Shaheed (martyr, anyone dying because of the conflict)
Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
August 21, 2009, Friday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:
The main event of the past 48 hours was a visit to B. While visiting Mohammed and Husam I’d asked if B still worked with them.
Yes. Can I meet her? Yes. Do you want to visit her family in Bureij camp? Mohammed asked. Of course. And so once we’d consulted with B it was decided.
Mohammed and I drove out in the early evening after picking up shuwarma at what has come to be known by some as Gaza’s best shuwarma place, just around the corner from the Quaker office and me. Plus some veggies from a donkey-drawn wagon. Past much destruction from the military assault, tanks cutting thru fields and across main roads, ruining major portions of the roads, the damage still not repaired because of the lack of materials. More ministries blown up—I could devote all day to photographing these abstract geometric forms known as dead buildings. And because of the slanted light, the ubiquitous blue plastic bags in fields.
Then the camp, park, down some narrow alleys, knock on the rusty hanging metal door, greeted by B’s brother D, and here we are, and there is B.
She told me she wishes to emigrate from Gaza with her 14 year old son, best if to the US where she has an uncle in New Jersey, or any European country. She’s tried, but failed to get permission from the Israelis to enter Jerusalem so she can apply for a visa. She has been recently to an Eastern European country with a group of youth who went there for therapeutic activities. And she’s traveled widely in Israel and the West Bank, mainly I believe because of her work.
Trained in social work, she is now a project coordinator for X. She showed me her office after we’d returned (the next day, more about this momentarily), showing me a budget from a project training kindergarten teachers. She pointed out that this was related to Quaker’s. (Amal explained later that about 20 years ago European Quaker’s founded a series of kindergartens in Gaza.)
So the impression I have of B is that of a professional, with much experience in her area, no longer working directly in the area of her training.
In addition—and her entire assembled family confirmed this—she is a very good singer, loves to sing and dance, and generally, as I’d suspected—and this might be one of the main draws for me—she is a high energy soul, fun loving, exuberant, willing to risk, a model of joie de vive.
Plus she is oddly and mysteriously beautiful. It is not a conventional beauty. I can imagine some saying she is not at all beautiful, but to my eyes she exudes a rare beauty. I hope I show that in at least one of the portraits and action pictures she allowed me to make of her. For the formal portrait the sun was waning, Mohammed, one sister and I had finished dinner (B had already eaten), a single high bulb lit her face warmly, barely enough to photograph with. So I asked, mind if we try a few photos? Go right ahead. And she posed. Now whether this will look artificial, concocted, or posed naturally I cannot at this moment say.
In conversation with her and family I discovered two possible truths about Gazans: 1. They believe they cannot be fully happy. For instance she told me that the children when visiting the Eastern European country, when having fun at some play park or restaurant, would often ask to terminate the experience suddenly. B’s interpretation, backed up by her siblings and later by Amal and Ibrahem when I asked what they thought of this observation, said, it’s because we Gazans know we cannot ever be truly happy here, or anywhere; the suffering always returns, or if we emigrate, we know our loved ones in Gaza are still suffering. Suffering pervades our experience.
Repairing a sewage leak
This shocked and horrified me. I cannot imagine feeling this. And I’m shamed now by my glib response when people ask, kefalek (how are you?) And I reply, mubsut. (Happy) When most here cannot be truly happy.
Observation-speculation-conclusion 2: B and siblings all declared that most people in the outer world hate Palestinians, Gazans especially. They think of us only as terrorists. Or maybe worse, they believe we’re perpetual victims. Even people like you coming to help us might deeply fear us or at least distrust us.
I offered, Palestinians might be becoming the Jews of the world, believing all hate you, all fear you. When I tried this on Amal and Ibrahem they seemed to object. No, we realize many like you love and trust us and see beyond our victimhood.
When discussing divorce—she once, me twice (I don’t bother to explain about Y, too complicated for our language differences) and after I’d said my 2 former “wives” and I and they are all good friends—the reported that divorced couples in Palestinian culture do not remain friends, they do not see each other, at least in Gaza, at least in B’s case.
