In Search of a Smile

I was in the partial state of not knowing if I was awake or still dreaming; it had been another fitful uncomfortable night, mostly involving a donkey braying and the snores and snorting of Ibrahim, or, to be fair, that could also have been the donkey, either way, I was now fully aware that someone else had entered the still darkened room, I pretended to be asleep, the new presence seemed to be sitting at the end of my bedroll, he had sighed heavily as he plonked himself down, in the darkness, I focused on the various muffled sounds of Ibrahim sleeping and that of the stranger who now appeared to be eating something, the quiet cracking of seeds followed by a wet chewing sound, it was almost undoubtedly human, although he was eating he had clearly not wanted to disturb either of us. The time passed, seemingly quite slowly, then, with another heavy sigh he got up and left, I heard the metal door squeak as it opened and closed with a muffled click.  

A Syrian family visiting a Byzantine pyramid tomb in the Dead Cities of Idlib Province, Syria

It was a couple of years before I moved to Syria, I had been exploring Byzantine ruins in the countryside north of Hama in a hired 1950s Pontiac, we had passed through various Bedouin villages and my curiosity had got the better of me, and so, with the help of a Syrian friend I had arranged to stay a few nights. I have always had a fascination for Bedouin culture, over the years I have spent a great deal of time trying to understand a way of life beyond that of the exotic or romantic. The village, about 50 km north of Hama on the road to Aleppo was a cluster of squat white painted breeze block dwellings mixed with dun-colored mud and straw-built beehive-shaped buildings, these windowless cones dotted a flat featureless landscape.

Ibrahim and his family welcomed me with the hospitality Syrians are renowned for. Throughout the Arab world, the traditional nomadic way of life is dying out or adapting to a more urban way of living but the tribal or clan structure is still important as are many of the customs and culture, the family still keeps goats and sheep but they are now settled and no longer need to go in search of fresh pastures and live a fairly typical farming life on the fringes of the Syrian steppe.

Beehive shaped architecture, built of local natural materials, is ideal for the arid climate of the Middle East 

I used up my few words of Arabic before the first glass of tea was empty, so it seemed just easier to keep drinking tea rather than attempting conversation, we drank rather a lot. I was given a guided tour of the various buildings, some of them modern concrete and others made from mud and straw, empty rooms for sleeping, no beds just blankets, a tiny room for cooking filled with various sizes of metal pots, a place for the sheep and another for the goats, I didn’t notice the bathroom but I figured that would become apparent when need be.

I spent the rest of the day playing with the youngest kids; we seemed to have more in common or at least seemed to have a language that made more sense, I was hit on the head with a broken plastic cup a couple of times as we played football, I had my revenge during bouts of arm wrestling. I am not sure what I was expecting from the experience, obviously, from a photographic perspective I had assumed being part of the family would allow a more candid approach to making some sort of documentary-style images; I didn’t really have grand expectations and really did just want to learn more about a culture so different from my own.

Over the course of a few days a pattern emerged, I would sleep rolled up in heavy blankets on the floor, Ibrahim would sleep on the other side of the room, a cat would often creep in but would soon be driven out with a barrage of curses. Soon after waking breakfast would appear, one of the girls would back into the room sliding out of her flip-flops balancing a tray, an egg, some cut fresh vegetables, a dish of hummus, and one of a creamy yogurty mixture that I have since become addicted too, warm flatbread and then another tray arrived with a steaming teapot and a selection of different shaped glasses. We ate in silence, as befitted a coffee less morning, Ibrahim took charge of the tea, raising the pot at arm’s length as the think black liquid was poured into the glass, Ibrahim instinctively knew how much sugar I wanted, just enough to undo all the nutritious benefits of a healthy breakfast.

I would try and help out with some of the chores, this really only involved scattering some feed for the animals, secretly I had hoped to milk something, the girls would busy themselves cleaning and tidying, every room was always spotlessly clean and tidy despite a constant battle with the dust, I was expecting Ibrahim to say at some point we need to go do some work of some sort, perhaps my presence had interrupted things and I was just being looked after.

