Leila Alaoui is a brilliant photographer , she has been my friend since when she started to take pictures. She lived with me in NY, and I visited her house in Morocco years ago. Leila, now lives in Lebanon. She works with Syrian refugees. She was the first person that I spoke to on skype when I was still so sick. She always called me to talk to me. And I was capable to speak to her in French… when I barely spoke portuguese. She made me feel alive just like she made me write again.
Today as we spoke she told me about a film she had made. I saw it and I was so moved by it, and even told her I would write about it. Leila worked with Refugees, with survivors of wars, she lived and took beautiful pictures of them. And she asked me to film me. Me? What could I possibly be interesting for? Her video was just appallingly beautiful, with deserts, refugees, tracks, stories…. And as I watched I cried.
Then I wrote her to tell her what I will tell you here. Tell her of the things that it made me think. Not simply about the beauty of it, nor the photography, but because it took me back to the border of Africa and Europe… there where Morocco stops and Ceuta is. Ceuta is in the African continent but it is Spain now.
I still, after all these years, remember vividly my feeling, the images, the thoughts. There were so many people… I was walking back to Morocco. People sold even the paper that was free, simply because lots of people who could not know how to feel it. People carried toilet paper, clothes, begs, suitcases, dreams. People who were going back to Africa I guess carried nostalgic feelings. People going back home could come easily back to Africa. Now the people who were coming to Spain they were held for long times. I was young, and yet I knew we were all lost, in between….. that the people who were going to Europe were searching for a better life in an almost impossible future. The people who were coming back, you could almost see their face the feeling of loss, of failure, and of missing from where they came from.
My crossing was easy. I had the “Right” papers…. On the other side there were lots of cabs. I just took one in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of hundreds of cabs. I remember thinking, that most people would find that dangerous. But I felt in place. After all, most of these different people were like me… displaced.
All these images came to my head as I watched Leila’s film. And then suddenly came to my had a meeting I had a couple weeks ago. As I was about to go home, someone dropped a glass in my foot, and someone else stopped to help me.
The guy said Hi, said I was beautiful. And since he was so friendly I started to talk to him. Then suddenly he said
” Stop, talking to me. I am from Capao Redondo”.
I told him I did’t care, he had helped me. Why should I not talk to him?
” You do not even know where this is or what it means!”
“I do, I have been there. Actually twice.”
He was intrigued. And maybe I should add here that that place is a dangerous neighbourhood in Sao Paulo. It has in the past had more people being killed in a year that in many places that are in a war.
I insisted and told him
” You know, I trust strangers. I went to your neighbourhood. I stayed in the house of people I met on buses in Palestine, in Kashmir etc. So I have no problem to talk to you, unless you don’t want to talk to me.”
“I am impressed. Really. I ll be honest with you, you are beautiful and I wanted to kiss you, but now I can’t. I can see you are real. And you have such a sadness inside of you that makes me want to protect you. What happened to you? Why did you go to these places for, what have they done to you there?”
I told him, all that had happened to me which was in no dangerous place. And then he said something that really intrigued me. First he understood my pain of total abandonment by someone I trusted. And then he said something so intriguing that reminded me of Leila as well.
“Ju, you are much more impressive than me. I was born in that neighbourhood. I did not choose to live there. You come from the richer side of Sao Paulo and yet you chose to go there to see people in a very dangerous place. You chose to go Palestine. To Kashmir, to borders. And that is why I can’t simply kiss you like you were one more superficial girl here. You are profound. You know death, life, war, borders, poverty. You chose even without needing to go to see the world how it really is. Why? Why were you not afraid?”
I was really taken aback… and thought about it…. and realised…
“No one that you barely know, can hurt you. It is people who really knows you, who you truly trust that can kill your soul. I was never afraid of losing things, being killed,raped bc as painful as that sounds…. it is in these places that most people are afraid of that I was most taken care of. It is in truly harsh places that people have not lost the value of life. Of friends. Of shelter. Of food. Of love.”
So today, as I was speaking to my dear friend Leila I remembered that. She, just like me studied abroad, came from a great life and yet she always wanted to know the other. The borders, the refugees, the places were life is so felt.
I told her what could I possibly tell her in a film? I saw her picture, her film. It felt unfair to all those in a real war.
“Jules, you inspire me.”
And so I seat here to write this, to wonder why would that be? And suddenly it dawned to me. It simply because we have not totally lost faith in humanity. It is because we search it in extremity. It is because we know, that in these places people know the real value of life. Just like they know the non importance of death.
I write again because Leila Alaoui inspires me too. And I am fortunate enough to have her as a friend.