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Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
August 15 & 17, 2009, Saturday & Monday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:
More than a few dreams, and not all of them banal:
In the most satisfying I was attending a ballet class, doing small exercises with a large group, alternately looking down on myself (as if out of body) and while participating (inner view). Music played, someone must have been calling out steps, I seemed to know them all, surprisingly knowledgeable (altho I was a beginner). I felt agile, strong, pain free, and I was the last to stop. While watching from above I noticed Kathleen S, not a regular in my dreams these days, also seeming to enjoy herself. The scene shifted to Harvard where the class was situated; it was now time to take a break and have a drink.
In another, I helped escort an older man who’d been outspoken in a parade and thus come under some threat. I brought him to a sheltered place and offered to remain with him until he felt safe. I gave him my business card. This mirrored me with Belal and Ramzy last night after dining which followed a performance by children at the Qattan center—they walked me home so I’d be safe after dark.
In another, Palestinians had discovered a young Palestinian woman with a strong voice, she was singing publicly, thrilling the audience. Scene shifted to outside where she continued singing but a gunshot rang out, she ducked and continued singing. A male was singing perfect harmony.
I was with Kate and Ella, Ella playing in a house I’d built for kids, strewn with photos I’d made. Kate mentioned how prolific I am. Just day-by-day, Katy, and they pile up. (Paraphrasing Gertrude stein who said, I write a little bit each day, and soon I get a lot written.)
The night was extremely warm; the morning is still, no breezes. Not the ideal day for being outside.
A day yesterday when my muses were brilliant: to the port, El Mina in Arabic, when earlier as I planned my foray thru Gaza City I thought I might be heading in the opposite direction, possibly toward the old city. In 2008 I’d visited the Beach refugee camp side of the port with Mosab, stopped by security before we could enter. I concluded the port was off limits. Not so. This time I accessed it from the other direction, the south side. But first a stop at the fish market, or what remains of it. A shabby structure, the fish displayed on the floor, sometimes elegantly, flies everywhere, no apparent refrigeration, and a paucity of fish. What can’t be seen are the poisons floating in each animal. I wonder how aware people are who harvest, process and consume the fish, and if they are aware, how they experience cognitive dissonance—eat the fish, appreciate the nourishment, love the flavor, but realize they are eating what has eaten of the strongly polluted waters, including human shit.
As always people were friendly, no one refused me permission to photograph them, many invited me in to either photography them or their friends. Many of these scenes are useless—setups, posed, goofing off, altho I try to surmount this with gestures and expressions indicating how about something more serious? Which often works. I assume an affable, pleasant, friendly, inviting, vulnerable demeanor. I wear my little ID which explains in Arabic who I am and show it widely. They notice first my name, Skip Schiel; so I’ve saved them the task of asking the incessant, what’s your name?
I photographed cleaning fish, preparing shrimp, sorting, and some bargaining. Tho without the language I’m not sure exactly when people were negotiating price. Small children accompanied their fathers (this was a Friday, the Muslim holy day). I noticed one couple, otherwise all men. Motivated by this access, I lingered, walked around, tried different angles and positions, made a short video, and a panoramic. Then off to the port proper. But would I be allowed in?
Walking past two languid guards, me waving and smiling, shouting salaam alekum, please with their returned smiles and waves, I continued past them and into the port. Facing the water, on the left side, is a field of what looks like broken pieces of wall, the sort of wall the Israelis erected before the final 8-meter high version. Then a few jetties with various sorts of fishing boats tied up, most of them very small, the equivalent of lobster boats in New England. In the center, another pier with larger boats. Here I photographed men mending nets, working on their motors, and the like, all very friendly and accommodating. I’m reminded again of the difference between here and where X is, Guatemala, or at least as she initially reported—easy access for the most part here, reportedly difficult access there. But maybe that’s changed for her as she’s acclimated.
The Phoenix (I think that’s its name) is a large boat, beached, more like a small cruise boat, that may have been what people told me once toured visitors around the port during more peaceful times. A very old Caterpillar bulldozer, perhaps a precursor of the notorious D9 that israel uses to uproot olive groves and demolish homes. And next to it, under the bow, a group of about 5 men conversing animatedly as they repaired the hull. I did not stop to photograph them, seeing they were in shadow and I’d already photographed plenty of workers.
Behind were remnants of old shacks or sheds, some still used. I photographed a group of very young men removing beautiful blue netting from a truck and placing it in one of the sheds. As usual they seemed pleased I’d noticed them and chosen to make photos. After some posing they resumed their work. From afar I noticed what looked at first like a Garden of Eden in all this trash and junk—turned out to be a headquarters of some sort next to a mosque. More buildings, some of them destroyed, possibly during the last assault.
And then the north side of the port, fenced, with guards with Kalishnokovs who approached to wave me off. This is where I’d been stopped with Mosab. Very curious, I have no idea why this is guarded, what if anything is being guarded. On the other side of the fence a swimming area, then the hotels and restaurant, and then the Beach refugee camp, all adjacent, on top of one another.
