One late night in April 1871, the anarchist and teacher Louise Michel was on sentry duty in Clamart. Michel was a leading figure in the Paris Commune, whose events were at the peak of its unfolding. On that night, she had an encounter with an African comrade. Later she wrote the following entry in her diary:
One very night, I don’t know how, it happened that we two were alone in the trench in front of the station; the former zouave pontifical and me, with two loaded rifles . . . we were incredibly lucky that the station was not attacked that night. As we were performing our sentry duty, coming and going in the trench, he said to me when we met up:
– What effect does the life we are leading have on you?
– Well, I said, the effect of seeing before us a shore that we have to reach.
– For me, he replied, the effect is one of reading a book with pictures.
We continued walking back and forth in the trench under the silence of the Versaillais canons over Clamart.1
It is hard to find other accounts of comrades from the colonized parts of the world who participated in the Commune. Were there few? Were there many, but absent from records? The Zouave former soldier appears in two other passages in Michel’s records. First, when she sees shades and specters of comrades in the hall of a convent. She recalls the names of her comrades, and then she mentions a person who is probably the former soldier. She describes his ghost this way: “a black, dark as ebony with pointy teeth like those of a wild beast: he’s perfect, intelligent, and brave; a former pontifical Zouave converted to the Commune.”2 Second, when she insisted on staying in her position, after a comrade suggested surrendering the train station. Michel refused and spent the night in her spot, until someone came to shake her hand to let her know that he is on the watch as well: it was him, the black person again. Other than that, there are no mentions of similar encounters in the Commune.
But although this encounter remains a rare one, it is still significant. It could hint at a different possibility of the Commune: the most radical attempt of self-organizing in European history might have been carried out not only by Europeans and Parisians. The Commune could have been a collective project by different peoples, working against the colonial project, and linking the dominance of the Bourgeoisie to the exploitation of the colonies. This encounter at the sentry duty hints to a possibility laying like a ghost in the European radical traditions, yet unrealized.
Zouavi pontifici, or Papal Zouaves, was part of the Papal Guards, the armed forces of the Papal States. The name Zouave refers to a regiment of the French colonial army, established in 1830, with many of the recruited soldiers coming from the Algerian Zouawa tribe. The French took over the Osman pronunciation of the tribe’s name, and recruited soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds. In the beginning of 1840s, many of the Zouave soldiers joined Prince Abd el-Kader’s forces, who was fighting against the French occupation.3 When the Papal Zouaves was formed in around 1860, many French officers who had served in North Africa were enlisted, and they established a new unit after the model of the Zouave regiment. A new unit with soldiers from the colonial empire. Thus, Zouave became not only the (mispronounced) name of an Algerian tribe, but also the universal name for alien persons in the military service of the empire. Later, many Zouave regiments were recruited in different parts of the world.4 The Zouave pontifici forces supported France in the Franco–Prussian war (1870–71), until it was disbanded when the Prussians entered Paris. This fact probably helps to explain the soldier’s presence in Paris at the time, before he decided to leave his unit and joined the Commune.
When they met, Louise Michel was probably looking towards the future, thinking of a ship wandering endlessly and slowly approaching a safe shore. A ship called Uprise maybe, struggling through a sea called the bourgeois regime. And he? He remained nameless, faceless, even in the Commune. He is referred to only as Zouave, a member of the tribe among the many nameless soldiers from all over the colonies. And what is he doing? He is looking in his book. She is seeing, he is reading. But what actually is this book he was holding in his hands at the peak of the Commune? And what exactly are these images dwelling in it? Is it a book of history? But which history? History of former revolutions? like the Haitian Revolution? Or is it a book of ghosts? Ghosts of preceding insurgents and riots? Ghosts of marronage and fugitivity? But such books were not yet available during his time, because this history didn’t interest anyone then. Maybe the book he is holding in his hands is the history that one day will have been written, a book from the future. Or maybe he himself comes from the future.
Both are imagining the future, but differently. For her the future is a new order, and for him it is a return. She is advancing, he is returning. She is inspecting the stars and the movement of the wind, to arrive to a new shore. For him the future lays behind him, not in front of him. He is looking for it in the previous unfinished attempts to find ways out.
It remains unclear if they talked about their work or their worries or hopes. They shared two images, which were so meaningful for them, and it seems they needed no further discussion. A ship, and a book of pictures. That’s all that you need to understand the situation. The two images reveal the complexities of the reality, but also its blind spots, and the many unrealized possibilities laying within it. It is a very special encounter, in which the concrete reality suddenly finds its poetical expression through the images. The Commune flashes, not only as a struggle for communal nonauthoritarian life, but consequently as a (missed?) opportunity to disrupt the colonial project. Just for a split of a second.
