On Why I Hate War

 A little boy, not more than 8 or 10, pulls the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head and keeps pulling until is covers his eyes and face.  He is sobbing.  The hood is only chance he has at privacy as his small body shakes and a packed bus accelerates away behind him.  Someone he loves is on that bus.  I don’t know how to put tears into letters or distill raw emotion into abstract marks on paper.  A sacred, shattered awe is all that you can feel around 5pm at the returns area of Za’atari refugee camp.  There is wonder when new life comes into the world and another when humans give up and cease to hold onto life.

A gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard and a purple button-up shirt waves one last hungry wave as the bus rumbles into motion.  His wife and three teen-age daughters have just packed like sardines into the bus along with scores of other emotional passengers.  The coach is pulling away and making the short trip to the Syrian border.  He plans to follow his dear ones in a few weeks, once he has sorted out some paper work, but for now he says “they are traveling toward death”.  No tears escape his eyes, but his face is weeping.  The killing that has descended upon his homeland is unconscionable, he tells me – something forbidden in all religions.  We are all humans and accountable to one God.  Inside the bus a woman looks out and wipes her eyes.  The village to which the women are returning has been mostly flattened.  The house to which they hope to return may still have a few rooms standing.  As his family pulls away into an, at best, uncertain future, my friend reflects on his last year as a refugee.  He and his family have been living outside of the camp in an urban area of Jordan, but the cost of living has become unsustainable.

Swirling around the bus are knots of Syrians with emotions ranging from quietly morose to almost euphoric.  The giddy euphoria of the damned but resigned.   Last night was the first real taste of the coming Jordanian desert winter and the displaced people are now missing the concept of home, which they once knew, more than ever.  Many tell me that they slept last night standing up as rain water rushed through their tents and they held their babies in their arms.  One man spent hours with a bucket bailing water, before he finally yielded to exhaustion and decided to wait until morning to dry his tent and belongs.  A 19 year old mother of a beautiful 3 year old daughter tells how her baby’s lips and face were blue the night before from cold.  Bravely they say, “better to die quickly under the shells, missiles, and airplanes than to die slowly of heat, cold, and sickness.”  Their bravado may soon melt away as they return to the shattered remnants of the life they once knew, only to find that their memories are just that – memories.  A teary eyed woman once told me of her return trip to her flattened village.  “It was the worst mistake of my life.  It was like the end of the world.”  The challenges of winter that now face refugees will not be mitigated for those who return home, but merely added to the constant danger of instant death and disfigurement which stalked them in their home villages.  Many are aware that they are not making an easy choice.  That they are not making a choice for self-preservation.  Somehow, it feels to them the deeper and more right choice though.  They may ride to death, but at least it is a life or death of their own choosing.  It is a death with dignity.

The desert autumn sun is piercing from behind a bank of clouds and scraping toward the horizon.  The faces behind the bus windows are now gone and none but God knows if and when my friend in the purple shirt will see his girls again.  I quicken my pace and try to beat my unshed tears into the earth as I make my own emotional escape.  A boy with gentle, wide eyes and a tousle of blondish hair matches my speed and patters along beside.  He cocks his head as he studies me and asks simply, “why are you upset?”

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Snakes and Such

No, that’s just a stick.

I’ve never liked snakes.  There’s something about their scale covered skin and primordial entwinement with the idea of encroaching evil and original sin that has always put me off.  My heart skipped a beat one cold fall day in the Appalachians when I was hiking back-country trails with my friend Daniel – trying to forget past pains and breath in hope for new beginnings.  The ground was covered in lately fallen leaves, and sticks and roots littered the broken mountain pathways.  I carried trekking polls and set their points down ahead of me to steady each new step.  That one particular step stays in my memory.  I planted the first poll firmly and began to bring the other forward when I realized mid-motion that the twisted root, inches ahead of me, was a living thing.  A snake, the same color as the woods, almost petrified in suspended animation as he tried to soak up a tiny remainder of sun before he slept away the winter months in some mountain hole.  Reflexively, I thrust my poll down inches ahead of its intended landing place, just missing this living thing, but throwing my whole body off balance in the process.  My arms caught the lurching momentum of my pack-laden frame as I jerked to an unexpected stop – my body hanging from my walking sticks, staring down at the root-colored snake just below me.

 

Looking out over the Appalachians

See, all kinds of things could hide here.

This is why we went hiking.

It was just this sort of day

Do you see any snakes in there?

