Beirut Pathways

I think it was Albert Camus who said that to know a town you must know how the people love, how they work, and how they die. As I find my visual way into Beirut, I’m not yet sure how the people of this city love, but I suspect it’s fiercely. How do they work? For some, their days are marked by long hours laboring at a craft they’ve been doing for years; for others – particularly the millennial generation – they seek work in alternative ways, both ingeniously and practically. There’s always a few artists in the bunch, doggedly determined to carve out a life doing what they love, however difficult or precarious. As for how they die, if history is our guide, there’s a legacy of violent death in Beirut. And the trauma of such a legacy has a tendency to leap through generations.

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Yet, to situate a people into our prescriptive formulations of place and meaning is to muddle the ideological space where people form and perform their identities. The only thing I’m sure of is that people here like everywhere else in the world want the chance to choose their lives. In the end, trying to find the splashes of color and shape that fragment the visceral energy of Beirut are as helpful to me as Camus’ prescription.

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Get Out of the Way

I had a plan. I would drive up to Pittsburgh for an extended weekend to photograph places that once meant something to me, and perhaps still do. I would visit what used to be my grandmother's house and take a quick picture from the street. (She's been dead and gone for more than a decade.) It was her garage door that interested me. I thought to frame it straight-on, fill the frame proportionally with that rectangular door. When I visited her in my youth, I would throw it open, march through the garage, past my grandfather's aging tools, onto the back porch and into her kitchen where she'd be waiting with kisses that could taste chocolate on my cheeks. I would take Route 51 to get there, bypassing the tubes and continuing along 51 to the West End Bridge. I planned to stop around West Carson Street and walk across the bridge, maybe look up and photograph those cables reaching upward, hanging onto the giant yellow arch spanning the Ohio River. I may even look toward the city, take a picture from the bridge, just to see what my Nikon would do from that distance at F16. I would visit my father's grave -- also dead and gone, for almost as long as his mother -- to photograph that sandstone wall that I always use as a reference point to guide me to his grave, after a few laps around the cemetery. This plan was beginning to feel good, making sense. The right antidote for whatever it was that I felt then. I always seem to reach for home, a home that I've traveled far from, for grounding during times of change. So, off I went.

And nothing happened as planned. The battery died on my Nikon, the weather was poor, and I became distracted by something else -- my mother's home. I've never lived there, and those artifacts she uses to curate her space are as foreign to me as the idea of a nuclear family. What puzzled me was a peculiar feeling that I was welcome in a place I felt estranged from, a place I could not recognize from my youth. Confused, yet alert and interested, I picked-up my camera, lifted it to my face, touching my face, always touching, looked through the viewfinder, and began composing images, letting light do its work when it could. 

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A poem

"Three Women"

I’m at a rich man’s house with my platoon
at night
to kill or capture the rich man.
Knock first, see if they open, 
if not, go in hard. 
Don’t give them much time.

They open.
Soldiers run up the stairs, through rooms. 
Three women are found and pushed into the front room, 
one old, two young. 
I start with the young woman.

Where’s your father?
Jordan. 

Crashing, thumping and yelling, 
soldiers overturn furniture, scan rooms, 
break cabinets, searching, 
yelling “all clear” while running through the house. 

Why is he in Jordan?
Business.
    
Her hand begins to shake. 
I see she’s beautiful, 
mauve headscarf, earrings, makeup, dress and shawl. 
She’s poised, though afraid, 
sitting on the edge of a low couch.  

What business?
I don’t know. 

Her hand is shaking, quivering. 
Is she eighteen, fifteen? 
Oh, so beautiful, so dignified, 
so poised – yes, poised,
though afraid. 

Where does you father work?
I don’t know. 

Where does he get his money?
I don’t know.

Her quivering and shaking hand,
soft, white, delicate,  
she sits straight like she’s trying to lift her head through the roof,
to rise above
something,

so pretty, so poised, 
though afraid.