Thursday, December 29, 2011

The scent of memories

It was the day after Christmas and proof of my yellow fever vaccination was nowhere to be found.

I have never been a scrapbooker, but trinkets have always traveled with me. Boarding passes, receipts from excellent meals, pieces of paper that speak to me and tell me I should hold on to them. I pulled out the blue envelope that contained the mementos of that year. The paper inside still smells like Guatemala.

I found the first love note he wrote me. For "the girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair."

I found the luggage tags from the trip that brought me to Cairo on the day we met.

I found a first draft of the curriculum I designed for the post-conflict reintegration of ex-combatants into peacetime communities (complete with spelling errors in Spanish and not a single accent in the right place).

I found a farewell note Karen wrote me, complete with references to the musical Rent we were all listening to when we were frantically trying to pack my bags.

I found bank notes from places that have re-plunged themselves into conflict.

I found the side effects of malaria pills, right next to a to-do list with a quote at the top.

I found a poem my mother had sent me, in a moment of lucidity and affection. Ρω is short for Ρωξάνη, my name in Greek. The poem is called "τα Ρω του Έρωτα", the Ro's in eros. My mother's note read "I looked through Elytis' words for the lines he probably wrote about you."

More farewell cards. A photo signed by the ex-combatants who participated in my first workshop in Spanish. Another hospital check-out form, this time for dengue fever. A hotel room keycard from the first shared vacation. Another boarding pass that served as a bookmark.

I found 2009 and 2010. Clumsy beginnings, shy flutterings, recovery. I found the scent of hurricanes. I did not find the vaccination card. But, amidst the papers whose edges were curled by rain, I found the company of my younger self and the gift of beautiful life the road had given her.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Celebrating light

I arrived in Jerusalem like a doe-eyed lover in a budding relationship: I wanted to be swept off my feet. I wrote then:
"They" say that "of the 10 portions of beauty that came down to the world, 9 went to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world." The next verse reads "of the 10 portions of suffering that came down to the world, 9 went to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world." 
I wished then: "For today, though, world -- please, let me just savor the beautiful light."

The world has been generous with me. In December, when natural light hides early, the holidays gift us with an extra glimmer. I have always been attached to holidays, all the holidays, regardless of whether I observe them. Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Christmas, Holi -- sign me up for all of them. This week, Jerusalem is aglow with the light of Hanukkah. In the candlelight, when I squint, I feel like I can see all portions of beauty that have made it into this world.

Hanukkah candles on the second day of the holiday in the Old City of Jerusalem 

A hint of Christmas

Reflection of a candle and blue Hanukkah lights on a cafe table

A hip menorah in an art gallery of West Jerusalem

A little bit of bargaining later, these became our Hanukkah candle-holders.
Our lit candles and their reflection on the windows

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Crumbs of home

It was about a year ago that he came home with that lamp. The bed was my domain at the time in the home that was never really home. I woke up every day, willing my ribs to heal from the accident, willing for some beautiful light to surprise me through the window. I spent most of my time in that home resisting permanence, fearing that if I exhaled, unpacked and owned anything, I would be tied to that life, the pain of recovery, and the desperate stagnation of immobility. I frowned when he brought the lamp, resenting it and its little blue hat for anchoring me.

A year later. The body is healed and longing for permanence. There is a home -- home home. Glorious light filters in through the gauze curtains every morning. "Oh my gosh, would you look at this light!" he says in his best imitation-of-Roxanne voice, but I know he is in awe of it too. We have bought plates - 18 of them. We barely have 18 friends here, or the ability to cook a three-course-meal for six people on two slow-as-molasses electric burners, so we use our 18 plates to egg each other on by seeing how many we can pile in the sink at any one time. We have bought a coffee-maker, a little moka pot whose purchase I did not resist because it was tiny enough to travel and home enough to long for. Clearly, that was before we came to own 18 plates.

My life still fits in two suitcases, with the most important components of it being too outsized and too unpackable. You cannot pack love; I have tried. I cannot pack couches either. He has never met anyone who loves sitting on the floor as much as I do. We each have our corner. He is in a chair that is so orange I am convinced it was born to offend my taste; I on the floor cushions, back against the wall, little blue lamp next to me. He likes the window seat too. It's where he does all his browsing. When I pull him away from his TED talks and vertical farming campaigns to go for a walk, he whines: "Fine, I won't learn today. It's OK. I can interrupt my learning time" -- but we both know he loves learning outside, holding hands.

We live in a home with a loud door. For someone with my harpaxophobia (that's a real thing, I swear), that is a blessing. I hear the steel whining against the Jerusalem stone, and that is the sound of home now. The steps that lead to the door are treacherous and I always look like a penguin descending them. He has an ease in floating in and out of this apartment. Right outside, there is always a man who sits at the bench. "Tell me a story," he prompts us sometimes and I feel the universe winking.

