Together we went to visit Marocco, the country of his father, shortly before the revolutions started. We saw the crowds at a pop music concert in Rabat. We visited the medina. The old center is different in every Arab city. We contemplated the harbor and Atlantic Ocean. To travel is to live differently, more intense. To be somewhere else allows to lift the veil of time. Charif Benhelima is a restless traveler. All Arabs are on the road. Every traveler finally is on his way to himself. We don’t know each other very well. Though we, Europeans, are their neighbors, our knowledge about the Arabs remains scanty as if their world is incomprehensible.
During a stay in the United States, Charif Benhelima got the surprise of his lifetime. Accidentally he learned that perhaps he was less an Arab than he used to think. He just finished his impressive ‘Welcome to Belgium’ project and wandered in Manhattan, the world’s melting pot, under the towers of Babel, brooding on his next step, ‘Harlem on my mind’. ‘In Harlem I am more a Belgian than anywhere else’, he thought when one day he entered B&H, Disneyland of Photography stores, near Penn station. There he received an unexpected message. The counter-assistant, an orthodox Jew, unsettled him by saying that his family name ‘Benhelima’ revealed his Sephardic roots. If so, his forefathers were Jews from Spain, Portugal or North-Africa. This was another surprising and unsolicited answer to Charif’s restless quest into the complexities of his identity. He knew already that he was half Moroccan, born in Brussels, but raised near the French border in a Flemish family. That in itself was largely sufficient for a lifetime program. Could it be that on top of that he was of Jewish descent as well?
Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, a quarter of a million Jews lived in Morocco. Hundreds of thousands were dispersed elsewhere in the Arab world. The Moroccan community is one of the most ancient of the Jewish Diaspora. Today, almost 65 years later, only a couple of thousands of them are left. Many of them were prominent in politics and culture. One of them, André Azoulay, is a close adviser of both king Muhammad VI and his father Hassan. Sporadically, in the past there was a mixed Jewish-Arab wedding in Morocco. Am I a descendent of such a hybrid alliance, one that seems out of the question nowadays, Charif asked himself. Is it possible to be a Jew and an Arab, to be water and fire, day and night? How does it feel to be a child of both Sarah and Hagar, Ismail and Israel? He delved into the family archives and listened to the stories of the elders, looking for traces. He found them.
He collected the photographs of his deceased forefathers and he photographed those who were still living. He made photo’s of the photo’s with a Polaroid camera, using a flashlight that made the faces recede further in time, like a distant memory. Polaroid pictures are imperfect but instant images. The flash made them even more deficient but they captured the click of the camera, the instant the reproductions were made. The camera itself belonged to the past already. Before digital photography, Polaroid was something especially fit for use on intimate or family occasions. By overexposing his models, they became shadows, vague contours, sunk in sepia, separated from the viewer by a border zone of light, time and affection. It also heightened the privacy of his research. His models remained safe, their names only known within the family circle with its own protecting rules. The photo’s are equally unrecognizable and interchangeable, like fading memories. The reproductions of reproductions made them perish in deeper layers of the ocean of time. Meanwhile Benhelima also seems to freeze this precious memory before it is forgotten forever. In real life too his models, family members, are specters, distant in time and space, related but not close. They are a wall now, to be seen by the public, but fenced off, shielded against improper and irrelevant voyeurism. The photographer does not reveal. On the contrary, he leaves out information in order to better show. The result of this paradox is the reconstruction of an idyllic, almost pre-biblical landscape where Arabs and Jews are the next of kin, like a branching tree, a web, a labyrinth. Only those who are initiated are acquainted with it. For the outside world it is equally surprising and unbelievable. We discover a city that in our mind cannot exist because we’re used to the dangerous feud that separates Jews and Arabs. But how deeply rooted is the antagonism that continues to threaten world peace? And what is left of contemporary stereotypes if both nations are interwoven and connected by blood? The other is within us. The white man is in the black, the black in the white. The antagonism is fictitious and artificial, Charif Benhelima says. Jews and Arabs sprang from the same Semitic trunk. We are nephews, a Palestinan driver in Amman once told me, we are same-same. His index fingers rubbed each other while he made his point. Same-same, samsam. There is an ancient children’s rhyme, known even in the remotest places of this earth. It is Moroccan, some say, others think that it is Hebrew or even Aramaic. It goes like this:
A ram sam sam, a ram sam sam
Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam
A ram sam sam, a ram sam sam
Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam
A rafi, a rafi...
Sometimes the singers of this universal rhyme illustrate it with nonsensical gestures. Is it a rafi or arabi? Is there a hidden meaning or is it infant speech, magical and enchanting? Samsam is a baby’s name in Urdu. The song is a token of tenderness, and in its apparent innocence it is mysterious. An artist is a child in a world that doesn’t accustom.
Samsam, same-same, Semsem… All Arabs and Jews are children of Sem, son of Noah, survivor of the Flood, forefather of Abraham, himself the forefather of both tribes. Aren’t the descendants of Israel and Ismail still connected by the roots of their language and culture? What’s in a name? What a difference a letter makes? Would there be any fonts if not for the Semites? Civilization owes its existence to their invention of the alphabet. Moreover they provided humanity with a history that still furnishes our collective imagination. Charif decided to put his story of the Semites and the invisible, imaginary wall that separates the descendants of Sem into a mute book, deprived of the words that equally unite and divide.
His eloquent book of images has no beginning and no end, no back and no front. It opens in the middle, like a scroll. A book without hierarchy, so it seems the artist thought. He selected 67 photo’s of women and 67 portraits of men. He added one of himself. Not accidentally in all 135 photo’s. 1+3+5 makes 9, the highest number, symbol of completion. In the esoteric traditions of both Arabs and Jews numbers and characters are depositories of hidden meaning. By referring to it Benhelima adds universality to his personal saga.
This ‘false documentary’ of ‘contradicting identities’, as he calls Semites, is a new, important stage in the epic of the Flemish son of a migrant, born an outsider. It is a surprising, hopeful and layered political parable too and it seems to be inspired by the question whether art can save the world. The actuality of Semites is that it functions as a mirror. We don’t look at the artist’s family but at ourselves. This is not a self-portrait with contradicting identities. It is a portrait of every man. The contradictions and separations that divide us and the identity that we think is ours, are but a projection of how we are torn. The black man is within the white, the Greek is within the German, the Jew is within the Arab. The acceptance of the division within ourselves, opens unforeseen perspectives, especially in a divided country like Belgium, or in Europe, but also in the world in general since it is not homogenous. It recalls the taunted truth that unity creates power. Unity that is in division. The poet is a prophet. The artist depicts his time better than the photographer. And if the artist is a photographer, his photo’s are no portraits.
The techniques, used by Charif Benhelima to tell his story thicken the mist in the twilight zone between fiction and reality. The flashlight reverberates and obscures. It forces the spectator to reflect. The viewer ultimately observes his own self and the world he thought he knew from another angle. He sees the inner wall that obstructs the view. Semites invites to a comprehension that is essential to tackle some of the big questions of our time. The gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is bridged by the ‘other’ we all incarnate. We not only have an inner wall, we also have an inner neighbor. No need to know all this when you read Charif’s Semites. This work does not require explanations. It suffices to see and not to have lost the ability to dream.