In mind, out of body

His eyes snapped open, loud cracks filled the air around him as the flying bullets slowly dismantled the plaster above him. He ducked his head under his arms and drew protection behind the large concrete roadblocks left behind by his invading brothers. Emmanuel had been in conflict before, but never this intense. Rage coursed through his body as his skin felt hot to the touch because of the summer sun beating down on his body, the dense, humid, Mediterranean air surrounding him, and his blood boiling at the stubbornness of the Palestinian gunmen crouching just yards away in the doorway of the bombed out Mer Hamis high school.

The placard still hung on the front door, cracked by bullets. Helicopter gunships buzzed overhead as he fiddled with his telephoto lens, praying those damn mechanical birds wouldn’t interfere with his work.

He was losing focus and it was going to get him killed. His mind was not in the present despite being in the middle of violent chaos.

“Mani!” shouted a voice over a loudspeaker in slurred Hebrew from across the street as Emmanuel downed a half of the water filling his dusty Nalgene, hoping it would help him focus. His head jolted up and bobbed around the block hiding him looking for the source of the voice. “If you’re over there we are cancelling these terrorist sons of bitches the easy way any minute now!”

His eyes rolled around in his head as the scene came back into focus just like the digitized lens he was shooting, his shutter snapping away as he watched the two groups of combatants spar ineffectively, demolishing the former place of learning in the process. Sweat poured down his forehead covering the viewfinder and soaking his Nikon’s hotshoe.

Emmanuel took a deep breath, slung the camera strap around his neck, tossed his water bottle in his camera bag, and darted across the dusty street to the apartment building across the street, hoping the IAF wouldn’t use too big of a bomb and the three story vantage point would allow him to do his job.

His work was usually escapist, but this time his escape was incomplete. The daily slog of being a conflict photographer, and his own demons, interfered with the ability for him to have any type of normal mood. Images of his cousin and roommate Jennifer passed behind his eyes like frames of advancing film. Normally his work allowed him to leave his messy personal life behind, and enter the glamorous world of war, where every one was a “target,” or a “rodent,” or “cockroach,” to be stepped on.

Not today.

Perhaps it was the extreme heat, combined with the lack of a pool or water anywhere nearby, but this time Emmanuel simply could not pull his mind down into the same place and time as his body. He had brought his own conflicts into the latest war between Middle Eastern cousins in the holy land. Questions consumed his thoughts, and he floated above his body, time traveling back to Brooklyn, wondering if his past self could have imagined being in the middle of a warzone. They were taking up all the space and energy of his brain, all he could think about was the toxic situation he left behind in Haifa.

To be sure he loved his cousin. Jennifer had given him stability, love, and support while he searched for a job after graduating from university in the United States some years ago. He had repaid her by defiling her couch with easy, trashy women from the café that he had picked up with his infectious charm, and rugged good looks.

His shoulder length curly brown hair and rarely shaved face gave him the look of the photojournalist part. But now it was getting in the way. On the ride into Gaza on the armored Israeli jeeps the other younger Golani brigade infantryman had poked fun at his hair, and the female driver Ronit had commented disapprovingly. “That mop makes you look like European pussy,” she said. So much for a female endorsement, Emmanuel thought, it only worked on the ones he didn’t respect.

The air above him whistled with the force of a hurricane’s wind, and Emmanuel looked up at the ceiling.

He couldn’t see it through the roof of the Palestinians abandoned apartment, but the overhead light shook and paint chipped off the ceiling from the vibration. Emmanuel tossed his camera under the nearest couch and covered his head with his arms.

BOOOOMMMMM. The building shook on its foundation and Emmanuel heard the gunmen below yell something incomprehensible in Arabic as the school collapsed in on itself in a giant fireball. The already cracked windows in Emmanuel’s exceedingly temporary sublet for the moment blew out, covering the couch with shattered class. As he grabbed his camera and snapped a dozen frames Emmanuel thought of his bleeding heart cousin chiding the air unit in Haaretz the next day bemoaning the destruction of the poor Palestinian children’s lost opportunity for an education.

(Courtesy of anglonautes.com) Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros walks the ruins of a building August 21, 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon. In remembrance of Chris Hondros.

(Courtesy of anglonautes.com) Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros walks the ruins of a building August 21, 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon. In remembrance of Chris Hondros.

Just days earlier she had been showing him the Peace Now maps of Jewish settlements expanding  “like a virus”, in her harsh words, across Judea and Samaria. “All I know is I’d rather have them there then terrorism,” Emmanuel had quipped, leaving her fuming.

”It’s not that simple and you know it,” Jennifer had responded, “You know for a journalist you sure are a simpleton Mani.”

He had wanted to say something more informed but didn’t like fighting with her over politics, they fought about enough else without ringing HaMatzav “the situation” into the relationship.

He sympathized with the Gazans, he really did, but at the moment he was stuck somewhere between war junkie and mental patient, Haifa and Gaza, the US and Israel, and it disconcerted him slightly more than usual.

He tried to concentrate on the task at hand, what would surely be a page one photo in Israel’s largest daily. Emmanuel was sure he had only gotten the job because of his American passport, which made him both expendable because of this new immigrant status (a “leech” on the resources of the Israeli state they had called him) and valuable because of his maneuverability.

The pressure of the assignment along with his mental state was crushing his psyche.

Ha! He though, little did they know they were hiring a head case, but then again aren’t most Jews, let alone war photographer. He had only been in the west bank before, covering IDF interaction with the locals, which rarely descended into the type of high intensity open warfare seen before him.

Convinced he had over 100 shots on his memory card, Emmanuel closed his eyes, sitting on the floor covered in glass and dirt, leaning back against the couch. He daydreamed of the Tel Aviv beaches filled with bikinis and beer. More than anything else that was what he wanted, a little peace and quiet, sand and water.

He awoke from his daydream with a start, and a grin as wide as the Mediterranean coastline. He jumped up and grabbed his camera bag, running down the stairs. Checking both ways like he was crossing the road as a little boy, he darted out the alley heading due west through the semi-deserted city, IAF leaflets still falling from the air.

Emmanuel was on his horse, his feet rhythmically pounding the pockmarked pavement. And just when he thought he couldn’t run any longer he saw it.

The coastal highway stretched out before him, and he crossed it freely. He tossed his shoes into the bushes along with his camera bag and felt the sand between his toes. He walked now, one foot in front of the other until his ankles were surrounded by the salty Mediterranean. Emmanuel breathed in the ocean air, and closed his eyes. This time he saw nothing.

This story was written for a creative writing class in 2011.

Gaza Beach: Courtesy of Mahmoud Esha (Flickr useralienware231788)

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