From Amman, An Unfinished Roll of Film

“Literally shoot it from your hip,” I said. We practically had to shout to each other over the violent, incessant   clack clack clack   of rattling dice. The managing editor led us to the desk of a reporter and editor named Najeeb al-Hassan, the poor fellow to whom we were being assigned. As each day went by, all I wanted was the street, and the chasm between it and me seemed impossibly wide. An Amman backgammon parlor
“Let’s have another,” he said. It took me weeks to realize that I hadn’t even said goodbye to Najeeb. (One of my later colleagues would regularly beg our bosses to send him “to the worst place in the world.”)
I chose Amman as my destination to learn the trade. ¤
I knew early that I was going to be a reporter. “They’ll kill me. Najeeb looked up when I came in and did a double take over my   Yentl–meets–His Girl Friday   makeover. By the time I got to college, I was already cultivating the tremor and death wish, although it would be a while before I could put it into practice. All of my petty fear disappeared as we walked through the streets. Later in my career, I would learn that seasoned reporters on assignment in foreign countries usually acquire fixers and translators, but I was just   there, alone and with my nose pressed up against the glass. “Everyone’s staring,” I said. “Maybe you want to cut your hair,” he said. Could I do it myself? There was a concerto tempo to his approach; it was fascinating. Then he eased his way in deeper; you could almost see the door open wider and wider. That said, over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to look him up on Facebook and Twitter, but he doesn’t seem to be there. At one point, I had even attempted to travel from Jordan to Yemen on a bus through Saudi Arabia, but the logistics proved too daunting and I gave up the idea. While I didn’t record the details of most of these conversations in my journal, I remember how so many of these lives had been characterized by war, struggle, and loss. We luxuriated in the space, but there were ghosts too, at least historically speaking: we were told that previous tenants had included a couple of Iraqi diplomats who went to an event one evening and had been brutally murdered along with 10 other people. I’ve always been pitiful at small talk and ingratiation. We walked past a long row of market stalls displaying everything from spices to tube socks. Does   he   think what happened between us was extraordinary? “No one wants a girl out there, asking them political questions.” The remnants of the giddy naïveté that had carried me to Amman had evaporated back at that square; now I just felt like an idiot. I stared at myself for another minute, and then trotted back into my room, where I dug around in my closet for a red 49ers baseball cap that I’d swiped from a college hookup and sometimes wore when running. “Change that to ‘Occupied Jerusalem,’” he said. That place was nuts.”
“And then, after that trip, we can go Baghdad,” he said. ¤
One afternoon in mid-July, we stopped in at a restaurant to have our usual hundred coffees and load new film into the camera. ¤
Mirna’s family knew the top editor at the country’s preeminent English language newspaper, which billed itself as an “independent daily Arab publication,” even though it actually fell under the umbrella of a larger government-funded press foundation. “It’s time to do a real story,” he said. As usual, dozens of men sat outside, smoking, talking idly. ¤
It was amazing, really, how seriously Najeeb took us from the very beginning, whether we deserved it or not. A mosque stood in close proximity to the building, and five times a day the loud-speakered call to prayer roared through the newsroom. What were the nicknames being slung around? “The closer, the better,” I told him. Get   in   there.”
He approached a group of men sitting on a bench outside a bakery, and asked if he could take their photograph. I showed him how to use different lenses. The day before, Mirna and I had been swimming at one of her family’s country houses, surrounded by fruit trees and basking in the sunshine. I want era-specific details. “Your subjects won’t know they’re being photographed. Najeeb stopped and looked serious for the first time that afternoon. Rather, it’s a story about a brief and unusual friendship driven by mischief, ambition, curiosity, and tenderness in equal parts. Unlike me, Mirna did not suffer from Amanpour-fever, but she good-naturedly agreed to attempt an unpaid summer internship with me there. They used to use them at schools to teach settings because they’re so basic.”
