Saturday, April 17, 2010

JB Jericho 4/14/10

Water's Edge: At the Dead Sea

The Water Debt

In the shower. 
Jerusalem, April 12, 2010.

The water is running and spitting steam from the variegated spigot, filling the tub splish-splash in a fury.

As a child I would revel in what my Mother called my “shower-baths,” soaking under the shower head as low to the enamel of the tub as I could get, creating the maximum distance between me and the fount, letting the water strike the top of my head and cascade down my cheeks, my eyes, my ears and the nape of my neck. I’d let it in my senses till it dominated everything and the world ceased to interfere with the perfection of immersion in a world I wanted to inhabit but was denied by the presence of lungs and the absence of gills. I dreamed of those, of awaking to a bi-cameral world in which I could wander the upper chamber of air and the lower of water. On television one day the “Incredible Henry Limpet” came on, the tale of a man who suddenly became a fish in a cartoon world. You could have jack-hammered the chair under me and I would not have moved.

Many, many years later, the day before I was to start rehearsals for a new dance, utterly unsure of what to begin and where to start, “Splash” came on and “Falling Into The Sea” began. The pedantic romance between Hanks and Hannah was lost to me in the passion of literally a sea-change in life.

I say all this for context.

In that Jerusalem tub, at the end of a day which saw me awake on the Mediterranean coast, the sound of the sea erupting into my hotel room nine floors above the land on the Tel Aviv shoreline of Israel, I felt guilt. We are, in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, “water fat.” To lie in a tub and let it soak away a day of challenge in my Washington, DC home is an act of indulgence, yes, but somehow full of grace at the same time. To do so here is similarly an act of indulgence, but a profoundly selfish one. Coming face-to-face with that was not only unpleasant, but mind-bending as well. It was unpleasant because something I treasure was suddenly irresponsible and I didn’t like that feeling.

What was more unpleasant still was that it didn’t stop me from doing it anyway, and therein lies the problem.

In the Ramallah summer, and throughout the West Bank and, I presume, Gaza, the Israelis ration the water that comes to “Palestine.” A day on and a day off; a day on, two days off. All along the rooftops of Ramallah black cylinders adorn the rooftop. They’re storage tanks for the days when the water does not come, when the tub in which I would sit were I a guest would be filled with water not for bathing but for drinking and for cooking. For life, not for love.

In earlier days the floors were reinforced under the part of the bathroom where the tub would sit because of the weight of the cast iron and the water that filled it ere they would crash through to the story below.

At the shores of the Dead Sea, standing on the observation deck at one of the many “sea levels” which have existed through the ages, a soft brown earth is visible all around the perimeter. It stops just at the edge of the resorts that dot the horizon all around, on both the Jordanian and Israeli/Palestinian side. The distance between those resorts and the sea is the amount the water has retreated in just the few decades since they were built. They were truly “sea side” resorts. Now some resorts have little shuttle cars to take their guests to waters edge. The Dead Sea, already unique in nature, is dying because it is drying, denied a replenishing flow of water from the Jordan River, which is a river in memory only, diverted now into Israeli farms and faucets as well as Jordanian ones. The lowest body of water on earth is evaporating into the air, into memory.

Across the Sea lies Jordan, divided from Israel by a ditch that was sacred to the history of man, of the Bible and the Koran and the Torah and to pagan religions absorbed by and discarded by these. The bridge over it, which carries a political significance which suggests it should be as deep and as wide as the Mississippi, seems something more out of Monty Python than 20th Century politics. You could cross it and not know it had ever happened. Amman, the Capital of Jordan, will be waterless in 35 years. Virtually land-locked save for the spit of land and water at the Red Sea at Aqaba, it can’t easily afford to buy fresh water from the sea through technology. And soon the aquifers will be gone, millions of years of accumulation consumed in a lifetime. And when that happens, there will be no simple solution. The faucet will stand open, but will there be anything to flow from it save the sound of air hissing through empty pipes?

What we consume today is a debt we incur to our children, to their children, to the animals, flora and fauna dependent every bit as much as we are on the 3% of the worlds water that is fresh.  As I rail against the irresponsibility of people who do not recycle and who consume in the face of scarcity I hear in the water around my ears the hypocrisy of challenging people who don’t give up their cars, which I don’t care about, for the water I don’t give up which I do care about.

We shuttle water around the world today, moving it from Brazil’s sucking up of the Amazon into the fruit we buy in Manama, from the desalinated bottled water we drink in Amman drawn from the Perisan Gulf in a Saudi desalinization plant. Water born in the Cascades evaporates in Japan when poured from a bottle or discarded from a slab of beef raised in the valleys of Montana. It’s bizarre.

In 7 weeks in the Middle East I have seen it rain for 65 seconds and been able to count the drops on the windshield in Bahrain one-by-one.

There will be wars over water or peace over water. We will rise to it or fall beneath it as the land falls in immense sink holes all around the Dead Sea as the water of the ages drains, leaving only open caverns unable to bear the weight of the land above it.

Each drop is precious. Each gallon a life for a week, a meal, a thirst slaked, an ecosystem sustained, a tree nourished. It is currency as currency was defined throughout time, altered only when the Romans came and moved it from its natural flow to its Roman destination. Aqueducts changed history.

The most profound part of Kipling’s Jungle Books is not the tale of friendship or fight, but of the Water Truce between all living things which come when the river dries and all the jungle is thrown into common purpose, when the tiger and the doe share the stream as strangers share a counter in a diner.

