We are tempted to reduce life to a simple search for happiness. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning. The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to that which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning—indifferent to all happiness—makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others. We must hope for grace, for our lives to be sustained by moments of meaning and happiness, both equally worthy of human communion.
Sleeping in a cavernous hotel room in Cairo last spring, I struggled with mosquitoes. My feet stuck out beyond the too-short blanket, and my head did too. One morning I woke and counted 96 bites on my face, feet, and lower legs.
It could have been worse. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War in Cuba, thirteen times more American soldiers died of mosquito-borne diseases -- yellow fever, typhoid, malaria -- than by enemy fire. A few years earlier in Panama, mosquitoes had killed a lot of French too, thousands of them, when they tried unsuccessfully to build a canal. The terrible death toll was one reason they abandoned the project, which the United States would pick up and resume a little while later.
In the grand scheme of history, I was fortunate my mosquitoes weren't killers. You could also say I was fortunate that my blanket, though too short, was clean. In Havana in 1900, an experiment was performed that required some pretty nasty bedding. Conventional wisdom held that yellow fever came not from mosquitoes but from air that carried sewage, decaying animal flesh, etc. People also believed it could be contracted by coming into contact with the soiled clothes or bedding of those suffering from the fever. In his book The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal (1870-1914), David McCullough describes why a doctor named Walter Reed needed some dirty sheets:
Convinced now of the truth of Finlay's theory, Reed pressed on with further experiments proving conclusively that Stegomyia fasciata was the carrier, and that neither filth nor "fomites," the term used for the soiled clothes or bedding of yellow-fever patients, had anything whatever to do with spreading the disease. For twenty nights, as part of one experiment, a doctor and three volunteer soldiers, confined to a one-room shack, slept in the soiled pajamas of yellow-fever patients, on beds reeking of black vomit and other excreta; and for all the discomfort of the experience, none of them suffered the least sign of illness.
On Wednesday I sat in the Milligan College dining hall in spring-time Tennessee and, while munching salad, scrolled through headlines on my laptop. Clicking one that said "photojournalists killed in Libya" I read the first paragraph, which made my food lose its taste. By the time I reached the bottom of the article the world itself felt different, like a chunk had just been hacked out of it, violently and irrevocably, and knocked into oblivion. Chris Hondros was dead.
Funny thing is, I didn't know Chris personally, and the only words I had spoken to him were kind of dumb. In the chaos of Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 2, I saw a photographer crouched by a curb who i think was Chris. He was photographing a weary man who had just been bandaged up after having a rock slam into his face. "Good idea," I told the quiet photographer as I waited to also photograph the man. As Chris got up and I got down, our eyes met for a second. And that, I think, is the extent of my encounter with a man whose work I had appreciated for years and who was now dead in the Libyan city of Misrata, his body to be loaded onto a ship bound for Benghazi and then eventually shipped back home.
The Egyptian man above, who works in Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, is smoking a cigarette in the Great Hypostyle Hall. Many, probably most of the foreign travelers who step into the hall are here on short holidays. They likely entered through a climate-controlled airport rather than through a more messy land border. They probably wouldn't have needed to do laundry since leaving home. They're on a visit, and they know it will be brief.
None of this is bad, but it does have its disadvantages. As Paul Theroux suggests in his book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, through this kind of travel we may return home with a less developed understanding of the relationship between "Here and There". He writes:
I hated parachuting into a place. I needed to be able to link one place to another. One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.
About an hour before Friday prayers began, while walking through Cairo’s crowded Tahrir Square, a man named Mahdy grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and said, “Hey, where you from?” He had a beard (that’s him in the center), a strong, confident voice, and when I said “America” he said, “Oh, which state, I used to live in Texas, in Dallas.” Come to find out, Mahdy had even spent three days in Tennessee. “A nice state,” he said.
Like many other people I had met in Tahrir over the previous ten days, Mahdy quickly left me dumbfounded by his passion, articulateness, and courage. Cairo was in the midst of historic upheaval and Tahrir Square was the epicenter. Mahdy was one of hundreds of thousands who at some point had stood in this square since January 25, demanding change in Egypt.
He told me many things in the 15 minutes we were together, a righteous anger burning in his eyes, and at times I imagined I was listening to Patrick Henry at the Virginia Convention. Here’s a sample of what he said:
We are eating ful and tamaya; Mubarak and his people are eating shrimp!”
