The Culturunners crew hits Texas (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Top Gun Shooting Range, Houston, Texas 17 January 2017
I don’t know how I ended up on a shooting range with four guys. I was definitely the only one who was deeply scared. Guns are not at all my thing, but I trusted the team and on some level I understood that if I wanted to learn about Texas, I had to push myself, even in ways that made me uncomfortable.
I was shaking like hell, not out of excitement, just fear. But the firearms instructor was very friendly and passionate about guns, and the RV team (which had grown to include Stephen and Matteo) was very excited. So at least I felt secure. I felt like I was in a movie again, but this time it was an action scene.
When in Texas (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
I was, of course, the first to try and shoot a gun. Constantly shaking, I went through all the steps correctly, then I shot the target which was only three meters away. (I know how ridiculous this situation will seem to a Texan.) I was literally thrown back by the sheer force of the trigger. Even the noise of it scared me; every time someone took a shot, I jumped. But I got through my five bullets and was happy to be done. In the end, I found myself crying, it was all too much: the adrenaline, the fear, the connection to violence, the force, the significance of the object itself.
My conversation with the instructor was very interesting. To me, guns were all about fear, but to him, it represented his cultural heritage. I was once again running into this idea of identity. I began to understand the Lone Star of Texas. The star became a unique symbol of Texan pride, a precious symbol that needed to be preserved and respected.
This journey was becoming a lesson in open-mindedness, and unexpectedly, I was beginning to change my point of view. Many of the stereotypes I have about the US are being challenged. I’m not saying that I fully accepted or agree with what I am seeing and experiencing, but I am now more sympathetic.
Fort Stockton, Texas (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Fort Stockton to Fort Davis, Texas, 19 January 2017
We continued westwards through Texas: small roads, dry landscapes, spiky desert plants… the Wild Wild West actually meant something to us now.
We stopped at Fort Stockton, not really knowing where we where. It was a tiny town with only one main street. We happened upon the local sheriff who was willing to talk to us. He was physically very striking, he looked like an old wise man. I was a bit stressed at first, but once we began to talk, I realised that he was such a kind person. He was a tough guy who had worked as a US Border Patrol officer and the sheriff of his small town. The only thing he cared about was the well being of his citizens.
At that precise moment, I realised that most of the people I had met were good people who were stuck in difficult realities. As foreigners, we think about the US as a strong country where freedom is the motto. But if you have the chance to travel deeper into the country, you see the different social layers and you understand that it’s just like everywhere else. All societies in this new capitalistic world have people who are “forgotten and left behind”. And the sheriff I met in Fort Stockton was trying his best to help those people from his community.
Authority at its best (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
When he talked about the symbolism of the star—which is of course also the symbol of the sheriff’s office in US—all he had in mind was the pride he felt in protecting his people. He reflected authority at its best, an honourable man in charge, one that you are not afraid of but instead know will defend your interests.
He said something about the results of the presidential elections that I will never forget: “We are used to being the people left behind. I couldn’t believe we won, for the first time, we won!” I understood him; for once in his life, he felt as though the voices of his community meant something.
He said he wasn’t against diversity, he had travel a lot and been to Morocco and Spain. He was very aware of international geo-political realities, like the refugee crisis, the different wars taking place in the Middle East. But first he had to solve the issues in his hometown. “Before global interests, local needs come first.”
We spent that night at the McDonald Observatory, literally under the Milky Way, talking to scientists and engineers throughout the night. We learned how much of history was made by people from all corners of the world, and how each brought their own major discoveries. For scientists, a star is simply a time machine that helps humanity understand where we come from. And for me, Out Among The Stars is an ongoing project that looks to examine and unpack the ways in which our societies function.
The stars at night are big and bright (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Trump inauguration, El Paso, Texas, 20 January 2017
I woke up sick that day. We drove to El Paso and on the way we quickly stopped at a gas station restaurant to watch Donald Trump’s inauguration. There were not many people at the restaurant, just the bar tender, a couple and a lone man at a table.
Watching Trump's inauguration at a gas station cafe in El Paso (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Ironically, I was sincerely sick and had to go vomit. But I was able to listen to the new president’s speech. It sounded surreal to me but on the other hand, I could see how it was efficient; he uses plain language to simplify complex political issues. Most of what he said echoed what I had heard during my journey: the need for construction, more roads and bridges, making America great again… everything became clear to me.
