22 November 2014

The woman in the frame - fragment from "Taboos in Arabic"

Bisan was waiting. Breathing, trying to be patient. But nothing happened. Well, everything happened, but nothing of any significance to be worth a click of the Leica. She was leaning against a stone wall in Wadi Nisnas, at the edge of the souk. She’s been here the day before with her Canon 60D digital camera, and shot more than 200 frames. Today, she was here with film – only 36 possibilities. After about half an hour, she gave in and put the camera to her eye. She stood there like this for a minute, a statue. Didn’t move the camera, just waited for the people to walk into the frame. And they did. Over the next hour, she shot 35 frames. She wasn’t being too picky, nor was she focused as she worked. Her mind kept wandering back to Muna’s touch.

She was impatient about seeing the results, but had no other option but to wait until tomorrow to develop the film. The last photograph has to be different. She studied her surroundings. All 35 frames were taken with the souk in the background, people either on their way shopping with just a purse, or of people coming back from shopping, with plastic bags. Taher told her to pick one spot and use the whole film without moving. She turned around and faced the other direction, still standing in the same spot. The view was much duller and less colorful. She held up the camera to her eye, positioned the St. John’s church in the upper right corner of the frame, and waited. She had one shot and she wanted it to be exquisite.

She was just now beginning to realize what Taher had meant when he said to be patient. There was absolutely nothing extraordinary about the frame. She felt like a predator waiting on its prey. However, she was caught unprepared when an ancient man walked by with a walking cane. Although he was walking slow enough for her to take the shot, she couldn’t make the decision quickly enough, and the man disappeared behind the corner. The same thing was repeated twice again: a young girl who ran by and a man in his forties dressed in jeans and a black shirt. That’s it, not waiting for any magnificent moment! The next person walks into the frame – click! She didn’t have to wait long. She was so focused on her frame that she didn’t even see the woman. All she saw was the form of a woman. Click. And she was gone. End of film.

It was already dusk when she shot that last frame, and her hand slightly trembled. But she got the shot at the right moment, just as the young woman turned her head and looked straight into the camera. Bisan wasn't sure if she noticed she was being photographed, but it was a spontaneous moment, one of those that street photographers would kill for.

She had her Leica slung over her shoulder when she walked in the house. Her father was helping her mother set up the table for dinner. "New toy, I see," he said in disdain.

Her mother shot him a sharp look, "Leave her be."
"Why should I? She's not doing anything constructive with her life. All her high school friends are already finishing university, and she's still stuck in that musty old shop with ancient Taher."

Bisan ate in silence, since her father was talking about her as if she weren't there. She wouldn't get in the same argument with him for the hundredth time. It was useless to try to explain to him that photography for her was so much more than a passing hobby, not to talk about the fact that the Leica was definitely not a toy. 

The alarm clock went off at 5:30 sharp. Although she didn’t get much sleep, Bisan jumped out of bed and was out of the house by 6:15. She walked the short distance to Kamera in brisk strides, passing on her way a young woman in a sweat suit, a hoodie partially covering her head, jogging up the street. Who in their right mind would abuse their body in such a way? Bisan didn’t practice any sport. She didn’t need to, as she walked everywhere, even up to the Carmel, through Haifa’s maze of stairs that ran from the bottom of the mountain all the way to Carmel Center.

As Salma jogged up the street, she noticed the young woman with the old camera slung across her shoulder. She couldn’t know it was the same woman who took her picture the day before, as she wasn’t really paying attention. What coincidence. Someone takes her photo the day before. And now, a woman with a camera at 6:20 in the morning! Stalker? She jogged up to the roundabout at the end of Khoury street and headed back, trying to look inconspicuous. The camera woman didn’t look in her direction; she seemed impatient getting to wherever she had to get to, her stride full of intent. Just my imagination, thought Salma, as she increased her pace. She wasn’t making any progress in the last couple of weeks. At least she got back on track with her running. She was almost out of breath, but decided to turn around again and job back up. She reached the roundabout, and as she was jogging around it, she saw the camera woman on Ha-Nevi’im street for a brief moment before she disappeared into one of the buildings. Salma again increased her pace, salty sweat dripping down her forehead and into her eyes, and jogged in that direction. She jogged all the way to the end of the street, taking in the entrances. These were mostly businesses, but all were still dark. Weird. She looked at her watch and realized she was almost running late. She would just have enough time to shower and head to the university for her much-dreaded meeting with Hiba. She still had nothing other than some haphazard notes that didn’t amount to anything that could be considered to be sound research basis.
Bisan saw the jogging woman twice more from the corner of her eye, the second time when she was already inside Kamera, still with the lights off. She was trying to apply the patience technique to her daily routine. Taher said it helped. So Bisan now sat in the dark Kamera in silence. She couldn’t take more than five minutes before she dashed to boot the computer and then turn on the lights. At nine sharp she unlocked the door, but there were no customers until around eleven except for one man who came in for some batteries. Miraculously, there were only two email orders from the day before, and one that came in around ten thirty. None of them were due for a few days, which gave Bisan enough time to develop the film from yesterday. Some thought kept coming back to her, but it was so vague she couldn’t pin it down. Something about the way that jogger carried her body, which she only realized now that she was already working. Detail! Taher always said it’s all in the details. Need to pay more attention, even when camera not on hip and ready to shoot.

When Taher walked in with some fresh-out-of-the-oven mana’eesh, Bisan had already gone through all 36 frames. They were neatly stacked next to the computer, and Bisan had printed an A3 size of frame number 36.

“What have we here? First prints from the Leica! May I?” Taher was peeking at the large print from behind Bisan’s tangled mess of curls. She handed him the stack of photographs without looking up and continued to study the one in front of her. Taher took another look at it before settling down with to study the ones she handed him. Weird kid. He could see the larger frame had potential, if it only wasn’t just a tiny bit out of focus. Give the kid some slack. She’s just a beginner, her first film shots.

Bisan was focused on the face of the woman in the frame. There was something familiar about her. But there was something else. Bisan has seen this face somewhere else. Shit! My memory is like that of my eighty-something years old grandmother! She put the photograph in the bottom drawer and went over to Taher. “What do you think? Just remember, my first film, so please be kind.”

“Kind? These are great, Biso! For a first film, I mean.” Bisan was ecstatic. She knew Taher didn’t give away compliments so easily. “Ok, let’s get the constructive criticism then.” She dragged a stool over to his side and the bag of mana’eesh, trying to push the woman from frame number 36 who happened also to be the researcher to a corner of her mind for now. She’ll deal with it later.

(c) khulud khamis, 2014 from Taboos in Arabic, novel-in-progress

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