Sunday, June 26, 2011

Faces of Cuba, identities of Boston

If your picture is not good enough, you are not close enough.

This was Robert Capa's advice to photographers.

Cuba is uncomfortable with earnest proximity. On one level, notions of intimacy and privacy bear different connotations on this island. Displays of affection are all public, rendering the phrase "public displays of affection" irrelevant. It is merely affection, of the only kind there is. Cuba can be all public all the time.

On another level, Cuba retreats into herself. Her texture and layers are accessible only to those born into this exclusive club. To some, the exclusivity is a privilege; to others, a damnation. Some spend their whole lives trying to leave; others strive to burrow their way back in.

The intimacy that Capa encourages is not reserved for outsiders. "Get closer" is a dangerous proposition. A few hundred miles north of Havana, in Boston, MA, I have spent the week around individuals engaged in non-violent civil resistance from Azerbaijan to Madagascar and Bulgaria to Mexico. These people humble and inspire me, not only with their life stories, but also with the unabashed way in which they "get closer." On the first day, I heard them all claim the identities I have been too scared to articulate while working in conflict and post-conflict zones. "I am an activist," says one. "I am a writer," says another. "I am a feminist." "I am a photographer." "I am a journalist." "I am a human rights defender."

Cuba blurs one's vision - and does so in a way that feels deliberate. I have returned from there in a fog, with a hampered ability to "name parts," as the Henry Reed poem would have it. Watching identities be claimed with pride, resilience and fearlessness all around me is clearing the clouds.

Outside Hotel Ambos Mundos 
Cinderella in Havana 
A Wednesday night cigar near the Plaza de Armas
The woman and the doll, Havana Vieja
Flowers near the Capitolio
In Plaza Vieja
Singing Mariachi songs. In the background: "Everything because I love you."
Explaining the game in Central Havana
Shitrless dominos
Fish on wheels
Watching an Afro-Cuban dance performance in the street
No comment
Central Havana
Yellow-shirted love on the Malecon, Part I
Love on the Malecon, Part II
Solitude on the Malecon
Peace and motorcycles
The bubble says "Te quiero."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The places that make your heart crack

Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, chronicles the lives of photojournalists covering the Vietnam War. It is -- inevitably -- a tale of conflict, photography, love and the paradoxes the interweaving of the above brings to one's life. At a certain point, the narrator characterizes the lead character, Helen Adams, as such: "The pain of being in the war with Linh and the pain of being away from him were equal, were driving her mad. She had broken, become something else. She didn't know what yet." 

The way Helen felt about Linh, another main character, is how I feel as my plane lifts off into the sky above Cuba. 

Cuba broke me open. At various times in my life, I have declared my relentless need to be "shaken by the shoulders", to be moved by the world. When the fire of feeling alive is not burning brightly in my life, I wither. Cuba brought me back to life and shook me, stirred me and - yes - broke me in ways I have not fully processed in seat 31A of yet another airplane.

I cannot know anything after Cuba.

I do not know who is earnestly happy there, who is only happy because sunniness is the best coping mechanism in the face of adversity, or who says they are living in "the best country in the world" only because s/he is not allowed to leave it and find out otherwise.

I do not remember what I look like without a glowing face of sweat and pink, without a pool of perspiration in my bra, without dust marks on all my pants to remind me of the places I sat to catch my breath.

I do not understand. I fluctuate between hope and despair, endearment and anger, guilty oversatiation and constant hunger. I see a Cuba of affection, of love, of calling women "beauties" and "princesas" and "amorcitas". Amorcitas are my favorite. Next to it, I see a world of completely avoidable decay and resignation. I see and hear the Havana of reggaeton and salsa and bright yellow pants. I also see the ghost town of Havana, with the ever-present police officers interrupting the shadows of the night.

I woke up every morning and applied blush to my cheeks. This took place in the full knowledge that upon stepping out the door, I would surrender to the Cuban heat and humidity and my cheeks would take care of the blushing all on their own. There was enough heat for me to look bronzed in my sleep. And yet, there was something comforting about the affection of a brush on a cheek, about the notion of "putting on my face" to face the world out there. I felt that Havana required of me that I put on my face.

I am still processing Cuba. I feel the need for a verdict, even if I am underqualified to offer one. One cannot pass through Cuba without digging for a conclusion, without needing the closure and the cozy feeling of having decided something about it. This is where my not knowing comes in: Cuba will not let you decide easily. She, like me, will put on her face every morning. But while my face will remain glowingly pink throughout the day, Cuba's face will change in the afternoon, and at night, and the next morning, until you are so confused that you are ready to give up. Cuba will keep spinning like this until you subscribe to viewing her as magical or enchanting or scarred or scarring or a point in the sliding spectrum of it all.
A kiss in Plaza de la Catedral
Wednesday afternoon in Vedado
End of the school day in Plaza Vieja
A trail of cigar smoke
Domino in Plaza del Cristo
Rollerblades on the Prado
Love, everywhere.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dear conflicted land

Dear conflicted land,

You are so small that one can drive through you listening to just one radio station. You have not been the homiest of homes to me, but here I am, having left you after 9 months, and listening to Galgalatz FM through the internet, hoping to still feel connected to you through the sound of familiar commercials.

As you are reading this, I am away from internet, Israel, Greece, and most everyone I love. Before leaving for my next journey, I penned a letter to the land I called home for the past year. If you wish to read the rest of it in my column at Gypsy Girls Guide, click here. In the meantime, know that I miss your readership and companionship and, as e.e. cummings would have it, i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Walking across a land, in words and in photos

Because walking is the way I understand places, the way they frustrate, confuse, and disorient me. Walking is the way I fall in love.

The story
The Time We Walked to the Sea
The Day We Failed to Walk
The Day Storks Changed My Mind
The Day Messi Rode Past Us
The Day of Wheat and Worry
The Day We Found the Sea

The world in his eyes 
A mosque has been built in front of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth
Flight of the storks
Storks in the sky 
A snail on wheat
Cana entrepreneurs harness the marketing potential of their city's Biblical significance.
Sunrise viewed from inside the tent
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and we always picked the wrong one.
Wheat, right before the harvest 
Walking on the side of the wheat fields near Kibbutz Lavi
A droplet in the making at Kibbutz Lavi
My favorite plant of the hike
The Horns of Hattin viewed at sunset from a distance
Camping in a wheat field
Wheat field sunset
Condensation forms on the tent flap at sunrise.
Bokeh condensation
Tent condensation at sunrise
View of the Sea of Galilee and surrounding towns from one of the highest lookout points
The town of Tiberias, right by the sea of Galilee
A tree grows in Tiberias
The time we reached the sea
Birds of the Galilee
On the last day of the endeavor
Go in peace.