Sand, first chapter


tizwuri (beginning)

All photographers are liars, all photographs are lies.
For most of us, the only question is whether to accept the lies or discard them. Whether to latch on to the flat permanence we are offered, agree to the substitution of someone else’s vision for our own, or reject them all on principle and allow our memories to dissipate into the fog of past, lost moment by moment by moment.
For a photographer, the question is different – and always the same: which instant of time do we stop, which single image do we capture and claim as an encapsulation of the whole? This one? The one preceding? The one after? And in that question, the beginning of the lie. We stand stuck on the axis of now, spinning as the moments move by, their passing whispered upon our negatives, echoed on our prints; but nothing stops, nothing is captured.
And yet here I stand, the sun rising behind me, looking forward, looking back, still undecided. I peer up at the hotel, frozen in place, the wooden steps that lead from the beach to the pool anchoring my feet like concrete. Beside me, the line of white hotels lining the dunes, palm trees rustling against the sky; behind me, the Gulf of Hammamet, waves falling softly against the sand. I don’t have my camera. It is not time that has stopped, just me.
I blink, the sweat from my run stings my eyes. Above me, gulls glide knowingly in the warming air, like turkey buzzards spiraling above a carcass along a Louisiana byway. From beyond the dunes, loudspeakers crackle out the words of God through broken mid-range cones, the morning call to prayer filtered through chicken wire and scratched plastic screens, competing with the soft slapping of waves, the impatient squawk of the sea birds, the baritone burp of the horns of the trawlers along the shore. I breathe in, follow the words in my head:
Come to salvation
Come to salvation
Come to salvation
I breathe out, say a morning dua reflexively:
O Allah, I ask of you the good of the day, it’s success and aid and its celestial light. I seek guidance and refuge from the evil in this day.
The gulls go silent, the Mu’addhin’s words stop short, the last lines of the Adhan left hanging. I complete the morning prayer in my head –
I seek guidance and refuge from the evil in this day.
And from the evil of that which is to come.
A bolt of gold zig zags its way across my retina, chased by small stars of green and red, a thudding pain settles behind my eyes. The muffled thud of my pulse in my ears, the sound of the gulls, the waves, then another sound, like distant fireworks, unsettlingly familiar. Another firecracker, this one closer; then a muffled echo, the sharp scrape of metal on concrete. I blink; once, twice, clearing the stars from my eyes, hear another pop, look up to the landing at the top of the stairs. Framed against the sky, the figure of a woman, her arms outstretched in a cross, large letters emblazoned across her tee shirt; five consonants, the initials of an American designer and NYC embossed in silver from left to right. The letters glint brightly in the morning sun, sparkle against the fresh washed white cotton across her chest.
The woman’s hand comes up to shield her eyes from the light, she looks down, seems to see me. I see a glimmer of acknowledgment in her eyes, something that looks like recognition. Her mouth begins to open, a fish far from sea, wide and silent. Behind her, another scraping sound, even closer, another loud pop. Then another. A puncture of red appears on her tee shirt, a Japanese sun spreading across her chest.
The now anxious laughter of the gulls, the distant churn of the trawlers, the rustle of palms, the fireworks that are not fireworks. The woman at the top of the stairs and me; between us a flurry of stars, Arabic script writ in gold on my retina. The sun rises behind me, and with the dawn, a realization.
I let the whisper of surf and palms mingle with the muted rush of my pulse, clench my eyes shut. I frame the image from above, my figure stopped halfway up the stairs, my footprints descending wet behind me on the gray wood. At the bottom of the stairs, damp sand giving way to crushed shells, evolution in reverse, then soft surf, the endless flat ocean. It’s a nice shot, fitting somehow. Above, the gulls circling, their voices rising, their premonitions proven. The world is full of lies, some three dimensional, some not, and in the cycle of their telling and believing we are all complicit.
Lightning zips behind my eyes, stars fill the sky, and I wait for the darkness to close in on me at last.
I am not surprised that I am to die, just at the timing of it all.