Some stars (and stripes) found outside a pizzeria in Mississippi (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
I came to America for a project, Out Among The Stars… from New York to Los Angeles, with the photographer Marwen Farhat and the Culturunners crew.
For the past year, I have been looking at the subject of the five-point star, a symbol of strong spiritual and ideological significance in both the Moroccan and American flags and culture. While on the road, I documented the stars I found and interviewed local people associated with them. I wanted to understand what the star meant to them, and act as a bridge between cultures.
Driving from NYC to Pennsylvania, 12 January 2017
When leaving the studio in New York, we faced our first challenge: how to put all our luggage into one cab? We were three people and 12 pieces of gear. We knew that half of it would not be used, but humans have a way of burdening themselves with more things than they could ever need, and we are no exception.
Think of it as a giant game of Tetris (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
Once we arrived in New Jersey and saw the RV, it was like reuniting with an old friend. We were eager to start this new journey: we didn’t know what would happen, who we would meet, we couldn’t even imagine how it would go, but we were very excited. John drove, Marwen and I acted as co-pilots—and down poured the rain. We drove for four hours, finally stopping in the middle of the night at this first motel we saw—just like in all those road trip movies.
Exploring Memphis, TN, January 14 2017
The next day we kept driving until we reached Memphis. We parked near Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. It was full of crazy RVs with names like Patriot Thunder.
It’s not easy to interview people from a completely different culture in a foreign country. But that's what we set out to do from our first day. Marwen followed me with the camera and I would ask the questions. I felt the city’s intense history and heritage during our tour of Memphis, which included the Martin Luther King Church, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and finally the National Civil Rights Museum.
I began asking people about the star and what it meant to them and the responses were incredible. People in Memphis related it to the Civil Rights Movement; to them, the star is the symbol of their ancestors’ fight for their rights, it’s the symbol of belonging to the US just like anyone else.
The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed in 1968, is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
One of the people we met was the grandson of the photojournalist Ernest Withers, who inherited his archive of more than one million photos from the Civil Rights era. Looking at those images was like jumping into another time.
It was all very emotional. We were in the shadows of people who had changed history. This place is deeply connected to the fight for human rights on a global scale. In today’s world, who still engages is these kinds of battles?
Along the Mississippi River, Arkansas/Mississippi, 16 January 2017
We drove through a town called Helena, Mississippi, and we continued to meet amazing people and talk about the symbolism of the star, nationalism and the future. I began to understand the deeper purpose of my project, which is to create a window reflecting the current-day state of our complex and diverse societies worldwide.
I have to admit that the landscapes in Mississippi and Louisiana are so familiar to me—it’s the same typology as the Arab countryside. The people are farmers, living a very simple, modest and traditional life; the neighbourhoods are very poor. I was surprised to see so much poverty in the US.
The conversations I had with people in the South were about the basic concerns in their lives: could their children have a good future, would they be able to feed their kids and provide them with a proper education, could they find a reasonably paying job and be proud of their accomplishments? Their views were very familiar. In the work I’ve done in Morocco, I collaborate with people who face similar challenges in their daily lives, and we use art and culture as a conduit for development. I never imagined that I would meet the same kinds of people with the same issues in the US—but I did, and on both sides of the world, the people have the same concerns, hopes and dreams.
Speaking to two locals in Helena, Mississippi (Photo: Marwen Farhat)
We then drove through a cotton field in Mississippi. The only time I had seen this kind of landscape was in my school history books or American movies like Selma (2015), 12 Years of Slave (2013) or The Color Purple (1985). It was a weird feeling. As a foreigner, I was only aware of these scenes in an intangible way; now they were real.
We stopped by a gas station that was surrounded on all sides by cotton fields. There was a big star on the door and no one around, except those working the land. We were able to speak with the owner of the cotton farm and it turned out to be a very interesting and layered conversation. I understood very quickly that I was faced with someone who was, culturally, very different from me. He had inherited the land from ancestors who had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. So this land and the loaded history that comes with it, is part of his history and his identity. Can I judge him for that? Of course not. We don’t choose where and when we are born.
We shared some values, though, and it was ultimately good for each of us to meet someone so different from ourselves. I would have never imagined meeting the landowner of a cotton field and understanding his modern-day perspective. The same goes for him, how many Arabs or Muslims does he meet on a regular basis?