Syria, Nine Grueling Years

Sitting in silence on a red sofa, gaze transfixed to a muted tv.

January 2011.

I had hardly left that sofa just watching history unfold via al Jazeera, this time I was squeezed between Syrian friends with tears in their eyes.

We were in Syria and the revolution was in Egypt and of all the drama, the crowds and slogans, pepper spray and tanks, it was just one line that sticks in my memory, mine and no doubt most others watching or involved; the president has gone

Everybody was thinking the same thing; would a revolution happen in Syria, could it really happen? And everybody had different ideas and opinions.

I wanted to go to Egypt, I have an affinity with Cairo and many friends there, and, something quite momentous was happening. How could I leave now?

I had to stay.

Walking home one day from the modern center of Damascus to the Old city I received a telephone call, I changed my route to avoid the noise of Souk Hamadieh, I meandered through the narrow alleyways chatting, occasionally nodding to a familiar face as I passed, dusk in Damascus settles early, the city sitting in the lap of a mountain. Propped against the bonnet of a parked car I finished my phone call and tried to make a photograph of the moon reflected in an antique window pane. A typically warm day was suddenly cold.

That stroll and conversation had taken maybe thirty minutes and unbeknown to me my detour had avoided the beginning of the uprising, an event rarely mentioned, then, days later the news from the south would arrive, the people of Deraa had taken to the streets and nothing would ever be the same.486322_10152307687975179_1794775067_n

March 2011.

The beginning and the end.

Other than those of us who follow World or Middle East events have paid much attention to what was happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria at that time, probably even the bloody headlines of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan hardly registered, it had already been eight years since the illegal invasion of Iraq, the Middle East was always in turmoil, easy not to pay attention, it was somewhere else and there are always problems closer to home.

Then that all changed. The problem migrated.

 

Its nine years now. There are still bombs in Damascus.

In Syria we had so many conversations about how long things would last, the optimists said a couple of months and others said decades, actually ten years was often suggested, we drank endless cups of tea and cursed the checkpoints, rampant inflation and lack of power.

I hung as long as I could in Damascus, another two and half years but eventually, after a lengthy investigation and interrogation by the Syrian security services followed by bankruptcy had little choice but to leave, I left everything. I gave the keys to the house I had bought to a displaced family and crossed the border into Lebanon and then onto Turkey to start again.

Since leaving Syria I am constantly surprised at the complete lack of understanding of the situation, I get blank stares of incomprehension when I mention I lived there, nothing compared to the comments my Syrian friends have to deal with.

I think if we allow our democratically elected governments to wage wars on our behalf or exploit the natural resources we desire or profit from, or if we deem one despot more worthy than another or feel the need to oust them, or even if we feel so superior to preach to others how they should act or behave then surely we have at least a duty to be aware of the facts and reality surrounding these events, not just the simplistic headlines.

Would it be fair to say that wars in the Middle East and especially the Syrian conflict have affected the social political fabric of Europe?

If anyone interested in learning more about the reality of the Syrian conflict or the culture and history of Syria, I have compiled a reading list. This is not just a random selection of titles groomed from the web but books I have read and/or by authors I have worked with or know personally and so can vouch for their authenticity and, I have included well researched travel writing produced prior to 2011, since I feel they offer a more gentle approach to a subject that can get bogged down in geo political semantics.

I had intended adding the list in this post but it turned out more extensive than I first imagined, so tell me if you are interested and I will make a follow up post.

There is so much more to the Syrian story than war and refugees, there is so much more to the Middle East, and fortunately there are some quite brilliant writers out there who have gone to inordinate lengths to document this heritage or tell these stories.

Syrian refugee boy Atmeh camp Idlib Syria

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The Rubbish Collectors of Istanbul

Faceless men and women, struggling up rain soaked cobbled hills clogged with traffic. Faces windswept and facing the floor. Ignored and cursed in equal measure.

These wretched images as iconic in Istanbul as the minarets and monuments, stealthy tourists will often try and snap them as they haul a burlap load past shops with shelves laden with luxury and baklava.

From dawn to dusk and through the depths of night they will delve into bins and cram cardboard into their carts, crushing plastic water bottles into manageable merchandise.

For those living life in the margins this is survival, they choose not to beg but to work, hard work, thankless work and in this age of rampant consumer waste, important work.