 

I’ve slowly come to an internal détente with snakes, and the only offensive quality of this one was his surprise showing in such an un-prepared moment.  A few years earlier I had met Jimmy at a rundown backpackers’ hostel in Nelspruit, South Africa.  Jimmy is missing a few of his teeth, has a gentle voice, and an immense beard.  He prefers to pad around barefoot and is perhaps the least racist white South African I ever met (a moral achievement which he attributes primarily to marijuana).  Jimmy knows the Africa bush as if he was an encyclopedia and loves to wander it under any circumstances.  He was probably slightly drunk (but then when wasn’t he?) when he agreed to take me on a private, unauthorized tour of Kruger National Park, but still his planning was thorough, and practiced.  As we were about to wander, without firearms, into country owned by lions, elephants, and rhinos, he discussed how we would respond to encounters with any of the above named.  As we drove together toward the park he expressed his hope that we might see some of the glorious snakes of the African bush.  He spoke wistfully of the day he had caught a black mamba and brought it back to a game preserve for them to show their guests, only to have the gift rejected because of what he felt was irrational fear of the quick black terror.  Logically Jimmy explained to me the absolute medical impossibility of the incredible and pervasive claims of the black mamba’s mythical nearly instantaneous killing power.  He thought he knew where such legends had started and he put no stock in them.  Trying to put on my bravest face I asked what we would do if we encountered such reptiles during our wandering.  With no irony in his voice he answered, “Enjoy!”  Perhaps for the best we had no such enjoyable encounters, but still, Jimmy represented for me an altogether different way of seeing these creatures.

 

This is Jimmy

Jimmy was always finding different wildlife bones. Here he’s demonstrating the proper use of a giraffe skull as a camp chair

No that’s not a snake, but not too far. Jimmy showing the size of a millipede with his hand.

 

It would be a lie to say that I’ve come to love serpents, but for the first time recently I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the slithering beasts.  Perhaps more often than actually encountering live snakes during my hiking, I’ve come across the snake-shaped yet entirely hollow skins jettisoned during the reptiles’ annual growth ritual.  This is the thing about snakes that has been recently percolating through my mind; the idea of what they leave behind as they grow.  It is the possibility of being exactly the same individual that you have always been, and yet at the same instant not being the same person at all that I find both intriguing and resonant.  There is this glorious image of continuity in form and persistence of life mixed with the metamorphic imagery of progress and growth.  This is not the change of the caterpillar to the butterfly where the life form transitions so dramatically as to be unrecognizable, but still something just as profound.  It represents a growth so deep that older borders of self no longer apply and must be shed before life can go on.  I personally feel like I’ve been going through such a shedding process of late.  I found myself confused after talking to a friend on the phone and defending myself as being the same person I’d always been – while ignoring the irony of the fact that nearly every idea I was putting forward was at odds with the arguments I once would have made.  Those abandoned and lifeless shells which once held a snake’s existence somehow made it come together for me.  Of course they have to be left behind.  They were once an integral part of life, but to continue to hang on to them would only make continued life impossible.  Yes, I’m exactly the man I’ve always been.  Naturally I sometimes seem barely recognizable.  Year by year I wriggle out of the old and on into the new.  You’ll be able to measure my growth by what I’ve been able to leave behind.

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

Reality finally hits for Aktham and his girlfriend as he prepares to enter the secure area at the Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan September, 5. A refugee from targeted violence in Iraq, Aktham has been living for 13 years, ineligible for regular employment, in Jordan and has finally gained approval to emigrate to the U.S. After 5 years in application he was approved a year and a half ago and was notified last week by the IOM that his time had finally come for travel. Like countless Iraqi refugees he has been living next to his phone, waiting for this fateful call. When it arrived, it rocked his world. He had one week to liquidate 13 years of life. Hopeful for a new life, but smarting under the abruptness of the impersonal system, he left for the U.S. with one suitcase and a backpack. A friend and I had the opportunity to record these last emotional days and in the next weeks or months the story should be forthcoming in a short documentary.

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Alnas fii Amman

One day.  One City.  24 candid pictures of people.  Sometimes I have to use words in place of pictures, but sometimes I get to use pictures in place of words.

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The Beautiful Challenge

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Irbid, Jordan

Friday, September 30

One of my teachers here in Jordan insists that by the end of my stay I’ll be ready to blog in Arabic. I try to imagine an alternate reality where typing in Arabic is actually cathartic and where I actually feel able to express myself without crippling deficiencies. Often I have 150 word essays due in my Arabic class, and although this paragraph is already half way to that benchmark after only a few minutes, 150 Arabic words stare me in the face, filled with mockery, for hours on end. There’s no current of thought. No ebb and flow of emotions and rhythm. Only the daunting reality of each ك and ق and خ which, to my untrained ear, seem frighteningly similar. Each sentence is a reminder that there is no “is” in Arabic. Nouns sometimes feel almost naked as they butt up against one another without so much as the courtesy of a connecting article. Perhaps one day I’ll be nimble enough with this new language to capture the sensations of ephemeral Jordanian moments, but until then I’ll be forced to rely on my English and my camera.

