“And have you seen the water that you drink? Is it you who brought it down from the clouds, or is it We who bring it down? If We willed, We could make it bitter, so why are you not grateful?” (Qur’an 56: 58-70).
“In the garden is no idle talk; there is a gushing fountain.” (Qur’an 88:11-12)
“For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.” (Qur’an 2:222)
The Qur’an is a quiet text. At a gathering, it is forbidden (haraam) for everyone to read the Qur’an audibly at the same time. The Islamic procedure for purifying the body before prayer is called wudu, meaning “full ablution.” It is unlawful for someone not in a state of wudu to carry a Qur’an or to touch it, a requirement that extends to the binding, the carrying strap attached to it, and the container that holds it. The laws surrounding the sacred text restrict its readership to a special faction.
In most traditional Middle Eastern communities, non-Muslims are prohibited from entering a mosque. Outside eyes look at the threshold of these holy sanctuaries, but can never see the elaborate domes, minarets, fountains, and prayer halls inside them. Mosques are more than centers for prayer; they are forums for discussion, disputes, and information. The internal mechanisms of Muslim society take place behind these doors, walled off to the non-Muslim public.
Walking through a labyrinthine Medina (old city) in Morocco, one walks past social hubs unknowingly. Medinas were originally built to protect citizens from invasion, as well as to disorient and slow down foreigners. Hammams are hidden to the naked eye. These Turkish steam baths exist behind humble keyhole-shaped doors, often located near mosques, since it is customary for Muslims to wash themselves before they pray. Hammams used to be the only place people could come to bathe and scrub. These bathhouses are places of interaction. Neighbors navigate warm rooms together, perspiring in the hot, dry air. They come to wash, but also to gossip and listen. They turn the rusty knobs of the spigots, mixing searing water with glacial runoff in their large tubs. Women and men, in separate hammams, lie down on white-tiled floors and scrub each other down with abrasive loofahs and savon noir. This space is hidden from foreign gaze.
The photograph is seductive: we are informed only partially by the set of images it presents, and so we are compelled to fill in the gaps with our own thoughts and ideas and preconceptions. This projection, this “leaning of our sensitive and personal organism,” as Max Kozloff calls it, forges a kind of empathetic relationship between what’s represented and what we feel about what’s being represented. The photograph grants us the privilege of holding the world in our hands, eliciting a reaction at once visceral and startlingly personal.
The photograph’s indexicality suggests its virtually unimpeachable “truth” quotient: everything in the photo had to be there, arranged in that way, in order for that specific photograph to exist. But despite the presumed veracity of what they represent, photographs never totalize, they never give us enough. Instead of revealing to us the “truth” of the framed world, indexicality ups the stakes of the very real possibility that we might misapprehend and fetishize it. What is given-to-be-seen for the camera—the doorsteps of the places we’re not allowed to broach, the shadows obscuring the bathing body—always belies the fullness of what is hidden from us. We can’t know what it’s like to be in that space or in that body just beyond reach, but it is crucial all the same to remember that those spaces and bodies shape the landscape of the framed world. If the final image is always developed from its negative, from that which disappears, we might say that the invisible, as the very condition of the visible, is the most radically powerful mark of the photograph.—EJ