This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
Jalaluddin Rumi, The Guest House, translated by Coleman Barks
Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
Four sets of artist’s photographs by Khadija Saye:
First, ‘Dwelling: in this place we breathe’. In a series of ‘wet plate collodion tintypes’, the artist ‘explores the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices and the deep-rooted urge to find solace within a higher power’. They glow, these images, like polished tropical wood, with the velvety sheen of Victorian prints. The woman depicted in them – African, head-scarved – wears or holds different objects that hide, change and transform her. What does that drinking-vessel held to her ear mean? Or the twigs brandished in one hand as her back turns on us? Or the squares of cloth worn around the head that almost, but do not, blindfold her closed eyes? Most viewers will probably lack first-hand knowledge of West African ritual practices. For us, these are pictures of enigmas. In any case, the patina of age and erosion lent by the tintype technique gives the sitter a ghostly air; the aura of someone becoming someone else, leaving the spectator for a realm that she but not we can see. Where do we truly ‘dwell’? Where do we breathe most easily?
Second, ‘Home. Coming.’ The artist has returned to the country of her forebears. Here she takes not spontaneous snapshots but formal portraits that root the subjects in earth that so many others have left. Both in Western and traditional dress, they steadily return the camera’s gaze: children, a young man, older men, along with a quartet of seniors seated in simple chairs on bare soil. The young man, in shades, perches with a proprietorial air on the bonnet of his ageing Volkswagen, striped in gold and green. One shot shows an informal gravestone, ‘In loving memory’ of Ellen Davies, 1911–1983. Another, empty of humanity save for a speck of ship on the far horizon, looks out over the ocean. Inside the ruins of a fort, a solitary sign states ‘Governor’s Room’. One can deduce from the artist’s biography that we are on Kunta Kinteh island in The Gambia. After abolition, this seventeenth-century slavers’ castle which had processed abducted men and women on their way to the New World in shackles would serve as a headquarters for anti-slaving patrols.
Third, ‘Eid’. In a mosque in West Africa, a congregation gathers to pray, talk, meditate, socialise, take pictures of one another. For all the solemnity of the season, these shots explode in rainbow hues. Not only, in their robes and scarves, do the worshippers shimmer and swagger in vibrant purples, golds, crimsons, pinks, turquoises. On the mosque floor, prayer mats and carpets roll out a high-gloss spectrum of their own. Sometimes the camera focuses on friends’ greetings and exchanges. People chat, smile, hug, snap each other on smartphones. In other pictures, of collective stillness, prayer and attention, each of these brilliantly colourful human units becomes a smaller part of something else. Rows of bent backs cohere into a single tapestry woven from a hundred colours and patterns into a unified design. The composition framed by the artist’s eye, and lens, creates a visual counterpart for the harmony, the togetherness, that the people in the pictures seek.
Four, ‘Madame Jojos’. This was a cabaret club in Soho, London, well-known as a meeting-place for burlesque performers, transgender people, cross-dressers, drag queens, and many others who, whatever their preferred terminology, occupy some spot on the broad canvas of ‘non-binary’ gender identity. Club-goers change, make up, sing, dance, pose. In this controlled space of freedom, of becoming, the social marks of gender blur, dissolve, re-align. To be ‘convincing’ hardly matters here – a hairy chest may bristle behind a negligee – but to be truthful does. A security camera in a corner of the ceiling reminds us that this carnival of metamorphosis depends on seeing, and being seen. The darkest secret visible here rests in the anxious face of a conventionally suited young man next to a grand-looking pair of bewigged ladies. Desire, guilt, envy? The club hosts every stage along the life-cycle of self-discovery and self-invention, from timorous caterpillar to brazen butterfly.
On a fence in the shadow of Grenfell Tower in North Kensington I found, six weeks after the fire that consumed the block, a hand-made notice pleading for news of Khadija Saye and her Gambian-born mother, Mary Mendy. Mother and daughter had in fact been among the first positively identified victims of the fire on 14 June 2017 that took at least 71 lives and left around 300 survivors homeless. Unlike scores of other Grenfell families, the relatives and friends of Khadija Saye and Mary Mendy soon had the solace of a funeral: Muslim for the former, Christian for the latter.