“I’m not one of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are my brothers.”
“Fear is dead. Nobody is going to back down even if they die.”
“I wasn’t in the square yesterday…my health isn’t good and I needed to rest. But I definitely was coming today. I came prepared to die if I must.”
“In the U.S. I’ve been questioned by the FBI but they treated me with respect – I even get emails from them sometimes asking me how I am doing. Here the police never treat you with respect. Sometimes when I arrive in the US the immigration official stamps my [American] passport and says, 'Welcome Home.' In Egypt they look at my beard and pull me aside for questioning. And they're not even sensible questions!”
“My wife is American and my children have U.S. passports. Whenever they go out I make them take their passports. That way if the police stop them they won’t abuse them. But from now on, in this new Egypt, my children will leave their passports at home.”
As he spoke, another Egyptian in the crowd, a stranger, wiped the sweat from Mahdy’s brow. Sometimes Mahdy paused our conversation to translate what he was saying to those around us. The crowd nodded their approval or, in the case of his joke comparing U.S. and Egyptian FBIs, laughed. There was fire in Hamdy's voice. Like so many others in Tahrir he had a vision for his country and his children, a vision for which I am certain he would have given his life this day if indeed it had been required.
But several hours later, in an announcement that sent a deafening roar through Tahrir and all of downtown Cairo, we learned that Mubarak had resigned. Mahdy would return home to his wife and children, a proud Egyptian.
The woman in this photo is, her family told me almost a year ago, 110 years old (give or take a year). She outlived two husbands, takes an aspirin a day, and lives in a quiet backstreet in Luxor, Egypt. She has seen a lot of history -- even, perhaps, in the last several days. For a few great images of events in the Middle East this week, check out the always captivating Big Picture blog at "Protest spreads in the Middle East".
As children our journeys begin. They set us upon a road that will surprise and teach, chasten and inspire. Soon enough, if we make it this far (not all do, we will have learned), our legs stretch into adulthood. On occasion we will look back at the ground we have covered and even at the way we have walked it. We might look more carefully forward too, aware not only that the way we walk matters but also that at a time and place unknown our journeys will end.
The boy in this photo is walking a road near the Ethiopian town of Jinka. We were walking together, on about a ten-mile trek, and after a few miles he turned and asked if he could carry my backpack a while. Along with two other people we walked, enjoying conversation and company and the scenery along the way. It was a kind thing that the boy had asked.
We real people have our journeys. Thankfully, so do characters in literature. In Frederick Buechner's novel Godric, we follow the life of a twelfth-century English holy man (named Godric) who wasn't always so holy. "I started out as rough a peasant's brat and full of cockadoodledoo as any," he recounts. "I worked uncleanness with the best of them or worst. I tumbled all the maids would suffer me and some that scratched and tore like weasels in a net. I planted horns on many a goodman's brow and jollied lads with tales about it afterward....A flatterer I was. A wanderer. I thieved and pirated. I went to sea. Such things as happened then are better left unsaid."
Looking back on the day he left his parents and siblings to go see the world, Godric recalls how first a priest named Tom Ball had come to the house. The priest had come to give a blessing, and to share these words:
"This life of ours is like a street that passes many doors," Ball said, "nor think you all the doors I mean are wood. Every day's a door and every night. When a man throws wide his arms to you in friendship, it's a door he opens same as when a woman opens hers in wantonness. The street forks out, and there's two doors to choose between. The meadow that tempts you rest your bones and dream a while. The rackribbed child that begs for scraps the dogs have left. The sea that calls a man to travel far. They all are doors, some God's and some the Fiend's. So choose with care which ones you take, my son, and one day—who can say—you'll reach the holy door itself."
It has happened again: after several months on the road, walking and photographing throughout the day in the less-than-moderate Middle Eastern heat, I’ve lost weight. I've lost so much, in fact, that on some days I feel a little frail, a little bit like I'm disappearing. And I can't say that I like that much, because I want to be whole.
But here's what I do like about my partial disappearance: in looking at my body—in seeing my scrawniness, my sagging pants, the ripple of a beating heart visible on the surface of my chest—I identify with the weak. I have joined their ranks, in a sense, and I share their brokenness. When I see the fit and strong, people whose pants aren’t sliding down and whose arms are connected to full shoulders, or whose faces are rounded by smooth and pampered skin, I feel an outsider. I even feel envy, and at times embarrassment and shame.
