Travel

Haunting Stories of Migration in Lebanon

Check out an excerpt from Teju Cole's 'Blind Spot,' a dazzling new book of photography and nonfiction.

by Teju Cole
Jun 19 2017, 2:12pm

Photo by Teju Cole

Teju Cole's new book Blind Spot is the first to combine the celebrated novelist and New York Times photography critic's imagery with his words. "I became less interested in populating my images and more interested in traces of the human without human presence," Cole wrote, in 2015, of his photography process. His latest book, which was published last week, is the result of that approach. Spanning six continents and several years, the elegant hardcover combines personal essay, history, biography, journalism, and photography into a seamless package, capturing human dignity and grace through careful, clear-eyed reverence. It's a cerebral yet intimate approach. As a tie-in with the book, Cole's first solo exhibition in the US—Teju Cole: Blind Spot and Black Paper—is on view at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York through August 11, 2017.

—James Yeh, culture editor

Photo of Teju Cole by Christopher Anderson/courtesy of Teju Cole

Beirut

I peeked into a house in Mar Mikhael for a moment. A black woman was sweeping a stone floor. At the threshold was an image of the Holy Virgin. I saw many black women in Beirut. Those of them in domestic employment, when out on the street, carrying their employers' children or not, walk behind. Their servitude, their inequality, is made visible. Many of these women are Ethiopian (Ethiopian men are few in Beirut, though male Sudanese laborers are plentiful). The Ethiopian women are hired because they are Christian and English-speaking, desirable qualities in nannies. On Saturday nights, they have semisecret nightclubs away from the glitzy areas. In these clubs (I visited two) they socialize with one another, and with Lebanese, Syrian, and Sudanese men, dancing to Ethiopian, Arabic, and Nigerian music. They are dressed to the nines, their hair is done, and they wear high heels. They look nothing like they do when they are with their employers. And on Sundays, on their day off, you can see them on the street in groups, in white, owing through the street, their spirits shining from having attended church, the condition of servitude briefly lifted. Many of these women are in Lebanon illegally. When they wish to return home, they have to raise enough money to cover the costs of their deportation—transportation as well as fines. When the money is raised, they turn themselves in to the nearest police of officer, and, after a brief spell in jail, they are deported.


Just south of Bachoura is Basta Tahta, where the roads are worse, and there are more posters on the walls, of imams, politicians, and martyrs. Basta Tahta is mixed, but support for Hezbollah is palpable. S guides me through a tangle of streets to a building with a wide-open passage on the ground floor. The passageway stinks, but the source of the smell is not immediately apparent. A couple of doors down in the dark passage, we find the shop belonging to M, a Sudanese barber.

The shop doesn't smell bad, and it has three chairs. He is working alone. There are customers from South Asia, Bangladeshi mostly, and there's an hour's wait. I go walking in the neighbourhood, a day of bright sun, which picks out in a rather surreal way the strong colours of things in the street. I see a pair of plastic watering cans that, unexpectedly spotlit by the sun, look like blue flamingos.

I return to M's for my haircut. The power supply is out. He uses mechanical clippers, cutting close to the skull. He's kind and welcoming, and chats as he cuts my hair, but he is not a good barber. I have bumps in my neck days later, from where he pressed too hard.

I ask to use the bathroom just before I leave. He leads me into the stinking passageway, and opens a door next to the one-room barbershop. It's a tiny studio apartment, his own I presume. A bed with tangled bedding, a bathroom the size of a closet, one towel, one toothbrush, one bucket, a pit toilet, the bare minimum. The room and the shop constitute M's kingdom, among people who know nothing of him. Out in the streets, I don't see other black people. If things go wrong, who will defend him? I feel he is entirely unprotected, a stranger in a strange land.

Photo by Teju Cole

Beirut

Something needs doing around the house, so M's mother calls their handyman, M tells me. He isn't there, the phone is answered by someone else. It's the handyman's brother. He's away, the brother says, but I can do the work. Away to where? He's in Syria, he's become a fighter.

The brother comes and does the work.

Something else needs doing a month later. M's mother calls the handyman's brother. The handyman himself answers. You're back? I'm back. And your brother, where is he? He's in Syria, fighting. I'll come over and do the work myself.

Photo by Teju Cole

Tripoli

In Tripoli, I thought of Homs, which is an hour's drive away, only an hour's drive, which Death now visits. But what can this proximity mean? There were soldiers in the middle of town in Tripoli, a tank. Blast walls painted with the Lebanese cedar. I asked my friends why, and they said they hadn't even noticed. A Syrian child grabbed my arm and wouldn't let go.


It takes courage to face the open sea. It is one thing to know in theory that a boat can float, and another to entrust your actual all to it for days. The Phoenicians who lived on this coast knew the sea, were synonymous with it. The piscine grace of their seafaring craft can still be seen, at modest scale, in their descendants' fishing boats.

They were 53. Some undoubtedly more courageous than others, but each was more courageous than he or she would, in tranquility, have wished to be. This was October last year. You wouldn't have heard of it. Just another drop in the sea of stories.

The disaster is that which has already happened. The boat was built for 15 and they were 38 over the limit, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. The boat was built for fishing but now, in waters past fishermen's range, it had become a craft of crazy hope.

How does the story end? They didn't die. It hardly counts as news. The Navy stopped them a few miles out (their hearts breaking at a stymied flight, but for those whose courage had already failed the sea's interrogation, a relief too). They were towed to shore and charged with the crime of hope.

I am writing this on a flight back into New York City. The river's silvered tendrils around the fragile city. I dozed on the flight and dreamed of drowning. Forty-five minutes after my flight lands, a small plane crashes into the Hudson. It's a World War II–era plane, a P-47 Thunderbolt built between 1941 and 1945. Fear death by water. The pilot was 56 years old. In the taxi home, I write about the boat in Tripoli, a "craft of crazy hope." Had I looked up just then, would I have seen a small doomed plane arcing across the evening sky? Around 10:40 PM, I am drifting off to sleep (am being lowered into sleep). At that very moment, the pilot's body is retrieved by divers.

Photo by Teju Cole

Teju Cole is the author of Blind Spot, Known and Strange Things, Open City, and Every Day Is for the Thief. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

From BLIND SPOT by Teju Cole. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Teju Cole.