Around the streets that wind beneath the burnt-out, blackened hulk of the 24-storey tower, railings, shop-fronts, phone boxes and bus shelters are still draped in hundreds of notices, appeals, pleas and memorials. Forty days after the disaster, they hover in an increasingly tattered limbo between hope and epitaph. However scrappy, however seemingly redundant as the list of confirmed casualties slowly lengthens, no one tries to remove them. ‘Have you seen Ali Jafar?’ ‘Missing: Denis Murphy’. ‘Searching for Nur Huda and Yasin El-Wahabi’. Nur Huda El-Wahabi has since joined the official roll of fatalities. The 15-year-old school student loved literature. Now the author Philip Pullman has pledged, after a fundraising auction, to write a character with her name into his new series of novels. It will be called The Book of Dust.
Nur Huda’s legacy, like that of every other victim, does and should take on multiple forms. For the moment these street-side appeals, frozen in a fragile present tense, seem as valid as any other. Among them, beside them, a spontaneous colloquium of mourning and remembrance morphs and mutates. Its tone shifts, railing by railing, window by window, from bewilderment to grief to outrage to practicality. This babel of loss feels in keeping with a calamity that robbed Londoners from many different backgrounds of their lives, their loved ones, their homes. You find Muslim, Christian and New Age spiritual homilies. A Tibetan prayer-flag flutters on a lamp-post. Political manifestoes indict Kensington and Chelsea Council, the British government, neo-liberal capitalism. There are briskly professional offers of legal aid and re-housing advice; updated reports on the police investigation and the public inquiry; press cuttings, often annotated and amended. In languages from Amharic to Tagalog, Arabic to French, council placards give news and revise the timetables and addresses of support and counselling services.
The immediate calls for shelter and sustenance have long faded. Within a few days of the fire, the church closest to my home (a mile away from Grenfell) had announced that it no could longer process any more donations of food, clothing or equipment. Every mosque, church, temple and community centre around Kensington and the surrounding districts had to manage a similar surplus. Physical donations soon reached 174 tonnes, according to the British Red Cross, while private cash gifts – not counting any allocations from public funds – quickly passed £20m. Now, forty days on, it’s the hunger for memory, for witness, for justice, that drives the work of mourning. In front of a low-rise block of flats, sheets and cardboard boxes, opened out to maximise their surface area, carry the names of some of the lost with dozens, even hundreds, of hand-written tributes covering every inch. The perimeter fences around St Clement’s Church and its gardens have their own flock of messages, composed on coloured papers, protected in plastic, then draped along the streets. Unexpectedly cheerful from a distance, this is the bunting of bereavement. Unlike the ad hoc elegies and commemorations that blanket the street furniture of the Latimer West estate, often posted by neighbours, friends and family, these messages arrive from far and wide. People from across the country, and across the world, have either sent or personally delivered words of sympathy and solidarity – even if many of their cards say that words can never be or do enough.
This is not a broken place, nor an unusually fragmented one. But the power of money has managed to divide it. The writer Ed Vulliamy, who grew up on this patch of west London before gentrification and class stratification took hold, rightly laments ‘the ravaging of community for which the heart-wrenching wall beneath Grenfell Tower now urges us to pray; the bonfire of authenticity, the squeeze on affordable housing and shared assets’. He, and many others, treat the dead and bereaved of Grenfell as the casualties of social cleansing – even ‘apartheid’. Yet the impoverished, the old, the immigrants, who found themselves huddled into blocks such as Grenfell did not in any sense lack agency or voice. The victims, strangers who had become neighbours, had origins all over the world. If deprivation scarred the lives of some, hope and aspiration had brought many others here. The first identified fatality was a Syrian refugee, Mohammad Alhajali: a student of engineering. If, in Khadija Saye, the fire truncated the progress of a highly original artist-photographer, then in killing the young Italian architects Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi it extinguished at least two other nascent creative careers. As for the lost children: what might they have made?
