Thursday, March 12, 2009

Boundaries





Still trying to record stories. This needs recording so that I can move on. It also needs revising, but here’s the first draft. Comments welcome.

After 6 days of steady engagement and constant interaction I took the second day of the conference off to write and walk and photograph. In dark jeans, converse all stars, and a dark long sleeved shirt I set out from the hotel with my black Leica to explore. The area around the hotel is a mix of commercial establishments with residential neighborhood. I saw no other women the times I wandered around the alleys across from the hotel. Closer to the souq just a few blocks away I would see local women in abayas and tourists in western dress, but in the area surrounding the hotel it would be very unusual see women among the service and construction workers, laborers and shop owners and employees primarily from the Indian subcontinent (India, Bangledesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal). Men in Qatar as guest workers aren’t allowed to bring female family members with them. My presence may have been conspicuous. I wasn’t conscious of it.

I headed left outside the hotel, away from the souq. I recorded a lot of stray cats, some eating off dishes beside rows of shoes lined up just inside doorways, others scrounging through trash piles or napping in the dust. I peeked into dark hallways to see bikes resting against the wall, towels and varying lengths of cloths hanging up to dry. At one doorway I heard what sounded very much like a nail gun and air compressor. Afraid of getting lost inside the maze of narrow streets I headed back out to the main road, stopping to photograph a pile of generators outside a storefront. I walked in a little closer to record the men standing around outside the shop. I continued down the road past an upholstery shop. I stepped inside and gestured to take a photograph. The man behind the counter gestured back in what I took as an invitation. (On my previous visit to Doha I had photographed the construction sites near VCUQ campus and after taking a photograph close enough to be a portrait, I would then show the recorded image in the preview mode of my digital camera. Often, others nearby would come over to see the tiny image and ask to be photographed. The men would smile or laugh and return to work, or their break.) Another man in the shop motioned for me to photograph him as well. I said what I thought was “thank you” and “goodbye” in Arabic (the few words I tried to learn) and continued on.

I grew bolder as I continued. In the next shop several men sat behind sewing machines. One man, who I guessed to be the owner stood talking with a younger employee cutting strips of red fabric with scissors. I walked in and asked to photograph. The owner spoke to me in English, invited me in, asked where I was from then offered me a cup of tea. I hesitated then accepted his offer, afraid of insulting him --- and also curious. (My hotel reception desk welcomed quests with a complementary bowl of dates and sweet Arabic coffee with cardamom.) He handed a bill to an employee and sent him off with instructions in a language I couldn’t understand. As I photographed one worker behind a Singer sewing machine, I remarked that I had a Singer as well and glanced at the unlabeled machine next to it. The shop owner claimed that machine could sew through rugs and pulled out a piece of leather and demonstrated by stitching together two then four layers. I commented to my host that his English was very good. He disagreed then listed for me the many languages he spoke: English, Arabic, Banglali (explaining he was from Bangledesh), Urdu, and Farsi. He then pointed to each employee and introduced where he was from and what languages he knew. Each spoke at least two and most spoke three or more languages.

I enter into someone else’s space and take a photograph, always aware of an ethical conflict. Especially when I’m in a foreign culture and don’t speak the language. Am I recording for others— or myself—that I was here --- displaying some place or some one very different and exotic? Does it make my experience, and me, remarkable? Is it a way of distancing or connecting? I know this is part of a much larger dilemma of the ethnographic gaze, but on a personal level I am aware of the boldness I assume using my camera as a way to explore and cross barriers.

The tea was sweet, milky and spicy. Grateful for the generosity of their time and friendship, I wanted to give something of myself back and was suddenly inspired to run back to my hotel, get my fiddle and play a tune. I asked if that would be okay, it seemed so and I left promising to return shortly. As I was returning with my fiddle on my back, a woman — obviously a westerner — with grey hair and white slacks approached in my direction. We stopped, greeted each other. Immediately recognizing each other as American. She asked what I was up to with my fiddle and when I told her she looked dismayed and maybe a little shocked. She warned me that I would be committing a “cultural violation”. As “a woman in their shop”, “a woman in pants”, and “a woman paying them so much attention”. She claimed they would be “terribly uncomfortable”. My heart sunk and then I was embarrassed by my naivety. But I wasn’t completely convinced she was right. I was weighing something my friend Halim, originally from Lebanon living in Doha, remarked during my previous visit: that Americans are so afraid of connecting—afraid even to make eye contact— that they treat the locals rudely. I tried to get more information. Was she a trustworthy source? She told me she lived in a gated community with her husband who was “in construction”, and that she had low regard for Doha (a “cow town”, compared with Kuwait where she had lived previously.) I wasn’t sure if she really was an authority on cultural violations or whether she was expressing her own discomfort. The more I spoke with her, the less I was willing to accept her assessment. I declined her offer to join her for a cup of tea and decided to return to the shop as I had promised, feeling the pull to do doing something I had said I was going to do.

I returned to play a tune then offered the fiddle to both the shop owner and the younger man cutting strips of fabric, who I had learned was his son. The son helped his father hold the fiddle correctly under his chin. I left shortly after both had a chance to make some sounds with the violin and bow. I was unsure whether I had done something deeply inappropriate, whether I had gone too far.

I’ve told this story to several friends, including Halim who I met later in the week for lunch, and friends who live there now or have in the past when there was even less traffic from westerners. None seemed to think that what I did was odd or inappropriate. This story is less about my photographing and more about the barriers we cross to engage, connect, and take risks. My son asks me why I speak to strangers even in Richmond. I tell him that we share the same space, and that makes them a friend. Not a friend like the next door neighbor whose comings and goings we are intimately familiar with. But some one who shares our life – our space and place in time. Halim thinks I should bring this back home and take on a project he called, “A Tourist in My Own Town.”

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