The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.
Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
July 17, 2009, Friday, Jenin Creative Cultural Center:
Home again, in the Ramallah Friends School apartment, and truly it feels like home: privacy, quiet, comfortable, secure, friendly, compatible, a suitable mattress, set up for me and me alone. How I love it. A good stroke, to rent the place, and now if only I could swing it thru the end of this tour of duty and not have to struggle to find a new place and move there.
With the return to home, possibly the return of dreams, a bunch of them, and some of them significant:
I was setting up to make a large-scale photo presentation to an odd assortment of college age youth. They’d returned from a study trip to Central America and had options for attending various presentations and seminars. They were free to join me or not. The set up was elaborate: audio, video, a TV production of my show, a large room that gradually shrunk as more and more gear appeared. A few students straggled in, one told me I’d be lucky to attract more than a handful because of their many options.
I did something to the installed computer so it had to reboot, and I wasn’t sure it would open properly, the usual problem. Workers stuck partitions thru the space, shrinking it even further. The room felt stuffy so I opened windows. A young man caught my eye and engaged me in a game of catch with a small rubber ball. I excelled in being able to catch it with my left hand (tho right handed), even when my back was turned. I was a wizard. A little boy joined us.
The only photos I brought with me—and I don’t now know the topic—were 8 by 10 prints. So I wasn’t sure how well they could be viewed.
Second dream: I watched as a family fled terrible bombing (might relate to Gaza), over and over again, the bombs, and the family returning and then leaving. They used a small rowboat; they had to flee over water. Something exploded under the boat and threw the father into the air. Someone explained, that was a dum dum, not meant to hit anyone directly but to explode near and cause big troubles.
Ah, having and remembering so many rich dreams is very nourishing. And raises the question: why so few in Jenin and so many on this 1st night home?
After reading an article sent me by Sue from last year’s Friends General Conference gathering Palestine/Israel workshop, about the new dispensation in the territories, the newly relaxed mood, expanding normalcy, and reading about a shopping center in Jenin for home furnishings, I discovered from Charley where it was, and a few evenings ago set out to explore it. About 5 stories tall, with the owner’s name prominently lit in red on the roof, Herbawi, it sprawls. One floor for bedroom furnishings, one floor for kitchen, etc. I counted maybe 15 people shopping, max, but then it was after 9 pm. One woman in traditional black clothing languidly dusted the merchandise. She eyed me as I photographed, walked over to me, and seemed to nod me in the direction of a very young man sitting at a desk. I approached him, held up my camera, put a quizzical look on my face, and asked, OK? He seemed to signal OK back.
But then why did he follow me around for about 5 minutes? I glanced back at him, smiled, and continued. He went away. I found an elevator, pushed the button to the top floor, 6, door opened, lazily with a grating sound, and before me appeared a semi darkened cavern filled with packing crates and other debris. Same at floor 5. I didn’t have the gumption to exit. I was also nervous about the elevator stranding me somewhere between floors in this vast emporium.
With deep regret I realized I had only my 50 mm Nikon lens, no wide angle. This would have been a perfect setting for the wide. How can I improvise with what I have? What I lost in focal length I gained in speed because this is a f/1.8 lens, the wide is about f/3.5.
Outside I had to back way up, across the street, down a gravel road, smelling sheep, past some rough square little buildings, maybe where the sheep live, to find a proper position for my camera. Moving like this, rather than zooming, is an old experience that I’d forgotten how to do.
Trying to find my way back to the Center, temporarily lost (I make occasional useful discoveries while lost) I stumbled onto a children’s entertainment-play area, jammed with brightly colored plastic climbing and sliding devices that require air to expand and become more or less stable (what happens during power outage?). The kids screamed, romped, some cried, the little ones especially, and no one seemed to mind me photographing. I’d asked permission to enter and use my camera, the attendant brought me to the manager who told me he also was a photographer, Saif Dahlah, and worked for the French press agency (AFP), and sure, he cheerily said, no problem.
I delighted. After about 30 minutes of this, clicking furiously, marveling at the access— state-side I’d probably have to get every parent’s signed permission, and this would be granted only after a criminal background check—3 adult men carrying two way radios and one younger looking sweaty fellow stopped me. None had any English, I couldn’t understand any of their Arabic, but I understood their gesture—hands out front, passing quickly over each other, to mean we want you to finish and be out of here. You’ve been here long enough!
I argued, but the manager gave me permission. They weren’t convinced. Maybe the word boss would work. Ah ha, it did.
Come with me, the sweaty boy gestured, and he brought me to the boss. Oh, the boss explained, you didn’t understand, we want you to drink a coffee and then you can get back to photographing.
Which I did. Another 10 minutes and I ran out of camera memory, not bringing my bag with extra memory, thinking, it’s evening, dark, I won’t do much photographing. Wrong. This should teach me: bring the camera bag, bring the extra memory, bring the extra battery, and lug that heavy wide-angle lens.
My last day in Jenin included the last of the 4 photo sessions. As usual, I showed up at noon, the start time, Abdullah was there, no one else, I asked him to find the others. He disappeared. About 15 minutes later we found Mays and Touleen but they begged for a delay of 1/2 hr so they could go to lunch with Sophie.
OK, but what about the others? No answer. We finally began at around 1, providentially. Shortly before noon the power went off. All my plans depended on the computer. Now what? I asked Ala what she would suggest. Well, she said, you’ve been to the roof, you’ve been to the tunnel, how about photographing around the Center for the website and displays?
Not a bad idea, but what is happening around the Center that might be photographable? This silenced us. Nothing. Ah well, we’ll find something. Luckily the power returned. But the idea had been planted: photograph around the Center.
