May 15, 2017 216

Lessons from the Middle East

Some stories do not start out as stories. Sometimes they start out on a Monday with a phone call. My wife called me. I still cannot get used to saying the word wife after being married for just a year. The familiar ringtone on my phone alerts me that it is her calling. "Hey, I got my vacation approved! It's in November, right before Thanksgiving. Can you get the same days off?" I smile. "Sure, I can get the time off. Work goes smoother when I am away anyway." My wife always laughs at my jokes, whether she finds them funny or not. "We're going to Israel, we have to see my grandmother," she utters. I never met my wife's grandmother, but we talk on the phone almost daily. She is a heavyset, motherly woman in her 80s, who speaks slow but with a reassuring tone. She has an uncanny ability to love the people around her. She has lived through the war, immigrated to Israel, lost a husband, saw her only child move to the US in the 80s, and through it all she was never bitter. I had learned a great deal from this woman, mostly about patience, compromise, forgiveness, seeing the good in people while being blind to the bad, and the ability to appreciate a good photograph. "A photograph should be prettier than the person it depicts," she would say. 

I had never been to the Middle East before. I love to travel and my haunts would generally focus on Europe with Asia and South America permanently implanted on my bucket list. It was one large bucket. What I knew about the Middle East was what I learned in college and what was so vehemently portrayed on the evening news day after day.

"What camera should we take?" I ask my wife.

She giggles. "Buy the A7ii. You stare at it so much, it's almost your screensaver on your PC."

"It costs too much, especially with the glass I want." I protested.

"Okay then rent it."

A month or so later we were in the airport boarding the red eye on a Friday night. My wife doesn't like flying but I enjoy it. I enjoy not being connected for a few hours, catching up on my reading, thinking about the moments we will capture with the camera resting at my feet. I closed my eyes and images from my childhood streamed into my consciousness.

In my life, I have two loves. My wife and photography. In that order. I had known photography slightly longer than I had known my wife. My first pictures, I took when I was 9 years old. It was an opportunity to spend time with my grandfather, who always treated me like an equal rather than his grandchild. My grandfather was a man who was as tall as he was wide. He had a hearty laugh, an indulgence in both food and drink, and a hunger to snap away with his camera at anything that moved, or didn't move. So when I was nine, gramps set me down for what seemed to be a very important conversation. "I am going to teach you how to use my FED 4 camera."

The FED-4 was a soviet camera with a manual wind knob, a light meter, range finder, and an f2.8 lens. I would get know this camera well. My first lesson started out with the statement "A light meter is for drunks and blind people." Grandpa, even on sober days, believed that you can see light in terms of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. ISO was known by acronym GOST in USSR, which was appropriate terminology to describe their camera gear. As soon as it was made, it would mysteriously vanish long before it would make it to a store. It was difficult to buy a camera even if you could afford it. This is one of many reasons, why taking photographs was both an honor and a rarity in Russia.

Many years and clicks had elapsed since that conversation was had. Now, I was 32 years old and on a plane to a land that I thought was best experienced behind the lens. A camera always adds a clarity to an experience that is profound because you etch that moment into your film or memory card and eventually into your own memory long after the moment has passed.

The plane touched down. That was my wake up call. My wife and I entered the Ben Gurion airport, immediately noticing the large fountain in the central atrium. It added a sense of peacefulness to an experience that many consider a nuisance: customs. Beyond customs, my uncle greeted us with a pair of Tuborg Beers and these words of wisdom: "Grandma is not likely to be a drinker, so I thought you should have this."

A few minutes later we loaded up the rental car and spent about two hours heading north. We discovered that Waze has an option to avoid "unsafe roads" and I wondered how unsafe they must be for this to be built into the app. The driving was also interesting. Yielding to let a car merge baffled most of the drivers around me. We arrived to a small quaint town bordered by an Arab village. It was quite, dark, and smelled of eucalyptus.

Meeting my grandmother in-law was a moment by which many other moments were judged. I felt loved and a sense of belonging that escaped me for so many years prior. A lot of things were said, and even more things were unsaid but felt instead.

Grandma was not well enough to leave the house but wanted us to see the country that she had lived in for almost 50 years. Grandma eyed the digital frame we bought her with both suspicion and awe. The plan next day would be to travel around, explore, and upload our adventures to the frame so grandma can be a part of it too.

Given the extensive and polarizing news coverage about the conflict in the Middle East, it was hard to walk on that part of the earth without assumptions and misconceptions. I was the most guilty of it. Once there I wanted to understand and feel the hearts and souls of the people there. I wanted to understand the lives, the fears, and hopes of the people that inhabit this land. All people. I got my chance the next day when Grandma's caretaker, Mary, arrived.