Najeeb took the lens cap off and peered through the viewfinder. On the street, I was the target of stares and comments, and I hated the attention. “Sure,” I told him. “Yes, you can.”
“You’d need to get real press credentials,” he said. Najeeb took several pictures of them as they grinned for the camera. Then he emptied his face of surprise. I was about to put on some mascara when I stopped and put the wand down. All of my giddiness was replaced with awful, black grief; my days were dominated by tedious arrangements and small talk with lawyers and businessmen who cremate bodies and arrange white-lilied flower arrangements. M. Some reporters have a pure instinct for vox populi reporting, but with me, it was going to have to be a learned skill. And there, at three in the morning, in that West Hollywood room nearly 8,000 miles away from Amman, the sounds, sights, and sensations of that Jordanian summer with Najeeb rushed back over me in vivid detail. A note before I begin the story: this is not a   Romeo and Juliet   tale about a Jewish-American woman and an Arab man. During a fit of insomnia, I got up and went into my library to search through my stacks of journals stashed on the shelves — there are dozens of them, for I’m a pathological diarist — until I found what I was looking for: a large notebook with an orange and tattered cloth cover. The dining room table seated 12; whenever we left the apartment, it was cleaned by a small fleet of family servants. “You have a deal,” I told him. I pointed them out to Najeeb. Let’s just go out and start talking to people.”
We went down the street to an open square. But recently — with the ghastly devolution of the war in Syria, Trump’s ascent and his proposed Muslim registries, the horrific ISIS attacks around the world — I started thinking about my time in Jordan again, and about Najeeb al-Hassan, the man who happened to me there. These outings were innocuous and low stakes, but they took place in a man’s world and that thrilled me. (I personally have never gotten used to that approach, and am a relentless recorder to this day.) If anyone asked Najeeb who I was, he just told them that I was an assistant at the paper and left it at that. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“You want to cause an international incident?” he asked. I finished out the film by taking pictures of a duck pond at my college in Cambridge, and then had the roll developed. Much of Amman’s strangeness felt exquisite to me, especially the calls to prayer that reverberated throughout the city five times a day; the early morning ones seemed most evocative and beautiful. I have always been almost scarily adept at compartmentalizing pain, and when I got back to Cambridge that fall, I expunged the previous four months from my mind and buried myself in faux normality and forward-looking ambition. I should add that at the time I had been busy distinguishing myself as the least talented Arabic student likely to ever grace Cambridge University; my beleaguered teacher went limp with defeat every time I walked into her office for lessons. That’s how our government is repaying such favors these days. Najeeb told me about his childhood (PLO father, assassination attempts); I told him about mine (tennis clubs, Nintendo). He started by immediately established some commonality (You lost your land in Palestine? They were pulling together a doc on American presidential elections. Just do whatever he’s doing, I told myself. I think that J. We were showing each other how to   see   differently. A mosque?”