The evening was drawing to a close. I detected this when she offered Mohammed and me kawa (coffee) after we’d finished our tea. I joked, now we know, it’s time to go home. And we discussed how some Palestinians use the offer of coffee to signal to guests, visit’s over.
Oh no, not at all, do you want to sleep here? she asked me. Do I want to sleep here?! Of course! I answered without hesitation, because of my curiosity about how B and her family lived.
I’d not brought a toothbrush or change of clothes, I needed a shave, but so what, I was ready for most anything.
The night at B’s: she lent me the room her son and she usually sleep in (except for the summer when most of the family moves to the 2nd floor rooms, 2 of them, more breezy), my choice of 2 beds, a change of clothes including a short sleeved white shirt, heavily decorated, that she’d bought abroad, and I could choose between 2 pairs of gym shorts. A shower—I was hot and sticky. All this after a long midnight walk around the camp with D and his friend, stopping to watch men try to repair a sewage leak. I photographed it with flash after stepping thru the muck in my sandaled feet, now worried that I’d pick up some awful disease. A stop in an optician’s shop to check out his operation and offerings—$20 for a pair of polyfocals, he said, compared with over $200 in the States. The camp economy, he explained, when I noted the difference. We also visited a children’s play area and park. Videos were playing on a large sheet placed high. I saw no one watching. Play apparatus, snacks for sale, mostly women with children sitting on the ground chatting. A group of about 5 young women all swinging simultaneously and the swings arranged so they swung toward the middle. They did not hit each other. The manager told me, no photos. I’d already made a few of the video.
And most importantly—this I’ll have to report soon to my daughter Katy—I found someone to whom I could donate Katy’s offering of $5 (supplemented by $20 from me to make this a more substantial gift, a full 70 NIS). I’d carried her $5 bill with me for these past 2 months waiting for just the right opportunity, hoping to not miss it or forget and not fulfill my part of the mission. The idea, originally explained to me by Marty for an earlier trip, draws on a Jewish tradition. When sent on a mission, god protects the commissioned person until that mission is completed. Katy and her husband Phil had recalled this and so Katy commissioned me to donate $5 to some needy person in Israel-Palestine, ask for a receipt, and deliver the receipt to her. Mission accomplished, protected until the moment of delivery.
I’ve donated the money, gotten a receipt, and now I must return it to her, with a report of the act and the person. I have a photo. D explained to me later that the man I donated to once worked in Israel, now is prevented by the closures and has no job. The next morning I thought I saw him collecting trash; is this his job? The first family we visited, with an old woman that D thought might need the money, declined it, saying, we don’t need it, but so and so really does.
As I write I hear a series of explosions coming from the west, toward the sea. What are they? Will I soon receive a phone call to evacuate? To where would I evacuate?
Her sister, C, showed me a 3-minute video sampler she’d made for a funding group in Sweden. She also works with an international funding group based in Tel Aviv. I have no problem with Tel Aviv, she told me. Working with the local video outlet, Ramattan, was not good for her and some like her. They didn’t like my ideas, she opined.
Her video idea is to explore a family of 3 generations in Gaza, the oldest and maybe the son and grandson also fishers. Youngest, about C’s age and with similar ideas, wants to emigrate. Grandfather is against this, insists on him staying to love and support the nation. Father seems ambivalent or relatively absent so far from the story. C has definite talent, received training in Jordan, and wishes to emigrate and build a career in video. She also tells me, no marriage, ever. She refuses to fast for Ramadan. She opposes many of the cultural and religious strictures. She is a liberated woman, not welcome in Gaza. Her father supports her but is tied to societal norms.
D wishes to be a photojournalist so we talked about possibilities. With Mohammed who also aspires to more serious photography, at their request, I laid out the steps I teach: aware, light, etc. And when asked about the importance of equipment, invited them to look thru my wide-angle lens to see what a vast difference equip can make. I had to be honest with D, and polite and considerate so I said about his photography, you need lots of practice, build up your portfolio, maybe design and implement a project that is close to your heart,. Your graphic work is very good, smart clean designs. He’s the 2nd young person asking me for advice and coaching that I’ve met in Gaza. (The 1st is Amad, Eva’s friend, and then of course many of my students.)
