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.
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
Back in 1984 my friend Tim and I were walking through dusty streets in Peshawar, I think, when we heard a voice calling to us from a window above a store. Soon a young man came running from the back of the store to greet us. Had he heard our voices? We really aren’t loud! But he somehow knew we were British and he was so pleased to see us. We must come upstairs to meet his family, wife, 2 children (that we saw anyway) mother…They had two rooms and not much to fill them, but we must have tea. the of the girls insisted on giving me a ring that must have come from a cereal packet or something like. I think it was the nicest gift I’ve ever been given. The family were refugees from Afghanistan. They wanted nothing more than to hear English and to be able to speak it. I shall never forget them. I love the face of the old gentleman. I remember so many like that. So many people who could only communicate with smiles. Those were indeed the best moments.
I love your beautiful article and it really should be on the front page of Apple News. So, it’s not crazy to pull out a chair into the sunshine and sit reverently toward our Lord God with thoughts, with faith. We’re just sharing in the silence and there’s a conversation there.
Thank you so much. I love that you wrote this. You’re pictures are windows into life like gems glittering on a crown.
I enjoy your page. I love the Middle East. You capture the people so well.
I reslly empathise with what you mention. The magic moments of crossing paths with people, a contact, a touch of humanity. I often find myself sitting on a park bench watching the world go by, and often the reward for just simply being, brings about such sharing. So good to hear from you again.
So heartwarming to read this shared empathy. Thank you.
Did you ever find Khalil Gibran’s house?
Beautiful as always!
A beautiful article John thanks for sharing 🙌💕
John… if you ever find yourself chasing the sun near a small midwestern town outside of Chicago, I will be sure to have a fresh brewed pot of coffee, will show you some good spots to chase that sun, and will leave plenty of time to “contemplate the generosity of sharing silence…”
…and then you better start talking! 🙂 I appreciate the stories you tell.
Hai John, What a lovely blog title! Just the right spirit, Thank you and have a wonderful weeken :-),
Esseline van de Sande Moderates social change & author +31(6)54756052
Founding director Stichting De Stadscoalitie http://www.stadscoalitie.nl http://www.citycoalition.org/ KvK80516955 Moderation & articles The Room of Listening http://www.theroomoflistening.com http://www.theroomoflistening.com/ KvK5367329 Zij Spreekt https://www.zijspreekt.nl/sprekers/profile/Esseline-van-de-Sande/484/nieuws/random/0/0/1/ Joan Ferrier Penning 2016 https://www.joanferrierpenning.nl/winnaars.html
What a sweet story. Each part of expresses so much trust and compassion in the sharing. Somehow silence with another can be so intimate. Thanks for sharing John.
Great writing. I felt myself transported and somehow comforted. It’s about humanity isn’t it.
There is so much noise everywhere, so your wonderful story is a welcoming space to be.
Wa alaikum salaam John. The photo of the man holding a misbaha (??) is beautiful. I dwell on it and my soul stills.