“You know you can’t come with me to a mosque,” Najeeb said. “We’ll go out again tomorrow,” Najeeb promised. Over that came a sweatshirt — the only loose top I had with me — and a pair of roomy jeans. A typical cafe in Amman, 1999
And then there was the least convenient, most discouraging fact of all: I had discovered that I also happened to be scared. The newspaper offices were raffish to the point of dinkiness: fluorescent lights hummed on the ceilings; the paper’s “archive” consisted of crumbling hard copies of newspapers wedged into folders and stuffed onto shelves. Now a suggested policy was being batted around that would make it increasingly difficult for guest workers to obtain visas to the country. It’s heartbreaking to me that it would probably be impossible today. I watched how he did it: with ease and humor; breezy, but not too familiar. The only reason I spared it: I’d scribbled a recipe for a Sufi lamb dish on the inside of the back cover. That clunky camera came with me everywhere. Even just sitting there in front of a clunky desktop computer, Najeeb reminded me of a panther. “One more,” Najeeb told the waiter. More specifically, I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour or Martha Gellhorn, or basically a female Edward Murrow, and — in my mind — the more alien the backdrop for my training, the better. ¤
While in Amman, no detail seemed irrelevant or uninteresting to me. I was going to Jordan. As the guest of Mirna’s family, I gained access to a world of languorous, hours-long lunches at the homes of well-appointed Jordanians; at night, we sometimes attended fetes in the city and surrounding countryside that would have made Gatsby jealous. He didn’t add that to be a foreign correspondent in a hardship zone, you should also probably be an adrenaline junkie with slightly shaking hands who disdains routine and domesticity and harbors something akin to a death wish. It was all a lesson in immersive observation, and I intended to record all of it. Blume is an award-winning journalist and a   New York Times   best-selling author and biographer. Everyone looked up at us as we took a table: I was the only woman in the room. He swiveled around to face us. Probably in his late 20s then, he had an angular, intense dark face and “the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun,” as F. It was happening. Najeeb was already looking for new things for us to do. “Come on,” I told him. My dad was a CBS man back in the 1960s and ’70s, working as a writer and producer for Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, and Dan Rather, among others; I grew up drawing on CBS notepads instead of coloring books. Najeeb started talking with the men around the cart, and the owner handed him a bottle of radioactive-orange soda. ¤
Over the next couple of weeks, I reprised my   Yentl   ensemble several more times. One afternoon, over coffee in London, she invited me to spend the summer with her in Jordan. I can only recall fragments of what happened next. We went to a hotel bar instead. He thought the fish eye lens was hilarious, but the long lens especially delighted him; now he could capture subjects unaware, unselfconscious, from afar. Mirna and I flew together to Amman a few days after our school term ended. That seemed worth preserving, at least. We could try going to a refugee camp, he suggested. But this was sheltered kid stuff; the padded editing rooms themselves resembled wombs, and I was desperate to cut the cord. He started to become sharp and clear in my mind again. “It’s paper policy,” Najeeb told me. He never recorded his conversations, and jotted notes down after the fact. “Because if you really do want to be a reporter, that feeling is never going away.”
The next morning when I woke up, Mirna was still sleeping; her enthusiasm for our newsroom adventure seemed to be waning as mine was intensifying. I’d been to Amman before, but it still felt new and strange to me. Any mention of Jerusalem in either bylines or story text was to be thus altered. Street shot, Amman, 1999
As Najeeb talked with people, I took in his method. I was stunned. One glance down at the thoroughfare outside seemed to support the latter: hundreds of unemployed men of all ages standing, sitting, waiting — for   what, exactly? “Get some more sun.”
We danced to Arabic music until late that night. (Other Jordanian beauty rituals, such as facial waxing, were best left alone.) These modifications helped a little bit, until I opened my mouth to talk. He said he wanted a real lesson — and then he made me an offer. My best friend at Cambridge had grown up in Abu Dhabi with my British ex; I’ll call her Mirna. Also, we pretended that certain official stats, such as 14 percent national unemployment rate, were correct, though the unofficial newsroom assessment placed it at around 30 percent. The family could set us up with an apartment and perhaps even broker a summer internship for us at the local English-language newspaper. Najeeb didn’t say anything for a minute. Guest workers were already not allowed to work as lawyers, doctors, engineers “in order to increase job opportunities for Jordanian job-seekers,” according to one report that summer. That way we’d be teaching other the basics; it was an even marketplace exchange. The two of us were casually made assistants to the editor of the first, second, third, and final pages of the paper, which covered breaking news, international and regional headlines, and the “strange-but-true” column. The idleness was unsettling; it had the feeling of a powder keg. We can drive through Syria.”