Slowly I’m comprehending the topography, how close and contradictory everything is, like in Chicago the Gold Coast next to what once was the dangerous Cabrini-Green housing complex.
During this walking and viewing and photographing I had two primary background thoughts: bring one or both of my workshops here to photograph (I’ll check with Mohammed about this, and Ibrahem), and this area is the site of an ancient port, dating back 1000s of years. Once the major port of the Levant, or at least the Canaanite section. How to access this history?
Finished with the hard hot tiring work of photography I decided to treat myself to what I expected might be an elegant and ample meal at El Deira hotel and restaurant, which by now is permeated with memories of ME. Ibrahem K brought her and me here in 2006 for Denes fish. Then the next year Ibrahem S treated me to another meal while Yousef and others joined us. This time I ate alone, me and my memories. I sat under a shelter at the edge of the restaurant overlooking the sea, so I could make occasional photos as I waited and then ate my paltry chicken sandwich. Water is de rigueur apparently. The waiter greeted me with a bottle of “mineral water,” for which I paid 8 NIS, $2, while I carried my own, and his might have been from virtually the same source: city water filtered or bought at inflated prices from Israel’s water supply, Mekerot. Oh god, will I survive the water? The sandwich cost about 25 NIS. Compared with a much larger shuwarma at the corner deli for about 12.
(So far, not sick, pray to God and Allah this continues. I fart with great confidence that I am not soiling my undies. What a gift!)
The photos I made in El Deira are from approximately the same position that I made the photo of the father and child 3 years ago, looking so innocent, walking along the beach, with sun setting behind them. Are they alive now? Traumatized? How is the young one faring? Another set of father and child, this time playing in the heavily polluted sand.
I’d shown “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath“ the mother and child photo from the Smiths’ Minimata photo series (I put this in the plural sense, because both Gene and Eileen made that set) to my workshops and now I realize this might have greater meaning than I’d first thought. As the mercury-laden water poisoned the people of Minimata in Japan, people eating fish here might be similarly poisoned. The effects in Gaza might not be as severe, I hope, or universal, but they might exist.
Photo by W. Eugene Smith
~I’m writing this morning early while waiting for what I trust (can’t read the Arabic label) is my bulgar or cracked wheat to soften in milk and yogurt. I forgot to soak it last night. Soaking it for only 10 minutes is not sufficient—it crunches against my teeth.~
Exiting the port, not wishing to return to where I’d entered, which would require another 1/2 km of walking, I climbed some destroyed stairs past partially collapsed buildings—what were these, and why attacked? Hamas? And what is so design-like about a collapsed building, an inherent tragic beauty?—to enter another complex. First one body sleeping, then another, and then I realized: this is a fire station, firemen sleeping, boots near one, and a skull and crossbones painted on the wall behind him.
This building also was partially blown up. I found an opening in the fence and reached the street. This was to the south of the restaurant and hotel area, which in turn is almost side by side with Beach refugee camp. After photographing the “Cliff Hotel” sign with no cliff hotel present, I walked to the edge of Beach camp to try to show the proximity of camp and hotels refugees from 1947 and 1967 side by side with the wealthier, more privileged Gazans and internationals like me. I doubt this contrast will register. I was using my Canon, partly because of its lighter weight, but also to be able to make panoramics and videos. Plus use the long zoom. Happy I did but I miss the wide-angle lens. Is there not one camera that satisfies all my needs?
It was Friday, shortly after mid day, thus: crowds of people going to, attending, coming from the mosques. Mostly men, all ages. Someone is building a new 5-story mosque in the heart of the hotel district. As often happens there was a war of imams, or muezzins (if war is the word) as they all loudly call out simultaneously over loudspeakers. What is the experience of a Muslim in such a society? I have no idea.
For some of the day and for much of this morning, Corporal (recently promoted to Sergeant, in absentia) Gilad Shalit has been on my mind. Held for more than 3 years in Gaza after capture during a daring tunnel attack by militants from Gaza on a military installation which resulted in the deaths of 2 or 3 of his fellow soldiers, where is he, how are his conditions, is he hopeful of release, what does he do all day, does he despair, has he attempted suicide, is he healthy, well fed, well treated? Can he use a computer, write, read? Does he have any privacy? Is he near me now? Have I ever passed his door or window?
I grouse, missing family and friends, and workspace; I grumble that my beloveds are not more attentive to me; I moan that my audience is so small. Compared with the miseries of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, my suffering is nothing. Poor fellow, I feel for him.
Following by two days my first visit to El Mina, my Al Aqsa university workshop explored the waterfront, the commercial waterfront, Al Mina, the old port, such as it is after suffering the devastation of limited sea access, the assault of 2009, and the pollution. Old boats, worn nets, tired motors, and a bunch of friendly men who greeted the mostly female class with a big hearty welcome. The women (6 out of a total class of 10) objected to visiting the fish market, claiming the men would laugh at them and possibly deride them. There is a curious gender relationship here: men are purportedly respectful of women, especially in the home where I’m told women have much influence, yet men are dismissive of women’s rights and powers. I believe the hijab is a sign of male dominance, altho many women I’ve spoken with claim they wear it by choice.