Peter Watkins’s film La Commune, Paris 1871 (2000) is a Brechtian reenactment of Paris Commune events, by a group of mostly nonprofessional actors, activists, and migrants. The film is narrated through a TV crew who are documenting the happenings, and presenting it as a medial experience. The film’s cast are interviewed by the TV crew while performing the historical scenes. They reflect upon their unbearable living conditions, in their present as well as in Paris 1871, and discuss issues of globalization, class, and gender. Putting in mind the encounter of Louise Michel and the Zouave ex-soldier, we can see that this imaginative documentary style of Watkins’s film comes very close to the reality of the past. It is as if the encounter in Clamart anticipated Watkins’s film. An encounter ahead of its time, and yet it is still yearning to be realized. The future is stubborn, keeps lurking in the past. Lurking as a question, or as an overlooked contradiction.
She is a teacher, now she is a hand. He is a former soldier, now he is an island. The ship is forced to change course and go to New Caledonia after the massacre. Onboard, many hands. The ship dumped the hands on the shore, and left to go back to the Metropole. She started to know the serpents, the spiders, the silkworms, and the cyclones. One day they meet again. On that day, the sea was still and the sky clear. She climbed the hill, until she arrived at the huge rocks overlooking the sea. Her wound was still aching. But when she touched the rocks, her pain eased for the first time. She felt in that moment deeply connected to the powers of the island. She stayed silent for a long time, then left to go back to her hut. The whole island was declared a penitentiary for the hands. Its flora, fauna, and people, all were declared a penitentiary. Every time she climbs the hill she feels touched deeply by a power which she knew before, but cannot remember from where. After being granted an amnesty, she was allowed to leave. And one day the ship arrived and took the hands back.
The poetical image is not only the fruit of creativity, but can also be the collective labor of bringing a continuity to a point of halt or rupture. A colonial continuity, for instance, which endlessly outlives itself. The poetical image is the labor of enduring, together, an immense tension of a moment of rupture. Through this endurance, an image would erupt. Crystal clear. And together means the living and the nonliving. Only a community of the living and the dead can mobilize the past struggles against the current deadlock. And when it fails, it leaves behind images for the coming generations. Images that are alive in their passing away, because what they depict is far from being over. Images that are haunted, and haunting.
Two brother elephants coming from the future, and looking for a vowel. In their world, all beating hearts were weakened after their enemies killed all the vowels, and the only remedy that remained was to find a new vowel. They set off on their journey, until they landed in a world where they heard something special. That world was contemporary Cairo. And it was not less hostile than the future, from where they came. What could they have heard in a place in which nothing can be said without risking imprisonment after crushing social protests? What could they have heard in a moment in which no one listens anymore to what the ghosts are saying? Their names are Kalila wa Dimna, and they are sitting now in a prison cell, listening, quoting stories and verses to each other, and looking at the constellations of the stars. The first time Kalila wa Dimna incarnated was over ten centuries ago. They were jackals back then, but they ended up in prison then also after a failed attempt to reeducate the lion. They were the first animals to speak Arabic, and their first sentence was “ما ترى يا أخي في شأن الملك؟” upon which they discussed intensively their relationship and proximity to the lion.5
Their first incarnation was in the eighth century. A Persian scholar named Ibn Al-Muqafa’a translated what animals said into Arabic for the first time, and put it in The Book of Kalila wa Dimna. A translated fables book, from Sanskrit into Farsi into Arabic. Ibn Al-Muqafa’a lived in Basra, and translated it in a moment of danger, a moment of discrimination and prejudice. The Islamic Empire was expanding quickly and running into contradictions. The empire included suddenly people from different languages and religions and colors. But those in the empire who didn’t speak the language properly were treated as suspects and discriminated against. Improper language meant improper thoughts and improper lives. Precisely in this moment animals start to speak perfect Arabic, and what they say should be listened to carefully. Since then, the two brothers Kalila wa Dimna hover over worlds and times, and move from one place to the other. They arrive this time in the present in new incarnations: two elephants with sharp ears.
A Parisian teacher encountering a nameless African former soldier in a radical moment of autonomy. A Persian scholar translating a fables book in a moment of danger. A ship sails in endless waters towards a shore. A book of images. Two elephants looking for a vowel in modern Cairo. Two jackals trying to reeducate the king. Benjamin noted in The Arcades Project that “Geschichte zerfällt in Bilder, nicht in Geschichten.”6 “Bilder” in the plural, because images never come alone. They are the labor of the living and the dead. Haunting the centuries, and raising claims on the present, to find the exit from the deadlocks of history.