Mary was a tall, caring woman, with olive weathered skin and deep, fiery eyes. She was full of energy, both attractive and motherly. She made breakfast with speed and skill unbeknownst to us. Her 8 year old son was with her.

His name was Tamir and he was a small child with an infectious smile, an incredibly affectionate demeanor, and cheeks which could drown out that smile. Rumor had it that he was an astute student and had an affinity towards most things electronic. After breakfast, Mary smiled and said that she wanted to show us her village. I knew that Mary lived in an Arab settlement and felt guilty for thinking about whether this would be safe. It is as if Grandma read my thoughts just then and said "You will receive the treatment you give to others." I smiled a melancholy smile feeling guilt for not seeing the best in the people around me. 

We packed into her antiquated Opel that was full of children's toys and memories shared. Mary informed us that it was an "automatic" transmission and she would take us to Akko to show us something very special before heading to her home. Again, I thought, 'This is how the show Kidnapped Abroad usually starts.' Soon enough the hills began to swallow us whole, opening up views and vistas. Mary picked up her 23 year old daughter on the way. Neither of her children spoke English and I struggled to remember how to say thank your in Arabic.

Shortly thereafter, Mary parked on a dirt road in a small city called Akko. Mary felt relieved that she had found a parking space, and as a New Yorker I began to share this jubilation almost immediately. We walked along a street, which was no larger than a bicycle path at a Long Island park. It weaved and all of a sudden, I could smell it. Spices. A million of them attaching to my olfactory nerve and producing happiness. My mouth began to water and my expectant stomach was anxious to experience everything that my hands could grasp. We strolled through this 18th century bazaar, my eyes opened wide as much as my heart. 

I instinctively began to click. My eye never departing from the viewfinder of the A7ii, still struggling to use it's features effectively. It found focus much easier than I did. I could barely understand everything that I was feeling, seeing, smelling, and experiencing. I accidentally bumped into another customer dressed in an abaya. She turned around, and observed me eyeing olives and salivating over them. She smiled, said "habibi" and the next thing I knew I had tried the best olives I have ever had. The cool saltiness with a unique flavor profile completely overtook my senses. A gasp leaves my lips as another olive enters. The woman handing me the olives appears happier than I am. She murmurs something to Mary, who laughs heartily. "She asked me if you've never had olives before" Mary translates.

We exited the Bazaar and sat down to have falafel. A scrumptious delicacy that went along just great with the giggles of Mary's children. It occurred to me that despite the fact that we could not communicate verbally, we shared a moment, an experience, which we all understood clearly. Our stomachs and souls satiated, we walked back to the car. Mary drove from Akko to her village where her car sneaked into a steep driveway exposing the courtyard that her house shared with others. We ascended the stairway, and her door opened to reveal walls covered in beautiful mosaic. We were ushered onto her porch, which was markedly larger than the apartment we rent back home. We sat on the rug covered couches smiling at one another. Mary's younger son, clearly fascinated with the relatively large size of the 22-70mm lens, tried his turn at the viewfinder and photographed his pet parrot who apparently knew more Arabic than I. 

The sound of the door opening alerted me to the fact that Mary's husband, Hassan, came home from work. They exchanged pleasantries and what I assumed was an explanation at why the two westerners were on their Porch. Hassan was a tall man, extremely fit, with salt and pepper hair. His skin was mahogany dark, weathered by the sun, while his hands were calloused. His smile effortlessly predisposed those around him to limitless amicability. He sat down next to us, exhausted from a day of what can only be assumed to be strenuous work. The aroma of cardamom emerged a few feet ahead of Mary as she brought a coffee pot with small cups for us to share. There was enough coffee had between us that night to resuscitate Mother Teresa. The coffee was known as "hel" and it was strong, aromatic, and unlike anything I had tasted before. We spent many nights on that porch during our stay. Though no one spoke English other than Mary and I had mastered how to say only thank you, we understood each other quite well.

Many gifts of food and laughter were exchanged. I had learned the meaning of being human and what it means to share a moment under the star filled sky with other humans. I had learned that this was so much more important than one's religion, skin color, or political views. I wondered why it took so long, and this mind shattering experience, to arrive at this point. How much of this kind of life was missed before?

We flew back as different people than those who embarked on this journey. On the plane, I reviewed the 800+ RAW images that I had captured. Each one brought me back to a moment that warranted reflection. Even today, these images adorn the walls of our home, frequently allowing me to stop and think of what those moments meant at the time. We now view those around us differently than before, with a need to get to know them as people, and that has made all the difference.