Jun 25, 2013

Climbing to the Moon - Evening with the NC

This is the first time I sit cross-legged in the bus, I'm absolutely exhausted as I go back home 7 in the morning, after what I call a once a year event. I can even still feel the weight of the enormous bags I had as we climbed that magnificent mountain, Jabal Moussa.

It was yet another unforgettable event with the Night Collective, lovers of the night, with whom I went to a night in Nahr Ibrahim. My group was set to meet at Adma, at around 8:30 to move up to our landing point, where we'd park the cars and start the hike. Due to some mishaps, the appointment was delayed and we had to spend a bit more time on the famous Casino highway. It's been a dream to me to be standing there on the side that overlooks the Jounyeh bay, and simply be taking pictures for a whole night. There it was, right in front of me, but the unbelievable traffic restrained me on the other side, leaving me to car trail photos and some compositions of the moon.

Oh, the moon :) the event last night was held on the occasion of the super moon, an event that's said to happen once every few years. That's why the organizers chose one of the highest points that overlook Beirut and Jounyeh, and at the same time maintain the adventurous aspect to it, in terms of climbing the mountain and camping on top, by the side of the famous lit-up cross.

I don't know about the first group, but I can tell you this. Our hike was purely awesome. When I first saw the mountain I felt exhilarated, I couldn't believe I'd actually be on top of THAT mountain in a matter of time. It eventually took us more than 1:30h of sweat, slips and breaks on the cliff before we could reach the top. At first I was number 6 in line, a while later found out I was sharing leadership with a wonderful guy called Nareg, with everybody left behind. One thing I liked though was calling out for numbers all along the path. I was 6 so I'd scream 6 when needed for others to know I'm okay. Neat!

Eventually I found in Nareg a good companion for the rest of the trip, and I was personally impressed by my endurance. We eventually made it to the "big cross" I kept hearing about, and there they were, the first group of the Night Collective.

They were scattered all over, feeling tired and ready for the next step. It was time for everybody over there to take care of our shiny guest for the night, our mighty moon was waiting right above us.

It wasn't long before everybody greeted everybody, hugged and kissed, took their place, had a few bites and instantly put their gear to work. Honestly, I don't hide that I tried taking a few shots here and there, found out eventually I just wasn't at my best. It was obviously because of the exhausting hike, although I had been constantly visually capturing pictures with my bare eyes, imagining them on my camera LCD in a few, something that hadn't happened as expected.

Super Moon
It was not until Sabine, the NC newbie and my companion along the road, came and asked for the help I promised her earlier. She wanted to do some HDR at that time, trying to get all the exposures available in order to have the perfect photo, something like what you see with your eyes. Music was everywhere around the place, mouths were somewhat silent expect for a few chatter voices around the dark corners lit by the enormous cross in the middle.

I personally think of photography as a religious ritual. If that wasn't prayer, with all its respect and discipline, with all its perfectionism and skill, then prayer will remain a collection of irrelevant actions. It was pitch dark where I had stepped foot later on, right below that cross, trying to find the perfect angle that would make my pictures unforgettable. Little did I know that I was already where I needed to be, it was the tranquility that I needed, the seclusion, the silence and the perspective that was right there in front of me. I truly needed that, and that was more than enough.

Driving to the church by the edge of Jabal Moussa, with Khalil and Sabine

I still remember the laughs we had while climbing, the ruined cake that made it all the way to the top and crashed right there ^_^ , the moment we all froze on that cliff looking at that meteor elegantly travelling the open sky in front of us, the moment we met the guide for the first time, the thyme shrubs all over and of course, the glorious moon that accompanied us throughout the night. I still remember the fireplace, the burnt mellows and the grilled hotdogs. I still remember the time I jumped in the middle of the group photo to take off my burning shirt by the fire.

King of the night, my majestic super moon.
The overwhelming trip made it too hard for me to resist the coziness of the sleeping bag I got. It was time for me to rest my eyes for an hour, at least that's what I thought. It wasn't until 5:00 AM till I felt Rabih waking me up and telling me it's time to leave. Usually those first few minutes from when I wake up seem to always vanish usually in the middle of my morning's traffic and unbearable repetitive car horns, but that morning was different. I can never forget the path we took, the little time I took to literally pack 4 bags altogether, and of course my friends' faces, those who were still awake at least.