When the time came to buy a space heater, I balked again. Like love, it is unpackable. Two weeks of shivering in our hats and coats in the living room catapulted us to the Old City. In a tiny store cluttered with hair straighteners and blenders, we found a space heater that would have failed every security regulation in the United States. It looks more like a grill than a heater and the first two weeks of owning it left me interacting with it like a child with its first pet: shyly, from a distance, afraid it would bite. The heater was clearly meant to be the Ugly Chair's cousin, as it emits warm, orange light. When I squint at it, especially this season, it feels a little like Christmas.

A week after we succumbed to the space heater, we discovered The Fruit Crumble at the Jerusalem Cinematheque restaurant. We have succumbed to the cranberries and apples and crumble topped with vanilla ice cream week after week. We had the first one on the day of the first rain. The next one when I submitted my applications to graduate school. The next one when "I just want a fruit crumble!" was the only way to make his day better. The one after that when we watched the kind of traumatic and jarring documentary that makes me feel that my love for this place is irreconcilable with my helpless outrage at the injustices that unfold a mere 3 kilometers from the site of The Fruit Crumble. The crumble has become a no-special-occasion treat, one of the few ones we will allow ourselves, one of the ones that make us feel at home.

At the exact same time every day, a woman stands outside and bellows for Roni. The first time it happened, Elijah and I wondered if Roni is a wandering child or a husband who took too long to come home. The second time, I remembered the scene from La vita e bella in which Roberto Begnini notices a man yells "Maria! The key!" every day. "Roooooooni!" is the Maria-the-key of our lives here. By now, 67 days in, we have established Roni is a dog.

On Christmas Day, on the fifth day of Hanukkah, too few sleeps away from now, I am off again. The lamp and the space heater and the winter coats are deliberately staying behind, as though my return is accountable to them. He is staying here as well, and he has promised to mind The Fruit Crumble. For the next month, I will be in East Africa, doing what I love, getting bitten by the mosquitoes that love me, filling the harpaxophobia container that has been running delightfully empty. I will be back for the coats and the crumble and the love, the unpackable, outsized love, although part of me is terrified of what will happen if one of "those really bad things" that conflict professionals talk about vaguely and in a cavalier way stands in the way of my reunion with the blue lamp and noisy door.

When I think about packing life up again, my heart misses the Roni it has never seen. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The darker corners of storytelling

This post is part of the Books Well-Loved series, in which I share quotes, impressions and insights from the books that have touched me.

Book and author: The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli
Where I read it: I wish I could tell you. On a terrace somewhere, accompanied by papas bravas; in bed, to chase away the nightmares.
Soundtrack: Both the book and my thoughts about it flow better to the sound of this.
Favorite phrase: "...but for her, the value of the picture was that it returned her purpose -- to find small glimmers of humanity."

"There is a very real chance we will spend the rest of our lives in prison," I said to her.
"Well, then we will have plenty of time for you to teach me Spanish," she joked with a nonchalance that made me hate her and promptly love her.

We were both out of our depth. Conflict, development, social change, photography, documentation, storytelling, journalism -- these words and their variants were fluently part of our professional lexicon. They were also on the 'dirty word' list, only to be uttered in whispers and among trusted ones in a community that lived under repression. Forced disappearances, detentions, interrogations, shadows on the wall walking in parallel to your own step... that was the governing lexicon. It was like learning how to swim again, as an uncoordinated twenty-something who knows she could drown with weights on her feet.