“I want to stop in Aleppo,” I said. Nor did Mirna stay in touch with him. I’d brought along a large notebook, a manual Pentax camera, and a Santa-sack of film (this was the pre-digital camera era). I remember sitting on the floor next to Mirna’s bed as I woke her up and told her that my father was dead. She currently lives in Los Angeles. Mirna did not come along. And with this person, I did something that seemed little and strangely sensible at the time, but suddenly, given recent events, seems extraordinary now, and also reminds me how far I was willing to go to become the reporter I wanted to be. A few hours later, I was on a plane back to New York. “All right, then,” he said. “You look terrible, Blumeberg,” she told me. I still have the Pentax. One of our Amman street shots
“Next time, take it from the hip,” I told him. Mirna’s family arranged for us to meet with one of the paper’s top editors. I approached the cart’s owner for a bottle. King Hussein and Queen Noor — an American-born sovereign — still ruled Jordan; it seemed that there was only so much trouble I could get into while still scoring some journalistic street cred. And the heat. So did my family),   creating a feeling of intimacy and trust. “I want to learn,” he said. And then, after that, back in my hot, humid, teeming hometown, there was only the business of sudden death. By our second day in the office, he’d taught us how to format the entire newspaper in Quark layout software. “It won’t work,” I told him. Did you tell her you were going out like this?”
I hadn’t told her. It was not a pretty sight. FEBRUARY 20, 2017

Note to readers: The names of the people and some of the institutions in this story have been changed. His last byline listed online appears to have been around 2012, and I don’t know what he’s doing now. “Don’t be so conceited,” he said, smiling. We went to one restaurant with a great view of a city square; three stories up, it gave us a bird’s eye of the area. Or if it is, it’s largely a professional one. “Who are you?” he demanded. I began waking up in the middle of the night thinking about that summer; I even caught myself listening for the early morning call-to-prayer over the rustling Los Angeles palm trees outside my window. By the time we left, I was so caffeinated I nearly threw up in the alley next to the cafe. “This isn’t what I’m looking for,” he told me. Ariel Sharon had yet to kick the hornets’ nest by charging up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, effectively setting off the Second Intifada; Donald Trump was still just a limelight-seeking real estate developer (although that year he was already toying with the idea of a presidential run as a Reform Party candidate). I was still obsessing over it when I went to bed. A lot of my dad’s old press pals came to the funeral; I overheard one of them tell another that he’d come for the networking opportunity. A few years earlier, I’d had a very   English Patient   British boyfriend who’d grown up in Abu Dhabi and lived and traveled all over the region. It became clear that I would not be served the pestilent bottle of soda; I was not welcome there. Everything seemed in a state of disrepair, half-repair, or mid-repair. I finally got an opportunity to get my boots on the ground. Najeeb heatedly explained that I was with him; they began arguing. Some were refugees or descendants of refugees; a few were desperately seeking any sort of employment. It was a most satisfying result: I looked sort of like a wan, unappealing boy. ¤
It is said that life edits itself for a reason, but these days, I’ve found that life also offers up ways to undo those edits, to reedit, to reknit the narrative. My mother’s voice sounded hoarse on the other end; I was stupid with sleep and it took a few minutes for me to piece together her words and understand their meaning:   your   father, heart attack, home, quickly, funeral. Najeeb was just walking with me, almost like a tourist, getting me used to the street and showing me how to approach people. Blume. My Jordan journal
Lesley M. “Can you show me?”
I stood next to him and showed him how to work the ancient settings. (I remember hearing that summer that the average Jordanian salary hovered at around $400 a year — and those were the lucky ones.) Their frustration was palpable as they waited for some undefined event that would change their lives. Yet despite its limited effectiveness, my low-grade disguise eventually gave me a more subversive idea, one that would let me navigate the town with greater ease — and get down to the business of learning how to report. Living room of our Amman apartment. And why didn’t he ever try to find   me   after that? Najeeb translated their words back to me, and asked them questions on my behalf. Najeeb and I prowled all over the city, taking photos and exploring; we drank coffee with strangers and listened to their stories. I sat back down. “Enjoy.”
