Some pictures just leave such a vivid mark in my mind.
I think it must be the same with a lot of people who take interest in picture taking. Some things you immortalize just leave an impression. As if you framed your souvenirs and held them where no one else can see them. And keep them on display for months, years, decades…
For some reason, my brain traveled to Tunisia today. Back in my mid twenties, when I used to go out with a French guy that lived, yeah, in France. We used to travel back and forth, convinced that he’d eventually move to Québec, and that we’d be happy love puppies forever after… But I am losing my focus here. Not the point of this post.
One autumn, as I was visiting him, he thought it was boring that he had to spend his vacation at home. So he offered we flew to Tunisia to enjoy our vacation away from both our homes, for once. And so we did, and ended up in a resort in Monastir.
We decided to take a 3 days trip in the deserts, to experience Tunisia to the most… The whole trip would be worth a couple of posts, Tunisia being a beautiful place to visit, and its people really nice to hang around. Let’s just say, for now, that we found ourselves in the town of Matmata.
Matmata is a village that was created when families fled the city of Gabès and made the area’s caves their home, digging houses in the mountains, little by little. Even to this day, around 2000 people still live in the troglodyte houses, and the original kind of housing attracts tourists from around the globe…
I knew we’d visit the old town of Matmata, and after taking pictures with the “Matmata” sign at the entry of the village (a little like the “Hollywood” one, just a lot smaller, and probably quite less crowded, but I’ve never been in California, yet) our guide took us to the main entrance to a troglodyte home.
Sudenly, I felt nervous. As a North American, I am used to visit museums with glass boxes as displays for old memorabilia of ancient times. Visits to parks and sites are arranged and tourists can experience set ups of how people used to live… We don’t crash in people’s backyard. Which is exactly what we were about to do.
I saw the guide walk to an old lady sitting in the courtyard. Slipping some money in her hand, I understood that we were going to tour her home. Not a museum, not an exhibition. For a couple of bucks, she was letting us walk around her troglodyte house as if we owned the place.
Most people in our little group seemed comfortable with that. There was much “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahhhs” as we went from room to room, having a look here at their little kitchen, there at their personal bedroom… Their possessions were scarce and far from hi tech, to say the least. But I felt great pride in the village people’s (ok, you guys, this is a nice story… don’t you spoil it by giggling and snorting as I go!!) faces.
I went quickly from room to room, pleading that the lack of indoor light made it impossible to take good pictures. I was the first one out in the courtyard again, and I waited for my fellow travelers standing there, in front of the old lady sitting directly on the ground, cross-legged. She wasn’t paying attention to me, grinding something on her flat mortar.
I couldn’t help walking to her and somehow finding a way to ask her if I could take her picture.
She was old, most probably in her late eighties. She wore more wrinkles than a centenial tree has trunk growing rings. Her hands looked worn out by the decades of hard labor they had gone through. And although most of her teeth were brownish and bad when she smiled at my request, I found her to be stunningly beautiful.
I crouched down, and framed her very carefully. It didn’t matter that her skin was spotted and that her clothes were stained all over. Standing there, in front of my lense, she radiated. There was not an ounce of bad in that woman. I wished I knew her language and could sit with her for the rest of the day to listen to her story.
I only took one picture. But looking at the screen of my digital camera, I knew it was perfect. The light loved the old lady, probably because the opposite was also true. There was nothing but kindness in her eyes, and I felt even cheaper for being that girl that had traveled halfway around the globe to invade her privacy. But I knew that if I hadn’t, I would never have seen her either.
I lost that picture over time. Not lost-lost it, it must be somewhere still… On some memory-card somewhere. Waiting to be seen again, but what use to look for it, really? The sparkle in the old lady’s eyes is still so present in my mind, that I see no need to look for it.
For some reason, I feel like I am keeping the memory of that old nameless woman alive. After over 15 years, she might be gone now. She probably is. Buried somewhere in Tunisian mountains, near the troglodyte house she proudly opened for silly tourists to visit. I wonder how many people remember her. How many people take the time to remember her, from time to time…
I wonder what she’d think, if she learned that after all these years, she still makes such an impression in the mind of the now grown woman that once took a moment, in between a camel ride and the visit of an oasis, to give her a taste of eternity… To write her on internet, a concept she probably just heard of…
I like to think that she would have smiled… her bad-teeth charming smile.