The exercises included attend to design, which I hoped was a natural segue from the class discussion of prints (now they bring in prints, dutifully, improving the feedback sessions, design meaning how to use the frame, what to cut, include, how to balance, horizontal or vertical or tilted), photograph this old boat (the “cruise ship”), photograph this fishing boat with people mending nets (climbing up a ladder to board it), and light on dark, dark on light (near the end of the walk, at the base of the jetty). On our previous field trip to the old city the distinctive exercise of one frame, multi moments worked very well. I hope they take to this one as they did to that.
We started about 15 minutes late, waiting for our translator, the vivacious and loveable and fun loving N (who told me, I consider myself photogenic, and also, when we were discussing my love life, after telling them I’d “divorced” twice, had 2 daughters and 3 grand children, and 10 girl friends, said, I’ll be your 11th girl friend—I flirt more on this trip than I remember doing on any others, especially in Gaza).
We ended around 1 pm, 3 hours later. I thought about asking them to state highlights and lowlights, as I do with my field workshops in the States, but because of the language problems I decided against this. Instead I declared, I think we’re finished. I’d like to stay longer, walk out to the end of this jetty and then walk home alone, anyone want to stay with me? (forgetting about the possible danger if I were alone because of the recent violence between Hamas and an extremist group). Iyad, the art professor who is enrolled in the workshop, feeling some responsibility for me, said he’d stay with me, and most of the group remained as well. This may have been the best part—casually sauntering out further (not to the end, too hot), climbing on the broken rock embankment, posing for each other, and finally heading back.
My initial plan had us splitting into 2 groups, one in each direction along the port, but Iyad had gotten permission for one only group. Additionally, we were blocked from the extreme northern end, where I’d photographed the sewage pipe and ruined buildings. Heightened security because of the recent violence was the explanation.
I’d lent my mobile to the young woman with cute dimples since she hadn’t brought a camera and her phone had run out of battery power. I promised to download and provide her the images. She is the most daring of the group, mounting a tall thin rock to pose for photos of herself. She is a delight. I believe my age helps women feel safe around me, so flirting is more clearly innocent and not serious.
I begged off the invite from Mohammed, the other art prof enrolled in the workshop, to attend a dinner at his home which followed the death of his grandfather. To rest, shower, begin again. Lucky I did, because phoning Amal to ask her opinion of the various photos which included her from the festival, we decided I should visit the office for a face-to-face discussion (I will do anything to avoid climbing the 5 flights of stairs to the office.). I put my festival photo set on Mosab’s computer, and set up my computer in the next room to show Amal her photos. I then heard raucous laughter and comments, excited language, from Mosab’s office. Peering in I discovered they were viewing my photos, raving about them. These are so good, how did you do it? Etc.
Which of course pleased me greatly. Later they showed me some from one of my students at the Quaker Palestine Youth Program, S, which were markedly inferior. I pointed out our different situations: I had more sophisticated equipment, I had better access, my experience was more extensive, and I might have gone on to say, I worked hard at postproduction (a tool equivalent to the camera in value) and I thank my muses for any apparent success.
So these are some of the differences between what I make and what others may make: equipment, access, experience, postproduction and muses. If I were more candid and less humble I might add: maybe I’m talented. But the talent has grown, I’ve put my mind to my photography, and my heart. This talent is evolving, it is not god given. Most anyone can achieve—if they wish and work, wish hard, work hard.
I could add further: craft is based on heart; the greater the heart, the greater the craft, echoing Charlie Parker’s words, if you haven’t fully lived life, life won’t come out of your horn. And further, I believe in the Popular Achievement program, and in the people that staff the program, and in the sponsoring organization, the American Friends Service Committee, and in the closely related Quaker movement. All this is what comes out of my camera as well (or so I pray).
~~Time for a break to eat my hard boiled eggs, now that they’ve cooled slightly.~~
I seem to be developing a trait of confiding to others what I feel about them, not by speaking directly to them or writing directly to them, but indirectly thru my blog, and perhaps even more obliquely and obtusely by how I photograph them. First ME, then Y, then to some extent L3, and then M. Also Dan and other men—I’m not totally ensnared by women. Now in Gaza I do this with others.
Gift or albatross?
And finally home for my 2nd shower and a short review of the latest Qattan photos. To bed, to delicious bed, after sitting on the veranda in the relatively cool evening air while my laundry finished and I read more in the big hydropolitics book Robin gave me. I decided to do laundry late in the evening rather than wait for morning, because of uncertain electricity. And wise I did because this morning at about 8 the electricity disappeared.
Wafa’a = Arabic for loyal
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“Nonviolent direct action, solidarity and struggle ,” Ramzi Kysia, The Electronic Intifada, 17 August 2009
“For Hamas, Challenges May Be Growing, Shootout With Splinter Group Suggests Movement Faces Tough Options, Analysts Say,” Howard Schneider, Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, August 16, 2009
“Gaza in Conflict, Antony Loewenstein” (in The Nation, thanks to Nancy Ruggiero)