It is a characteristic of the city of strangers, the global metropolis, that it throws disparate people together and asks them – often without much external support – to forge a community out of coincidence. In Grenfell Tower, as in a hundred London neighbourhoods, a relative lack of financial clout did not imply a dearth of social and cultural capacity. We know that, during the block’s refurbishment in 2016, the tenants’ action group had repeatedly called attention to the dangers of the cheap cladding wrapped around the tower by the management organisation that ran it on behalf of the council. After the disaster activists had feared, the overwhelming tide of assistance testified to a civil society that had not weakened, still less withered away. Whatever the failings in oversight and remedy exposed in the coarse and laggardly response by local and national government, North Kensington had not atomised into a alienated mass of suspicious individuals. Nor, contradicting a banal narrative about the multi-cultural capital, had it fractured into rival tribal clans who looked out only for themselves. London may be a city of strangers, but it is not a city of enemies. Such calamities may even expose a longing for neighbourliness that passes far beyond locality.
On a bench close to the charred pillar of Grenfell, I was greeted by a visitor from Manchester – a young South Asian man – who had travelled here simply to pay his respects. In the immediate aftermath, fears arose of voyeuristic disaster-tourism. The initial media scrum aside, I saw no evidence of that. Non-local visitors tread warily, even bashfully, around these quiet summer streets where the vertical and horizontal slabs of post-war estates intersect with pretty rows of Victorian cottages, most of them gentrified long ago on these covetable borders of Notting Hill and Holland Park. No one flouts the request on informal notices to exercise respect when taking photographs – and to refrain from selfies. Until the council begins to enclose the ruin in protective sheeting in advance of its eventual demolition, this mass tomb – this crime scene, in the near-unanimous opinion of families and neighbours – looms over an otherwise peaceful corner of one of the planet’s great gathering-places for seekers and strangers. As I write, the most distressing, the most accusing, view of the gutted hulk is from the concourse outside the sleek, stylish Kensington Leisure Centre. This smart facility stands as shockingly handsome proof of the priorities of a local authority that kept £280 million unspent in its reserves while saving a reported £293,000 by its choice of aluminium cladding in place of the more fire-retardant zinc alternative that the Grenfell residents’ group had requested. Boards conceal the ground immediately around the block, where work to clear and secure the site – not to mention the forensic investigation – continues through the summer. On them hang posters with the familiar insignia of the catastrophe: a London Underground sign, with the red roundel re-shaped into a heart and ‘Grenfell’ printed on the blue band in place of a station name. Behind the leisure centre’s glass walls, a children’s play area littered with plastic blocks occupies a corner of the coffee-shop. A small boy happily scampers around it, building things.
On the twentieth floor of Grenfell Tower, Khadija Saye lived and worked, and on the block’s staircases she died. Her own heritage, with its crossing-points of cultures, continents and creeds, was typical of so many people who had settled on the Latimer West estate, elsewhere in North Kensington, and all over the rest of London. They did not live, love and work within self-contained and impermeable boxes branded with the name of some nation, some so-called ‘race’, even some belief-system. To claim as much is not to deny the cohesiveness of communities who share roots and journeys – in North Kensington, that applies to the Portuguese just as much as the Somalis – but to notice that globalised city life tends, sooner or later, to make everyone into a stranger of some kind. To achieve harmony, mere diplomatic politeness will hardly suffice. In this model, imaginary communities – ‘Londoners’, ‘the English’, ‘white people’ – either extend or refuse a notional hand of friendship to equally phantasmal collectivities labelled ‘Muslims’, ‘West Indians’, ‘Jews’, ‘refugees’, ‘Eastern Europeans’ and so forth. On urban ground, hospitality – or rejection – never works that way. To welcome the stranger means not to reconcile one sociological bloc with another. It means to greet, to acknowledge, to stand on an equal footing, with an individual who shares as little, as much, with you as common humanity.
