I haven't seen my father for over half my life. He walked out, disappeared, to show up on Facebook five years later with a new wife and son. I do not know my father or my half-brother.
There is a wonderfully perfunctory phrase in Arabic, Wali Al-Amr, that means Trustee of the Issue, which basically means that my father is my legal representative until I marry. I remain unmarried, so it's strange that my legal representative is now as faded in my mind as an old newspaper clipping.
My friend is more modern than his family back home in Kuwait would like to know and less modern than he can admit in the U.S. He is friends with me, a girl, and has scandalously invited me into his apartment, where we ate rice with our hands, watched Youtube shows, and sang along with a Hijazi folk song, "Who used the mortar and pestle? His mustache fell off, his mustache fell off." He can't admit this to his family and I sympathize. "Sater," which translates as cover, is essential to Arab culture. In the hot desert, nothing is more merciful than the cover of darkness. He loves the clarity of mathematics and the play of equations...and he hates contradictions and not knowing who he is. I tell him this is normal. When we speak, I sometimes jokingly say , "Ya sater," imploring God to hide these events from sight. Yet the invisible is often more visible than what is in front of our eyes. Our minds love to unwrap darkness.
We spent the portrait session discussing how much better fast food and fried chicken is back in Jeddah. He said that the restaurants back in Saudi were a lot cleaner. If a worker tried to reuse food that had fallen on the floor, it would be filmed and uploaded onto Youtube by multiple customers and would lead to the restaurant being shut down.
An American friend expressed interest in the portrait by saying, "Whoa, scary looking dude. What's his story?" I explained the above and how he offered me a stick of gum. Somehow the contours of his face precluded fried chicken and civility. Twice more over the next week my friend repeated his statement and question: "Whoa, scary looking dude. What's his story?"
My portrait subjects are shaped by their culture, with it's valorization of Islam and being Arab. And they are shaped by their exposure to Western culture and their time here, where Islam and being Arab have an opposite and equally restrictive meaning.
Jio is like me. He is from Saudi Arabia. When he discovered where I was from, he said, "I trust you now." He paused. "My name is actually Jihad." I encouraged him to switch from studying engineering to acting. His face is like a mine waiting to be stripped.
Retrorse is an adjective most often used to describe spines that torque. This backward glance ensures that when they are pulled out from the flesh, they will bury themselves deeper.
Mohammed is a friend of a friend. Part of the close knit Kuwaiti student community on campus. They were surprised when he got the tattoos. The sweatshirt is inspired by something he saw in a Snoop Dog video.
When Mohammed came for his portrait session, he refused to step inside my apartment either before or after. I was surprised by this traditional gender line; the lines is Kuwait are different then Saudi Arabia. While the female Saudi Minister of Education has to attend meetings via video link, Kuwaiti women and men work side by side. But there is a sharp line drawn between the professional and private. Mohammed showing up to get his picture taken was one thing. Stepping across my welcome matte for a glass of water was another.
"How do like being from such a small country?" I said. He shrugged, "Everyone thinks they know who are." I said I liked his style and would be happy to give him copies of the print to send to this mother. "Oh no, she'll say: Why do you have that monk beard!" I used to think men had infinite freedom when it came to dress. Perhaps white men do. Brown men do not. And nothing is more curated and policed than a brown man's facial hair. Shiites tend to have closer cropped beards than Sunnis; but monks and mystics of all faiths grow it out, distracted by God or by Snoop Dog. Mohammed is my Snoop Dog Monk.
Shaker, who rides in an international motorcycle club, did not bring up religion, but he did tell me a story of a disrupted ISIS suicide bombing in his hometown. The target was a Shia mosque. A hero embraced the suicide bomber; this hero became an icon, not a photograph. This gesture of love saved the mosque and limited the number of casualties. Shaker's leather jacket and chunky gloves embraced the air; because he was not riding his motorcycle or embracing death, nothing pushed back. His name means "The grateful."
Naser is a friendly engineering student from Tabuk, in the Hijaz region, Western Saudia Arabia. Tabuk is the sight of a famous battle that did not take place between the prophet Mohammed and the Byzantines. There was a rumor of a Byzantine invasion, so Mohammed called for an exposotion north to capture Tabuk, an strategic city between Medina and the Byzantine forces in Syria. They took the city, waited around for a bit, and discovered that the Byzantines were not yet their enemies. They returned home, a city richer.
Near the university where I work is a large Air Force base. The planes love to circle overhead. I don't love covering my ears. The United States is at war, like it always is, and we are lucky to only hear the planes. Saudi Arabia is at war, thanks to the world wide weapons trade. Naser is here studying thanks to Saudi Arabia's need for expertise and it's wealth. Because of that wealth, he is not one of the banned Muslims. Naser means Victor.