PRINT January 1992


Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a distinguished French doctor of neuropsychiatry, was fascinated by Morocco, which he first visited in 1915. For a study of Arab women and particularly of their clothing he took several hundred photographs, which were recently restored and are now being shown to the public, seventy years after they were made.

AS IF THE WOMEN of distant Morocco had disappeared long before, the anxious eye of the compulsive scholar, the worthy doctor, a neuropsychiatrist, seeks out the last of them, still wrapped in their draped veils, to fix in images.

He always decides on the pose. He wants an element of artifice and he demands it of his sitter, whether young or less young. Given the shadows in which he shoots her one would say she was black, or perhaps mulatto, a vertical cloth-swathed form between the checkerboard of the floor and the brown of the hangings behind her. The veils themselves are white. The photographer sets up the light so that the face is not the first thing seen. There is in the veil an opening, as narrow as the slit of a buttonhole, where hides the woman’s eye. Yet the brightness of her gaze, a brightness from that eye’s very corner, may escape the vigilance of this master who fixes her gestures, and who arranges the soft folds of her garments to hug her body and face so closely as to risk suffocation. The psychiatrist looks for this narrow crack in the veil, the only real feature in a face wrapped up to and around the eyes.

The women of distant Morocco obeyed the man from the West. He captured their grace—almost against his will, it may seem. Despite its linens, folded and refolded from head to foot, despite the invisibility in which it is exhibited, the Arab woman’s veiled body, served up for the anonymous, innocent gaze of the infidel, imparts the sensuousness of rounded flesh. Yet the neuropsychiatrist takes infinite cares to seal her up as though in bandages, right down to her hands, which he doesn’t want to see, so that he covers them in cloth, or else leaves them vague in shadow. Perhaps he didn’t notice, not at first, that the hand of one young rebel does appear, naked against her elder sister’s veil. This plump but delicate hand makes a sweet little hollow on the leg where it lies—a tender, mischievous gesture that Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, when he developed the photograph, accepted as a kind of gift. It escaped his fixation with arranging these women’s bodies, freezing them on his glossy paper like corpses stiff with death, stilled in the ritual folds of veils become white shrouds.

The photographer is a collector of veiled and doubly veiled bodies—mummies made eternal through his severe gaze. But he has not been able to master those gestures, those infractions, that tell of an unheard voice, of a laugh stopped up by the gag that shuts a young woman’s full mouth. The glittering black of an eye pierces through heavy cloth. Skin, flesh, blood, a sensuality that accepts no constraint, impose themselves on the technical ordering attempted by this doctor bent on women’s disappearance. Round, soft, supple are the female bodies of the black house servant, of the Atlas countrywoman, of the third wife of the rich urban businessman—of women in Islam. In their own apartments, the Orientalist painter Delacroix painted such women unveiled; the neuropsychiatrist, technician of the soul, takes them covered up, strictly following the rules. He insists on the veil even indoors, in the smallest of rooms, where it is worn for him alone. He insists on it to protect himself against the heat of the body.

But Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault has lost his struggle. The invisible women of the Arab Orient trifle with his obsessive collecting. They inhabit the veil body and soul, as a woman lives in a house.

And this is the source of the problem for she who looks at these veiled women today, one after another, close despite the distance kept by the obsessed master. This is the source of my problem, me looking at the women of my Algerian childhood, looking in the language of France. I am the Western photographer, and I am also those women of the Arab Orient. I am more exiled than they are in the photographs, though they are veiled to the eyelids, even indoors. Those women are the forgotten country of birth, gone but making a violent return, through the neuropsychiatrist.

I look at these Arab women, and I hear them, through the language of my French mother, and through the eyes of the photographer doctor who wanted to hear nothing at all. They are not exiled behind their immense lengths of fabric, with its surfeit of folds and creases; they are not exiled in the house where they live unveiled, noisy in the little square courtyard; they are not exiled sitting in the jumbled cemetery where olives and poppies grow, their white veils blowing in the evening wind.

I hear the voices of these Arab women, the sisters of my Arab father, as truly exiled on the Western shore, in France, deprived of their clothes’ tender, supple, silken folds. Their bodies are the more invisible, graceless, for being seen unveiled. And the hand of the exile, my own hand between this shore and that, grasps the pen, writing endlessly between light and darkness, on a journey so circuitous that she knows she will never arrive, because no real point of origin exists; because she is in the process of losing the Arab Orient, the tiniest memory of her colonial childhood. She does not want to believe that the women in graceful folds and complicated drapes have disappeared. . . . She does not believe it.

Leïla Sebbar is a novelist who lives in Paris. Her books include the trilogy Shérazade, Les Carnets de Shérazade, and Le Fou de Shérazade, Paris: Éditions Stock Hatchette, 1982, 1984, and 1991 respectively.

Translated from the French by David Frankel.

The exhibition “Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault,” has been seen in Marrakech, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Arles, and Strasbourg. This January it appears at the Bibliothèque Municipale, Villeneuve d’Ascq. The show is accompanied by Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, psychiatre et photographe, a book edited by Serge Tisseron and with essays by Tisseron and Monica Khemir, Paris: Delagrange, Collection Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond, 1990. All photographs here are taken from this book.