On a trip filming for my documentary, my subject turned the camera on me.
These are a few moments of the camera in reverse.
On a trip filming for my documentary, my subject turned the camera on me.
These are a few moments of the camera in reverse.
I have been keeping journals ever since I was 13 years old, the same year I read my first book.
I started writing essays on the books I read and when I finally entered school at age 14 I discovered that what I did for fun was what they asked us to do for school work. “Cool!” I thought.
I didn’t understand the usefulness of my journals at the time, but like photos, they help me remember my history that I sometimes willfully forget.
I flip through the pages of the 50 plus journals filling the boxes in my closet. Filled to brim are my thoughts, rants, manifestos, poetry, art and mementos. I can’t compare the child I was as 13 to the child I am today but there is something delightful to read through my thoughts as a young adolescent without any crushes on boys in my pages but instead a list of names with strong meanings for future daughters. I wanted their names to mean “bold” “brave” “warrior” “strong” everything I was taught not to be.
If I flip through my journals from college that is when the idea of romantic love is introduced with my first crush on a girl. I speak of falling in love and describe my beloved ones in glowing terms until the end of the books where I discover that I am thoroughly disappointed that they are not the goddesses I imagined but humans. That script of unrealistic idealization of love ending always in angry disappointment repeats itself with men much later again post college like a tired script I already know the ending to. I don’t think I have yet updated that script so I return the books to their boxes and turn to my photographs. I have a love affair with photos on par with words.
As I organized my photos last night I thought to myself…I know we are supposed to be beautiful in our youth but I think I have gotten better looking with age. I can see in photos that I have gotten less insecure and in fact happier in my life despite the fact that we often romanticize the past .
In my childhood pictures I am always performing. In my teenage years I was angry and hiding my body behind clothes, pulling my hair back and trying to be as unattractive as possible. In college, I ridiculously pose for every picture and struggle against losing myself in my strange concept of love.
In Morocco all my photos are of everyone else until after the arrival of my daughter when there is hardly any photos of anyone but her. I could barely find a photo of myself. I have only photos of her and her father which makes me smile. For me, it’s love to take someone’s photo. The fact that I couldn’t find myself there made me happy that I was erased by something more relevant.
When there was the occasional photo of me I seem beyond happiness to be with my child despite seeing in some other pictures myself visibly struggling to make peace with what was happening after the camera snapped the photo which was an intense fight to find money and find emotional strength to handle the violent domestic situation I was trying to hide from friends and family.
The last photos with her father, myself and her in our home was on her first birthday. I knew those photos would be the last of us together as a couple so I waited the extra few weeks before my great escape. I wanted to stay until after her birthday to show her those happy photos in my one last make-believe moment of unity.
The photos of me and her father disappear, there are just photos of my daughter getting older and more beautiful until about last year. Without warning I find an explosion of photos of me. Me at home, me sleeping, me laughing, me talking, I am not posing, I am not stressed, I am expressing joy and living life and being my daughters mom and someone’s love and a crazy artist.
I am surprised to find all these photos and it takes me a moment to understand why or how there are so many photos of me in off guard moments. They are sometimes blurry and sometimes too clear and exposed to post anywhere. They came from phone cameras and computer cameras taken by me for another and from another of me. I am amazed at the photos candor and their dynamic range of the portrait of my life. There are photos of everything, every part of me in their crude way.
It hits me that for the first time someone who loved me went out of their way to document me in the same way I document others. I realized that he seamlessly coached me out from behind the camera to be natural in front of it. There are hardly any posed pictures, I am just present and in such an honest way.
The entire year is filled with natural images and for the first time I see myself. Through his lens I am without makeup, without cover or posturing and I still…beautiful and alive.
It was a discovery.
I was loved and I am loved still and I see that in the photos.
It’s a blessing and a gift.
My daughter started documenting life and has amazing pictures that I save for her exhibit one day.
The language of love speaks to me through images and it spreads and passes hands from to another and this to that generation.
I arrived home even though Shiyara really wanted us to stay in America. She loved New York.
I would love to live in New York again for a few months at a time but as I told Shiyara, we would still need to go home to Casablanca to at least pack our things.
We returned to our friends who just had their first baby and he is as beautiful as his mother. They confessed they would be going back to America within the year. I will be losing my best friend and it hasn’t let me sleep at all but as I watch MasterChef and drink tea I noticed some words of wisdom written on the paper attached to a string, “Our thoughts are forming the world.” This is what I said to myself an hour earlier as I tossed and turned trying to sleep thinking of my friend leaving.