Climbing down the Jabal Moussa mountain
40 minutes later, we found ourselves on the asphalt again, church is all lit and it was marvelous. Said goodbye to everybody and headed back to the highway. Rabih dropped me off on the highway to Tripoli, took the other way back to Beirut, grabbed my stuff, and drove back again to Tripoli in one of those mini-buses. Here I am, cross-legged and sleepy, a feeling I would never forget. Thank you Night Collective!

Jun 24, 2013

Launching of the Media Association for Peace - MAP

On the 21st this month I was invited to the launching of the Media Association for Peace, MAP in short, at the Monroe Hotel in Beirut, by my friend, and one of the organizers, Aisha Habli. Having set up my schedule for the day, I decided to show up and squeeze-in an hour or so for the celebration, in between my work, the parliament protest, and the music festival happening all at roughly the same time.

Vanessa Bassil giving her speach

The place was packed, the organizers had apparently done a very good job organizing the whole thing. A welcoming lady at the entrance greeted me and showed me the way, a few more at the registration, and a lot more right at the door with a warm smile right before I stepped foot inside the auditorium. I blew a sigh of relief, thinking I was late to the ceremony; thank goodness we were all Lebanese: the organizers apparently sent invitations 30-minutes earlier, knowing there will still be people who would show up late, as always.

"It is just the beginning", well done for the MAP team - Nath Halawani
I have to admit though, the amount of photographers, (well, at least people with cameras) was noticeable. They were scattered here and there, partially shooting for the favor of the organization, some for a news venue, and a very few, and it might been only me, independent photographers at the event. I spotted Sara at first, a familiar face at last among all those around me. I greeted her and excused myself to put my stuff aside. Aisha was still nowhere to be found until I asked and there she was, putting the final touches on a poster thingy in the back. She even thanked me for coming!

"MAP is the Media Association for Peace, the first non-governmental organization in Lebanon, the Middle East and North Africa region dedicated to work on Peace Journalism.
MAP was founded in 2013 by the Lebanese Young Peace Journalists group and its name is inspired by the definition of Peace Journalism: “Peace Journalism approach provides a new road map tracing the connections between journalists, their sources, the stories they cover and the consequences of their reporting - the ethics of journalistic intervention”"

Having managed to get the shots I needed, it was time I secluded back to the couch where a man was sitting alone, passively swiping his smartphone, or was he just waiting for the food? Anyhow, and as Aisha mentioned while coming my way, this was too official for me. It was a celebration, a launching ceremony, the kind of events where people wear suits and dresses, became all anxious and worried up of their coming performance on stage, and fill the hallways with endless back and forth promenades with a pen in between their lips, trying to wordily practice their speech.

Several speakers took rounds on that stage; it was first the initiator, Vanessa Bassil, who first started out the MAP initiative. She looked so confident on stage, so proud of what she had achieved so far, and so happy all at the same time since this is getting so true at last. I can totally relate to that, and to add to it, she was one of the few people who head organizations and actually fit in their place.

Oh and, remember the time I said that was too official? Well check this out, it was not until the ceremony ended that the MAP team has showed how they really rock. I'm proud of these guys here, knowing they were all Lebanese, and that they could've easily ended up somewhere else, with lot less achievements than here. BRAVO.

Did I say too official? - Courtesy of the MAP FB page.

Jun 13, 2013

An Omrah Like Nothing Else

I still remember that day, I was a bit shy at the beginning, shy in terms of never had the chance to wear the official Hajj clothing ever before. I was browsing through the old emails in my outlook inbox, when all of a sudden an email with the title "photos" from my old friend Adnan was showing there, it took me instantly back to the day he told me he was going to visit me and Sam again in our apartment in Jeddah, back in the days.

Well, Adnan was first our flatmate, until he resigned and moved to Riyadh; he had wanted that day to come to Jeddah for a sleepover and a trip to Meccah. It sure wasn't my first, but was surely my first attempt to do the renowned muslim Omrah. Sam, my wonderful flatmate had given me his clothes, all washed and cleaned, and showed me a guide on how to wear them, and all the regulations and rules to go with the Omrah. I have to admit though, such an occasion having its own formalities and structure had definitely added to the glam of it.