And then just a few minutes before we began I noticed Sophie teaching a drawing workshop. We could begin there. And we did. The 3 of us (2 absent) with Yusef’s brother Mohammed, aka Ahmed, taking the turns on the various cameras.
Returning to our chaotic room (the German language class was still running, and boys had entered the computer space and were loudly chatting) we inched our way thru their photos, constantly beset with computer problems, but surmountable, and then we barely approached what I’d hoped would be the main topic, editing, and with that beginning work on the exhibit Yousef requested. Mays had brought previously made portraits, and she didn’t want us edit them. I thought this would have been a good exercise—to make selections and talk about why we were doing that. Not to be. We viewed Abdullah’s video that I’d helped him put up on YouTube. That was a hit. Others gathered around to watch and congratulate.
Sophie Furse, photo by Mays
So the workshop ended reasonably successfully. As did my entire 2 week journey there, or so I thought. Yousef gave me a bar of olive oil soap in thanks, he posed me with others in the obligatory group photo, and best of all, Abdullah walked me to the taxi station carrying my black shoulder bag. He is a dear, I gave him one of the hospital photos, and wished him good luck and much success. I hope to see him again. Mays also wished me goodbye, as did Yousef’s nephew Mohammed and brother Ahmed. I did not see or seek out the Gang, happy to be away from them.
I leave with them a partially completed website, hoping Yousef will continue the design and assure the maintenance. I’m done.
Jenin Creative Cultural Center
The trip back to Ramallah was relatively pleasant, thru winding valleys, many of them cultivated tho brown, not much traffic, a reasonably caution driver, plenty of leg room despite my pack on the floor in front of me. 2 hours, 1 major checkpoint that caused only minimal delay, I should find out if we passed thru the old Huwarra. Soldiers checked a few taxis perfunctorily. Some soldiers wore heavy battle gear, others were more casually dressed. When one peered into our taxi I peered back, trying to efface any hint of smile, and just slightly nod in recognition of him and his humanity. This is a delicate manner: how to treat the soldiers?
Checkpoint south of Nablus, temporarily unstaffed
While attempting to nap—I’d also been photographing, mostly the fields—I remembered to make a few important calls. Fareed about the water person today (not available). Jerusalem Studies for the Nablus tour (signed up, but it costs 140 NIS and I learned later I can join another one led by Jan’s friend, Adel, on Monday, which will probably be cheaper and more oriented to history and archeology than the Saturday tour which is about shopping, tho that also could be photographable). And most important the permit people. I reached a few officers directly, lost connections, and tried again. With the result:
I wrote Tom this:
the latest is slimly encouraging: the officer i spoke with in the permit office knew my case. after first saying the permit was granted, he retracted and asked me to call back. i phoned several times and finally heard him say, can’t seem to find a definitive answer in the computer, the answer is probably on my co’s desk, call back sunday.
when i told amal about this she sounded furious. they say that every time, or something like it, she exclaimed. call them tomorrow (fri).
so i’ll do that. the officer, polite and civil with very good english—the face of oppression can be very gracious—, told me also there was confusion about the different applicants thru the afsc. which might be partly true. but here also amal dissented, saying, i applied for each one separately, there should be no confusion.
so at least you and i are not yet declared forbidden…
i have no idea whether senator john kerry’s office is intervening. they don’t reply to me or my quaker friends back home. so annoying.
but let’s keep trying.
good luck and let’s hope to be together over here soon,
Having the mobile is a great convenience. In this case, while finishing the long taxi ride, 2 hours, I had my office with me. And despite using the Israeli Orange network, I usually have coverage.
Arriving in Ramallah, I bought 2 falafels, 2 beers, showered, and relaxed. Then I napped, then I ate, and then I did my email, now having a connection, not a reliable one but enough to bring me a letter from Y…
In N, she is pursuing finding housing, talking with realtors, finally reifying her long quest to live on the West Coast. Good for her—a fear of mine since we met now finally is no longer a fear, not such a big one. I’ll miss her when she moves permanently there, but know, somehow or other, or so I wish, we will stay in touch. However, she does get busy, as she admitted in her letter, and lacunae might grow, resulting in a total detachment. As with Kathleen.
Ah well, impermanence, why worry about it? It’s part of the teaching, part of the practice. The hardest part: detachment.
Last night I felt a corresponding closeness with X, wondering where and how she is. I listened to the music she gave me, finding it fresh and inspiring reminiscence and reverie, and I searched for info about volunteering medical services in Guatemala which is what she’s doing.
So run the ramblings of a lost and lonely soul, on the road in the Land of Troubles, the land of light, the land of romance.
In the evening I felt mellow, and turned to one of my favorite pursuits, web surfing. I just meandered about, aimlessly, or serendipitously, depending on one’s attitude. The weather in various parts of the world, organizing my browser’s bookmarks, viewing photos of others, this and that. A sheer joy. One of the best aspects of 21st century experience. How can anyone feel lonely with all this potential interaction? Easily. Look at me.
Gaza is the main question: will Israel grant me a permit? If yes, I’m heading there next week; if no, I make other plans, including appealing to the Israelis (if such an appeal process exists, which I doubt) and writing my Congress people for assistance. I’m mixed about going to Gaza. Amal tells me, everyone’s waiting for you. Which is attractive. And I long to see friends and offer services and make new photos. Yet, it will be hot, at times dangerous, I may lose my privacy if they insist on having an accompanier with me at all times. So, 2 months from now, September 13, back in Boston, or earlier, I’ll know the answer to this question: Gaza yes or no?
The question itself adds drama to my story. Some, those few who might ponder my fate, might ask, where is Skip now, did he ever get into Gaza?
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