In the Middle East: the tenacity of hope

Photographer Gillian Laub pays tribute to the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians living amidst war.

Searching for a photo book to recommend this year, I heard of a collection of portraits of Israelis and Palestinians. My first thought was, "That'll be depressing." Then I opened the book.

Testimony, by photographer Gillian Laub, is a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit. The Middle East can fatigue even the most optimistic individuals, yet in "Testimony" Laub introduces us to a group of people who live in the midst of the madness but still find reason to hope.

Laub, a secular American Jew hoping to understand the insanity of life in a war zone, presents nuanced, heartbreaking, and triumphant portraits of the individuals behind the headlines – Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians – who represent the huge majority who just want to live in peace.

Some of the pictures are hard to see. War isn't pretty. Many of the injuries are on the outside – other wounds lie within. Posed portraits, one to a spread, are elegantly laid out with the subject's words on the left-facing page. Each subject wrote a statement, a type of last will and testament. Their words are sobering, sometimes surprising. It is this pairing of the pictures and words that is so successful.

As you look at and listen to these subjects, you'll start to wonder what you would do in their place. Would you come down on the side of peace after watching a loved one die? Could you still forgive after personally being maimed or injured by the "other side"? These people live side by side in a space-challenged region awash in politics, a place where a visit to the local mall could be interrupted by a suicide bomb attack; a drive home from a wedding shattered by sniper's bullets.

Look into the eyes of Masadi, a Palestinian mother of six who works for a Jewish family.

She stands in a doorway with a loving look on her face – her daughter wears defiance all over her body. Masadi says: "[T]o hate is easy. To love is hard. You have to be strong to love."

I think my favorite photo – although I have many – is of a Russian émigré, Ayal, who lost his hearing and sight while riding a bus a suicide bomber attacked. He is lying in a hospital bed on his birthday a few months after the incident, his parents – out of view – holding his hands. He smiles toward the camera he can't see. I am humbled by his strength and spirit. We get to read what he says two years later. He is living on his own and can hear with the help of a device. He is optimistic that, with technology, he will see again someday. "[T]hey expect that I have some big political agenda, and I don't. It's like the reporters who used to bombard me in the hospital – they just wanted me to say that I hated the Arabs. It's like they were disappointed when I told them I didn't have feelings of revenge or resentment…. I just want to live a normal peaceful life."

Maytal, an Israeli amputee, was maimed in a terrorist attack, and yet has this to say: "We are angels with one wing, and we can only fly if we learn to embrace each other."

Melanie Stetson Freeman is a Monitor staff photographer.

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