Each day as I meander down University Street or speedwalk between the olive groves, on my way across the Yarmouk campus, I’m struck by some crystalline moment that begs to be remembered. They always catch me unaware, and are really remarkable only for their commonness. They’re the things that, as a photographer, I crave to capture and remember, but both my studies and the prevailing culture dictate that for now some images will only be remembered in words. I wish I could show you all these tiny pieces, the sum total of which equals the profound conundrum which is Irbid, Jordan. You glimpse it in the butterfly flutter of long mascaraed eyelashes on a smitten girl on the university campus. Her round cheeks are accentuated by the wrap of her floral patterned head scarf.  She keeps her hands to herself by pressing her arm across her stomach and clutching the strap of her purse as she smiles shyly at the boy who leans back against a car with practiced ease. He wears a tight t-shirt covered with English writing he probably only barely understands and slicks his hair with just too much gel. They are young. They’re flirting under the olive trees, caught somewhere between the past and future. Crowds of students and teachers stream by. Two men shuffle down the street – avoiding the low hanging branches that side swipe you on the sidewalks – in their long white thawbs and red checkered keffiyehs. Across the boulevard a knot of admiring college boys watch as the muscled one in the middle slowly unboxes a pair of newly-acquired Ray Bans. The breeze ruffles the gossamer fabric of the black niqab which covers all but the eyes of a passing woman who might have stepped straight from Jordan’s Bedouin roots. Her physical geometry changes with the breeze as the exaggerated flat-top character of her costume ripples in time with her walk. As her eyes peer out, it’s impossible not to wonder how she sees her world and assesses the stream of high-heeled girls who flow past with tightly concealed hair and even tighter jeans. And what of the minority of Irbid women (though not at all uncommon) who brave the catcalls of countless insecure boys as they stride through life with hair flowing for all to see? You see Jordan in the uniformed and armed police officer prostrating himself in prayer next to his parked police SUV and in the saucy heels and fitted jeans that peak from below the ankle length robe of a conservative woman. It’s in the warm handshake of a store clerk who wants to sell you Turkish shoes, practice his English and assure you that faith is immaterial and that people are merely people – that terrorists are just as aberrant to him as to you. It’s in the old man who offers to walk with you far down the street, just to give you directions to the DHL office.

Nothing is simple here. You breathe complexity in with the sometimes smoky air. I’ll take laundry for example. Best not to even hope to get it done unless you have a whole afternoon free. We technically do have a washing machine in our apartment, but it’s a far different object than what bears that name in the US. It has a hose to be connected to a water source, but there’s no readily apparent water source. This means that the first time we did laundry we had to back the machine up into the bathroom and connect it to the water there. At the recommendation of my good friend Ahmed, I bought two buckets the next time and just filled the machine that way. After the clothes have marinaded and agitated in the soapy water it’s necessary to lift them a few at a time out of the water and put them into the other half of the machine that one friend had the audacity to call a “dryer”. In fact, it is merely the equivalent of the “spin cycle” on a more familiar machine. The clothes require rinsing in buckets and sometimes repeated spinning. While running the spin cycle it’s necessary to constantly monitor and drain the water that’s been spun out of the clothes because otherwise you merely end up blending your bright whites with a swirl of recently expelled water: no drying taking place. Finally when all the steps mentioned have been completed, all the damp clothes are ready. Ready to be spread out over every available surface in our apartment to dry! Thankfully the humidity is quite low here and the clothes usually dry within 24 hours. If I’m really honest, I have to admit that all of this may have been a catalyst to buy new clothes when I went out to the market with my friend. It’s easier (and perhaps cheaper when you account for time) to buy one of the many used shirts at the market than to launder my current ones. Perhaps this is slight hyperbole, but it is an arithmetic worth considering.

Down in old Irbid is the souq or market. You can wind between labyrinthine stalls that sell everything from fresh dates to water valves to used sandals. I could never find the places where I end up if it were not for local friends. They guide me down alleys and under canopies until I arrive at places I’m never sure I could locate again. One thing much stronger in Jordan than in the US is community. Something as simple as shirt shopping needn’t be carried out solo. Instead, you find the shop that’s run by an old friend. When you drop in he might just offer you coffee, and then show you the freshly arrived bag of quality European cast-offs. Together you and the owners will settle in to go through the bag, item by item, until something catches your eye. Then you get to try on the item and present yourself for the review of those running the store and possibly even the other browsing customers. The result is wonderfully relaxed and involves lots of storytelling, chair sitting, and perhaps even a wedding invitation, but it does not happen quickly. Nothing does. I’ve been here a month, and was shockingly gratified to realize that I actually told a story to a friend on a bus last night. My conjugations were horrific and my vocabulary also included a healthy share of hand motions, but I think she understood what had happened by the time I stopped. Being constantly surrounded by Arabic, I’m always reminded of how far I have to go. Still, it’s good to stop in brief moments and remember how far I’ve been able to come in these last weeks. Just like everything here in Jordan it’s slow, and rather difficult, but also surrounded with a great deal of spare but ineffable beauty.

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