In a land where water does not always flow, when Biblical rivers become streams which would envy Rock Creek, where summer means involuntary rationing, I watch the water cascade over my arms, feeling the muscles ease and the soul take comfort. Just as I have all my life I lower my head down, down into the tub, forgetting the day.

Somewhere a faucet is opened and the air hisses through it, adding to my water debt.

Tiny Dancer

In Jericho on Wednesday, before the evening program, a little girl in a white dress came through the doors. She stood, quietly, at the threshold. She was perhaps 3 or 4 with wide eyes, midnight blue-brown hair and caramel skin; a beautiful child. Shy. 

Or so she seemed. 

To her left was the stairway to the stage and the 20 foot wide mural of Hisham’s Palace, a ruin and relic of a bygone era of dominance and majesty. The stairs, and then the stage, caught her eye in that singular way, that love at first sight way, that tells you about a passion that is wordless and even were there language for it, it would be inadequate irrespective of the skill of the speaker. Moth to the flame, bee to the honey she made for it.

Small feet in small shoes, to the sounds of American folk-pop-soul singer Amos Lee, she found the light and then simply started dancing. There was a pattern in it, a way about it, that said she’d been watching someone somewhere who knew dubka, the folk dancing of the Palestinians and the Arabs in the region. The arms angled and the knees bent and the feet tapped, and if there had been traditional music it would have been a culture-specific moment. But the sounds were utterly American, and the dress baby-white and as easily fit into Jersey as Jericho.

That moment, at that stage in her life, was a road to anywhere moment. All cultures, all paths, lie open to her in this instant. She is not Arab, not Palestinian, not American or Chilean. She’s just a child who hears a sound and the sound is a calling and the stage is the place to which she is drawn to answer that calling.

It’s a safe bet that Amos Lee was never heard on that stage, in that theater, before that moment. Yet his rhythms, his soul, both as a genre and a life, spoke to her regardless of spoken language. She danced as she knew as he sang as he knew. English and Arabic were irrelevant. Culture as defines us and demands of us a way of doing and a way of being, was lost in the freedom of being atop a marly floor in the early evening hours of an April dusk.

Watching this from a few feet away I lost track of the conversation I was in, a brief dialogue with our hosts, the American Consulate General, Jerusalem, the office within the Department of State that is responsible for US-Palestinian relations. My camera was 20 feet away and it, too, was calling.

Some people sense the camera. Most shy from it. A few indulge it and a far smaller number still are turned on by it. She was in the latter category. That lens was for her the audience she sought. Where moments earlier she was dancing in and for herself, the shutter click of my camera was transformative. In the best traditions of a super-model she moved to and for the lens. It was utterly organic for her.

Some days, weeks and years from now I will wonder about this little girl from a 10,000 year old city. Will she find herself along that incredibly difficult path towards becoming a practicing artist as she is a natural one? Will the tools, techniques and possibilities open for her as they have for others in my world? How much harder will that path be for her than it has been for Kathryn or Giselle? Will there be a path and what are our possibilities for helping to foster it? This is, ostensibly, why we are here at all – to set a road which leads to artistic opportunity for young dancers and artists who can follow a passion born into them at a genetic level.

I wonder for her, and for the ones like her who bounce off our world too easily and too briefly. What does the future hold, and what is our responsibility to it? When you come to a place and introduce an art, when even for a few that art is a light bulb, how do you keep the current flowing? And if you can’t, have you done better by them or worse by them for simply juicing it up for just long enough to see the contents of the cave, the colors and contrasts, the illuminations of possibilities. It’s a question which follows me around throughout my time away from the options of our schools in DC, where there is actually an opportunity to do something when you see that child in that moment.

The odds are that the little girl in white has crossed my path, and my lens, for the only time in our lives. But she’s burned into my mental lens as surely as into my camera lens, and its not clear to me what that will lead to.

Just after noon, Saturday April 17th, I wonder if she’s at home, dancing.


Picture a city that is preparing to celebrate its 10,000 anniversary. At home we look at things which are 100 years old and think about them as antiques. We go shopping in Pennsylvania, wandering Amish country, for that 75 year old bargain that no one else has noticed -- and its a steal! Now take it back about a zillion times further. And its not like there's a rock somewhere in whatever the ancient precursor was to aramaic that says "Jericho founded on this day." Of course, no one had invented writing 10,000 years ago anyway, so the chances of that were kind of small. Imagine a city that traces itself back before writing. 


Then picture a bunch of Americans dressed up in skin tight costumes doing Jungle Books in front of a gathering of kids who, in the words of one of our program sponsors "have never seen anything like this in their lives" (I didn't really want to say that sometimes we feel like that at home, too).

Then jump over to the Dead Sea, where the next round of contrasts will set your mind wandering. Women in full burkas immersing themselves in the salt and mineral filled water next to bikini clad CityDancers. Men walking along covered in the "healing muds" with cigarettes in their mouths. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Souq in Black and White

One of the things I miss most in photography in the digital age is black and white imagery. As rich and elegant as color is, there is an absence of texture in it sometimes, a certain depth that reveals itself only in black and white. In Manama, as in so much of the Middle East, black and white are colors of life in a way they are not in the West. While we dress for color, they dress for contrast -- the women in black, the men in white. In that sense it really is a black and white world, and all in between is gray.

While working through several images from the Souq in Manama I found myself drawn to a now almost lost way of working, and so went back to black. Here are a few of the results.