Sitting in Silence with Strangers

I had sat on the low wall to rest my feet, an old man with a kind face sat down beside me, he greeted me as usual, I couldn’t help but smile as I replied to his politeness, it had been a long day and I really wasn’t in a smiley mood, let alone one for conversation. Saʽid is from Alexandria, and he is very well, thank you. And that is all I can tell you. We exchanged pleasantries and then sat in silence, neither of us felt the need to speak and it felt comfortable and normal. Saʽid didn’t seem surprised or bothered when I asked to make a picture before saying goodbye.


These are the unremarkable encounters that go unmentioned and yet give me as much satisfaction as those more dramatic or exciting excursions, the outtakes and off cuts of a photographer’s back-story.

A lifetime ago, I was searching the lanes of Bsharri, a town sheltering under a canopy of cedars in northern Lebanon; I was looking for the house of the poet Kahlil Gibran, and as always, I was lost.

An old man had been watching me walk up and down blind alley-ways, eventually I asked his help, he had no idea what I was trying to say, he got up from his step and took me by the arm and led me towards his house, as we entered he was mumbling something about Australians, was I Australian? Was I going to meet an Australian? I had no idea as fumbled with my boot laces; an old lady appeared from the kitchen, she shook my hand and gestured for me to sit and then disappeared again, the old man sat beside me, we smiled at each other and sat in the quietness of the reception room, the old lady emerged carrying a tray of coffee and as she did so the old man disappeared, I sat smiling at the old lady, we sipped our coffee with only the sound of village chickens outside the window.

Eventually the old man appeared and with him was another woman, she looked remarkably like the other and one way or another I deduced she was her sister, the three of them sat in a semi-circle opposite me, with just the sound of china coffee cups being placed on saucers, all eyes were fixed on me, their almost identical smiles making feel welcome. 

“Australian” the old man suddenly blurted out and pointed to his sister-in-law, she just nodded in agreement, as did I, as though I understood, which I didn’t. Placing my cup on the side table I stood up to leave, saying thank you and shaking hands with each of them I made my way to the door, the old man shook my hand one more time, and as we parted said “20 years Australia, no English” just to clarify any confusion I may have had.

Somewhere in the arid wilderness of the Syrian desert I had been chasing disappointing sunsets, the blue hour had passed and now I was walking alone in the darkness, the air much cooler now, there is a tranquillity in the desert not easily found in other landscapes. I made my way back to the track and continued towards the town, in no hurry to reach my hotel, I settled myself on a large rock to just enjoy the solitude, a shadowy figure began to shape and was moving along the track towards me, the sound of his walking stick plonking rhythmically, “salam alaykum” he said  “alaykum wa salam” I replied, the old man hauled himself onto the rock beside me, he lit a cigarette and smoked without saying anything else, when he finished his smoke he eased himself from the rock, held out his hand to shake mine and once again said “salam alaykum” and continued on his way. I sat a while longer contemplating the generosity of sharing the silence.

A tobacco farmer in South Lebanon

In the course of my travels I have had many unforgettable conversations, many from dusk to till dawn, entire train and plane rides, fascinating people with incredible stories or theories on the point of our existence, and yet, more often than not, it’s the conversations in silence I remember most fondly.

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Peace be upon you