From Amman, An Unfinished Roll of Film
By Lesley M. M. BlumeFebruary 20, 2017
WHEN I WAS a 23-year-old grad student, more than anything, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. 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. 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. (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. 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. 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. But I was undeterred; naïveté carried me through.
To be fair, it was admittedly a relatively calm time in the Middle East. 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. 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). 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. 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. 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. 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. I came away unscathed, but probably only because a tragedy abruptly cut short my Amman adventure before I could take things too far.
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. I also ultimately veered away from hard news and instead began to specialize in historical culture reporting. 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. He started to become sharp and clear in my mind again. 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.
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. 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. 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. Or if it is, it’s largely a professional one. Rather, it’s a story about a brief and unusual friendship driven by mischief, ambition, curiosity, and tenderness in equal parts. Fate permitted this rapport during that short pause in hostilities. It’s heartbreaking to me that it would probably be impossible today.
I knew early that I was going to be a reporter. 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. 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). Other kids read Peanuts; I read The Adventures of Tintin, boy reporter.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 this was sheltered kid stuff; the padded editing rooms themselves resembled wombs, and I was desperate to cut the cord.
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. They were pulling together a doc on American presidential elections. When I brought the executive producer a sheath of research about presidential speeches and policies, he pushed it aside on his desk.
“This isn’t what I’m looking for,” he told me. “I want man-on-the-street stuff.”
I asked him to be more specific.
“How did the average man experience these elections? I want era-specific details. What were the slogans — what were they chanting, singing? What were the nicknames being slung around? Where were the rallies, the riots? I want color. 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. 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. In my mind, I was grooming myself to interview diplomats, senators, presidents — people of power — not average Joes. This is a cringeworthy confession to have to make, but it’s necessary for this story. Some reporters have a pure instinct for vox populi reporting, but with me, it was going to have to be a learned skill. I’ve always been pitiful at small talk and ingratiation. When it came to acquiring MOS talents, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
The following year at Cambridge, I began scoping out some sort of placement in the Middle East. It wasn’t an abrupt decision. 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. 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. 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. At grad school, I took Arabic lessons; my master’s thesis dissected American media coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.
I finally got an opportunity to get my boots on the ground. My best friend at Cambridge had grown up in Abu Dhabi with my British ex; I’ll call her Mirna. She hailed from a prominent diplomatic and political family with branches in several different countries. One afternoon, over coffee in London, she invited me to spend the summer with her in Jordan. Her grandparents and an assortment of aunts and uncles lived in Amman; her grandfather had been a senior diplomat and knew everyone in town. The family could set us up with an apartment and perhaps even broker a summer internship for us at the local English-language newspaper.
I’d tried to avoid nepotism back home, but this was such a juicy offer that I began to reason my way around it. It wasn’t my family getting us the job, so maybe it didn’t officially count as nepotism. Maybe this was just fate arranging things for me through the guise of nepotism. Oh, who cared? I was going to Jordan. It was happening.
Mirna and I flew together to Amman a few days after our school term ended.
Mirna’s relations dwelled in various glass-walled high-rise apartments around the city. 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. The dining room table seated 12; whenever we left the apartment, it was cleaned by a small fleet of family servants. 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. The crime had apparently remained unsolved.
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. Mirna and I were heavily chaperoned creatures in those early days, but we also managed to explore on our own a little bit. I’d been to Amman before, but it still felt new and strange to me. I loved that anarchic, parched, cubist metropolis: dust hung in the air; traffic jams comprised of cars, sheep, and donkeys in equal parts. Everything seemed in a state of disrepair, half-repair, or mid-repair. And the heat. One didn’t merely sweat in Amman: one baked under that hot desert sun.
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. But other strangenesses jolted and alarmed me. I could never get used to the presence of heavily veiled women, for instance. 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. On the street, I was the target of stares and comments, and I hated the attention. 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. I started wearing sunglasses most the time to mask my green eyes; I got my hair colored as dark as Mirna’s. (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.
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.
While in Amman, no detail seemed irrelevant or uninteresting to me. It was all a lesson in immersive observation, and I intended to record all of it. I’d brought along a large notebook, a manual Pentax camera, and a Santa-sack of film (this was the pre-digital camera era). That clunky camera came with me everywhere. 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.
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. As each day went by, all I wanted was the street, and the chasm between it and me seemed impossibly wide. Layers of obstacles presented themselves. While my mediocre Arabic was the most obvious handicap, navigating the city as a woman was proving far more challenging than I’d anticipated. 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.
And then there was the least convenient, most discouraging fact of all: I had discovered that I also happened to be scared. Not of bodily harm or being kidnapped or anything like that, but of being embarrassed, shown up, revealed as incompetent. 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.
