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The Great

May 20, 677
Abd-Allah arrives in Damascus from Basra on a clear and sunny day at the end of spring 677. 

Although traditionally inhabited by Eastern Orthodox and Monophysites, over the last decades the city of Damascus has become home to a community of Muslims from Mecca, Medina, and the Syrian desert. They have in turn made the new capital of the Umayyad caliphate an important centre of Islamic, Christian and Aramaic thought. In the different halaqahs that are hosted throughout the city, long and intense debates on theology, epistemology and the nature of the ‘ilm are daily held.

The imminent disappearance of the ‘ilm produces an anxiety that grips the city like a truth of life-or-death importance — afflicting not only the circle of disciples, but scholars as well as at the highest level of the state. For its impending death recalls the irremediable eclipse of knowledge after the departure of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.  How to avoid the danger of loss that hovers over the ilm? What can be done to preserve this knowledge from corruption? How to transmit it in its original purity? These are the urgent questions the Islamic men of letters are faced with. In the midst of this confusion, Abd-Allah states:

-“He who does not memorise any part from the Qur'an, he is like the ruined house”.

It is this lone statement that, in the coming centuries, will shape a new tradition. Indeed, from that moment on, memorisation and genealogy will become the fundamental groundings of knowledge, justifying its transmission through direct affiliation.

Indeed, because the entire Muslim Middle Ages succumbed to the ghost of the great forgetfulness, the scholars of the time cultivated a veritable cult of memory. In this widespread mobilisation, the institution of the voyage came to be seen as a shield against forgetfulness and as a guide for genealogical structures: candidates for learning who hoped to become inscribed within a prestigious genealogy of scholarship were advised to connect with the most renowned masters of their time.

Those could be found in the great urban centers or in lonesome landscapes. Furthermore knowledge of language came to hold utmost importance. The common belief was that the language that remained closest to the revelation was that of the Bedouins: spoken in remote lands, it hadn't yet been corrupted. The mission of gathering the language from the mouth of the Bedouins became an obsession amongst men of letters of the time. It is in this context that hearing and direct observation came to be recognised in medieval Islam as the ultimate sources of sense-based knowledge. And so, the pursuit of such knowledge justified the practice of the journey into the desert.

The adoption of the journey as a method for rigorous study and as a guarantee of genealogical prestige evolved in parallel with the appearance of the book as a repository of knowledge. The coexistence of the journey and the book preoccupied some, however. In the heated discussions that grew within scholarly circles, there was a strong tension between literacy and orality. The debate focused on whether the book could replace the master and function as the depository of his authority. Opponents of the book as a didactic and scientific tool also feared that its broad socialisation could actually threaten the principle of the voyage: with books available, scholars could learn from the written word and would not have to travel to the original oral source. The book and the desert thus became masters of uncertainty. Of the two, it was paradoxically the desert that turned out to be the better guide. This is why, in several scholars’ writings, the desert is much more than a mere background for the travelling experience: indeed, it takes on the status of a highly important character.

Faced with this dilemma, Abd-Allah stated:

Although all those reunited affirmed in approval, Abd-Allah’s arguments were demonstrated to be irrelevant. Soon after his death, the book emerged from its marginality, supported by a growing state-supported bibliophilia. And so, contrary to what was feared, the cycle of travelling was, in fact, further enlarged as the international market for books grew. Before departing to his permanent retreat in the Saudi city of at-Ta'ifon, on the slopes of the Sarawat Mountains, Abd-Allah turns his head and looks upon his beloved city for the last time. Damascus seems busy and lively, unaware of his affliction and of the great forgetfulness he sees approaching.



Our story starts at the threshold of the existence of Islam, the late 7th century in the Christian calendar, when the rihla, or travelling as a method of acquiring and documenting knowledge, expands as a Medieval Islamic practice. Over the course of the 8th and 9th centuries, the rihla further developed around the halaqahs, the first study circles that were constituted in the larger urban centres. Such circles brought together several generations of scholars whose sole preoccupation was to search out, collect and compare traditions by travelling from one region to another in the Muslim world.

The rihla differs from other travelling traditions in one fundamental aspect. In Islam, travel and the discourse that travel produced did not draw their meaning from a historical or anthropological relationship with the 'Other.' Rather than deriving from a hermeneutics of otherness, meaning emerged from an exegetic construction of the Same. The scholars’ obsession with travelling had little to do with superstition, nostalgia or tradition. Instead, it became a matter of method, helping to define a geographically and emotionally delimited space: dar al-Islam, the house of Islam.

Indeed, in Muslim culture, the rihla is often valued for its integrating effects. While the pilgrimage, the hajj, led the pilgrim to Mecca and Medina, the search for knowledge brought men of letters not only to the esteemed places of Islamic teaching, such as Cairo or Fez, but also to faraway desert lands and isolated mountain communities. These men of letters often spent weeks in close contact with remote societies, uniting them with the wider association of the faithful (the umma). The fact that Arabic as a common language rapidly spread throughout dar al-Islam greatly facilitated the exchange of knowledge and tradition.

