Remembering Raja Oueis

avatar Mark Fonseca Rendeiro Moderator Amazon Wishlist Icon

IMG_4516On February 11th, 2015 my friend Raja Oueis passed away at the age of 27. I was lucky enough to meet Raja at hacker camp (OHM) in 2013. We spent several happy days exploring that crazy carnival of creativity, an event that we always looked back on with fondness. Not long after we were able to meet again, in Amsterdam and at the Hacker congress in Hamburg. Each in person meeting would be a joyous occasion for eating, laughing, thinking out loud  and plotting future hanging out oppertunities. It seemed only right, I think for both of us, that we did meet and become friends. One of those classic cases of someone you feel like you always knew from the first moment you speak.

Sadly over the past year, as Raja fought a daunting battle against cancer, our communication would be limited to short conversations online. I convinced myself that there would be time, that despite everything, we would get to sit and talk and drink chai and discuss matters of the heart one last time. Just as it felt meant to be that we would become friends, naturally fate would allow us one more chance to talk til the wee hours of the morning. But time ran out on us. My ticket to Beirut reads March and Raja’s ticket to another dimension seems to have been set for February.

Thankfully, though it is hardly enough, during those happy days camping among some of the kindest and most creative people on the planet, we turned on a microphone and together with many friends and strangers, talked about what we were experiencing and why it was special to us. In this podcast I’ll revisit those moments with Raja. Though his voice is one of many in these recordings, his wonderful answers mean even more to me now. I wish we had left the recorder on for so many more hours and days. But thats not how it works, I suppose. Nevertheless, I consider myself lucky to have known him and I’m pleased to be able to share this little tiny piece of such a larger than life human being.

Flattr this!

Having Seen Life Itself

If there is one word to describe the tone of this website over the past 2 or 3 years I would choose the word “less”.  Less writing. Less podcasts. Less photos. Less activity. Less experimentation. Without knowing exactly why or when it started, I seem to have gotten busy elsewhere. Offline life? Perhaps. Work life? Often. Somewhere along the line, my little corner of the internet that is now well over 13 years old, was no longer my obsession or even my canvas. And while that may be a good thing, to focus one’s energy elsewhere on new projects. It has also at times felt like an outlet that was missing from my life and my work. A void that would surely get filled somehow over time, but I do wonder if any of it matched the magic that once was right here in this space you are reading.

An unlikely source to trigger me back into writing: Roger Ebert. If you don’t know who that is, because of course I realize the world is larger than the United States or its sometimes global cultural tentacles, Ebert was a very prolific American film critic who reviewed films for the Chicago Sun-Times for an incredible number of years. In his career he saw and reviewed thousands upon thousands of films and got many accolades for his writing. He is credited for making cinema for accessible for regular people, and shedding light on emerging talent when others would not.

Photo by Michael Stephens / Flickr
Photo by Michael Stephens / Flickr

Of course I had no idea about this. I had never stopped to think about who this man could be and what he was doing. As a child growing up in 1980’s and 90’s New Jersey, Siskel and Ebert were seemingly always on TV reviewing films. But I never remember wanting to watch these two verbose intellectuals in what looked like the most boring theater possible talking about films like they were on display at a museum. I think my brother and I would simply change the channel and move on, in search of something entertaining like Abbot & Costello or Cartoons! (cartoons of course, trumped everything) As I got older, of course, Ebert’s name was always there. On television, in the newspaper, on the cover of the VHS tape at the rental place.. hell .. even the movie posters on the street… it just seemed standard that his name would be there. Sometime in the 2000’s, despite that fact that I was no longer living in the US, I did take notice when Gene Siskel’s name disappeared from its traditional place under the movie title. I heard he died suddenly and I remember thinking how odd the world seemed where there would no longer be Siskel and Ebert giving thumbs up for something. But sure enough Ebert continued, his name would pop-up reviewing a film and again just like when I was a kid, I would simply move on.

Then yesterday I watched “Life Itself”, a documentary about Roger Ebert’s life and above all… his passion for it. Some would perhaps say it is a film about his love of the movies and the changes he lived through, but for me, it was really about how much he loved everything in life; films – of course, but also friends and family – such a deep love and strong bonds that endure even at his darkest moments as his body deteriorates and he prepares for the end.  This film, which I watched just out of curiosity and expecting nothing in particular, shook the core of my being. Perhaps because I remembered that child who never took notice of this person. Later, the adult, who just kept on presuming there was nothing there to be discovered or to learn about. He was right there all along, via his fantastic words, and somehow I didn’t look. Until he was gone. Until this documentary came along.

How could a documentary about a famous movie critic teach me or move me to such a degree? I think it is because I finally saw what I been blind to for so many years. That this film critic, this imperfect not-so-nice man, was in fact a fantastic guide and curious observer of the world we live in. He didn’t just observe, he put it to words, and those words had tremendous power and wisdom. The kind that you rarely come across even if you are on the look out for them. He loved how the cinema could show us hopes, aspirations, dreams, fears, or just help us share this journey called life. His journey was both a beautiful one and a particular difficult one, especially in his final years, but the daunting disease he faced was also something beautiful. Even in so much pain and under such difficult circumstances, I found it impossible to ignore the intense beauty that was this man’s existence.

A documentary alone is probably not enough to really talk like you know someone. But I’ll take that risk. As someone who writes, speaks into a mic, teaches, observes, and travels to many corners of this world, right there on my screen I found another teacher and it turns out he had been there all my life, ready if I’d ever take notice.

Flattr this!