We can’t control the outcome of most anything in life but we can control how we see the world and it changes everything. This is what I came back to Morocco to do. Finish all that I started and sit with the discomfort of learning what I need to learn, going through the difficulties, be patient so I can move on in due time from this stage of evolution literally and metaphorically. So for tonight I pray that all the things she and I want for our families come true and that no more rest is lost worrying over what may or might arrive because of course no matter how painful or abandoned we will feel, we can handle it.
Long distance relationships are for lame ducks that can’t get love in real time. Or so I secretly thought until I met him a year ago in Marrakech at a film seminar and my judgement came to a screeching halt as long distance love happened to me.
We had a romantic week that I rationalized as a glorified one-night-stand. He left but he didn’t let me go. He used every form of technology to bring me into his world and prodded me to take him into mine. I turned a camera on myself and played make believe. With the help of technology we had breakfast together and slept with each other at night and I found some secret comfort to wake up watching him sleeping on my iphone in the middle of the night. He remembered every monthly anniversary date and took me on his daily drives to work and weekly family shabat lunches. We spoke for hours turning the world around and back.
I understand how wrong I was to think long distance was for lame ducks because it takes exceptional and committed ducks to find people outside of their backyard and then dare to love and dedicate discomfort and hardship and creativity to explore all thats possible to make love happen even if it sometimes burns holes in your pride and sometimes your heart.
He went home yesterday after the longest period of time working and living together and something surprising happened. Every time I looked over and saw him it wasn’t just that I was surprised he was really with me but it surprised me that I was falling in love with him as if for the first time. Walking towards me on my street or sitting with me wearing his reading glasses watching a movie in bed greeted me with a kick to my heart that rushed to the top and bubbled over. I have known him a long time, long enough to hurt him and be hurt by him but it felt all so new.
Everything about long distance love is backwards in the most delicious way. Discovering his mind first and his body last, his past and then his real time warts and beauty. I am falling in love with him still after a year. He is my friend now but as a lover he is still only a few weeks new for me and every time I look over and see him in ordinary actions, I am in awe of his kindness and filled with admiration at his determination.
If we have made it this far it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with his belief in us and in love. I look over and see him there and think, “G-d I love him.” I rush to grab him and it’s not enough. I make love to him and still it’s not enough. I kiss him, I hug him and it comes close but still not enough. If I spent the rest of my life it still might not be enough to learn how to tell him and show him that I love him and I wish I knew him since the start of my life and yet I am happy I met him now. I miss him. I think even my ashes will miss him to pieces.
So today I went to the post office. A friend stepped behind me and kissed my head. It was affectionate.
The man in the post office yelled at him and told him not to do that. The friend said Okay and moved away from me. I glanced up from writing an address carefully on a piece of paper to see him motion to his friend that it was disrespectful by pushing his arm out and smacking something along the lines of, “I can’t believe such disrespect goes on here”.
I continued unfazed although I smiled inside. Firstly because it reminded me of where I was and the hypocrisy of it all.
It took another 30 minutes for me to get through all the paperwork and I was the only customer almost.
The post office man helping us looked like he hated his job and perhaps the rest of his life, exhaling at every turn to listen and respond and close the boxes and take long amounts of time to stare at his screen. Surprising that the post office has one when the police don’t even have them. They click on typewriters in Arabic…and file the paper into books onto shelves. Years worth of documents no one will ever be able to find again or maybe that is the whole point. I was told its that they have to buy their own from their pay if they want one and on their 200 dollar a month salary that just wouldn’t fly with a family of 5 and an alcohol problem to feed. No, the police don’t have computers but here at the post office they have at least two.
After 30 minutes of him assuming I didn’t speak Arabic and huffing in disdain I answered his Arabic with English and said, “Yes, that is exactly what I am doing. See!”
He paused as if trying to figure out if he was speaking in my language or if I had just understood him perfectly in his. He knew a little English I could see. He froze and stared at me a moment. He stopped with his brooding. Curious.
He asked for my passport. I didn’t have a passport on me. I am not a tourist. I speak English and choose to speak to my friend in it. So I told my friend to give him his National ID card. He worried they wouldn’t accept. “This isn’t the airport. If it’s a problem we’ll fill out the forms again and throw these out and they will start another 30 minutes with us. I don’t mind. I am not going anywhere, I am sending this off now.”