Instead of being taken to the fields to work, I would be taken to visit the neighbors, Ibrahim seemed quite proud to show me off. Leaving our shoes outside the house, which for everyone else was a simple task of just sliding in and out of footwear but for me involved a lengthy process of undoing and redoing elaborate laced boots while everyone stood and watched. On one such occasion, we were entertained by the local Sheik, we drank small cups of coffee poured from elaborate brass pots, sitting cross-legged on a woven carpeted floor but getting up every few minutes to greet new arrivals, the room was bare except for cushions and the brass stand holding a selection of different sized coffee pots, the building was breeze block and concrete but inside it was just as a Bedouin tent. I was told stories of the old days when they would go hunting eagles, travelling for days, and crossing borders clandestinely as far away as the Caucasus, I shared their apparent contempt for border formalities.

One evening, sitting on plastic chairs, the crowded room so thick with cigarette smoke I could hardly see the host, up and down we bounced, shaking hands and saying hello as someone else would arrive, constantly I would be out of sync, sitting when the others stood, still trying to perch my tea glass, I seemed to have met everyone from several villages, many I had met earlier in the same day or the previous, but this evening a special guest had been sent for, a local school teacher, when he arrived he was introduced as Doctor, a young man wearing a woolen blazer over a thick pullover, he looked studious and every bit a school teacher, he was clearly respected, he was immediately pointed in my direction, his English was a welcome relief.

The neighbors

I must have had so many questions that needed answers, but no sooner had I met the bespectacled learned fellow did we discover a shared affinity for Chelsea Football Club, for some they remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, for me, it was when Zola signed, (that’s Gianfranco, not Emile by the way) and November 1996 was era changing not just for the club but also for me. The smoke-filled evening whiled away very quickly, I learned no more about life in the village other than they had a passionate Chelsea supporter who knew exactly how to tune his satellite dish to pick up the grainy feed from London.

There had been an issue I had been avoiding, I had hoped that maybe there was a secret bathroom other than the one I had slowly become aware of; I am no shrinking violet when it comes to the use of rudimentary plumbing or less than pristine hygiene, till this day my worst experience was as a teenager, having climbed to the summit of Mount Vesuvius only to deal with my own impending eruption, my descent was at speed and rarely on two feet, the car park portaloo not having been cleaned since the inhabitants of Pompeii had realized what about to happen to them.

Of course, was no secret bathroom. I had no problem with a hole in the ground but this particular hole in the ground was in the front garden, at most times during the day most of the family and the usual casual visitors would be sitting around facing the garden, of course, there was a makeshift fence about waist high to provide privacy, my sense of paranoid social anxiety was beginning to take hold, I could imagine all eyes on the foreigner as he clumped over the potato patch if I didn’t reappear in good time would someone come to lend a hand, no doubt my colonial ancestors would have reveled in the assistance, I decided to wait until the cover of night.

While that night was clear with a sprinkling of stars and a heavy moon there was little light for me to find my way, not tying my boot laces was a schoolboy error, I fumbled, slipped and cursed, crouched behind the pallet and privet partition, as I looked up, in a moment of romantic hopefulness at the silvery moon but all I was greeted with was the silhouetted head of the constantly irritated and now grinning donkey. 

I am often asked which is my favorite photograph, as photographers we are rarely satisfied for very long with any image, always looking for technical and compositional perfection, comparing our work with our peers, etc but when I look back at my images the ones that make me smile are the ones where the process of making the images was most enjoyable, those few days in a remote village in a troubled part of the world were an absolute joy, the warmth, and generosity heartfelt. One of the youngest children was incredibly shy, not until the last day did she poke her head from around the door and treat me to the smile I had sought for days. The image found its way onto the cover of the Bradt Guide to Syria; I had always intended to return with a copy but never got around to it, I have tried to find out what has happened in the area during the war but have found very little. But I will return, I am optimistic the story will continue with another smile, it was an important turning point in my life and that image reminds me of it, and Zola signing, obviously.

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