Franco Cardini

Looking at a photo is always an exercise in critical analysis, neither more nor less so than taking it. In the beginning there is an act of will, without which nothing outside ourselves really exists. A group of playing children or of armed soldiers, a chipped wall, an abandoned motorcycle, the desert….

Nothing means anything, unless one approaches it with a plan, with a key to understanding reality. Light: the time of day or night, the sun high in a dazzling blue sky, a starry night, or clouds and fog, or the black horses of the sandstorm that penetrates and swallows up everything. It is a suspended tale, the fleeting moment frozen forever by the magic gesture of snapping a picture, which denies the before and the after: or perhaps on the contrary, unveils them and then reveals them in all the ambiguity between the fixity of a photo and the dynamics of movement, of which an infinitesimal moment is a limpid and precise witness, and yet ambiguous and as full of unheeded proposals as it is quick to deceive.

To look, to read. These are two simultaneous, complementary, yet alternative acts. As soon as writing is superimposed on a picture or a drawing, two points of view are established: on one hand, we desperately try to decipher the writing, impatient because the signs, shapes and colours hamper our conceptual effort; on the other hand, we search for facial features, the outlines of animals and mountains and cars or buildings, annoyed at the words and meaningful signs that generate confusion. Two related forms that speak of the same reality, always converging but never meeting; or, on the contrary, they remain unrelated though they bundle together and intertwine.

But here that fine line comes into play, that imperceptible speck that separates genius from ordinary intelligence. Syria is disappearing. A verdict, as unjust and unjustified as it is foolish, is eradicating it from the face of the earth. And don’t call it fanaticism, because it is the exact etymological opposite: it is supreme profanity. And don’t call it fate, because this horror is planned, systematic, it is a masterpiece of rationality in the service of the most repugnant madness.

Syria disappears, eradicated and swept away by the desire to brutalise the human race. Exactly as it was centuries ago, only decades ago, or only years ago, or even only this morning, or even in a few days, months, years or centuries from now, the words assembled to construct thoughts and collected in the magic form of a codex or volume, the words penned one by one and letter by letter, or engraved on wood and metal and then imprinted on paper, were denied, forbidden, torn, burned on bonfires lit by zealous friars and monks or by stern student-soldiers, small matter whether they were dark, bearded Taliban or fair-haired youths in brown shirts.

Ileana Florescu visits Syria, this enchanted world of sand and water, stone and green mountains, Greek memories and memories of crusades, temples and churches and mosques. When Ileana turns her eyes and heart to her camera lens and holds us in the indescribable essence of a caravan city, or a child playing, or a wise camel silhouetted against the horizon, she knows that she is exerting King Solomon’s same mesmerizing magic. According to Muslim legend, Solomon captured the jīnn, powerful and bizarre spirits made of flame, lesser than angels and demons and half-way between them. He sealed them in a glass vial –that ancient Tyre glass, thick and greenish, made from bubble-filled paste – and then set them free, after a few moments or many centuries. Happy to be released from their transparent prison and filled with gratitude and fear, they were ready to obey him. But out of the vial of Ileana’s camera, which steals light to produce images, comes something quite different: the pure pristine beauty and the endless, nameless horror, that of hatred and war.

And it is a never-ending story. Beauty is truth: it has been said by so many that it must be true. What falsehood is devastating Ma’loula, destroying Palmyra, ruining Aleppo, encircling Homs, threatening the Krak des Chevaliers? Is it the new, futuristic, postmodern cruelty of an ideology of death disguised as religious faith, of a nameless rage cloaked in the Holy Name of Allāh the Merciful and Compassionate, of a “Nothing” thirsting for the future that the imbeciles try to propagandize as the “Dark Ages”, piling stupidity on stupidity, slander on slander? Or what else, what selfishness, what forms of cynicism and short-sightedness?

The ways of Darkness are exactly like those of Providence: endless. The menacing ink marks of censors in the past, the angry arrows scrawled on a book by an inquisitor, the authoritarian, absurd and yet irrefutable –in the etymological sense –ban on reading what was written and printed expressly to be read, were attempts to stifle freedom and thought, like today’s guns and surface-to-surface missiles, or politicians’ lies or the abuse of power by lobbies: no matter whether they work alternately or proceed together. The womb that gave birth to both is still pregnant, always has been, and will be for who knows how long.

From the chipped doorway of the Mushabbak basilica, framed by huge chiselled stones and pure columns, one glimpses the sinister flames of books on a bonfire: are we in 13th century Cologne, 16th century Geneva, 17th century Salamanca, Nuremberg in 1935, in some Farenheit 451 future? The names, words, tools and actors change: the music is always the same, the Totentanz of ignorance and tyranny. Will the confident, serene gaze of the rais Bashār al-Assad behind whom we can glimpse the beautiful norias and large aqueducts of a country that loves and always dreams of water – dictators always have a confident and serene look – make us smile, when we interpret the picture through the verses of Hymne à l’Imprimerie? He who has always stifled newspapers that did not print “his” truth? Beautiful sheep and the happy child of Apamea –two very Christian symbols – rest on the pages of Ernesto Buonaiuti, persecuted by church hierarchy until the fascist regime, which he opposed, defended him. In those pages the great scholar speaks of St. Augustine’s Church, heir to the Roman Apamea, Empire and its power, the Church of the children of the persecuted, who as soon as possible became persecutors themselves. They knocked down the pagan altars, and closed the Arian churches, and burned synagogues, and murdered Hypatia, and then closed the school of Athens. Why do we find it surprising, for that matter? Guantanamo is neither a Lager nor a Gulag: it is the Great Fatherland of Rights, including the “pursuit of happiness”, that keep the enclosures and high-tension wires in order. Voltaire’s super-prohibited Candide mercilessly obliterates a mosque, one of those that jihadists blow up if they don’t take it by force, and which our politicians, who blather about defending freedom at all costs, prevent being built in the name of Security. Would Machiavelli’s fiercely banned Prince ever have suspected it would one day be the overlay to the silhouette of a Saracen fortress? And what would you say, if you saw engraved on the entrance door of the sanctuary of St. Simeon Stylites, not an invitation to pray and fast – to expand the heart and open the mind – but the title page of the Index librorum prohibitorum, surrogates of which have survived almost to the present day? Does Prohib(itus)appear really scrawled by a bureaucrat’s pen, over the fabulous Via Porticata in Apamea, with its elegant spiral-grooved columns? Candide is “First Class Forbidden”, complete with menacing arrow that stands on a quiet landscape of ruins and verdant trees Piranesi would have envied. The amusing, lewd tale of Alatiel, Boccaccio’s naive and profligate Arab princess as retold by La Fontaine, is lost in the desert: and after all, wasn’t it its destiny? The austere Bible, translated into Italian by Diodati, the Catholics’ “bête noire”, with its frontispiece of airy post-Michelangelo architecture, goes beautifully well with the perfect columns of Palmyra. The French translation of the philosophical An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke rightly, and sadly, rests on the walls of a nobly constructed building now threatened by the weight of millennia (and bombs). Last but not least, the inscription: “The first volume is not to be given to anyone” (referring to Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments) stands imperiously between column shafts cut in half and the blue sky, and nearby a child in a European windbreaker and a long Arab galabyyāh looks around, half absorbed and half puzzled, as if he had mislaid a Plotinus manuscript or lost a small flock of sheep. And you don’t know if it is a dulcis in fundo, or an in cauda venenum. A great storyteller, a great artist, a great polemicist: our beautiful Ileana is all this.