Najeeb looked at us for a minute. This is a cringeworthy confession to have to make, but it’s necessary for this story. You might not even get them in the shot, but it might also end up being an amazing, spontaneous picture.”
When we walked away, I asked what they’d been laughing about
“They think it’s funny that you’re giving me lessons.”
As we walked around that afternoon, I realized that we weren’t gathering MOS sound for a story after all. Suddenly, he shouted at me and told me in no uncertain terms to get away. “It’ll be a portrait of the camp, through the details of the peoples’ lives.”
“Let’s do it,” I told him. This was 1999, before the world had been rocked by 9/11, the 2003 Iraq invasion, the rise of ISIS, and the devastating Syrian Civil War. I loved that anarchic, parched, cubist metropolis: dust hung in the air; traffic jams comprised of cars, sheep, and donkeys in equal parts. ¤
WHEN I WAS a 23-year-old grad student, more than anything, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Certainly no one ever demanded to know outright whether I was a man or a woman. He showed me how to comb the wires for absurd stories for the strange-but-true column (one popular item detailed a wedding between two deep sea aficionados, whose ceremony was conducted in front of “a congregation of sharks”); we laughed together as we titled the items. On my third day, I was formatting a wire story when Najeeb came up and stood behind me and pointed to the word “Jerusalem” in the byline text. Najeeb was also proving to be a gifted photographer. My access in these circles delighted me, but I was getting frustrated: I already knew how to politic with a glass of wine in my hand. There were other semantic “etiquette” lessons; for example, Israel was to be referred to as Palestine. I could never get used to the presence of heavily veiled women, for instance. “They’re actually looking at me.”
We drank our second round of coffees. We walked upstairs to a backgammon parlor with a great view of a bustling square below. “Loosen up,” he added, shaking me by the shoulder. When it came to acquiring MOS talents, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I almost even threw away my orange-covered Amman journal. “And stay in the Baron Hotel. It took courage for me to meet their stares, but when I did, their faces were incredible: craggy, etched, glistening in the sun. I have no way of knowing if our audience viewed me as an ugly boy or just a strange tomboy. “You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” He leaned forward and looked hard at me. M. He seemed genuinely interested in mentoring, and he was curious about the earnest American and the Palestinian socialite who’d descended upon the office without warning. In the many years that followed, this whole strange experience receded in my mind; since then, I’ve lived many lives in different cities and worked with countless other colorful colleagues, editors, and fellow reporters. Does he even remember who I am? Just before I left for grad school, I was hired as a summer researcher at Cronkite Productions, an independent documentary company in New York City. Of course, tension and hatred was smoldering beneath the placid surface of things, as it always does in that part of the world, but during that particular summer, everyone was, for the most part, grumbling, not shooting or detonating. “Take their picture,” he said. “Where would we go?” I asked. The owner was filling up glass bottles with sugary liquid and passing them to his customers, who swilled the drinks down and handed the bottles back to the owner, who   refilled them and passed them on, unwashed, to the next customer. Mirna and I were heavily chaperoned creatures in those early days, but we also managed to explore on our own a little bit. Even within the confines of Mirna’s elite world, everyone I met seemed fascinating: the Gucci-clad society ladies who lounged at parties on cushions, coiled up with long-roped, nargile pipes and exhaling clouds of apple tobacco smoke; the university professor who told me he longed for an Arab leader “with the heart of King Hussein and the power of Saddam Hussein”; the religious conservative who made a big show of refusing to shake my hand when meeting me, even though he’d once used to wear religious garb as a costume to get fast-tracked into Studio 54 in 1970s New York City. There in those pictures, developed in a British store, were our boys: the street men of Amman. I wonder if the two of us could sit again today in that restaurant with its birds-eye view of the city and talk about ISIS and Syria and Trump and the hell that our world has become and the hell still in store for all of us, and I wonder if we could still feel as mischievous and intertwined and full of possibility as we did then. We could go out and get some street reaction to the idea, Najeeb suggested. At grad school, I took Arabic lessons; my master’s thesis dissected American media coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. It was a touchy issue; we’d be sure to get some great sound. I wonder if Najeeb’s face is still as beautiful as it once was, or if it has become craggy and etched and haunted like theirs. There was a democratic deference to him; he was unfailingly polite to everyone from street boys to shopkeepers. Najeeb was looking at me in a funny way. Oh, who   cared? Once in a while, Najeeb looked at me and shook his head, but otherwise, I conducted my little subterfuge with impunity. I even began to feel a little jaunty; growing that pair of invisible balls changed everything. He pointed at me and suddenly they all laughed. Suddenly Najeeb and I got to be comrades in public. I want   color. How would I reach the back of my hair? Later, one of my bosses told me that to be a journalist, you can’t simply be hungry for news; you have to be   starved   for it. I’ll help you.”
