The space, another body, Kader Attia

My name is Kader Attia, I grew up between France and Algeria.

Until the age of 12, my parents were not decided to stay at the same place. So I was going back and forth between Algeria and France, between an Oriental and an Occidental world.

« When you leave a country, neither the place you come from, nor the one you will find is as important as the journey. », my father used to tell me.

The journey is this space in-between, in which we are almost always involved without really paying attention to it. Exactly like all immigrants, who are leaving their home place…

At the end of the 60’s, Algerian people were massively doing this emigration trip for economical reasons.

At that time, the growing French economy was the theater of the « Dream of Modernity », historically called « Les Trente Glorieuses » (“The Glorious Thirties”). But France’s former colonial space, which it had never developed, like Algeria, was not adapted to the economic reality. Then many people from all over the former French colonial empire left their country to find a job.

A better life in Europe was, for all the immigrants, the last chance to earn their living, just for some years, and to come back to their village, El Bled, after a successful experience in France.

But, actually, the more they were thinking to go back, the less they did it, staying in France, alienated by modern signs of comfort, from architecture to pseudo social equality.

Then the journey had ended.

Through this myth of Modernity and the reality of consumer society, millions of economical, cultural and political lives have been erased by the global order. Immigrants from all the former colonial space (I am speaking here about the colonial space all over the world) were becoming objects of this order, instead of being its subjects. Colonization of the mind.

The result of this is an extreme identity reaction to this order, which, unfortunately, became the ground for extremist Islamic ideologies. The expression of this reaction could also be seen onto the body. The body became the surface for identity expression that came out from clothes brands to the veil.

But before hiding the body with a veil, we have to remember that the relation Algeria developed with human body, and especially woman’s body, has always been very paradoxical. In Algeria, a country that is both between the Arab world and the African one, the Subsaharian influences are strong.

To understand the body culture’s conflict in the North African world, it is important to keep in mind the 3000 years old signs carved onto the rocks of the Tassili caves, in the desert of the Sahara, and the practices of scarifications (signs carved onto the skin of the body) brought especially from the sub-Saharan area.

These aesthetic practices evoke the beginning of the aesthetic surgery. Actually the fact that the body became an expression of beauty and a social representation was a way to make up for what the nature had failed; to repair Nature’s mistake…

The most interesting experiences I had about these “repairs of the body” in the post colonial Algerian area happened when a very close friend of mine, Kinuna, a transsexual, Muslim and Algerian, decided to change her body several times, going back and forth from male to female.

She had no ID documents in France, and when her father died in Algeria, she decided to attend the funeral. But as someone illegal, she could not make it through the airport in Paris. So she took a taxi to the Moroccan border, and there she took another cab through the Moroccan mountains, until Algiers. After this 5 days trip, she stayed in the car just in front of the building, watching her father’s funeral. As she had left Algiers as a young man 3 years before, she could not go out of the car and to pay her respects to her father as a woman. She stayed in the car parked in front the family house, watching from behind the dark window, people carrying the body of her father to the cemetery.

After the funeral, she came back to France the same way. There, she started the reverse process to get her original man body, by having her breast prosthesis removed, and taking a male hormone treatment. She wanted to go back to Algeria before the end the traditional 40 days of mourning after her father’s death.

I remember I saw her evolution in 2 weeks. It was incredibly fast, she started to get her deep voice back, and she changed her behavior with me. She became somebody else.

Then after mourning her father, as a man, with her family, she stayed in Algiers a few months and married a woman, Fouzia.

Then she brought Fouzia to France with her, the same way she had come to Algeria, and told her everything. She showed her photographs of the time she was a woman, and told her that she strongly felt that she needed to become a woman again. Fouzia accepted her, and Kinuna went back to surgery to get new breast prosthesis, and restarted a new female hormones treatment.

Well, they live together until now, and have 2 kids.

It was the first time in my life I felt how much otherness is inside us, and can be extracted at any time. We will see later how otherness is more an ethical issue than an aesthetical one.

When all the Algerian transsexuals came to France, they were looking for what Modernity has always claimed to provide: liberty and equality for everybody. A democratic morality that is more a Sisyphus myth, something that never really worked, from the massive architectural projects until everyday life respect of immigrants.

Modernity’s failure embodies, in many ways, what the Western world’s hegemony uses as a dogma – what Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to name the « Democratic morality » – to justify that otherness lies in the space geographically, culturally, and politically outside the civilization.