Istanbul is a city living in denial, a city without end, a city whose population could be fifteen million but could more than likely be twenty million, and still it grows. The traffic grinds to a halt, the electricity comes and goes and children are a blessing and the rubbish trucks work around the clock.

Gathering garbage to recycle and sell is symptom of cities around the world, Istanbul is no different in this respect, those who have, discard and those who have not recover and redistribute and its nothing to do with trash and treasure it’s all to do with survival.

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I don’t celebrate my birthday but find alternative ways to mark time, last June I traveled from Bulgaria to Turkey to start a project I had in my mind for some time, a project I doubt will find a publisher but one I felt strongly about.

The idea was a simple one, not to document the harsh lives of the Istanbul rubbish collectors, I think there is a place for such work and maybe I will rethink that approach at a later date but for now I just felt their harsh existence needed little explanation, surely we can understand poverty and the struggle to survive?  And of course, there are individual stories and they always need to be told but, in this case, I just wanted to introduce the subject and to put a name to the faceless, those anonymous shapes that merge into the urban landscape.

Unlike a Starbucks barista they do not wear name tags and yet their contribution is of meaningful value and perhaps, if we knew their names, we would look at them differently. Homeless people often say the hardest part is not that people don’t engage with them or don’t help them but people refusing to even make eye-contact, looking away and denying their very existence.

In an abandoned half-built shopping center on the Asian side of Istanbul, a few chickens pecking around the patrons portacabin office where we drink tea and talk about the idea. The patron already has a love hate relationship with the local authorities so we have to agree on a few points, mainly discretion due to those undocumented. The basement of the concrete shell also serves as dormitory, cramped but clean, well decorated with whatever has been found and recycled.

I am presenting these portraits without background details other that the subjects name, the viewer can choose to fill in the blanks, to make whatever judgement they choose. The point really is to look humanity in the face.

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Tarlabaşı; An Ode.

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Saying goodbye to Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi is a hive of informal commerce, the streets alive, trade and toil and the struggle to survive in a city overwhelmed, carts with squeaky wheels pushed up and down the hills, hawkers crying and calling, the rag and bone man and the Sahlep seller, in the afternoons the itinerant musicians take a final slurp of tea and trudge to the bars of Taksim to work for tips. Mothers, wives and daughters deal with the never-ending washing, scrubbing carpets with a stream of soap suds heading to the gutter, wood constantly being chopped to feed the stove, an aged grandmother wields an axe, a teenager uses a stone to smash old furniture, scavenged fuel to heat decrepit tenement rooms.

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The Salep Seller

In dingy basements illuminated by a single globe or a florescent tube, impoverished women from the parched plains of Hasakeh in Syria or the suburbs of Diyabakir, troubled places far from the sea. They scratch and clean mussels harvested from the Bosporus, squatting around colored plastic bowls they stuff them with rice and pass them on to be sold around the city, their fingers raw but their chatter bright.

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Freshly stuffed Midye

Little is legal, many undocumented, most on the margins. Cleaning the streets and oiling the wheels of the Turkish sweatshop economy, universally despised and denigrated but always defiant, challenges met with humor and humility and spirit.

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The streets are theater, social clubs and football pitches, living rooms and kitchens, wild weddings where Gypsies dance to music the bounces of the buildings and the bare-knuckle brawlers stagger shirtless and bloodied.

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On street corners dealers hang and fires burn, the air musty with menace, in the early hours the hollow sound of gunshots, running footsteps and the scurry of cats and rats. Tarlabasi never sleeps, it just revolves around erratic shifts of sleeping, eating and schooling. Before the dawn light reflects off the corrugated fences the working girls will totter home in cheap stilettos.

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At the end of the street the sound of jackhammers splitting concrete, the giant arms of cranes swing ominously to the sound of stressed metal, underpaid workmen clamber over the rubble. The army of progress is marching and the impoverished are paying.

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The curtain is about to fall and a community will disperse, the shouts of “Hakan” from the housewives to the store owner will fall silent, no longer will the tormented grocer rush to fill the baskets lowered from windows only to be called back again and again for a forgotten bottle of milk or an onion.