He gave him his ID, the young man asked his boss, the one who told my friend to stop kissing my head. He had walked on the other side of the counter with us looking at our documents and told him yes, it’s okay take his ID.
My friend handed his ID to him. “Ah you’re Moroccan! So you should know better instead of acting like that here.” The friend tried to respond but the man looked at me and directed the next comment to me. “What he did was wrong. We don’t that here.” I couldn’t bite my tongue anymore. “You don’t do that here!” I scoffed. I then said slowly with raised eyebrows and a little smile on my face, speaking calmly so he could hear, “I have seen things here I have never seen a-n-y-w-he-r-e in the world.”He blinked, trying to understand what a tourist could possibly mean by that remark.
My friend started to speak angrily and quickly in English. My cheeks started to burn with a tinge of anger and I smiled at the man. He said in his best calm English,”We can’t do that here.”
I started, “So there is prostitution here but…” My friend interrupted again. I told him to please let me speak, he kindly obliged with a quick, “Sorry.”
“So there is prostitution all over Morocco but a man can’t kiss a woman’s head in the post office?”
He paused and thought about it as my friend excitedly started again. I asked him to please be calm and again he politely accepted. The man said, “This is a building of respect. You can’t do that here.”
“So all of that can go on and I can do whatever I want just not here in this building? Not in this post office?”
He said, “Correct.”
“Okay you’re right then, our bad, he’s right.” My friend started but I continued, “No he’s right. We’re sorry.”
The man took the first occasion to flee the scene. And before we could say goodbye he was gone.
There was a silence suddenly. A welcome one. I said, “He’s right. This is the post office. The world of prostitution and child molestation and rape and corruption can go on but as long as a man does not kiss a woman’s head in our post offices in front of a photo of the King then all is right with the world especially our country. It’s just those other countries with problems…like Israel and America. Not France the colonizer and certainly not us.”
J, my American half Moroccan photography friend who is wise beyond his years, asked me an innocent question: What did you want to be when you were little? When you grew up what did you want to be?
Like…what did you want to be when you were 5 years old or 8?
Like a profession?
I thought for a moment and couldn’t think of anything I wanted to be when I was a kid. I felt bad that I didn’t have a desire to have a profession.
He said: Think back. Way back.
So I thought: When I grow up… ?
I never thought about being a doctor or a lawyer or a police oficier or a nurse or a teacher. I hardly knew what these people did and had never seen my mother or father as one or met anyone that was any of these things unless it was a doctor who I was seeing for an examination.
My wish and what I thought about being was simply being free and growing up and being happy and being great.
That was what I wanted to be.
I wanted my freedom.
I wanted to be free.
Are You Crypto? Returning to Jewish practice after 500 years in religious exile
Watch: Song of Isabel Medina on returning to Jewish practice after 500 years in religious exile ; Music composed by Judy Frankel to a text of Isabel Medina Sandoval which describes the pain of returning to public Jewish practice after 500 years of forced conversions and hiding Jewish family history fearfully. Performed at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe in the Spring of 2011.
On Wikipedia if you put in Cryto-Jews you will find the link that says:
The term crypto-Jew is also used to describe descendants who maintain some Jewish traditions of their ancestors, often secretly, while publicly adhering to other faiths, most commonly Catholicism. The phenomenon arose in the Middle Ages following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain.
In my family, both parents were raised Catholic. My father’s family was from Spain. Black hair, brown eyes, as Moroccan looking as they come. When I came to Morocco the shock of seeing his face on many men everywhere around me was unnerving. My brother, the first son of the family, was named Israel and we have always followed Judaic food law. I know all the stories of the prophets and my religious education was based in a strange confusing mix of Judaism and Christianity. There was even despite all of this a strong brand of anti-semitism…Myself and my aunt had very strong sentiment of support for Jewish culture and she converted or rather reverted to Judaism when she married my uncle Rosenfeld. I started my love for Judaism in Morocco when I was pregnant and when Moroccans believe that pregnant women crave what their babies need and must get what they want.
My father, as he was dying said he thought our family might be Jewish. I laughed at him because he was always the first one talking badly about Jewish identity which must have been passed on to him and so on. And now, as he was dying and I was 14 years old standing in his living room in West Covina, I tried my best to jokingly laugh off both the revelation that struck me that I didn’t know how to react to, as well as his looming death that was standing in front of my face as his skin yellowed and he lost his ability to cook and think and joke with us but had a strong desire to give us our history before he died.
