Excerpts from my journal as I explore the situation in Palestine and Israel
Hesham, the son, and Taher, the father, live an ordinary life in an extraordinary setting: Gaza. What is normal here in Gaza might be considered extraordinary elsewhere. In this account I hope to show something, maybe only minor details, of their relationship. My audience is not Gazans, but people in my own country, the United States of America. To see father and son in some of their daily life—fitting a suit for a wedding, later a party of males celebrating the upcoming wedding—is ordinary for many. However, because of where Taher and Hesham live, Gaza, which is under siege, frequently attacked by Israel, suffers high rates of poverty, unemployment, medical problems, and with most of the world oblivious to life here, the ordinary can become the extraordinary. That is my hope. Sumoud!
All we want is to be ordinary. —Mahmoud Darwish
April 1, 2013, Monday, Gaza City, Rimal neighborhood, El Shawwa Building, my home
Another improvised, spontaneous day yesterday [March 31.2013], Easter (for many worldwide, maybe for a tiny sliver here in Gaza where I observed no sign of it anywhere). Hesham phoned to ask where I was, whether I was free, whether we could meet. Two years have passed since we last saw each other: Gaza, the photo workshop he enrolled in. Despite his studies last fall in NYC we were unable to meet in my homeland. Yesterday we greeted each other with big hugs and the customary Arabic cheek kissing. So happy to see each other. Nearly like brothers. Or more accurately because of the age difference, uncle and favorite nephew. We strolled downtown, he treated me to a special concoction of ice cream and something like flavored ice. We strolled further, we might have had coffee, he phoned his father, asked me if I’d like to meet him. I said sure, and that began not only a foray into his family as a slice of Gazan life, but also a possible photographic project in Gaza—the ordinary-extraordinary life of son and father. After my recent Skype discussion with S when she encouraged me to photograph ordinary Palestinian life I considered who might be my subjects. Maybe Islam and Ban and their infant son. Which raised problems—the hijab or head covering (as Hesham instructed me, even if instead of me a woman photographed Ban at home with her hair uncovered, etiquette dictates that those photos not be shown outside the family.) Then Hesham and his father walked onto the stage and might become the principal actors in my project.
Taher Mhanna (Taher in Arabic means pure and I believe fits him well) bought me chicken kabob and afterwards we visited his tailor to be fitted for new suits for him and Hesham. Before leaving the restaurant I tried a few portraits of Taher thinking, this will be the screen test, I will learn what sort of chemistry exists between us, how he photographs. The new clothing is for impending marriages. Hesham’s brother and cousin will both marry—separately—in the coming weeks, and I’m invited to some of the festivities including a bachelor’s party. Joking with Hesham I asked, do you know what bachelor’s parties in the USA sometimes entail? He nodded, but he may have thought simply alcohol when I meant paid sex, either a show or participation.
Not a particularly savory western influence. I doubt anytime soon Gazan betrothed males will partake in either the booze or the sex. I learned that the tailor’s business has diminished because of the siege Israel intensified after Hamas came to power thru an election in 2006. The business is now reduced by about 70%. Formerly they’d exported to Israel who would add a label, Made in Israel. All employees were male; 4 or 5 brothers, sons of the founder, run the business. When the founder died he was making a suit by hand. The suit now hangs on the wall and I dumbly forgot to include it in the copious set of photos I made yesterday.
When I photographed the line of workers at their sewing machines I wondered, what has been their education? How many have university degrees? What were their previous jobs? Why are they here? I could imagine a series just about this, portraits of some workers, with biographies or statements from them.
The owners and I joked about future clothing technology after one had told me that his father sewed everything by hand. I said, yesterday by hand, today by machine, tomorrow perhaps by computer. And following that perhaps a new clothing technology: not actually wearable clothing but virtual clothing—with a push of the button a new skin, one for cold, one for hot, one for dry, one for wet. Hesham added, the Japanese have invented an air-conditioned suit. No surprise, I added, from the inventors of the bread machine, the hybrid automobile, the digital camera, and the high-speed bullet train. The Japanese are very clever people. Photographically I played with the mirror that father and son used to see themselves in their new, overly loose at this point, garments. I played with the various personnel that helped in the fitting, including the main tailor but also onlookers and, when focused on Hesham, his dad in the background or nearby helping, or when on father, son. I believe the set portrays something about the relationship between father and son. And this might be a main theme in this series. Parallel to the tailor’s business condition, Taher has been out of work because of the Hamas-Fatah split and the siege. He ran a construction business and hopes now for new projects. He told me finding financing is slow and he wants to make sure he can work with his new partners.
Hesham had recently been accepted for a conference in Turkey about business (his major is business administration) that was to occur in a few days, but he declined because of the family marriages. Had those marriages not been planned, he might have attended the conference. Thus I’d miss him for my assistant in the photography workshop I lead and as a primary subject of this photo series. He told me all about his studies in the USA last fall, at New York University in NYC, a program that brought Israelis and Palestinians together for dialog and often heated argument. He loved it, but found the city too busy and fast. He much preferred the relative peace of Boston where he went twice, both times failing to meet me—once to escape Hurricane Sandy and once to visit friends in a suburb far from Boston which is perhaps why we didn’t link. Like my friendship with Ibrahim in Gaza, my friendship with Hesham is yet another reason I am attracted to Gaza and find it a good fit.
It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity. —Dag Hammarskjold
TO BE CONTINUED