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. The English version was supposedly read mostly by resident expats. 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. But it also boasted some good original reporting and getting a foothold there seemed like a coup.
Mirna’s family arranged for us to meet with one of the paper’s top editors. Unlike me, Mirna did not suffer from Amanpour-fever, but she good-naturedly agreed to attempt an unpaid summer internship with me there. 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. A mosque stood in close proximity to the building, and five times a day the loud-speakered call to prayer roared through the newsroom.
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 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. Even just sitting there in front of a clunky desktop computer, Najeeb reminded me of a panther. 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. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of one of his characters. He swiveled around to face us.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Free labor,” the managing editor informed him. “Enjoy.”
Najeeb looked at us for a minute. “All right, then,” he said. “Let’s get to work.”
Mirna and I stood there. “What should we do?” I asked.
You’re going to comb the wires, he told us. Pull anything about the region. Then we’ll decide what we’re going to include in tomorrow’s paper.
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. 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.
It was amazing, really, how seriously Najeeb took us from the very beginning, whether we deserved it or not. 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. 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.
By our second day in the office, he’d taught us how to format the entire newspaper in Quark layout software. 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.
“Change that to ‘Occupied Jerusalem,’” he said.
I was stunned. It was a neutral Associated Press article; how could it be ethical to infuse it with political language like that?
“It’s paper policy,” Najeeb told me.
It seemed outrageous to me, but I did as I was told. Any mention of Jerusalem in either bylines or story text was to be thus altered. There were other semantic “etiquette” lessons; for example, Israel was to be referred to as Palestine. 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. 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? — on the sidewalks, in front of cafes, outsides mosques. The idleness was unsettling; it had the feeling of a powder keg.
Within a few days, we’d mastered the art of the wires and formatting. Najeeb was already looking for new things for us to do.
“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.
“Sure,” I told him. “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. 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. Now a suggested policy was being batted around that would make it increasingly difficult for guest workers to obtain visas to the country. We could go out and get some street reaction to the idea, Najeeb suggested. It was a touchy issue; we’d be sure to get some great sound.
“Where would we go?” I asked. “A market? A mosque?”
“You know you can’t come with me to a mosque,” Najeeb said. “Men and women can’t go in there together.”
“What about a backgammon parlor?”
“It’s the same thing,” he said. “Women don’t usually go.” He was quiet, and then: “We’ll figure it out. Let’s just go out and start talking to people.”
We went down the street to an open square. A group of men clustered around a soda cart. 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. Najeeb started talking with the men around the cart, and the owner handed him a bottle of radioactive-orange soda. I hung back while Najeeb drank from the bottle and began chatting with the other men; he waved me over.
Just do whatever he’s doing, I told myself. Watch him; imitate him.
I approached the cart’s owner for a bottle. Suddenly, he shouted at me and told me in no uncertain terms to get away. Najeeb heatedly explained that I was with him; they began arguing. It became clear that I would not be served the pestilent bottle of soda; I was not welcome there. Najeeb and I went back to the newsroom; my sad, timid little maiden odyssey had been a failure.
“We’ll go out again tomorrow,” Najeeb promised.
“It won’t work,” I told him. “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.
Najeeb didn’t say anything for a minute. He picked up my Pentax from my desk and examined it.
“How old is this camera?” he asked. “Three hundred years old? Four hundred?”
“I don’t know,” I told him sullenly. “It’s a K1000, a discontinued model. 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. “I want to learn,” he said. “Can you show me?”
I stood next to him and showed him how to work the ancient settings. He said he wanted a real lesson — and then he made me an offer. If I taught him to take photographs on the Pentax, he offered, he’d show me how to do man-on-the-street interviews. That way we’d be teaching other the basics; it was an even marketplace exchange.
“You have a deal,” I told him.
The next morning when I arrived at work, we went out right away. Najeeb didn’t specify the assignment; he just said that we were going to the old city. Mirna did not come along.
We walked past a long row of market stalls displaying everything from spices to tube socks. As usual, dozens of men sat outside, smoking, talking idly. It took courage for me to meet their stares, but when I did, their faces were incredible: craggy, etched, glistening in the sun. I pointed them out to Najeeb.
“Take their picture,” he said.
“Are you kidding?” I exclaimed and shoved the Pentax into his hands. “They’ll kill me. You do it.”
I showed him how to adjust the settings for bright sunlight. “The closer, the better,” I told him. “My teacher always told me that most amateurs make the mistake of shooting too far away. Get in there.”
He approached a group of men sitting on a bench outside a bakery, and asked if he could take their photograph. He pointed at me and suddenly they all laughed. Najeeb took several pictures of them as they grinned for the camera.