I had seen our name on a map in Saudi Arabia when I was 7. The adult woman watching us and giving us an hour of schooling that day asked me if that was where our family was from…I said, I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t think I wanted to be from Saudi Arabia but my name was there on the map. I didn’t pay much mind until I was 21 and the day after my birthday, as I was still hung over from the bar scene of New York, I woke up in a haze in Rabat. Shocked, I was completely shocked. I was standing 1000 years in the past looking at the brown dirt walls and the robes that the men wore right out of a scene of a Jesus film.
I was walking into the Medina with the others and got to realizing that the cross walks were purely for decoration purposes, I heard my name all over Morocco. I felt my father’s history. I didn’t think it was a mistake that he died while I was there. Even though my mother and family refused to tell me at the time for fear I would leave Morocco and come home…I think somewhere inside myself I knew it was coming.
I dreamt over and over again for months even before going to Morocco and over again while I was there that someone would come to me as I sat on the stairs on a street in Morocco, and say: Your father is dead. When it never happened I thought perhaps I was just wrong and my dreams were purely a figment of my imagination. My father had cheated death and I would come home and perhaps speak with him, perhaps not, but he would surely be proud and I would tell him more about his name.
When I went to the desert near the Algerian border and drove alone out of the dunes with Abdelilah, I spoke about my father. I smelled the grass and it overwhelmed me. I hadn’t smelt green in days while in the desert and on exiting the desert all I could smell was the color green. I started to breathe and cry as I spoke about my dad, speaking in a tone of closure, in a language as if he had died. I told Abdelilah the family secrets I told no one. I spoke as if all the wrong and hate and love between us was just that…in the end it was just love, even the hate was love, it was love with so many misunderstandings. He died within 24 hours of me speaking of him. I didn’t know until I came back home months later but that moment will never leave me.
I touched something that I didn’t know before I came to Morocco. I accidently discovered in coming to Morocco that this was my fathers’ family’s home, despite hundreds of years of exile both from the land and from his religion when they moved to Spain.
Years later I asked a Jewish scholar about my name as well as other Jewish Moroccans with my name. It is one of the oldest Hebrew names and the people with it have always lived closely with Arabs and later Muslims too whether in Saudi Arabia or the north of Africa or Morocco and later Spain. Medina, has been living in the south and the middle east until they reached Spain and were thrown out, killed for their religion or forced to convert and hide. I think for survival reasons, Jews who were crypto Jews had to be the loudest anti-Semites for their own survival until the generations that followed actually believed it. Like my parents both practicing aspects of Judaism as they railed against it sometimes and both have Jewish blood in the family. My mother’s Jewish relatives come from Europe, Sarah Zimmerman, who settled in the south of the States and my father’s family an unassuming big Catholic family but who are called “Medina”…a Hebrew word.
Everything that I have come to discover in life that has taken me so far away from everyone I’ve known, has seemingly come into my life by accident, and returned me to my self. My coming to Morocco, my interest in cinema my discovery and love for Judaism. It all seems random and by accident but life is wise especially if you don’t listen to logic or the tropes of success. Call it intuition or sensitivity or illogical thinking…but listening to that voice that has nothing to do with Western capitalism or logic or reasoning led me here to Morocco when I was 21 and Morocco led me back to my father and to my Jewish roots and life today.
To feel a connection to something and care about it, to seek out more of what sparks your head and heart especially if it’s not chasing fame or wealth, is so uncool. I am happily very uncool then.
Here they call it Maktoub…but it’s not just destiny. It’s your life to write it as you see fit but there is also a tune in the background I listen to it and it takes me to choices and places that make my heart full beyond anything.
People think and tell me they think I am crazy to stay here when I could have stayed in New York at a successful job on Wall Street and been so unhappy but so wealthy. Here in dirty Casablanca, in my spacious but modest apartment filled with light and my little girl near me, my film work in front of me and enough questioning and struggle to challenge me, with shabbat and hilloulas and friends who are like family, I am happy. Life was not meant to be defined by how much we get paid and how easy it is to be unaffected by discomfort. That is not the point of my life or I would have stayed in America. It was meant to be rich and challenging and a discovery everyday and that is what it has become.
Perhaps one day I will leave here but never fully or for too long.