We drank coffee and looked out over the city in silence for a few minutes. Apple tobacco smoke and the strong smell of Arabic coffee filled the air. I also ultimately veered away from hard news and instead began to specialize in historical culture reporting. Are all New Yorkers like that?”
I laughed and told him that yes, all New Yorkers were uptight assholes. One didn’t merely sweat in Amman: one   baked   under that hot desert sun. Not of bodily harm or being kidnapped or anything like that, but of being embarrassed, shown up, revealed as incompetent. There aren’t many upsides of today’s vilely insane current events, but I’m grateful that they caused me to remember Najeeb and acknowledge my debt to him — for those vital reporting lessons, for his encouragement, and for the example of his kindness and his unremitting curiosity. “Women don’t usually go.” He was quiet, and then: “We’ll figure it out. Layers of obstacles presented themselves. We talked for several hours and drank approximately a hundred coffees. Next came a sports bra, which squashed my breasts down to a nearly flat surface; I put it on bandeau-style, so the straps wouldn’t show around the collar of my shirt. That part was always my job; Najeeb was a good shooter, but hopeless with logistics. I’d tried to avoid nepotism back home, but this was such a juicy offer that I began to reason my way around it. But I was undeterred; naïveté carried me through. “But let’s not fly. Where were the rallies, the riots? Did he miss me when I disappeared from Amman? Pull anything about the region. The two of us would be living,   gratis, in a sprawling gilt-and-marble Jabal Amman apartment just downstairs from one owned by her grandparents. In my mind, I was grooming myself to interview diplomats, senators, presidents — people of power — not average Joes. “You have to chill out,” he told me. It was almost time for the sunset call to prayer; dozens of men were streaming into its entrances. I couldn’t think about Jordan without thinking about the reason I’d been torn away from it. It stopped and I fell back asleep, but it rang again, and then again. “Let’s get to work.”
Mirna and I stood there. “You’re going to burn a hole through your stomach.”
“Sit down,” he said. After I left Jordan, I realized that my Pentax contained an unfinished roll of film from our last day on the streets together. But there, in that scrappy little newspaper office back in Amman, standing next to Najeeb and pulling Associated Press, Reuters, and   Agence France-Presse   copy off the reams: this was   my   heaven. One correspondent for whom I worked at a CBS affiliate let me cut and edit his segments; I entertained his interviewees in the green room and on junkets. But other strangenesses jolted and alarmed me. I came away unscathed, but probably only because a tragedy abruptly cut short my Amman adventure before I could take things too far. By the age of 12, I was precociously fluent in the language of newsrooms (“lede,” “kill fee,” “stringer”: all early additions to my preadolescent vocabulary). I haven’t tried to contact Najeeb since I left Amman over 17 years ago without a farewell. “Men and women can’t go in there together.”
“What about a backgammon parlor?”