Whether religious or secular, the ethics of hospitality – in the deepest sense – always demand that we greet the stranger, the Other, as a being like us and with us, not an emissary or delegate of some alien group with whom we can draw up a formal non-aggression pact. The Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, notably, draws on the Jewish tradition of prophecy and commandment to affirm that ‘I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair.’ For Levinas, the Other’s claims on our hospitality are absolute. They depend on no canny political transaction, no expectation of reward. In the light of events such as the mass killing at Grenfell Tower, it is significant that Levinas argues for the needs of the Other not from the perspective of social justice or ‘human rights’ but of fundamental moral law. Prior to any other claims on fairness, equity or solidarity, we must protect the stranger’s life. ‘The Other is higher than I am because the first word of the face is “Thou shalt not murder”. It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. However, at the same time the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all.’
The face of the stranger alone compels me to honour and protect him. This is the sovereign, and to many people intimidating, law of hospitality that flows through the Abrahamic faiths and their secular derivatives. It can sound forbidding, almost inhuman: a denial of the supposedly natural bonding that leads us to prefer kin to strangers, the like over the unlike. Yet there it stands, inscribed in the stones of scriptures and codes, from Abraham entertaining angels in disguise through the frequently repeated Mosaic injunction, across the Torah, that ‘Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has the Father separate the blessed sheep from the accursed goats at the day of judgement on the basis that ‘I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in’. The Qur’an, which lacks the idea of the ‘stranger’ as such, abounds with exhortations to succour the guest, the wayfarer, the traveller, not only ‘the near neighbour’ but ‘the neighbour further away’. Mona Siddiqui, the theologian who has written an account of Hospitality in Islam, argues that ‘Islam holds hospitality as a virtue that lies at the very basis of the Islamic ethical system, a concept rooted in the pre-Islamic Bedouin virtues of welcome and generosity in the harsh desert environment. The concept can be found in the Arabic root dayafa. The Prophet is reported to have said, “There is no good in the one who is not hospitable”.’ In suras 11 and 51 of the Qur’an, Abraham and the prophetic messengers return, along with that implacable demand to honour the guest as a duty to God. Bring on the fatted calf – not for you, but for them.
As supernatural faith began to recede in the West, the ethics of Immanuel Kant mandated a welcome for each traveller who merits, according to the categorical imperative, the same treatment that I would expect as a stranger or a foreigner. Indeed, Kant’s 1795 ‘philosophical sketch’ on Perpetual Peace ranks as a foundational document for the laws and treaties that guarantee the just treatment of migrants and refugees. Writing in the context of the mass displacements provoked by commercial, colonial and military rivalry among the powers of Europe, Kant maintains that his law of ‘universal hospitality’ should be viewed ‘not a question of philanthropy but of right. Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another.’ In fact, Perpetual Peace does not advocate ‘the right to be a permanent visitor’ in every circumstance. Kant does stipulate, however, that the sojourner must be welcomed and safeguarded: ‘so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility’. All men have this right ‘by virtue of their common possession of the surface of the earth, where, as a globe, they cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other. Originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the earth.’
If this is a glorious tradition, it can also be a fairly terrifying one. The obligation of welcome can weigh like lead on the frail conscience. The more forceful its advocate, the more unachievable it seems. In Levinas’s philosophy of hospitality, the rights of the Other can seem limitless; those of the welcomer, the host, almost non-existent. Or take the extraordinary sermon from 1963 ‘On Being a Good Neighbour’, first preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. to parishioners in Atlanta, Georgia. It tells us that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’s reply to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (which, predictably, came from a lawyer) was the parable of the Good Samaritan. The outsider Samaritan, for King, had a capacity for ‘universal altruism’ that outstripped ‘the eternal accidents of race, religion and nationality’. King laments that ‘One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighbourly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.’ To him this ‘group-centred attitude’ yields not only sectarianism and racism but war.
