Port Saïd, Santa Cruz, Sarmad Kashani: a triptych about projections on bodies, made by projecting on my body.
In spring 2021, I found myself pulled by two different research projects, one of a person who lived in the 1880s who was being co-opted and re-coopted by projections, and the other is a story of a 17th-century poet who for a moment managed to escape the self he was shut up in when he was born.
An art book fair in autumn.
2018, the Hamburger Bahnhof
I see her in an exhibition at the fair,
a few stands with postcards
Of late 19th-century studio photography of women.
a deep gaze
long black hair,
staring at the camera.
She’s wearing woven garments with a low neck line,
three necklaces, earrings and a headband.
The back of the postcard tells the story of Louise Mack,
a white Wesleyan Australian writer
who was born in 1870 and died in 1935.
It is detailing her education and marriage
and her many popular books and publications.
At the bottom in a smaller font a short line noted:
“Troppenmuseum, 60032492, unknown woman, Port Saïd, Egypt, 1870-1890.”
The artist who made the exhibition refers to her research
as based in intersectional feminism.
She sees her archival practice as a form of potential emancipation.
What ritual then is taking place here,
and who is being emancipated?
Does she aim to “free” the “unknown” woman from Port Saïd
by attaching the biography of a “successful” white Australian person?
According to one of the places it was exhibited:
“Women To Go is an evolving post-card series by the artist
that presents biographies on women from the 19th century
who achieved significant advances for feminism.
These biographies are paired with images
of unknown women from the same period.”
The exhibition toured 25 different locations,
including Berlin, New York, London, Amsterdam, and Chicago.
The postcard from the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin
with the portrait of the woman from Port Saïd
stayed on our fridge for a couple of months
until we felt it might be inappropriate to have her there
as we knew so little about her.
Three and a half years later,
I’m researching the photography collection
of the extremely wealthy traveler Annie Brassey,
who in the 1880s travelled the seas
and the oceans in her luxury yacht, the Sunbeam.
Going through her album, I encounter the women from Port Saïd
But was she really from Port Saïd?
The hand-written description below the photo notes:
“Cairo, Egyptian Woman.”
The item description, which was possibly typed after the collection was acquired
by the Huntington Library in the 1910s, notes:
“Cairo, (well dressed) Egyptian woman, n.d., photographer E. Bechard.”
Here her photo is collected by a traveling colonialist
And it is refreshing to think of the photo
being bought not so far from where the woman
lived imagining that it was purchased while she was still alive.
I reverse-Google-image search the photo and find a single article,
from the Israeli Haaretz Newspaper,
from April 20, 2018.
It is later replicated on some Pinterest posts and other webpages.
There, her image appears as of one the main photograph of the article,
dedicated to memories of a community
of Egyptian and Yemenite Jews that thrived in Port Saïd
in the years after the inauguration of the Suez Canal.
The caption describes her as “Jewish Woman from Port Saïd”.
Here she is being adopted by research
that is now presented to the public via a newspaper,
“the disappearance of the Jewish community of Port Saïd
is one example of the hundreds of Jewish communities in the Middle East
that were forever forgotten.”
Now reclaimed for the geopolitical struggles over Palestine,
to represent the forgotten exile of the Mizrahi Jew,
to save Zionism from the “danger” of Palestinian memory.
She is also now officially belongs to the Dutch neo-colonial archive.
The credit on this photo,
despite being taken in the 1800s in Cairo, states:
“Credit: Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen”.
At the Digital Archive of the Troppenmuseum in Amsterdam,
I find her, described as a “Jewish Woman from Port Saïd.”
The photographer is supposedly “unknown.”
Her image was part of an exhibition “Souvenir de Voyage”
in April 2018, they say.
I find the source of this specific copy of the image:
a torn page from an old album with the handwritten title:
Types of Port Said.
Next to her the words, handwritten in Dutch:
“Jodin, dezelfde kleeding als in Smyrna.”
= a Jewess, the same dress as in Smyrna (modern Izmir).
Is this the reason it is assumed she’s from Port Saïd?
What makes you so appealing to different people, different project?
- to Brassey, to the postcard project, to the Haaretz article?
- There is something leisurely in your posture and garments
that allows different gazes to claim you,
you look confidently into the camera,
yet you’re not as over-the-top sexualized,
nor too “religious looking” either,
so you can be collected by pious Christian Brassey
who is connected to missionary projects and to the British army,
to a feminist artist who wants to “free” you
by attaching a biography of an Australian novelist
and to the Haaretz newspaper who wants you
as a bargaining chip in current Levantine political struggles.