She had brought The Lotus Eaters with her. I am embarrassed to tell you with which book I had armed myself in preparation for this project [but I will say, I did load 17 other books into my Kindle because "should we indeed end up in political prison, we'll need something to read for the rest of our lives." Do not ask why in my imagination prison guards would indulge a Kindle and free speech.] In the afternoons, when both our heartbeats neared normal again, we would share a portion of spicy baked potatoes. She is one of those women who can unironically pull off a straw hat. She'd sit across from me in it, with Tatjana Soli's words, occasionally reading them outloud to me. One of her favorite passages:
In terms of the present moment, they were despicable to the soldiers, the victims, to even themselves. In the face of real tragedy, they were unreal, vultures; they were all about getting product. [...] The moment ended, about to be lost, but the one who captured it on film gave both subject and photographer a kind of disposable immortality. 
The Lotus Eaters is a novel about the lives of photojournalists covering the Vietnam war, packed with insight on photography and the perils of documentation, life and work in conflict zones, and the tug of war between chauvinism and feminism in those settings. There is a pinch of love -- there has to be. These novels would be lodged in our esophagus without the love. We would never wash them down. When I put the tinsel of the love story aside, The Lotus Eaters became uncomfortable. I felt like I was reading about the darker corners of conflict work, storytelling, and photography. The novel lost the comfortable veneer of fiction and tangoed with my life.
The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking, even among the most sympathetic: "I got an incredible shot of a dead woman/soldier/child. A real tearjerker." Afterward, film shot, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from each other.
How do we document cruelty? Are we still performing a service by capturing this moment in time and resharing it with those who were not there to bear witness or are we giving in to voyeurism and losing our own humanity? Why, why, why do we put ourselves in the line of  fire like that? Do we still feel anything after some time? This is what Helen, the protagonist, had to offer in an early chapter:
She would continue till the end, though she had lost faith in the power of pictures, because that work had been an end in itself, untethered to results or outcomes.
Helen may as well have been articulating my nightmare. I am tied to my work and service in conflict and post-conflict zones by love and conviction. When either wears off, I would like to move on to a new type of service that grips my imagination. But do we ever know that it is time to go? Or do we slowly become jaded, cynical and detached, going through the motions of the old service that no longer feels right?

Where does the question of a calling come in? What feeds the conviction? In the novel, Helen returns to the US briefly between two stints of covering the Vietnam war. She experiences the reverse culture shock and disorientation that are so familiar by now that these sentiments themselves feel like home. Every time I leave a conflict zone, wrap myself in a blanket filled with memories, and guzzle a chai latte, I say "Mmm... I think I could do this for a while, you know." Elijah is usually there to ask: "Could you though? Really?" Sure enough, two weeks of chai lattes and blankets later, my heart is ready to return to the service that it calls home. For Helen in the Lotus Eaters, home meant a lot of baking. This is a conversation that was triggered by her return:
"So, why aren't you working at a newspaper? Or covering another war? Isn't that what you're supposed to do?
"I just went there as a lark. It turned into something else. What do you do, if you have a hazardous talent, like riding over waterfalls in a barrel? A talent dangerous to your health?" After the question came out of her mouth, she felt embarrassed. He stopped and took a sip. "I don't know. If I was that good at something, I know it'd be hard to stop. Baking... shit." 
The Lotus Eaters came into my life when it could enlighten and haunt, and the novel did both of those. It is Soli's debut book and reading about her painstakingly long process of research and immersion made me appreciate her approach to writing as a craft. This is another book well-loved by its author -- and loved by me, but not because it made me smile, swoon or nod; rather, because in that thoroughly unsubtle way that books have with these things, it made me gasp.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hello, again.

A year ago, I participated in Reverb10, a community project to collectively reflect on 2010. Writers from around the world answered daily prompts on the highlights of the year about to come to an end and their hopes for the year to come. The project brought kindred spirits into my life and redefined the way I think about the digital world, community, writing and love. When I created Stories of Conflict and Love, I had a list of topics I was adamant I would never write about. Luckily for all of us, I have violated every condition on that list. Reverb10 came into my life at a critical juncture in my work in conflict and post-conflict zones, as it reminded me that in life and in work, in writing and in love, the world needs to see a little bit of your soul.

As part of Reverb11, Diana Prichard asked: "Who are you?" I answer in video form, with a compilation of photos, stories, and words from the year past, and with a heart exploding with gratitude for kinship, shared growth and the most benevolent 'invisible readers' I could have ever dreamed of.

* Note: If the embedded link does not work for you, click here. The instrumental cover of Bon Iver's Skinny Love is courtesy of Pedro Rovisco. All photos were taken by me in 2011, except the last three images, captured lovingly by Dani Trujillo and Noam Cochin. If you are curious about where a particular photo was taken, or would like to guess, leave a note in the comments! 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Field of mines [or: Choked]

"I think we may be spending the night in a minefield."

I have slept at some strange places. There was the middle of the Black-and-White Desert in the Sahara, when I woke up to find that a fox had eaten my breakfast. Or the middle of a wheat field, where I woke up to find that I had accidentally pooped on the hiking trail. Let's not forget about the Amazon jungle during a monsoon. A minefield, however, would be a first.
Tuscany in Israel, indeed

A sign informed us that we were in the "Tuscany of Israel." The light was warm, the hills were rolling as they do, and I even got a mosquito bite on the eve of December. The rental car with the sunroof was a far cry from its cousin that broke down on the Damascus-Baghdad highway a few warm-lit falls ago. The souvenirs of that drive, though, soon converged with this journey. Radio Lebanon overpowered the newscast in Hebrew. The hills became rocky and populated with signs 'strongly discouraging' us from getting off the road. "Caution: Live fire zone!" "Caution: Military road only!"