“It’s the same thing,” he said. Without make-up, I looked just like a skinny-faced version of my father, I thought. “Three hundred years old? It had to be a politically charged place, where something exciting and newsworthy might happen at any moment, where you could be in the wrong place at the right time. “Are you kidding?” I exclaimed and shoved the Pentax into his hands. I had a dream the other night that he was trying to come see me here and got detained for days at LAX. When I brought the executive producer a sheath of research about presidential speeches and policies, he pushed it aside on his desk. I hated the end of that summer so fucking much that I wanted to put the whole thing into a trash can and burn it, and suddenly that included Jordan too, because it all became intertwined in my mind. His English was near-perfect and idiomatic; I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t think that I ever asked him how he learned it. I feel like I want something from him, but I do not know what. Finally, this past week, with Trump’s immigration ban on certain Muslim countries and the chaos and rage that ensued, sleep became impossible for me. It made me feel incredibly close to him. It wasn’t an abrupt decision. I piled my hair up on top of my head and put the cap on, and returned to the mirror. But it also boasted some good original reporting and getting a foothold there seemed like a coup. “It’s a K1000, a discontinued model. I remember the travel agent — shaken out of bed by a phone call from Mirna’s grandparents — arriving at our apartment in his pajamas to conjure up a New York–bound plane ticket for me. I would go in to work early, and she could meet me there. “Free labor,” the managing editor informed him. The crime had apparently remained unsolved. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of one of his characters. “How could you possibly need another coffee?” I demanded. I switched to wine, took off my hat, and let my hair down for the first time that day. “There is nothing loose or casual about you. Her grandparents and an assortment of aunts and uncles lived in Amman; her grandfather had been a senior diplomat and knew everyone in town. “Like what? This might not seem daring to some, but back then, the idea of a New York–born, half-Jewish girl setting up shop in the Arab world felt ballsy to me. It was in our DNA. I nodded and spent the walk home wondering how the hell I’d find someone to give me a boy haircut in Amman. I romanticized the hell out of his life, and even after we broke up, I’d continued following in his footsteps by making my own excursions to Morocco, Israel, Jordan, and Syria. We strolled through the markets and smoked an apple tobacco   narguila   together in an unmarked cafe, hidden behind a heavily rusted door. In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of the landline ringing. What were the slogans — what were they chanting, singing? “A market? “My, you look lovely this morning,” he said dryly. I drank my coffee fast and stood up to go. Landscapes bored him, but he was great at capturing faces. If I taught him to take photographs on the Pentax, he offered, he’d show me how to do man-on-the-street interviews. “Want to go in?” I said. Fate permitted this rapport during that short pause in hostilities. The sight of one often gave me the sensation of picking up a hand mirror the wrong side around: the missing face always sent a flash of dread through me. The following year at Cambridge, I began scoping out some sort of placement in the Middle East. There he set up the camera on a windowsill and shot pictures of the milling, restless population below. I hung back while Najeeb drank from the bottle and began chatting with the other men; he waved me over. I remember the envelope of horse-pill Jordanian tranquilizers that Mirna’s grandmother gave to me for the trip home. Watch him; imitate him. She hailed from a prominent diplomatic and political family with branches in several different countries. It wasn’t my family getting us the job, so maybe it didn’t officially count as nepotism. “What should we do?” I asked. ¤
The next morning when I arrived at work, we went out right away. I started wearing sunglasses most the time to mask my green eyes; I got my hair colored as dark as Mirna’s. “Get a shot of them as they were before you talked with them, smoking and talking.”
He walked back to them. Four hundred?”
“I don’t know,” I told him sullenly. A group of men clustered around a soda cart. I got up and padded down the long dark corridor, the marble cold beneath my feet, and picked up the receiver. — on the sidewalks, in front of cafes, outsides mosques. All photos by Lesley M. Inside the Jerusalem Restaurant, Amman, 1999
In any case, it was fun as hell, even though I was sweltering in that sweatshirt. He thought that was probably best. “We can’t,” he said. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote about attending a bullfight, it might be like “having a ringside seat at [a] war, with nothing going to happen to you.”