In contrast, the Samaritan piled on top of this ‘universal altruism’ not merely ‘dangerous altruism’ – he courted peril to do good – but ‘excessive altruism’. His virtue went far beyond any call of duty. ‘The true neighbour,’ says King, ‘will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.’ At which point, not only in the theoretical ethics of hospitality and welcome but the practical politics of migration and asylum, many well-intentioned people who are far from mean or selfish will want to bow out of the struggle. The yoke of the good host seems laden to infinity. Endless self-sacrifice will always be a minority pursuit.
However, King’s ‘excessive altruism’ does offer a slightly easier path for imperfect humankind. King celebrates a form of welcome, of neighbourliness, which breaks open every category and classification – both those that define the helper, and the helped. ‘Pity may arise from interest in an abstraction called humanity,’ King thunders, with the ethical commandments of a Levinas or Kant rephrased in the eloquence of a Baptist pulpit, ‘but sympathy grows out of concern for a particular needy human being who lies at life’s roadside. Sympathy is fellow feeling for the person in need – his pain, his agony, and burdens.’ Then comes a significant twist in the road of his argument.
Yes, the morality of the Good Samaritan places a premium not only on respecting the formal rights and dignities of the Other but on going the extra mile; on what King calls the ‘unenforceable’ but still binding duties of succour for the stranger. But, as he broadens his theme to encompass the Cold War tensions of the early 1960s, King reintroduces an element of self-interest, even self-help, into this ‘excessive altruism’. He notes that ‘We cannot survive long spiritually separated in a world that is geographically together.’ Etch those words on the cosmetic sheeting that will soon hide the terrible nakedness of Grenfell Tower. ‘I must not ignore the wounded man on life’s Jericho Road, because he is part of me and I am part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me.’ Here, to anyone steeped in the English literary tradition, another majestic homily resonates. John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ as he recovered, in 1623, from a near-fatal illness. His invocation of suffering and mortality and its lessons applies to every human being, but also to himself: ‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ In context, ‘thee’ is the stricken writer-priest as much as his family, readers and, beyond them, ‘all mankind’, which ‘is of one author, and is one volume’. Even the exacting Levinas allows that the duty to know and tend the Other can rescue the helper as much as the helped: ‘My ethical relation of love for the Other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness.’ Self-surrender is self-preservation. Care for others, grieve for others, as you would care and grieve for yourself.
As an artist, Khadija Saye had at the time of her death enjoyed an early taste of international recognition with the selection of ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ for the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Looking at her photo-essays in the wake of her death aged 24 – a body of work that, tragically, now stands complete and concluded – I notice that act of greeting and recognising the stranger energises so much of this work. At the same time, the ‘stranger’ is not some stereotype who stands for the alien and the foreign but a being in motion. She or he is someone as charged with fluidity and change as the artist – or, indeed, the viewer. In The Gambia, the people of her ancestors’ land gaze back into the lens as partners, as interlocutors, not as specimens. Her portraits often wittily evoke private pathways across cultures, across selves, across identities. Two black women in scanty Carnival gear – one clad in little more than a bikini and a flame-shaped head-dress – pose in a snow-covered field. A middle-aged white man, his torso naked, has an African gold necklace planted like a crown on his balding forehead. In a dressing-room at Madame Jojo’s, a made-up face atop a chunky body gazes from a mirror, caught in mid-transition as one persona overlays another. Saye invites us to welcome these strangers not as immobile personifications of a community or an identity but as wayfarers on an inner journey from one state to another. In ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’, the woman whose faded and abraded image grasps those mysterious ritual talismans seems to be on the verge of transportation into another dimension, another way of being. Those peacock-shaded mosque worshippers are singled out as individuals but also shown as eager participants in a shared transformation that takes them out of, then returns them to, their everyday selves. In a series entitled ‘Crowned’, Saye pictures only the backs of heads, each lovingly braided, cornrowed or dreadlocked into a different configuration inspired by the traditions of African grooming. We view no individual faces here, yet each coiffure could hardly be more distinctive, more personal.
