Thursday, January 15, 2015

Seeing Through

Mohammad preaching, 15th c.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Something happens to an image in a time of crisis. It gets pulled in every different direction; it gets seen right through. The Charlie Hebdo cover remained a racist retrenchment for me, no matter how many self-titled "free speech absolutists" I read, no matter that its 3 million copies sold out in minutes. But I'm here, far away in the U.S. and that's all I can see. Imams in London calling for "patience and tolerance," asking Muslims to remain calm while their religion and Arab ethnicity are insulted; and American news outlets blocking the image (the NBC News guy holding it rolled up like a rolling pin - I thought that was savvy) - they must have seen the image that way, too. But watching a tiny bit of news and seeing the long lines outside of kiosks and the enthusiasm with which people were buying the paper, I caught a glimpse of what else the cover might mean - not the cover, really, but something much more material and immediate: the paper itself, the physical reality of the paper coming out a week after the attacks - some kind of impossible resurgence after horror. And of course people right there in Paris, in France are living this physically, radically differently from my virtual experience of it all. Racist or rallying; divisive or unifying - those are very different directions for the image to go. We're all seeing through the image. I see through its caricature to systemic problems of racism and exclusion that are not causal of the attacks, but symptomatic of the difficulty of surviving them as a unified culture and nation. I imagine now, that purchasers of the paper might see through the image to their own survival, to the possibility of carrying on and being defiant. Or, it's a way of honoring the very specific victims of the attacks. Or, they're buying a piece of history, they're getting a relic of a terrible time, getting a hold of an object that will keep them connected to a host of things they might still not understand. There might be 3 million different reasons to buy that paper. And 2 million more as a reprint gets started for the week-end.

Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammad, 14th c.
In the midst of all this, is the image of Mohammad. In Charlie Hebdo, it's not just represented, but represented in vicious racist stereotype. Meanwhile, images of Mohammad such as the one above, that are respectful, beautiful even, do exist in Paris - in the national library, in its Arab manuscript collection - but they do exist. And they can make connections, they can open things up. The medieval Morocco show at the Louvre had a 10th-century preaching chair like the one Mohammad is preaching from - it made history, discourse, striving immediate and palpable. The image to the right is pulled from a piece in Newsweek well worth reading, explaining the variations of images of Mohammad, and the recent changes in the perceptions of and practices around his image. It's from a 14th-century Iranian manuscript now in Edinburgh and represents Isaiah's vision of Mohammad on a camel and Jesus on a donkey. I've never seen an image of Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammad together before, and the newness makes it impossible for me to see through the image to something else right away. I am stopped at the image's surface by its novelty - I am asked to think new thoughts. As it becomes familiar, I will go further into the image, into the possibilities that it holds forth of thinking about the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is not a tired caricature pulled in every direction in a time of crisis, used for multiple means in an emergency. This is an image re-emerging with new realities of old, remembering possibilities.

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