Neighborhoods evolve, they are organic, they are not created by city planners, only dismantled, there is no conversation when only money talks.untitled-0870

Having lived in Tarlabasi over several years and in various streets my time now has come to and end.

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Cairo, Egypt. February 10th 2009 Typical Egyptian Coffee
Cairo Coffee

The Photographers back story blog is the irreverent ramblings of Middle East based photographer John Wreford Portfolio

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That Time in Cairo When I Met Mahfouz

Cairo, a steaming mess of a city that has the capacity to at first seduce and serenade you then almost immediately slap and violate you, and yet, despite it all you keep coming back for more.

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And here I was, back again. On the balcony of my scruffy room in the Hotel Hussein, the hotel named after the severed head that resides in the Mosque next door, the head of the Prophets grandson, the same head curiously also resides in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, its curiosity that brings you to the Middle East, then keeps you here.

It was a day like any other, that is like any other day in Cairo. Crisp morning sunlight stinging your sleep deprived eyes, slurping down thick black tea with a boiled egg and triangle of cheese for breakfast, another dusty day stumbling around the lanes of Gamalaya in the shadow of the Fatimids. Then, just as has a habit of happening in this part of the world, you bump into a Nobel prize winner for literature.

It had been one of my frequent visits to Cairo working on my self-assigned street photography project, ( Previous Cairo Photography ) after my first visit to Egypt I began reading Naguib Mahfouz avidly and this project had been inspired by his words, the Egyptian Nobel laureate grew up in this overcrowded neighborhood, his childhood home a couple of streets away and this anarchic labyrinth the setting of many of his novels.

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My days usually followed a similar pattern, an uncomfortable night followed by a disappointing breakfast tinged with self-doubt and medieval view shrouded in 21st century exhaust fumes. I’m not a morning person. After breakfast I would surrender myself to the all-consuming city and the first coffee shop in my path. By sunset I would be back at the hotel and trying to wash the grime away in a lukewarm trickle of a shower. Feeling marginally rejuvenated I would head downtown to explore the 1001 hedonistic delights of Koshery and bookstores and maybe a cheeky bottle of Egyptian Stella.

My evening is progressing as predicted, I’m propping up a bookshelf in shop just off Tahrir square and flipping through the pages of novel by my favorite Egyptian scribe when a diminutive chap sidled up beside me and with a nod and wink said “So you like Naguib Mahfouz” Yes that old chestnut I thought. So we got chatting about Egyptian literature and my pompous idea of a photography project, my new friend said his name was Bhar and taught English literature at a Cairo university.

After a short while he said I should follow him to a private club to meet some of his friends, he seemed harmless enough so we left the shop and walked to a near-by side street where a gathering of Cairo’s intelligentsia engaged heavily in existentialism and smoking. I was made very welcome and held court slumped in a worn out arm chair with my coffee perched precariously on my knee.

Conversation flowed, cigarettes were extinguished and lit, tea followed coffee and everyone agreed my project was terrific idea, I should meet this person and that, I couldn’t really keep up with the questions coming at me from different corners of the small back room. That’s arranged then said Bhar suddenly, and lead me back outside into the street with waves and goodbyes to my new found friends as I left.

I had no idea what had just been arranged but scuttled along after Bhar, it was quite late now and the usually crowded streets pretty quiet, after about twenty minutes walking we entered a closed office of an Egyptian newspaper, we risked a rickety elevator up several floors then a long a fluorescent corridor and tapped on door and entered without waiting for the answer. To this day I have no idea who I then shook hands with, tea was summoned and a conversation ensued, me and my grand project, phone calls were made and suddenly a photographer appeared and took my startled portrait, had I just been interviewed I wondered as we said our goodbyes and left the building.

As we walked in the general direction of my hotel, I tried to re-cap with Bhar what had just happened, the bottom line when it eventually transpired was that I had been invited the following evening to meet Naguib Mahfouz at hotel beside the Nile.

The following evening, I tried to flatten the rucksack induced creases from my best T-shirt and headed downtown to meet arguably the most important living writer in Arabic literature.

Born in 1911 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, like most great writers he was a divisive figure, known to be shy he was also very social able and approachable, these twin characteristics also lead to him being physically attacked, his daily routine of walking from his home to his office via Tahrir square had often been quoted in interviews, in 1994 outside his home an assailant stabbed him in the neck, already a frail man miraculously he survived.