It strikes me that her subjects have often chosen, in some way, to become for the moment strangers to themselves. Or else she has noticed within them some kind of doubleness, or diversity, which the photographer can help to express and to dramatise. This feels like more than a simple matter of disguise – the drag queen’s get-up, the medium’s trance, the rapture of prayer – that temporarily hides the solid core of self. Rather, these people appear as travellers on life’s journey, just like us. Chance and change, perhaps catastrophe, will happen to them as to us. If ambition, or migration, or persecution, may make them over into strangers in a strange land, then their own needs and desires – say, to cross spiritual or sexual borders, to defy tradition as well as to honour it – also allows an interior strangeness to flourish. These faces live in and with fruitful contradictions, as can we. Welcome the stranger not as the impenetrable essence of some alien life-form but as a being in flux and in transit, just as you are. Then the face of the Other need not scare or transfix with its imperative ethical commands. We all live, as Rumi’s verses put it, within the guest-house of an ever-shifting selfhood. Within the secular frame of his existential humanism, Albert Camus admits in The Myth of Sisyphus that ‘This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me.’ The form of my existence, however I try to shape or re-shape it, can never correspond to the irreducible fact of my being: ‘Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.’
Sometimes strangers to themselves, sometimes selves in search of a unity that transcends the personality, Khadija Saye’s faces and figures suggest to me a neighbourly ethics – and aesthetics – of welcome. They appeal to us not as delegates from a cordoned-off social group but beings as potentially divided as the viewers who look at them. They want solidarity; they need separateness. They crave belonging; they seek escape. They find otherness within, as well as out in the world of journeys, of identities, of communities. Treat the stranger’s face as Saye treats her subjects’, not as a frozen mask of difference but a mobile medium pulled by the same contending desires as your own, and that obligation of hospitality may prove less daunting. Strangers who share your perplexities, your frailties, become easier to respect and cherish as neighbours. To see that kinship may mean looking through the artist’s eye and scanning the face behind the mask of culture, creed and ‘race’.
As individuals, stretching out that hand of welcome to the stranger without may prove easier if we embrace the stranger within us. As citizens, however, as public actors, the sovereign demand made by the stranger’s vulnerable face overrides our own inclinations. Levinas again: ‘Thus the face says to me: you shall not kill.’ Negligence and indifference, whether criminal according to the law or not, closed the eyes and stilled the minds of Khadija Saye and 70 or more of her neighbours in Grenfell Tower. In their case, true welcome, for the most recent incomers and long-settled Londoners alike, required before all else the decent rudiments of protection. That welcome failed.
In the wake of that dereliction, those still-uncounted losses, work such as this essay can merely offer a belated ‘welcome’ in the guise of acts of mourning. Such a greeting takes the form of a farewell. In our world of infinite information and rationed solidarity, these twinned gestures of recognition and of elegy have become familiar. The media invite us (and we accept the invitation) at the same time to say a hospitable ‘hello’ and a grieving ‘goodbye’. The refugee child from Syria or Eritrea drowned in the Mediterranean; the young black American man gunned down by police; the protestor or outsider slaughtered by an angry mob; the tourist or migrant knifed or run down by a furious fanatic; the talented artist on the threshold of fame suffocated in a stairwell twenty minutes’ walk from my front door: too often now, we see and know the stranger only as she or he departs. The rituals of salutation and of valediction merge.
‘Ave atque vale,’ as the Roman poet Catullus wrote in an elegy for his brother: Hail and farewell. Tardy welcomers, we can hardly excuse these too-late greetings to our stranger-neighbours. We can only hope that our scanty offerings may not be wholly unacceptable to those who have survived their loved ones’ passing. In Grace Andreacchi’s beautiful version, Catullus fulfils ‘these wretched rites of death’ at his brother’s grave: ‘I bring a last gift but can speak only to ashes/ Since Fortune has taken you from me’. Perhaps the poet, and his translator, will forgive my substitution of a single word: ‘Take from my hands these sad gifts covered in tears/ Now and forever, sister, Hail and farewell.’