When the Algerian transsexuals came to Paris in order to claim their right to exist has Human Beings, they were rejected by French society as an issue that had to do with otherness in an heterosexual bipolar society, and so from left-wing to right-wing parties. I remember the reaction of some press media, among which, at that time, I tried to find some support for these 500 transsexuals from Algeria, living clandestinely in Paris. It indeed meant that, for instance, they could be forced by the police to go back to Algeria at any time, which was like a death sentence for them. I went to ask “Liberation” – a famous French left-wing newspaper – to make an article about this situation. The chief editor said: « Who cares about foreigner transsexuals? You should make something about the riots in the suburbs. »

Then I understood why they would remain illegal in France, and why some transsexuals that had been forced to quit France by the Police committed suicide in the airport.

But their reaction to this discrimination was interesting in the way they remained outside French society. They always stayed connected to their culture. Even if they were living in Paris, they actually always kept the traditional Algerian way of living. And at that point they represented an otherness in the very global culture that cities like Paris have now become.

In the pictures that I have taken of them, the most interesting thing is definitely the way they dress, dance and eat. Despite a life of exile, they maintain the relation with their home culture. In all the pictures I have made of them, what is truly interesting is that they are all men dressing and living as women, behaving in a space that is between tradition and modernity. An “inbetweeness” that is neither the woman’s sexual identity nor the men’s one. This hybrid space makes me think about where this “hybridity” between tradition and modernity came from.

Edward Said, in his book “Orientalism”, described Orient as « an area from Rabat to Tokyo ». During centuries, this used to be the area of the Silk Road market; the theater of commercial and cultural exchanges between Occident and Orient in an endless movement of different knowledges. These territories of the mind teach us how transgender issues have to do with identity and not sexuality.

In India and Pakistan, the History of embodiment or incarnation is the divine attribute.  The belief of the embodiment is, in Indian society, something that has, fortunately, never been erased by the Christian presence of European former colonial empires.

Hijras have always existed as a part of both the Indian and Pakistanis societies, because, contrary to the Occidental beliefs that there are only two sex, man and woman, Indus and Muslim believe in the third sex.

The Hijras community in India changes all the perception we have about genders issue in general.

Hijras are originally Sufi (which is another form of religion that came directly from Islam, closer to Buddhism). But there are also Christian and Indus among Hijras, and they are very respectful of Judaism.

But where do they come from?

There is a legend about a Sufi saint that lived during the 7th century in the Area of Madras. A man came to him and begged him to make him able to be pregnant and give life. Several months after, the man was pregnant, but he died because he never asked the Saint for a woman sex.

Hijras live in Ashrams, a place in which they sleep, eat and pray.

As you can see in some pictures and some movies I have started to do with them, Hijras activities are basically, begging (the“Badhai”) and praying. The relation they have with their Guru is one of the most important thing in their « raison d’être » (reason for being) Hijras.

What brings us again to the idea of otherness here is the way they exist « in between » tradition and Modernity, or in a space that binds these different issues. The space that exists between these different issues is also the link between them.

In the movies I have recently done in Mumbai, you can see how much the Hijras society today is between this traditional world of the past: the Guru and the begging in the streets, the respect of their rules, like to never try to change your body as God will make it after you will die, and our contemporary “modern” society.

In one of the interviews I have done of Guru Kansha, a 91 years old Hijra, I asked him if he would transform is body as a woman, in some part. And he answered me: “If you are able to change me now, go ahead!”.

Today the Hijras society is changing.

They are both living in the tradition where the Guru role is still very strong, and at the same, they are starting to leave the ashram, outside the traditional sphere.

Finally, all these dialogues from a side to the other of sexual identities, lead us to one question that could be a conclusion of my researches and interest for transgenders both man to woman and woman to man. The female to male transsexual process is developing now in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and India. For 5 years, I have met a lot of women that started the transformation to become a man. This issue will be the following of my project.

The conclusion here is, I think, if we want to understand beyond the sexual identity step, how this hybridity works in our social, cultural political system. And how it brings a real otherness that is actually an echo of something more than an isolated entity.

Michel Foucault, in “The History of Sexuality”, has taught us how much sexuality is political. The way Algerian transsexuals have always been treated in France illustrates this point perfectly. But  the real issue of sexual identity, that the existence of all hybrid forms of sexual identity tackles, from the bisexual Greek Antiquity to the Hijras, is the space this sexual otherness describes; a space in which everything is possible, even maybe poetry.

What is this space ? Ok this space is the otherness, but further than this, what is really this space in between? I would love to evoke what Gilles Deleuze described as the fold (“Le pli”); an “interspace” that both separates and binds two opposite sides.

The fold described by the Hijras is, I think, the “inbetweeness” described all around the world by other sexual identities, and is not a third sex as many ethnologists claim today, but more what binds and separates the man and woman sexual identity. An otherness that we can apply politically to an ethics that the world is still missing.