We moved to family housing in the empty campus of UC Santa Cruz
in late winter 2021.
With all classes on Zoom
and almost no undergrads or grad students on campus,
I would rarely pass by other living humans on my daily walks.
Deer and wild turkeys were all around,
and I would take funny videos of them to share on my family’s WhatsApp group.
Hawks would circle the sky,
and small, colorful birds I don’t know the names of,
would accompany the part of the walk by the long fence
that begins almost by the Arboretum
and ends at the Ziggurat music hall building.
In addition to them, the ghosts, that normally, it seemed,
occupied the more northern, woody parts of the campus,
were now allowing themselves to inch a little southern,
and I would occasionally catch their glances through the redwood trees as I would walk nearby.
In spring a war in Palestine flared up,
and the daily calls to my parents,
who lived in Israeli Ashkelon,
nearby Gaza, all by themselves
after me and my brothers all emigrated,
were replaced with two calls a day,
one in my morning, wishing them a quiet night
and the next in my night, listening to them telling me how it wasn’t quiet.
It was taxing to balance the need to comfort my parents while being aware
that it is the regime that they support that is the true criminal,
and that their sleepless nights are closer
to the pastoral eeriness of Santa Cruz
than to the inferno on the Palestinian side of the border.
I started listening to a 1973 album, “Children of Lir” by the Loudest Whisper,
which retells the Irish early-Christian myth of the children of the defeated king
who are cursed to live as swans for 900 years,
moving from a sea to a sea, salvaged only with their death.
A song in the album which was dedicated to William B Yeats, and his “Innisfree.”
I found a recording of him from the 1930s reading his early poem.
I picture Yeats talking Irish nationalism to his non-Irish friends
while hanging out with some Pre-Rephaelites,
in London or traveling in the Mediterranean,
in Italy and Majorca.
But I can imagine this only
because I don’t know a lot about Yeat’s life.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
by William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I found myself pulled by two different research projects,
one of the woman from Port Said,
being coopted and re-coopted by projections,
and the other is perhaps a story of a person who,
to quote Fernando Pessoa, managed to escape
the self he was shut up in when he was born.
This was the story of Sarmad.
Examining the legacy of poet Sarmad Kashani,
we might face two different possible prisms.
On the one hand, we have the Rubaiyat he left us:
that mostly revolve around the call for renunciation of wealth and greed
and to replace them with love and humility
and with understanding one’s place within the greater universe.
On the other hand there is his life story.
Born to a family of Persian Jewish merchants around 1590,
Kashani traveled between Armenia, India and Persia,
eventually falling in love with a boy in Thatta.
As a result of that love Kashani renounces their wealth
as well as wearing any garments,
first adopting Islam and eventually renouncing all institutional religion,
advocating for the spiritual love of god.
Kashani gains a place in the court of the Mogul empire’s crown prince Dara Shikoh
and eventually as power changes and Aurangzeb takes the power,
Sarmad who predicted the reign of Dara Shikoh is decapitated .
In his writing, his love to another man
can seem easily interchangeable with love to the divine.
Love in the Rubaiyats is the infinite love to the divine
and the infinite appreciation of love that is indivisible,
has no exteriority,
is a whole.
To tell the story of the poet Sarmad Kashani
through the story of his relationship to forces of resistance
is to tell the story along the lines of
how this resistance plays along or against supposed expectations.
His execution by the “blood thirsty” Aurangzeb
portrays that moment within the region’s history
as a departure from an open minded court that supported the arts,
a “missed historical opportunity”
that corroborates a reading of the region’s history as a “regression”.
The extreme hatred of the French traveler-physician Bernier François,
himself a early contributor to the rise of European scientific racism,
on the other hand,
offers us to flip contemporary popular orientalist expectations of some,
that a European would be more “open minded”
than someone within a Muslim empire.
Sarmad’s acceptance as a muslim saint within the region,
despite being born a Jew and despite many aspects of his life
that don’t fit popular Euro-U.S. reading of Islam
can make the story stand out even more.
But then there is the poetry.
You exist in my eye /
even if you are unseen /
this mystery you know as well as I. /
The candle ensconced in the chandelier /
displays herself /
inextricable with cloths /