I had no idea what to expect, I had some scribbled directions on a scrap of paper, the address was modern hotel overlooking the Nile. I found my way to the lounge some floors up and entered with that slight feeling of an imposter.

Mahfouz was unmistakably sitting on plump armchair in the corner surrounded by an entourage of devotees, a literary salon, conversation was hushed, his hearing-impaired questions to him were relayed through a friend sitting beside him. I was in good company and chatted with authors Raymond Stock and Gamal al-Ghitani and it was the latter that introduced me to Mahfouz and explained my project. Mahfouz approved of my idea and shared a childhood anecdote from the streets I was plying those December days. We shook hands and he wished me well.

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Shot made on 3200 iso Tmax pushed to the limit and smuggled passed airport x-rays

John Ezard writes: In 1990, when he was a physically wasted, half-blind yet zestful 79-year-old, I interviewed Naguib Mahfouz in the Ali Baba cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, where he breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to a demotic chaos. “The square has had many scenes,” he said. “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” Any country is fortunate if it produces citizens like him.

He wrote of life and his fellow humans. I was fortunate to meet such a soul. He passed away a couple of years later.

No doubt this will be my last post of 2019 so I wish you all the very best for the holidays and the coming new year. Thank you for following and all your support.

Am I homeless or a Digital Nomad? The next few months are going to be unknown, exciting and a new chapter.

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Mindfulness & The Art of Slow Photography

Mindfulness and the art of Slow Photography

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A Turkish friend had been going into lucid detail of the true meaning of mindfulness, a term of modern trend that can often be treated with flippant discard or so I thought.

One version of the meaning according to Psychology Today is; “Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosityopenness, and acceptance” There are many definitions of this meditative practice that has its roots in Buddhism but this description in particular appealed to me,  another is “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”

Now  regular followers of my blog may have already determined I am not really a spiritual man,  neither am I one for hanging labels on my beliefs or philosophy, I do poach a little from here and there and no doubt that a thread of anarchism runs through it all but in the end I see things in shades of monochromatic pragmatism. So, it does seem somewhat contradictory of me to delve into the world of Zen. But I am also a contradictory fellow.

As my friend was explaining the concept to me, I realized that this was something I already practice but I know it as the non-philosophical term; Photography. Personally speaking, photography and the concept of Mindfulness are intrinsically intertwined, to be at the very least a competent photographer you must follow the basic principles of Mindfulness.

I have unknowingly touched on this in previous posts and it’s something I now want to explore further; Finding Order In The Chaos

A recent case in point.

The day had not been going well, frustration and anger had been slowing morphing into depression, I had decided a walk would do me good, I shouldered my camera gear with only half an idea of shooting a near by lake at sunset, I am not a landscape photographer but I enjoy the process and of course the walk.

Along a potholed lane out of the village, past a couple of scruffy mutts bleating and into open fields, the sun was still high and the heat induced sweat dribbling wherever it could, past sullen sunflower plants with their heads bowed in despair, the landscape was not spectacular; provincial, pastural, pleasant, the lake was hardly a lake, more a big pond, I’m not sure how you define either. I hiked the ridge above the lake and surveyed the scene from every angle, a gypsy and his cart toddled past and some fishermen were packing their kit and getting ready to leave. Soon I stood alone apart from a hawk of some sort, wings wide above the fields.

I predicted the final movements of the sun, where the shadows would fall, the only problem was that from every angle an electricity pylon spoiled my potential photograph, it was the wrong sort of energy that was blighting my bliss. There would be no pretty picture postcard lake at sunset shot and It didn’t matter, this was not a commission, I had no brief to fulfil.

I scrambled down the bank to the waters edge and startled basking frogs back into the sanctuary of the water, plopping one after the other in perfect time to my footsteps, at the far side of the lake I set my bag down and made myself comfortable in the long grass.

Its here that things began to come into focus, my view was limited to what was in close proximity, the only sound was nature, in the stillness the frogs regained their confidence and reappeared in the algae coated water, a stork settled and turtle edged along his perch, I was completely focused on my surroundings, the pattern of plants and the insects that went about their business without interruption, as the lake fell into shadow I felt inclined to head back to home, I have no idea how long I sat there, in those moments my mind was free, not empty but not cluttered with concern or toxicity. I made a couple of images and strode home as dusk passed into night.Untitled-1

The images were unimportant snapshots consigned to my hard-drive until now, the clarity though was enough to make a difficult decision a simple one.