But when I got to Jordan, something did happen to me — or someone, rather. A mere 12 pages long — the length of my college newspaper — it was compiled by a small staff of local reporters and padded with wire stories on the region. I had coffee alone and went into my bathroom to get ready. You’re going to comb the wires, he told us. I was finally learning what I had come to Jordan to learn. Maybe this was just fate arranging things for me through the guise of nepotism. Mirna eventually came to meet us. Najeeb and I went back to the newsroom; my sad, timid little maiden odyssey had been a failure. While my mediocre Arabic was the most obvious handicap, navigating the city as a woman was proving far more challenging than I’d anticipated. I put some dinars on the table and stood up to go again. Other kids read   Peanuts; I read The Adventures of Tintin, boy reporter. Crew helpfully retailed them under the name “Boyfriend Jeans” — and here I was, taking that designation quite literally. “Mirna’s family would be embarrassed if you got caught. It seemed outrageous to me, but I did as I was told. The English version was supposedly read mostly by resident expats. “I want man-on-the-street stuff.”
I asked him to be more specific. “How did the average man experience these elections? You do it.”
I showed him how to adjust the settings for bright sunlight. “And where after that?”
“Beirut,” he said. When we went out that afternoon, for the first time, no one stared at me or hassled me. To be fair, it was admittedly a relatively calm time in the Middle East. “I know that they must be terrible looking, to have made an ugly child like you,” he told me, and we laughed and ordered another nargile pipe. “I can’t go to Baghdad,” I told him. Events taking place on the other side of the world always seemed more important than anything happening in my little world, and I was ready to lay down on the altar and sacrifice myself to the relentless news cycle. He welcomed me to his country and gave me access to his world. I wonder if he kept taking photographs; did he buy a camera? They still hammed it up. Did he ever learn to load his own damn film? He was amusingly nosy, and wanted to know all about the United States and my family. He picked up my Pentax from my desk and examined it. As an undergrad, I took on a few newsy college internships at home; luckily, it turned out that I was good at being in a newsroom and had the requisite appetite for news. Najeeb leaned back languidly. “Want to do a book review?” he asked me one afternoon, holding up a copy of a 1,200-page new release about the history of Islam. “How old is this camera?” he asked. Najeeb didn’t specify the assignment; he just said that we were going to the old city. Then we’ll decide what we’re going to include in tomorrow’s paper. “For the visa. I might have been cultivated as a newsroom brat, but I was also the product of the academic ivory tower, steeped in political theory and other such ephemera. “But I’m a slow reader, so I’ll have to get it to you sometime in the fall.”
Or, he went on, the national debate surrounding guest workers appeared to be heating up again. “My teacher always told me that most amateurs make the mistake of shooting too far away. I was there last year. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at myself. Within a few days, we’d mastered the art of the wires and formatting. I took a taxi to work. Even though its culture is a far cry from Saudi Arabia’s, Amman wasn’t exactly liberal; its public spaces seemed mostly filled with men. As we walked, the pink-and-white Grand Husseini Mosque, with its towering minarets, came into view. ¤
Mirna’s relations dwelled in various glass-walled high-rise apartments around the city. It was a neutral   Associated Press   article; how could it be ethical to infuse it with political language like that? “You don’t want them to pose,” I told him when he came back. History is built from the bottom up.”
Later, in my various broadcast jobs, I learned about “MOS SOT” (man-on-the-street sound-on-tape) and “vox pop” (vox populi   quotes); these “bottom-up” elements are standard stuff for news segments, but the producer’s directive at Cronkite Productions was revelatory for me. One of our long lens shots, Amman, 1999
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, soaking those faces in amber light and deep black shadows, I realized that Najeeb and I were doing more than teaching each other the basics. By that point, he didn’t even seem real to me anymore; I was so numb and tapped out that our adventure might as well have been a movie that I’d seen long ago. Whenever I tried to purchase something on my own, there was the inevitable price hike; with my very limited Arabic, I could never win at haggling.