Moian Al-Jedeli & friend
I believe he said he graduated from Al Azhur University, not Al Aqsa, because at that time Azhur had the better programs in graphics. Now he claims the reverse is true. Also Aqsa is more accepting of people and ideas; Azhur and the Islamic University, he believes, are more restrictive, admitting only Hamas related students.
B kidded me about bringing me to her home so she could sue me for public use of her earlier photos. I’d not asked permission, she claimed, to post on my website the family photos I made on my last visit in May 2006. C said B had never shown them the photos so she, D, and another sister surveyed a few when we connected with the Internet. I’d asked for feedback, heard none. Do they feel the photos, not only of them but of the camp that I made while touring with the brothers Mohanad and D are honest, true, fair, deep? Or shallow, embarrassing, distorted? No idea.
Father was visiting another brother in another area; mother was in Jericho with another brother after her medical treatment in Ramallah, another brother lives elsewhere, so I didn’t meet the entire family, not even B’s son. I did meet a very young girl, shy, and the elderly aunt, tottering, who might be younger than me but because of environmental and political conditions aged prematurely. Sitting beside her, again noticing the light, I longed to photograph her but the moment did not arrive.
Ah, so much to write, ponder, report, consider, describe! Good that today, Friday, holy day, day off day, is long and open and without an agenda, yet.
To summarize so far: with Mohammed to B’s in Bureij, dinner, visit with them and others, walk around camp at night, sleep and then the morning. What to do without my usual equipment or routine? Will there be toilet paper? A major concern. Will I get home early enough to prepare and teach? Does my breath stink because of no brushing? How will I look in my borrowed shirt? What is morning like in Bureij with r’s family?
As I write I hear more explosions, an ominous terrifying sound, that like collapsed buildings has a beauty that combines elegance with horror. Where and what? How will I discover on this journey of discovery? Then later a voice speaking Arabic over a loudspeaker. Does it refer to the explosions?
D told me that during the onslaught Israel attacked several buildings, methodically and efficiently. His family and that of his friend lost no one but they cringed at the attack, nowhere for refuge.
I awaken early, despite beginning sleep late, after midnight to around 6 am. Exercise, consider walking in the camp but I might get lost or hurt. Make coffee? Can’t find what I need, I’ll wait. Shit? Not quite ready and no paper yet. Eat some bananas from a fruit plate someone left for me in my room. Bananas close to spoiled. Read? But nothing to read, I brought only an old edition of This week in Palestine that Mohammed had given me because it had a photo of his in it. Look around the house, make a few photos to show it, including the patio and the room off the patio that has shelves of lenses, presumably the office of the father whose business is glasses making. (I’d made some photos the night before, using artificial light.) Wait for B, see what happens next.
No breakfast in the house of B, at least this morning. I’m mildly hungry but will wait hours before substantial food comes my way and then it is double shuwarma from, yes, our favorite shuwarma shop, a gift from Amal.
Some tea, thanks to confusion in language between B and me, I’d thought I’d requested kawa la succur, coffee without sugar. I sipped the tea, thank god without sugar, while pouring thru photos in old PLO magazines that I found bound on the bookshelves. B is very friendly, helpful, attentive. I could ask for little more. When she petted her kitten, one of two in the household, I concluded she is kindly. And when I heard her washing the evening’s dishes late at night I concluded she contributes to the household and is not too proud to wash dishes.
She called a taxi, we walked thru the camp, she carrying a valise holding her computer I assume, appearing very professional, especially in this setting, about 2 km to meet it, picked up another woman at the Nusairat camp across the main road who said she had been in one of my earlier photo workshops—You’re famous in Gaza!, B exclaimed—and we rode to her office. I declined the offer of kawa (coffee) and a visit with staff, I’ve got to get home to be ready to teach, thanks anyway.
Created by Ramzy Hassouna (firstname.lastname@example.org)