Spontaneity and Paradise Lost

photoThe Photographs of Garry Winogrand, Spontaneity and Paradise Lost

On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21

On a recent September afternoon, a visit to the Garry Winogrand’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York could have been the subject of one of his photographs: packed, brimming with an urban fauna of all ages and types, caged-as his photographs often are-in the confines of the Met’s labyrinthine galleries. Its success attests to the popularity of photography as a contemporary art form resonating with today’s museum-goers, and to a shift in our cultural tastes, much like the Alexander McQueen show did a few years ago, as though photography, video installations and fashion had definitively upstaged more traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture.

Garry Winogrand’s photographs feel youthful and bright, spontaneous and impromptu, with an element of (carefully arranged) surprise to them. The angle of most of them is off-kilter-a technique called tilted horizon. It is street photography- photojournalism at its best, in the vein of the fathers of photojournalism-namely French photographers Henry Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. I especially liked the portrait of the starlet Elsa Martinelli smoking a cigarette at the famed El Morocco club in Manhattan: it updates the traditional art of portraiture thanks to the ironic distance of the close-up on her body leaning forward, while retaining a classical, even archetypal quality (the smoking and drinking Goddess). Or the bathers of Coney Island who look like sculptures seen from the back, in an uplifting, aspirational motion. They seem to be aiming for the sky.
I was wondering though if there wasn’t something fairly unoriginal about this so-called “spontaneity” which isn’t in fact one. Remember Doisneau’s famous “Baiser de l’Hotel-de-Ville” whose poster could once be found in so many students’ dorm room (including mine), the wildly romantic kiss of a couple which turned out to be staged.
Admittedly, it doesn’t in fact matter much if an image is truly spontaneous or not. Spontaneity is not by itself an intrinsic value of art. Rather, it is the opposite: it is artifact and composition, which make art. Winogrand himself believed by photographing and framing something one transformed it. This, of course, is an old aesthetic debate, dating back to the Romantics and Charles Baudelaire’s notion that true beauty is in fact all contrived. This show thrives on the following paradox: while elevating the natural, it is simultaneously advancing the cause of the artificial, and the artistic value of these photographs lies in their ability to strike the ideal balance between the fleeting and the eternal.

Although I enjoyed the show, I was also bit surprised by its popularity. Is anything that has been framed art? Does the very fact of framing elevate its subject? Proust once remarked that costumes and historical distance are often enough to exoticize an image and make it seem like art. This is how the pedestrian results in the sublime. It has been noted rightfully that these photographs-all taken in the 50s, 60s, and 70s-reflect our obsession with the Mad Men era: the clothes, the poses, the political context. But one should perhaps wonder why. Oddly enough, although they are so typical of an era, Winogrand’s images seem also cut from their context, extricated from the contingent, perhaps even essential, as though they spoke in and by themselves. In fact, the reason for the show’s success may just be a nostalgia for what they reflect: a longing for a specific time which seems out of time and where even political protest appears controlled, even innocent. As though this was the last refuge in the tormented history of the late 20th and early 21st-century where there was still a contentment, an uplifting energy, a happiness- dare I say. These photographs are our last Arcadia.