I also feel something very much like rage. Rage at the emaciation, the poverty, the disgusting imbalance that blights history and our own time. Rage at the lack of wholeness in people’s lives. Rage at broken bodies, at the audible sounds of hunger (if we pause to look and listen), at the hands on Wall Street and Main Street, in South Carolina and Syria, that move more to fatten themselves than to nourish the weak. Rage at the way that, just this afternoon, I witnessed a helpless old woman being abused by strong young men. She had cried out as they harassed her, yanking on her headscarf and mocking her, and the last thing she said to me was, “I’m sorry you are seeing this.” But I wasn’t sorry I saw it, for in seeing it my rage only grew, and there are things for which it is better to be enraged than ignorant.
It is partly because of rage that I do what I do, even though it costs me some of my own strength and mass. And what do I do? Though sometimes even I forget, when I see a weak woman abused on the street it comes back to me with the force of a slamming door in a hurricane. I photograph and write about our world, and I do it not because it pays well but because every street on Earth has people aching, and sometimes downright screaming, for wholeness. I do it because the Earth is full of the emaciated.
Photo taken and text written in Deir Ez-Zur, Syria (June 2010)
Tucked away in the rocky hills of southern Lebanon is the town of Qana. It is a place where, while buying a bottle of juice in a tiny store, a conservatively dressed Shia woman and her children may come up and ask where you are from, and then tell you about their uncle in Dearborn and how happy they are to have you visiting Qana. It is a place where you walk out of a store feeling welcomed.
In the modern era Qana is best known for tragedy. Long ago, however, it was better known for a wedding miracle. Carvings in rock on the edge of town indicate that early Christians believed this to be the site where Jesus turned water into wine. The fourth century church historian Eusebius seems to have considered this the place too (there is a competing site in the Galilee region of Israel). The area is beautifully kept, with a pretty path and flowering plants, and on the day I visited it was the epitome of peacefulness.
There was, however, this sign you see in the photo above. It marked the entrance to the path, and it seemed a little...well, overstated. Did sacredness really not begin until sometime in the first century? (It's a sad thought if true.) And does sacredness really require some spectacular act? At least on this day, for me, sacredness began a few hours earlier, when I was interacting with the Shia family while holding that fruit juice, smiling and sharing, connecting through words and a mutual reaching out. I felt a joy and wonder there, and I experienced a kind of love that enlivens the soul and leaves you ready to risk all.
So while I recommend a visit to this site, I don't think I like the sign much. And I wonder if Qana, with its miracles and massacres and kind mothers at the store, might want to consider putting up a line from Wendell Berry's "How To Be a Poet" instead:
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
As a traveler who writes, you’re intimately acquainted with the way drudgery can become adventure, or at least a story, when looked at in the rearview mirror. Even in your most anxious, stir-crazy moments, you know that one day, back on the far side of Earth, the event you’re experiencing now will somehow seem more spectacular, or at least valuable and defining.
But as a writer who travels, there are other things you see in the rearview mirror, things now well beyond reach because time, and perhaps distance, has carried you too far. You see lost youth, a fading innocence. You see decisions that at the time seemed noble (and probably were) but which now merely leave you silent, staring into the mirror. You see the future for what it became—the past—and suddenly you wish, at least in some moments, to speak and act differently. You wish that the thing in the mirror was ahead of you, but it is not.
In the rearview mirror even idealism looks dangerous, a Titanic launched and sent full steam ahead. You understand well the ship’s design and the confidence with which it departed, but now you also know the iceberg through which history, or at least you, will interpret its voyage. In the rearview mirror you see that life is hard, harder than you ever expected.
But the journey, you remember, is not yet over. You’re not crushed and broken 12,600 feet under the Atlantic, nor are you forever stranded in some emergency lane while the world speeds by at 70mph. And this is why, having pulled off the road and given that rearview mirror a good long look, you will eventually turn your eyes back to the road, and then, slowly but surely, you will pull your vehicle back into the forward-moving stream.
Finally, having removed your hat to better feel the breeze of movement and hope, you will look for a place to hang it. You will choose, at least for a little while, the rearview mirror.