Still alive: book introduction by Scarlett Coten (EN)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

It's six o'clock in the morning in this month of February and for the first time in my life I'm crossing a border on foot! It gives me a real sense of adventure. I leave Taba in a crowded taxi, radio-cassette on full blast, and let myself be carried away towards the unknown, totally alert. A deserted road at the water's edge, bordered to the west by the mountains of South Sinai. In the distance, a few huts stand out against a limpid sky, opposite, not far off, is Saudi Arabia. Only a liner heading for Jordan separates sea from sky. Below, a thin strip of beach, men in robes and keffiyeh, a few camels, and a monumental wooden porch opening onto the sandy horizon. The Red Sea is turquoise, a light-bulb swings above a billiard table, there's a sea breeze and love songs drift out through the open windows.

Last stop: Tarabin, a small coastal village. Aïd, the driver, tells me that he is Bedouin, arousing my curiosity. I accept his hospitality and settle in the home of a friend of his, in a solitary hut at the water's edge. Friends and acquaintances pass through, some speak a few words of English; come evening, they cook beautiful fish and invite me to join them around the fire. Two men passing through suggest that I accompany them to their village, a day's drive away, in the middle of the desert. They are joyful and attentive, proud to introduce me to their world. The next day, wedged between the two of them on the front-seat of a bumpy pick-up truck, the crossing takes my breath away. After the last dunes in the searing sun, the purple slopes of Djebel El-Thi anounce our nearing arrival.

The village is a gathering of scattered houses, arranged without any apparent logic. Low-ceilinged buildings, rectangular, with corrugated iron roofs and outside courtyards. The odd electric pylon. There's no café, nor station, not even a local store. Here, either you're a guest, or you're lost. I suppress as small shiver at the idea of being so dependent on the will of others.

Yet the welcome is impressive. The women lightly touch the mens' bowed foreheads with their fingertips, then greet me with a hand placed quickly over the heart. Night falls, in a matter of seconds. There is a sheet of lino on the ground, a shared dish of rice and mutton, a cup of water that does the rounds; surrounded by a few men who have joined the gathering and who speak a dialect I don't understand, I feel happy and at ease. It is the beginning of a long love-story between myself and this people, this country.

"56 000 km of nothing" wrote Loti, the Khâla; this empty country is to become my Eden, my second family. Later on I will travel the desert from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Gulf of Suez, from Rafah to Dahab, from Abu-Zenima to Naqhl, from Sarabit to Ras Abu Galium.

Day after day I photograph my journey. What's going on, what surrounds me, the people I meet. My backdrop is the desert, our travels and halts.

I photograph my hosts, those that ask me to, those that pose. These are my guiding line. Gestures and laughter replace the spoken word. Time seems different, the people too. It's a hot summer. From one area of shade to another, we reach for each breath of air, each lift of the breeze. I no longer know which day it is; we live in the present.

Photography is a rarity for them and my camera never leaves them indifferent. A joyful complicity develops. The men joke around in lascivious poses, the women send their veils flying, all embroidered with brightly colored beads. In the village the generator is on several hours every day, and the sheik has a satellite dish, a television set up under the starry sky. Everyone benefits, a naked light-bulb flickering above the screen, we switch channels, to football, live concerts from Arabia, Egyptian melodrama, CNN, there is much laughter. Some have never seen a foreigner, request my presence.

In the face of such novelty, constant surprises, and so much good-will, I enter into the rythm of things, let myself go. I gain the trust of the women who show me their private quarters. In their brightly colored robes, between a heart-shaped clock and a stylized palm-tree on the wall, the Bedouin pose with all the seriousness and attention that this new experience requires. They smoke, raising their veil with one hand. I fall in love with this cheerful and curious people, who consent to pose for me, and do so with delight.

Thus, between reality and fiction, I photograph this inner journey that bears witness to my experience, guided by my inspiration; play and staging bring us together, beyond our different cultures, for a moment of shared happiness.

At each meeting, I am greeted with the words: "still alive!"

These photographs are the illustration of the humour, enthusiasm and  modernity of a little-known people. Forgotten, destitute, but alive!

Scarlett Coten

translated from the French language by Erin Lawlor