I remember arguing with the taxi driver and then dropping off at a bus station, where we thought it was better (cheaper and faster) to ride a taxi instead. I had my famous backbag all along, filled with water mainly and a few snacks. The car had Indian and east Asian passengers, leaving us the only white people in there. I also remember the driver stopping for prayer on the road, me offering the passengers some food and water, my ass getting stuck right to the door, etc..

Stepping foot in Meccah that night was one of the most hectic things to have ever done in Saudi, it was last week of Ramadhan and there were at least two to three human beings in every square meter in that place: I felt my heart hitting the ground, how on earth would I be able to do the Omrah with all these people around? It was little time before I found myself inside Meccah, and by little I mean about 40 minutes, 40 minutes of hitting bones with bones, feeling the sweat of other people on my skin, pushing among long lines of people and finding myself walking in circles. I eventually made it.

Well in fact, the inside wasn't THAT crowded, you could easily stroll through with little trouble. Zamzam water containers were everywhere, men and women of all nationalities spread around the place either reading the Holy Book or praying towards Kaabah. Again, this wasn't my first time to Kaabah, but it sure was my first Omrah. I remember expecting to feel astonished, to sense the overwhelming flow of belief and tranquility fill my heart and soul. To my surprise, I felt nothing. I tried hard I swear, but it just wasn't there. Telling myself that I should give it some time, I decided to take it to the center round, there was the almighty Kaabah with people. It just didn't make sense to me, I was already there, with full readiness and respect to what I was about to do, well dressed inside and out, and ready for the Omrah, yet I didn't feel it, while other people who were obviously there for the manifestation of it, and who took Islam as being a handful of hollow rituals, were actually pushing each other for the black stone for instance, bumping into each other because they wanted to finish the 7 turns fast, yelling at each other while at it, and eventually disturbing everyone who was there for the real essence of it.

It just didn't make sense to me how the police could be watching others acting that filthy in such a place, while women and children were literally suffering beneath the feet and elbows of tall large men. Anyhow, I managed to get in line with the people around Kaabah, held a piece of paper and starting reading what was written there; in the end, this is what the book said, read what's written while you turn around Kaabah. Seriously? It was the 3rd round that I decided to put the booklet away and started silently humming my own prayers. It was sometimes merely asking god to offer me this and that; I felt greedy then, to things I didn't really need. I then thought I'd act as if I'm praying, therefore I started reading what is to be read in an Islamic prayer, it still didn't feel right, not fit at all. Getting even more lost in thoughts of what's to be done, what's right and what's wrong, I found myself eventually lost in humming a tune that was stuck in mind for the last three days. And it just hit me.

It hit me that, I was somebody that was obviously not fit for such a place, yet I made it there. I felt so guilty for taking the place of somebody else, among which was my mother. I felt so mad at those people around me that were taking the place of a lot more people too. I started telling myself that the awareness and readiness I had had in mind simply lead me to frustration and failed expectations, while the absence of it lead me to humming a gentle tune that gave me a slight inner satisfaction, at least compared to what I had around me at the moment. I remembered little children, they know nothing about prayers and rituals, yet they're the happiest.

In case you're feeling the kicking urge to rectify what I had said about Islamic rituals, think again, for the people that know me, know indeed you should be taking your mind away and what you had been taught before, it's a heart to heart discussion, not an open seminar about your religion. Friends have told me to give it time and they might be right. Others have advised me to go back to religious rules and scriptures in order to fill up my faith meter. But it's not the case.

At the end of Tawaf and Sa'i, I had to seclude myself in some corner, changed my clothes in an instant and was the same old Natheer back, in a tshirt and a pair of shorts. As I said, I still was feeling guilty at the end, I felt it wasn't my place, nor my time, and hence I was relieved it was all done with. Somebody else would've dreamt of coming to the place I only saw as a pile of concrete and shiny marble floors.

Before closing on, I have to admit a few things. I had been suffering an intolerable back ache for the last 3 days prior going there, I had asked my friend to help me pour some Zamzam water on my back, which worked as a charm in taking the pain away, no kidding at all. One more thing, the bits of peace I found in such a place was in the silence and tranquility in observing everyone around me silently reading Quraan and reciting dua'a, something that turned these humans into monks, and turned that place into a holy cosmopolitan commune for people alike to come and pray for a god they shared in common. This had truly left a mark in me I would never forget.

I still look back at that picture and giggle telling myself "what the hell was I thinking?" ^_^