“You don’t want them to pose,” I told him when he came back. “Get a shot of them as they were before you talked with them, smoking and talking.”
He walked back to them. They still hammed it up.
“Next time, take it from the hip,” I told him.
“Literally shoot it from your hip,” I said. “Your subjects won’t know they’re being photographed. 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. Najeeb was just walking with me, almost like a tourist, getting me used to the street and showing me how to approach people. I watched how he did it: with ease and humor; breezy, but not too familiar. There was a democratic deference to him; he was unfailingly polite to everyone from street boys to shopkeepers.
“You have to chill out,” he told me. “Loosen up,” he added, shaking me by the shoulder. “There is nothing loose or casual about you. Are all New Yorkers like that?”
I laughed and told him that yes, all New Yorkers were uptight assholes. It was in our DNA. We walked upstairs to a backgammon parlor with a great view of a bustling square below. We practically had to shout to each other over the violent, incessant clack clack clack of rattling dice. Apple tobacco smoke and the strong smell of Arabic coffee filled the air. Everyone looked up at us as we took a table: I was the only woman in the room. I drank my coffee fast and stood up to go. Najeeb leaned back languidly.
“Let’s have another,” he said.
I sat back down. “Everyone’s staring,” I said.
“Don’t be so conceited,” he said, smiling. “They’re actually looking at me.”
We drank our second round of coffees. I put some dinars on the table and stood up to go again.
“One more,” Najeeb told the waiter.
“How could you possibly need another coffee?” I demanded. “You’re going to burn a hole through your stomach.”
“Sit down,” he said. “You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” He leaned forward and looked hard at me. “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 had coffee alone and went into my bathroom to get ready. I would go in to work early, and she could meet me there.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at myself. Without make-up, I looked just like a skinny-faced version of my father, I thought. It was not a pretty sight. I was about to put on some mascara when I stopped and put the wand down. 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. I piled my hair up on top of my head and put the cap on, and returned to the mirror. It was a most satisfying result: I looked sort of like a wan, unappealing boy.
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. Over that came a sweatshirt — the only loose top I had with me — and a pair of roomy jeans. I think that J. Crew helpfully retailed them under the name “Boyfriend Jeans” — and here I was, taking that designation quite literally. I took a taxi to work.
Najeeb looked up when I came in and did a double take over my Yentl–meets–His Girl Friday makeover. Then he emptied his face of surprise.
“My, you look lovely this morning,” he said dryly.
When we went out that afternoon, for the first time, no one stared at me or hassled me. I have no way of knowing if our audience viewed me as an ugly boy or just a strange tomboy. Certainly no one ever demanded to know outright whether I was a man or a woman. Once in a while, Najeeb looked at me and shook his head, but otherwise, I conducted my little subterfuge with impunity.
In any case, it was fun as hell, even though I was sweltering in that sweatshirt. All of my petty fear disappeared as we walked through the streets. I even began to feel a little jaunty; growing that pair of invisible balls changed everything. Suddenly Najeeb and I got to be comrades in public. We strolled through the markets and smoked an apple tobacco narguila together in an unmarked cafe, hidden behind a heavily rusted door. We talked for several hours and drank approximately a hundred coffees. Najeeb told me about his childhood (PLO father, assassination attempts); I told him about mine (tennis clubs, Nintendo). He was amusingly nosy, and wanted to know all about the United States and my family.
“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. By the time we left, I was so caffeinated I nearly threw up in the alley next to the cafe.
As we walked, the pink-and-white Grand Husseini Mosque, with its towering minarets, came into view. It was almost time for the sunset call to prayer; dozens of men were streaming into its entrances.
“Want to go in?” I said.
Najeeb stopped and looked serious for the first time that afternoon. “We can’t,” he said.
“Come on,” I told him. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“You want to cause an international incident?” he asked. “Mirna’s family would be embarrassed if you got caught. Did you tell her you were going out like this?”
I hadn’t told her. He thought that was probably best.
We went to a hotel bar instead. I switched to wine, took off my hat, and let my hair down for the first time that day. Mirna eventually came to meet us. “You look terrible, Blumeberg,” she told me. “Get some more sun.”
We danced to Arabic music until late that night.
Over the next couple of weeks, I reprised my Yentl ensemble several more times. Najeeb and I prowled all over the city, taking photos and exploring; we drank coffee with strangers and listened to their stories. Najeeb translated their words back to me, and asked them questions on my behalf. 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. Some were refugees or descendants of refugees; a few were desperately seeking any sort of employment. (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.