I think we need to talk about Slow Photography more often and its relationship with Mindfulness and its potential as Art Therapy.

As a full time professional photographer, it is often hard to justify the time and trouble and inevitable expense to engage in non-profitable work, that is, unless you redefine the term profitable.

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The Girl On The Ferry

The commuter crowd was pushing forward towards the gang plank to catch the six o’clock ferry to Kadikoy, shuffling a few steps at a time in the chill January air, it hadn’t started to rain yet but within the hour it would.

In the crowd just to my right and a few steps in front I caught sight of the girl’s profile, that kind of face in a crowd that draws your attention and your gaze lingers a moment longer than perhaps it should.

The photographer’s eye is always twitching, alert for incoming light, shape or form, a habit that never switches off and perhaps only other photographers understand.

I climb the steps to the upper deck and there she was again, the crowd and headed inside for the warmth but she sat alone with her thoughts, framed by the ambient glow, a canvas complete.JNW_0124

She didn’t seem to notice me make the picture, my discretion paramount, as a street photographer I don’t like to be sneaky, I don’t like to intrude, just to record the scene, there is always good reason and intention.

It was 6.03 pm on the 13th January 2010 and seconds later the scene had changed and the ferry was cutting through the Bosporus swell.

I was very leased with the resulting image, one of my favorite Istanbul street photographs, I am not one for clever captions so this was known simply as “The Girl on the Ferry”

Then serendipity strikes yet again, some nine years after the image was made and shared several times on my social media pages, The Girl on the Ferry sent me a message; Hey that’s me in the picture.

I read the message with trepidation, please don’t hate the picture I kept thinking, with a contented sigh of relief she loved the picture.67091979_368318880544834_4125586687927517184_n

Then in June almost a decade later we met in an Istanbul coffee shop where I presented her with the printed image, The Girl on the Ferry is Eda and she’s an artist.

See also Istanbul Street Photographer, A Social Media Story

Istanbul street photography now features heavily on my Instagram Feed

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Bloggers who are amazing-Thank you:

Tracy Abell    The Moments Between   Rutakintome Pictures

Down By The Creek

Down by The Creek.

I have just returned from ten days working in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai. I have been a few times before to Dubai but only fleeting visits and always confirming my feeling that it’s a soulless monstrosity cluttering an otherwise pristine desert. This time because of the work I was doing I had more opportunity to engage with its population and this gave me pause for thought.

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I was born in London and was always proud of our multi-cultural diversity and have sadly watched at safe distance this heritage eroded and denigrated, myth and falsehoods perpetuated by fake news and fascist firebrands. I have lived as a migrant in the Middle East, a landscape torn apart by competing empires and paying the price to this day, my faith in humanity never wavers but is constantly tested, the era of Brexit and rise of the populist sodomizers intent on divide and rule and profit before morality the most depressing of tests.

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Could there be a more multi-cultural society than the UAE? Yes, the shiny mega-projects were built on exploitation amounting to modern day slavery and obscene discrimination but for all the failings the overriding asset the Emirates has to offer is its vast migrant resource. Over the course of my visit I probably met around half a dozen Emiratis and they were without exception, warm, friendly and very welcoming but everyone else was from everywhere else, I met Brits and Americans, Australians and Romanians, Pakistani, Indian and Kashmiri, Russian and Ukrainians, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Afghans, Zimbabweans, Thai, Filipino and Korean, many were the second generation of mixed expat marriages.

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Sure it was still only a short visit and its never enough to fully understand the complexities of any society but it did leave a lasting impression, not just the warmth and friendliness I was shown at every juncture but also the support and understanding shown to each other, the Russians working alongside Ukrainians, the Indians with the Pakistanis.

Without stoking the fires of fear, humanity is doing just fine.

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These random portraits were shot quickly between assignments in the busy Gold Souk and port alongside Dubai Creek.

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If you are interested to see what work I was doing in the Emirates you can check out my website: John Wreford Photographer

Istanbul based freelance travel, commercial and corporate photographer covering the Middle East and Balkans.

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