"Warning: This road leads to a border."

It does, indeed. The border is hugged by the "Good Fence" (sic), barbed wire, electric barbed wire and a painted tank facing the other way. The homes in this part of the country are eerily colorful, in that way that places that have experienced conflict often are in order to offset the trauma.

Stories offset trauma for me. It is through human stories that I find hope and through the act of storytelling that I seek to kindle it in myself and others. On this journey, humans were missing from the Tuscan-emulating landscape. It is as though the town evacuated itself and the FedEx truck ahead of us simply had not heard yet.

"If FedEx comes here, so can we!" he said, with sunniness.

Maps reach the limit of their use near borders. The ones that come with rental cars do not tell you about the fences and minefields and the roads not meant for car wheels. It was the postmen who led the way. We followed the FedEx postman to the Lebanese border. The waterfall on the other side of the fence was accessible only by camera lens.
A painted tank, a border fence and Lebanon in the background

The camera went where I did not.
A different postman this time. "Excuse me, are we on the right road to Majdal Shams?" He seems bemused and instructs us to follow him. The village outside which we are stopped is a border of its own. An invisible line bisects it. The southern part is home to Israelis, the northern part to Lebanese and some combination of UN forces, armies and checkpoints attempts to keep it from imploding. The village has been the site of threatened kidnappings and rocket attacks. Today, for us, it is another place to look at the map and ask for help. The postman hurries us out and on to Majdal Shams. 

Majdal Shams is a Druze village in the northern Golan Heights, a few breaths away from Syria. Druze people reside primarily in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, but they constitute an independent ethnicity and do not ethnically identify outside their own group. On Fridays, they gather on the Shouting Hill of Majdal Shams and use megaphones to shout their news to their families living on the Syrian side of the border. On a Tuesday, we are greeted by signs in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. "Eyebrow tweezing: A touch of beauty," suggested one. "Drive cleanly," instructed another. We wait as a shepherd and his goats cross the road. He sees us smiling, nods and waves. 
The Druze town of Majdal Shams

We are stuck in the middle of a convoy of Humvees. "Let them pass us, please," I say and he mocks my nervousness. On the roof of the military vehicle in front of us, there is a gun swinging left and right. On the left, there are bunkers, many of them remnants of the 1967 and 1973 wars. On the right, tanks are performing an exercise. Straight ahead, the sunset. The Humvees pass us and we are soon driving behind a truck carrying a giant coffeemaker. In Greek, we call it a 'briki'; in Turkey, 'cezve'; in Egypt, 'kanaka.' By the time we have finished our roadside early dinner, the giant coffeemaker has been installed on the town square of another Druze village by the Syrian border. Children clad in Barcelona soccer jerseys are admiring it and, among them, I feel at home.

"This cannot be right", he mutters. We have taken the instructed turn and are sitting on a dirt road thoroughly encircled by demarcated minefields. The eight homes in this community appear abandoned. "I think we may be spending the night in a minefield", he says. Later we find that this was one of the first settlements built in the Golan and that it has now been largely abandoned for more hospitable land, where a playground does not have to be built next to the multi-lingual "caution: minefield!" signs. Our turn, the correct turn, was just a few meters down the road. The owner of the room does not ask for passports, names, identification, or even a credit card. He speaks in rapid Hebrew and all I get is "if you hear boom boom, it's just the army base next door." Boom boom, it seems, translates universally.

There is a jacuzzi in the room, and a wooden loft, and a microwave -- none of which are features to which I am accustomed. Grey's Anatomy is on TV. When we step outside a bit later, we are greeted by a vast night sky and the sound of a tank rolling in the distance.

Sunset reflected on the hood of the car
I am not a novice to walls, fences, barbed wire, boom boom or "no entry" signs, but the more of them I bump up against, the more they choke me. I tell him: "If I were a hippie, this is when I would wish we lived in a borderless world." I still wish that, but the scholar of conflict in me acknowledges the necessity of boundaries. I find myself in a country that can look like Tuscany and a conflict zone within 25 kilometers and am grateful every day for all the people and stories that it has crowded within its pinched borders. Yet, right up against the borders, I am suffocated. Drive too far north, east, or southwest and you will not be able to drive anymore. This country can be an island and it chokes me like Cuba did.

We never drank the wine, used the jacuzzi, or read on the wooden loft that night.

We drove 750 kilometers in two days, all within the airtight borders, like hamsters on a wheel. On the way back, as we circumnavigate the sea of Galilee, I remark on the vivacity of the fruit groves. "They are so much more comforting than minefields!", I mumble to fulfill my Captain Obvious requirement of the day. "Life over death," he says.