What These Beds Have Seen

When I arrived at the former monastery, roughly ten days ago, I knew by the unkempt and run down buildings, it would not be a pretty sight inside. Despite the numerous buildings that made up the compound, most were locked up and seemingly out of use for several decades.  Only one building, just beyond the chapel, looked like it was still in use, as families with young children huddled around the visitors entrance, telling stories and discussing who their children resemble.  All the adults have the same concerned, uncomfortable look on their faces, as if to say – I can’t wait until they day I don’t have to come to this place anymore. 

HandsThe old sign reads Pulmonology C and as I walk down the odd smelling hallway I notice that in fact it isn’t a hallway. If I jump I can see over the temporary walls into the makeshift rooms that have been created from what is one massive room where I can imagine some 25 years ago everyone was just thrown in all together. Not that much has changed, I estimate, only now there are 6 beds to a room, each room with its own thin 2 meter high walls that allow every hacking cough, fart, or moan to be heard by everyone in the entire wing.

As I walk into my grandfather’s room, I quickly glance at the 5 other beds and their occupants; a young man sitting in hospital pajamas reading the newspaper casually next to his bed. An old man looking quite sick, reaching to over to grab a glass of water, a middle aged man wearing a breathing tube under his nose fast asleep, an older gentleman wearing reading glasses sitting up in bed eating a yogurt, and a charming little old man who has fallen sleep while sitting in a comfy chair next to his bed.  And there among the very sick and the not so sick, lay my grandfather, 92 years old, fighting what is certain to be his last battle against pneumonia and a body that is starting to shut down on him. Without his glasses, his teeth, and his loud greeting- I hardly recognize him.  But as I approach he greets me, making a quiet little joke about how more days in this place and his beard will be just as long as mine.

The next few days this became a ritual. Take the long drive to the old hospital and sit with grandpa. Tell him stories about what vegetables we have managed to grow in his garden and who called to send him kisses and wish him a speedy recovery.  Eventually it would be jello time, the only thing my grandfather seemed to take pleasure in – “It refreshes me”, he would say, as he slurped down another spoon of the trembling red treat, which would usually be followed by a coughing fit.  Day after day my mother and I would do this, and with each passing day he would speak less, open his eyes less, and eventually lose interest in the refreshing afternoon snack.

In just one week in such a place, you notice everything going on in the rooms and beds all around.  Who seems to be getting better. Who gets lots of visitors. Who screams and moans in pain in such a coarse voice that you find yourself running outside to escape that horrible sound every 30 minutes. And above all, you notice who disappears and why.

Hospital“The man who was sitting up in his bed yesterday breathing heavily with the machine hooked up to him, where did he go?” I asked a nurse.  “Where do you think he went?” the man answers me in very matter of fact “use your brain” tone.  The man who had been in the corner bed for only three days had held court on his first day, sitting in a chair not attached to any machines as numerous visitors came to chat with him.  By the third day he was in bed with an oxygen mask, not chatting to anyone and only his daughter and son-in-law by his side.  That night, he died.

This story happened three more times that first week. One was an pale looking old man I had helped to reach his water. The next day, his bed was empty, clean sheets awaiting the next patient. I didn’t need to ask the nurse, I could tell by everyone’s behavior what had happened. By the fifth day the gentleman with the reading glasses, who had so often been walking the halls in his slippers and often seemed concern about the well being of my grandfather, he was now in bed with an oxygen mask. His pajama top was opened, revealing his bare chest pumping in an out like it was out of control.  He sat in bed for hours, it looked as though any minute he would finally get a handle on breathing, but that minute never came.  As I said goodbye to him that day, I smiled and wished him a better day tomorrow. He answered with a stale look in his eyes and gave me the thumbs down.  Again I shouted to him and put my fist in the air, “you can do this, I wish you strength!” Still breathing heavily he shook his head no – pointed to himself and then pointed solemnly towards the ground like things would only be getting worse.  The next day his bed was empty, the nurse was busy gathering some of his personal items in a bag.

Strangely enough the weakest looking person in the room is the one who is still there, my grandfather.  Everyday he is a little less there, and every day a new person takes up whatever empty bed there is.  The charming old man who often fell asleep in his chair was sent home.  On his way out, still wearing hospital pajamas with his dress shoes, he mumbled best wishes and good health to all as he ran towards the exit. My grandfather, now heavily medicated and rarely lucid, did not even notice. Maybe its for the best, as he told me on his first day in the pulmonology wing, “I this place mark, you either get better or you go crazy.”

Flattr this!

Ahmad and Karam: A Syrian Message for the World

8749543231_fcbe488eab_c
Deir ez-Zor in April 2013, photo credit Karam Jamal.

In 2011 Ahmad and Karam, two university students from Deir ez-Zor took to the streets as part of the mass protest movement demanding an end to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.  Their protest was met by violent reprisals, mass arrests, and soon war broke out and the government undertook a full siege of the city.  Since that time, these two friends have become a reporting team, collecting videos and still images as their families and their community have been decimated by war.

8750665698_938ffc952a_c
Destruction in Deir ez-Zor, April 2013. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Mhidi and Karam Jamal

Last month I had the pleasure of spending time with Ahmad and Karam in Turkey, as they briefly came over the border to participate in a media workshop.  Over the course of several days, they explained in painful detail, the reality of life in Syria today. The tragedy, the struggle, and the absurdity of the war zone that their home has become.  Despite grave danger and personal injuries they have already suffered, they two men remain dedicated to their mission as reporters with a message about their country, in the hope that people around the world are listening.

Links:

If you wish to get in touch with either Ahmad and Karam, find them via those links or contact me directly.

Flattr this!