Social worker with the Quaker Palestine Youth Program
Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
August 6, 2009, Hiroshima Day, Thursday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:
Dreaming, I was with a “wife,” most likely P, when I discovered that she had suddenly become radicalized—to the left. During the dream I and more or less understood the transition clearly, happy about this new development, loving her even more for this shift, but now, trying to remember the dream, so many intervening quotidian concerns leaping into my face, that I can’t recall the details. Too bad.
Yes, the rush of daily matters might serve to wipe out a rich dream life. For this I am regretful, but for the excitement, the many learning opportunities, of this daily life I’m grateful.
Adham Khalil, staff Quaker Palestine Youth Program
Yesterday was primarily visiting several Quaker Palestine Youth Program (QPYP) related groups, partners, in Rafah. A social worker from Jordan accompanied the team of Ibrahem and Adham and me. Two groups of girls, high school age, each with an older female mentor, were enacting skits and singing. They also showed us art projects that were all about expressing the suffering they’d experienced during the recent assaults-attacks-massacre-war-invasion. Many of the skits depicted strife between family members, arguments between mother and daughters about what they could buy (No money dear), or the father not having any job (No jobs dear). As always, since everything is in Arabic—Adham graciously provided a brief running synopsis so I had at least a hint of meaning—I understood little, but photographed much. Whether my photos would mean more if I knew the language is a question.
Rafah refugee camp
We met a civil engineer, Jemeem, after sitting in a coffee shop smoking nargila, me napping, trying the non alcohol beer substitute (rotten, tasteless, surely the fizz water Dan accuses me of drinking), waiting for Jemeem for more than one hour (while giving me the opportunity to practice proper Arabic pronunciation). And then toured several homes partially destroyed during the recent violence. This was a gift: the scene, the people involved, and the location near the border with Israel and Egypt. Apparently this is a small side project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), to provide minor repairs. Adham told me that each repair costs about $600 and they have limited money. In one case missiles or rockets or tank shells had hit one side of a home, spraying shrapnel thru out several rooms. Possibly by design, shrapnel must be among the most damaging components of these weapons.
At another site workmen were repairing one room. After I’d photographed them plastering I wandered out back to show the yard and a curious event unfolded. A young man wearing a dark blue uniform first informed me that I should not photograph him because, I thought he said, I’m Hamas. Ok, no photos of you. In fairly decent English he explained to me that the shell had hit the side of the house and he pointed to the damage. I thought he said he was the son of the owner. In subsequent conversation I once again misheard—you’re a Buddhist? Most peculiar. No, someone chimed in, he said he’s a policeman. Chock this up to a combination of my bad hearing and listening skills and his mispronunciation.
But before I caught the drift I’d disclosed that I’m a Buddhist—and a Christian. I joked, in the United States you can be many things simultaneously. I detected a change in his demeanor, from friendly and interested, to harsh and distant. I swear he said as we were leaving, go and don’t come back. But this is probably projection. Checking with others later, Adham and Amal, they informed me that many Muslims, often Hamas, believe, as I’ve known, that Islam is not only the best path, but the only path and those who don’t agree are shit. More or less. An extreme view, and not held by all, perhaps not even by a sizable proportion of Muslims. But enough in Gaza to have a major political effect. Like deciding what women should wear and how they should act in public.
In my limited view this does not serve Islam, or Hamas, or Gazans generally. How to curtail it? Education, for one. And meeting others, like me, even tho the meetings might be rancorous.
I made many photos, not only for the above topics, but as we traveled. I’m trying to perfect my from-the-car-racing-by-technique. Preset fast shutter speed, manual focus at infinity, both eyes open, camera in hand, super vigilant, anticipating what is coming. I can practice on donkey carts, bicyclists, and now the plethora of motorcycles. Try it, check it, if no good, delete and try again. I find I typically snap too soon, so the subject is either completely missing or to the extreme left of the frame. This is a variant of hip pocket photography.
This Rafah plan evolved rapidly, without my participation. I thought I’d have a lingering morning at home, doing my laundry, writing, checking photos, when the phone rang, just as I was working with the owner to salvage my laundry. Luckily I’d stayed with the machine till it finished. On its last phase smoke poured out and the electricity snapped. Oh boy, now what? As I wrote in yesterday’s journal, this machine is an odd one, an entire chapter in my Book of Mysteries, the BOM for short. Now it is smoking and blowing the circuit breaker.
The owner wrote a sign (in Arabic but I can guess), out of order. He said, barking, machine no good! Now, is he going to have it repaired, buy a new one, do nothing, leave me hanging? Who knows?
Then there’s the question of cooking. Since the kitchen immediately adjoins the bedroom which is the living room which is my only other room, to cook means to heat the entire home. Oh, for a detached kitchen like some of the traditional Arab houses have. To cook my garbanzo beans I decided to soak them yesterday, cook them this morning, with the exhaust fan and floor fan both running. I don’t have to be in the house at this moment—I’m on my veranda, my loveable veranda, where it’s relatively cool and the breezes blow. For now. Soon it too will be hot. I relish the smell of cooking beans.
Last night I tried placing the fan on the table and opened the shutters for maximum airflow. Helped, marginally. I’ll keep trying to solve this heat and humidity problem but I doubt much more can be done, short of moving to an air-conditioned apartment (Then what happens when the electricity fails?)
Back to yesterday’s plan. I was finishing around home, slowly, when the home phone rang. Ibrahem calling, where are you? We’re supposed to be leaving for Rafah.
Oh, really, first I heard. I can be ready in one hour, I’m finishing my laundry and we just discovered the machine is burning up.
One hour! Can’t you make it sooner?
Fifteen minutes. And then a series of misunderstandings leading to me climbing all FIVE flights to the office: no Ibrahem, he was waiting for me in front of my flat. So it goes, with limited common language and many perturbations in planning. Fun, so far, if not utterly frustrating. Only for a short while longer can I manage this confusion.
A few casual observations:
Dr Khaled told me that the Arabic word for photograph is the same as that of painting, tasweer. Mosawwer = photographer. Soorah = photograph (n) and yosawwer = to photograph (v) I’ll check with my students today.
Y and I are trying to arrange a call in time. With the 10-hour time difference and her need to phone a land line this can be difficult. In chatting with her by email yesterday I realized I have a land line at home that seems to work. So why not use that? I appreciate her willingness—and doggedness, she’s famed for her doggedness—to have a phone conversation.
Adham confirmed my observation that there are many more motorcycles than in 2008. He explained that this started during The Great Breakout, late January 2008 (three days before I left after my last visit to Gaza), when Gazans poured into Egypt and brought back cycles. They also bring them thru the tunnels. Now they are everywhere, and very dangerous he said, many accidents, deaths. No helmets. Of the 100s of cyclists I’ve seen so far, only one wore a helmet. Foolish? Irrational? An effect of the siege?