Through the rihla, the raḥḥālas, the globetrotters of the age, embraced at least two distinct paradigms: the paradigm of exile and return, and the paradigm of the voyage as text or ‘Ajā’ib, whose primary purpose was to entertain the reader regardless of factual truth. Linked to both the narratives of exile and return and the Ajā’ib literary genre, an alternative way to acquire and transmit knowledge arose. This was the wijada. The root of the word wijada, formed by the consonants w, j, and d, is resonant of the Arabic words for discovery and invention. And, although they were seen with suspicion by traditional scholars, discovery and invention became central concepts in the descriptions of the Bedouins made by younger Islamic travellers from the urban cultural hotspots. For these scholars, the Bedouin — as remote bearers of pure language — had a natural ‘authenticity’, exactitude of thought, and a subtle intelligence. In fact, in the 9th century, these became the characteristics that were attributed to the ideal portrait of the nomadic Arab which, framed through exoticism, was widely shared and promoted amongst urban men of letters. This ideal was short-lived, though: a century later, it had already been dismissed. Indeed, by the 10th century, 'the sojourn in the desert lost consistency and became less appealing to the aesthetic tastes of the men of letters of the big cities. As time went by, the desert no longer seemed the conservatory of the Arabic language, nor were the Bedouins seen as its depository.' And so, the sojourn in the desert metamorphosed from the desired expedition into a lazy and nostalgic gesture that was no longer possible because of the Bedouins themselves: 'Corrupted by mixing with peasants, city dwellers, and non-Arabs, the inhabitants of the desert eventually brought on the irremediable loss of their linguistic paradise.' There was no point in travelling to document a language that had lost its authenticity. What had once been admired as the gharib al-lugha, the rare and obscure words used by Bedouins, had been lost forever. Hence, after being used for decades as informants, through an intense activity of enquiry and documentation, the Bedouin communities that had previously been portrayed as exotic transmitters, found themselves neglected. Their contact with the men of letters had supposedly corrupted their original purity. After a short-lived fascination, soon the urban scholarly idealisation of the rural and the remote came to be replaced by nostalgia for an imagined Arcadian past.

BQT (2016) [Video, 1’14] Southern Morocco desert: Catà, P.

Pieprzak, K. (2010, p. 168) Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco. University of Minnesota Press.

L’appartement 22
Expeditions and Rif Residencies

Abdellah Karroum’s nomadic curatorial practice moved one step forward in 2000, with the creation of L’appartement 22 in Rabat. He designed it specifically as a response to one of his central preoccupations: the exhibition, as concept and praxis. For him, the concept of the exhibition fundamentally rests on the idea of an outward movement, geared toward encounter and discovery: 'The movement from exhibition to expedition is in my mind the path to take to understand the function of art, and its possible autonomy, within Maghrabian societies.'

Resonating with the journey of 9th - century raḥḥālas, L’appartment 22’s first expedition took place in a remote community, an Amazigh village in the Rif region. Between June and July of 2000, Abdellah Karroum, Younès Rahmoun, and Jean-Paul Thibeau rented two rooms in a local family’s house and used the flat area over a water tank for their creative projects and discussions. As Karroum explains, the point was not to educate villagers about art nor was it to turn them into spectators. Rather, the aim of the temporary residency in the Amazigh community was to invite locals and artists to engage in exchange and discussions about life and the meaning of the creative act.

The project was repeated in 2001. This time, however, the expedition took place in various marketplaces in the Atlas Mountains. The artists set up a little white tent in each community in which they resided for several days or weeks and held open discussions with market-goers. What are new media in art? Is oral contact a new medium? These were the main questions that fuelled their discussions.

As Karroum notes: 'In Morocco, many art practices abandon materiality. These practices do not really leave any traces or objects.' Similarly, talking about artistic production in Egypt, Jessica Winegar states that 'the work of making art is often less about the physical construction of the art object (...) [than it is about] discourse.'
L’appartement 22
The first such space in Morocco, it has since inspired a number of artist-run spaces and collectives. From its first exhibition in October 2002, L'appartement 22 has consistently featured challenging and exciting contemporary arts programming, to international acclaim. Its artist residencies, workshops, lectures, symposia, film and video screenings, and exhibitions resonate in Rabat, throughout the country, and abroad. The art space functions as a cooperative. It is inspired by traditional systems of production and distribution, in which farmers collectively worked to extract olive oil and distribute it, allowing for exchange and transfer of knowledge. Through tactical curatorial practice, Abdellah Karroum created a dynamic art space that engaged the cityscape, blurred the boundaries between public and private space, and created new discursive spaces. Located across from the parliament building, on the main avenue in Rabat, Avenue Mohamed V, the space is named after the number of the apartment space it occupies in its building. At first glance, the idea of an art space in an apartment might reflect the continued dynamic of shrinking public spaces for art in Morocco: from marketplaces and museums to banks, to caves, and now to a small apartment. But for Karroum, space is a project site, a site of diffusion, and a space of encounter and discourse. Moreover, space has existed in multiple physical, virtual, and sonic dimensions since 2002, beyond the physical boundaries of an enclosed private apartment.