As Najeeb talked with people, I took in his method. He started by immediately established some commonality (You lost your land in Palestine? So did my family), creating a feeling of intimacy and trust. Then he eased his way in deeper; you could almost see the door open wider and wider. There was a concerto tempo to his approach; it was fascinating. He never recorded his conversations, and jotted notes down after the fact. (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.
These outings were innocuous and low stakes, but they took place in a man’s world and that thrilled me. I was finally learning what I had come to Jordan to learn. Najeeb was also proving to be a gifted photographer. Landscapes bored him, but he was great at capturing faces. I showed him how to use different lenses. He thought the fish eye lens was hilarious, but the long lens especially delighted him; now he could capture subjects unaware, unselfconscious, from afar. 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. There he set up the camera on a windowsill and shot pictures of the milling, restless population below.
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. We were showing each other how to see differently. It made me feel incredibly close to him.
One afternoon in mid-July, we stopped in at a restaurant to have our usual hundred coffees and load new film into the camera. That part was always my job; Najeeb was a good shooter, but hopeless with logistics.
“It’s time to do a real story,” he said.
We could try going to a refugee camp, he suggested. “It’ll be a portrait of the camp, through the details of the peoples’ lives.”
“Let’s do it,” I told him. “And where after that?”
“Beirut,” he said. “But let’s not fly. We can drive through Syria.”
“I want to stop in Aleppo,” I said. “And stay in the Baron Hotel. I was there last year. That place was nuts.”
“And then, after that trip, we can go Baghdad,” he said.
“I can’t go to Baghdad,” I told him.
“Yes, you can.”
“You’d need to get real press credentials,” he said. “For the visa. I’ll help you.”
We drank coffee and looked out over the city in silence for a few minutes. Najeeb was looking at me in a funny way.
“Maybe you want to cut your hair,” he said.
I nodded and spent the walk home wondering how the hell I’d find someone to give me a boy haircut in Amman. Could I do it myself? How would I reach the back of my hair? I was still obsessing over it when I went to bed.
In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of the landline ringing. It stopped and I fell back asleep, but it rang again, and then again. I got up and padded down the long dark corridor, the marble cold beneath my feet, and picked up the receiver. 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.
I can only recall fragments of what happened next. I remember sitting on the floor next to Mirna’s bed as I woke her up and told her that my father was dead. 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 remember the envelope of horse-pill Jordanian tranquilizers that Mirna’s grandmother gave to me for the trip home. A few hours later, I was on a plane back to New York.
And then, after that, back in my hot, humid, teeming hometown, there was only the business of sudden death. 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. 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.
It took me weeks to realize that I hadn’t even said goodbye to Najeeb. 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. 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. I couldn’t think about Jordan without thinking about the reason I’d been torn away from it. 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 almost even threw away my orange-covered Amman journal. The only reason I spared it: I’d scribbled a recipe for a Sufi lamb dish on the inside of the back cover. That seemed worth preserving, at least.
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. 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. He welcomed me to his country and gave me access to his world. I had a dream the other night that he was trying to come see me here and got detained for days at LAX. That’s how our government is repaying such favors these days.
I haven’t tried to contact Najeeb since I left Amman over 17 years ago without a farewell. 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. Nor did Mirna stay in touch with him. His last byline listed online appears to have been around 2012, and I don’t know what he’s doing now. I wonder if he kept taking photographs; did he buy a camera? Did he ever learn to load his own damn film? Did he miss me when I disappeared from Amman? And why didn’t he ever try to find me after that? Does he think what happened between us was extraordinary? Does he even remember who I am?
After I left Jordan, I realized that my Pentax contained an unfinished roll of film from our last day on the streets together. I finished out the film by taking pictures of a duck pond at my college in Cambridge, and then had the roll developed. There in those pictures, developed in a British store, were our boys: the street men of Amman. 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. 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. I feel like I want something from him, but I do not know what.
I still have the Pentax.
Lesley M. M. Blume is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. The daughter of a classical pianist and a journalist, she followed her father’s footsteps into the newsroom, beginning her career at The Jordan Times in Amman and Cronkite Productions in New York City. She later became an off-air reporter and researcher for ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel in Washington, DC, where she helped cover the historic presidential election in 2000, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a myriad of other events and topics. Blume now specializes in stories on historical cultural achievements and has documented seminal moments in the careers of Jackson Pollock, Truman Capote, and Ernest Hemingway, among other greats. She contributes regularly to Vanity Fair, and her work has appeared in many additional publications, including Town & Country, Vogue, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Departures, and The Paris Review Daily. Photo by Claiborne Swanson Frank.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Tom Sleigh visits Jordan, which struggles not only with pluralism, but also with finding ways to support hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Michelle Tusan on the origins of the Middle East refugee crisis in the Treaty of Versailles.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!