True Places are not on a Map

The couple above is standing at a street corner in Chiang Mai, Thailand and doing a very sensible thing: looking at a Lonely Planet guidebook to figure out where exactly they are so that they will know which way to go. But the pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick may sometimes provide guidance as well, though of a different sort. “It is not down in any map," Melville writes, "true places never are."

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Cairo and Constant Change

If you are looking for Egyptian antiques in Cairo – and by antique I mean something from around fifty or one hundred years ago, not something from King Ramses’ bedstand in 1292 B.C. – you can find some among the shops like the one above at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

Egypt has experienced dramatic change in 2011, change that has been well documented and seen around the world. But a peek into a Cairo antique shop is a reminder that at every moment less dramatic change occurs too, in Cairo and every other city. How we make phone calls, how we play music, the way companies advertise their products – these things change. And so sometimes do the kinds of people who walk the streets. If Cairo in 2011 is not the same as Cairo in 2010, imagine what Cairo eighty years ago would have been like. For help in imagining this, here is a paragraph from Max Rodenbeck’s book Cairo: The City Victorious:

Cairo no longer aspired to be cosmopolitan; it already was. According to the 1927 census a fifth of its people belonged to minorities: there were 95,000 Copts, 35,000 Jews, 20,000 Greeks, 19,000 Italians, 11,000 British, 9,000 French, and uncounted numbers of White Russians, Parsees, Montenegrins, and other exotica. (By contrast, all colonial India in 1930 was home to just 115,000 people classified as “whites.”) The city’s population surged past 1 million in the 1930s as landless peasants began to arrive in significant numbers, along with a rich clutter of Europeans fleeing Hitler. Thirty thousand cars jammed streets where sleek apartment buildings pushed ever higher. Billboards touted a range of Cairo-made goods: “Shelltox—The Insect Executioner”; “Exigez les Eaux Gazeuses N. Spathis!”; Dr. Boustani’s Cigarettes; Bata shoes; and movies shot in Cairo studios, such as Layla, Girl of the Desert, a costume drama starring Bahiga Hafiz.

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Happiness as Other People

Some things are found just about everywhere in the world. Tossed-aside plastic bags are one, and in some deserts they far outnumber cacti or its equivalent -- a disheartening environmental fact. Another thing, however, is prayer, in its myriad forms, and it is often very beautiful. See and hear, for instance, a sunset puja on the Ganges River in Rishikesh, India

The sound and scene of a Muslim prayer is also striking. Particularly in very large gatherings, the swooshing sound of thousands of individuals descending to their knees grips the ear, as does the silence that immediately follows. Even smaller congregations, such as the one in Bethlehem's Manger Square (above), gives the outside viewer pause. The sound may be less, but the communal nature remains.

In Eric Weiner's very readable book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, he takes note of the communal aspect of Muslim prayer, and theorizes on its power -- and the power of camaraderie in general.

Muslims pray five times a day. This is what the Koran ordains. Why five times? Why not four or six? Only Allah knows, but when Islam sprouted in the Arabian desert some 1,400 years ago, one function the new religion served, intentionally or not, was to bring people together. The mandatory prayer got people out of their own tents and into bigger, communal tents and, eventually, mosques.

Some 1,300 years later, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre metaphorically spat on the notion of communal bliss by declaring, "Hell is other people."

Sartre was wrong. Either that, or he was hanging out with the wrong people. Social scientists estimate that about 70 percent of our happiness stems from our relationships, both quantity and quality, with friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. During life's difficult patches, camaraderie blunts our misery; during the good times, it boosts our happiness.

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Chris Hedges on Balancing Happiness and Meaning

The photo above is of a statue on the banks of the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. The quote below is from Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning:

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.

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Mosquitoes, Walter Reed, and soiled sheets

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. 


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Remembering Chris Hondros

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.

In Frederick Buechner's book Godric, the main character says of a dead loved one: "It's like a tune that ends before you've heard it out." That's how I felt about Chris' death -- and that of Tim Hetherington, who had also died in Misrata. I respected their work, the stories they wanted to share with the world, the images they brought home to us. I mean, look at this image of an Iraqi girl, and hear Chris tell the story behind it.

The world is not whole. Ask the man in the photo who got hit by a rock in a downtown square where others would die of their injuries. Ask Chris, if you could, and he'd tell you about child soldiers in Liberia, or a mother with hacked-off hands holding her baby in Sierra Leone. Ask Libyans living in Misrata right now, or those who carried the bodies of two dead photographers to a ship.

What is the world? Here's a partial answer: It's a place with chunks ripped away, and where many tunes end before we've heard them out.


For a little more about Chris Hondros and his images, see the New York Times Lens blog's "Parting Glance: Chris Hondros".

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The relationship between Here and There

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.

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The Patrick Henrys of Tahrir Square (Cairo, Egypt)

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.


For more of my images from Tahrir Square and Cairo, visit


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History Personified

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".

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A Street That Passes Many Doors

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."


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