Everyone had someone in their family who had been killed. We felt very bad saying “Please help us get out of here. We have lost our friends.” We couldn’t say that, because they had lost everything.
I took these pictures in December 2010, at the Lebanese-Syrian border. It is against the rules to take photographs, but I couldn’t stop myself, and perhaps I thought my obvious foreign-ness would in some way protect me from harm. That is until I saw these hand prints.
What was on these hands that their prints should endure in cement? How hard was this person pushed up against the wall, and for how long? It freaked me out more than the bullet holes I’d seen all over Beirut, including those inside the apartment I was staying in.
My visit to Damascus was short - 36 hours with my sister as guide. She lived there for a year to perfect her now fluent Arabic, but even so I found it strange that my dad should allow his two daughters to go off alone to spend 36 hours in a country ruled by a dictator.
He lived in Lebanon when the Syrian secret police was anything but secretive about kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ people who were deemed troublemakers by the Assad regime. But whatever. I actually felt more free to take photographs in Damascus than I had in Beirut.
(This is one of the many billboards of Assad Sr. and son that litter the landscape as one approaches the Syrian border from Lebanon.)
I loved what little I saw of Damascus: the al-Hamidiyya souk, where you can buy Turkish iqat fabrics, hand-woven Palestinian shawls, Syrian prayer beads, Iraqi pottery - anything. It’s the modern day supermarket of the Silk Route.
(These are bullet holes shot through the roof of the souk by the machine-gun fire of French warplanes trying to quell a nationalist rebellion in 1925, so this is not the first time the Syrians have faced the murderous intentions of their rulers).
(The souk also sells tacky underthings that would make any lapdancer proud, and although the women are veiled, they buy these metallic, fluffy, thonged undergarments in public. In this case, their men are doing it for them.)
Damascus is also home to the Umayyad mosque that is said to hold the head of St. John the Baptist and is one of the oldest mosques in the world.
(This is the interior courtyard, filled with Shia pilgrims. We had to wear robes with hoods to enter, which meant I lost my sister at least 3 times).
(Vol de Mort Spring collection)
Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet, and if I felt honoured to visit it then while it was peaceful, I now feel heartbroken too.
These last few days have seen the continuous shelling of Homs, the seat of Syrian resistance, and the media is finally full of videos and soundbites describing the carnage.
The most compelling of all was a Syrian Brit (Danny Abdul Daymen) being interviewed by the BBC from Homs to the sound of snipers in the background. He sounded angry but also scared. When the interviewer asked how he felt about Russia and China blocking UN action against Assad’s government, he said ‘tell Russia and China that they have Syrian blood on their hands’. Damn right.
As for the rest of us, we gave Syrians hope that we would help them when we supported the end of Mubharak, of Ghadafi, the uproar over Bahrain, Yemen - didn’t we?
He told the interviewer that he had seen bodies with their heads, arms, legs cut off - torsos of all ages - littering the streets. And that he is trapped, along with all those who live there.
Snipers hang off the roofs shooting at anybody who dares venture into the streets, and tanks have blocked residents from fleeing. The one field hospital in the area has been shelled to bits, so there is no nowhere to take the injured. They will die. There are people being decapitated by their government, one they didn’t elect in the first place.
We listen to reports of war, we rent movies about torture, we read thrillers about mayhem. And when all those plots turn out to exist in the real world, we feel a muffled compassion, the kind that has us deploring the state of things on Facebook, on Twitter, and maybe over dinner. It’s like a heavy bass that vibrates through you from far away, then fades.
I don’t know what to do and I’m not arrogant enough to think I have the power to help. So here’s to all those whose eyes met mine during those 36 hours in Damascus, and a few who didn’t. I hope their gaze acts as a reminder that they are you and I, under another sky. This is a country caught between competing interests whose combined passivity makes them just as responsible for every individual death as Assad’s revolting regime.
This is the carpet seller who happily unrolled dozens of carpets for my sister Daisy and I, and might have buried us under his entire stock had we not bought 4 carpets between us.
He’s holding Daisy’s carpet, and our tired eyes are the sign that he won. We bought.
I love shooting portraits from one car to another. I just wasn’t sure if it would get me in huge trouble. Apparently not.
Most people looked back at me and allowed themselves to be photographed.
Curiosity wins over getting to school on time…
…or fixing that ladder in a hurry.
I love the openly affectionate kinship between Middle Eastern men.
And I love that I didn’t give in to my cravings and buy these beans.
Elderly hookah fest…
I wonder if this guy realizes he’s the spitting image of the statue he’s sitting next to.
City employee sweeping up the souk…
(These girls don’t seem to they’re walking all over the Israeli flag - I took this so quickly because I almost didn’t notice it either. And I hesitated to post it, because I hate to add fuel to an already heated issue, but it happened.)
I wonder if I’ll ever get to return to Syria. I’d love to go back. For now, I’ll just blog about it, and yes, join the legions of us who blah blah blah on social media. And I’ll think of these people I photographed when I sign yet another petition and lose yet another chunk of respect for the supposedly “civilized” world’s passivity in the face of a widespread and systematic massacre.
(The road back to Beirut from Syria)
I recently started a new job as social media strategist for an ad agency in Montreal. Going back to a “real” job after a year away from any form of boss was a big decision, even if it was partly dictated by my dying bank account.
The past 14 months of working as a freelance writer, photographer and translator were my gift to myself (and to my Visa card, apparently). I wanted to explore everything: the world, my love of photography, my need to write…my credit limit. And see where it took me. And who I’d be at the end of it - a sort of rinse cycle for the mind.
I started in the summer of 2009 with an amazing photography workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place that reminded me that I don’t need to leave the continent to witness incredible beauty:
Then it was off to Goa, India with my sister Daisy. I can’t think of a better way to express what it meant to me, except to quote something I wrote while I was there: “I’ve needed this so badly for so long – to be under this sun, by this sea – to be this far away. It’s as though the further I get from what’s familiar to me, the more I recognize myself”. And this image perfectly illustrates how I felt while I was there.
Then it was off to Calcutta to work as a photographer for an NGO called Calcutta Rescue. Kolkata was chaos at it’s finest and most stimulating: 90% humidity, 37c heat, millions of bodies, layers of sound over layers of noise…I can’t wait to return.
Then off to California to spend a week at a friend’s place, writing and exploring.
…with a brief stop in New York to see friends, and Connecticut to see my grandmother.
Then a family reunion to celebrate my father’s birthday in a big house in Croatia with my geographically scattered siblings:
And a side trip to the mysterious and unexpectedly beautiful Montenegro:
By now, Visa was upping my limit every 20 minutes, which might sound like a good thing, but is a sign that I was spending too much and repaying too little. So I stayed home for a few months and started mumbling about the need for a job to anyone who would listen…until my father called and invited me to spend Christmas in Beirut.
Somehow I managed to drag my sister Daisy to Damascus, Syria for 36 incredible hours. Given what’s going on there at the moment, I’ll be posting a lot more of what I saw there in the next couple of weeks…in the meantime, and if you want an insider’s view of what’s happening over there, read my Syrian-American friend’s blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus”. The Syrian secret police are now looking for her, so please “Like” her Facebook page under the same name too - the larger the community, the harder it is to “disappear” her.
So now it’s home sweet home for many months. I swear. It’s time to focus on what to do with what I’ve learned. Once I unpack from our trip to the Cayman Islands.
What else was I supposed to do with all the airmiles I’ve accumulated over the past 2 years?