The prisoner, the illegal, the poor, the migrant, and many others, all figures of cracks and splits in the social order, but also in the symbolic order called language. These are the cracks which can possibly lead us to nonhumans and the nonliving, or rather this is where they are coming to us from. No wonder that moments of danger, moments of transformation, are the spaces where animals speak and humans listen. Untimely spaces where the living and the dead become partners. The labor of listening and translating in these spaces can lead us back in time/back to time, back to present. Maybe animality is all about returning, or detouring. Oxana Timofeeva wrote once in The History of Animals:
“In this perspective, revolution is not so much a move forward than an absurd gesture of turning ‘back’ – towards these weak, forgotten creatures who are awaiting help, towards ourselves as unhappy animals. As Mayakovsky writes in his Ode to Revolution, ‘You send sailors/To the sinking cruiser/There where forgotten/Kitten was crying.’”7
We, the vowels, come from the future on a spaceship called Past. We move from place to place with a faint hope. But the monsters of the past are still trapping us wherever we go. They have many names: militarization, patriarchy, exploitation, colonialism, fascism, and capitalism, to mention a few. These monsters are not dead, but are not alive either. They are a deadly spell put on the present. Fortunately, there is another force which might help against this spell. A faint force that is neither dead, nor has it ever been alive. It is the future sought by those who died fighting the monsters, and was not realized. A future that is not yet born, and yet never dies. This unrealized future keeps hovering around those who are born after the past has gone. From that future we come back, as a counterspell.
We, who come from the future, are both alive and dead. Screams stored as a letter of hope. Sighs haunting the language of tomorrow. There, where we come from, the fight is far from being over. Even the dead are not safe there. She is now a coffin, he is a sack. Everyone was paying respect to the soul of the dead, when, all of a sudden, the policemen appeared and tried to draw the coffin to the ground. They hit us with their sticks and their clubs. They blow tear gas canisters, and they aimed their water throwers. But the coffin was fighting back. It looked as if the coffin was almost falling from our shoulders, and then it suddenly flipped and punched. The fight went on until the planks of the coffin almost cracked open and showed the dead body and the small sack acting from within.
The dead body belonged to a woman who lived in a land under siege. She had to pass borders and checkpoints every day. To protect herself from the soldiers at the borders, she was walking with a spell in her pocket. The spell was inside a small sack of cloth. It included the names of her mother and sisters, written on a piece of paper, folded well, and tied with a lock of her grandmother’s hair. She gave her talisman the same name everybody was giving to her son: the hedgehog. Tiny and spiky. Every time she crosses the border, she stretches her fingers to the hedgehog to reassure herself. She entered checkpoints, moved from one ill-payed job to the next, and left her husband’s house to live alone in another apartment, all of that while her hedgehog is in her pocket. Until one day, crossing the daily borders, she closed her palm tight on the hedgehog, hoping as usual that she would remain invisible. But this time she wasn’t.
We, the vowels, come from the future. We appear in shifts. We carry and undo. We are a haunt. And we crack the solid alphabet open.
Translated by: Lax Angel
Haytham el-Wardany is a writer and translator. (nakoja-abad.work)
1 Louise Michel, quoted from Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London, 2015, p. 12. Ross cites as her source the French edition of Louise Michel, La Commune. Histoire et souvenirs, Paris, 1898, but does not name the translator. 1
2 Translated from the German edition: “Ein Schwarzer, pechschwarz, mit spitzen Raubtierzähnen, sehr edelmütig, sehr intelligent und sehr mutig: ein päpstlicher Zuave, zur Commune konvertiert.” Louise Michel, Die Pariser Commune, trans. Veronika Berger, Vienna, 2021, p. 221. 2
3 See Samet Mostafa (in Arabic), https://tinyurl.com/yw7w8vrb, accessed September 6, 2022. Editor’s note: For an English-language history, see Shaun Green, Zouave Database, http://www.geocities.com/zouavedatabase/, accessed 10 September 2022. 3
4 Mostafa, https://tinyurl.com/yw7w8vrb. 4
5 “My brother, what could be the reason that the king is in his place?.” Ibn Al-Muqafa’a, Kalila wa Dimna, Cairo, 1937, p. 97 (Arabic version). 5
6 “History decays into images, not into stories.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Convolute N [N11,4]. 6
7 Oxana Timofeeva, The History of Animals: An Essay on Negativity, Immanence and Freedom, Maastricht, 2012, p. 148. 7September 15th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 04