Terra Incognito, Terra Firma

Melinda Fine 12” x 12” • Mixed Media on Canvas

Melinda Fine
12” x 12” • Mixed Media on Canvas

Concentrating on the themes of discovery and return, the moon phases indicate the month of traveling. The arm of the outstretched man depicts a reach for knowledge. A map of Lebanon, marked with an X is a treasure map guarded by the image of a man in late 19th/early 20th century dress. The femur, the largest and strongest bone in the human body indicates bone marrow–the very stuff of our genetic heritage. For me, birds are symbols of spirit and the falcon, a bird of prey, can be trained in falconry in which the bird returns to his handler with his quarry.

Inspired by the experiences of Thomas Hammond

The Familiar Stranger
by Robert LeHeup

“If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”
-Monotheistic Idiom

Thomas had traveled across the world in Promethean fashion, looking to bring back the fires of Truth to the only home he’d ever known. Having been born and raised in the United States, he was all too familiar with the idea that our media outlets weren’t covering all the events that were happening in the middle east, bare minimum not objectively. Numbers needed to be met, advertisements needed to be targeted, and a slight stretch of truth to raise ratings was simply par for the course. For this reason, coupled with his genuine enthusiasm toward human potential, he became a photojournalist, shining his own light on issues he felt were both poignant and elusive.

He knew what this calling meant. He knew it would be a grab-bag of risk, cost, and results, the journey itself necessarily providing as much importance, if not more so, than his perceived goals. But that’s the price of adventure. As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” So he saved up his money, bought an expensive camera, and flew to Lebanon, using it as a staging area for his trips to Turkey and Syria. He was of Lebanese descent but had never traveled outside the US, so being in a place of his origins was surreal. That much more so given the need for an interpreter.

That being said, his appreciation of context was what inclined him to his chosen profession, so he soaked up all he could of each country he visited. He tasted the cuisine and let it consume him. Saw their art and allowed it to change him in subtle ways. Looked at the people and felt that he could see the marks left by rocky, rolling hills, salty waves crashing, and mountains rising up in defiance. He felt like he had tapped another vein of what it was to be human, and therefore dove head first into finding the style of truth that can only be found through exploration.

However, this trip had not been quite as powerful as he’d expected. He had been caught and turned around at a Syrian checkpoint, the people he had spoken with did not share his enthusiasm, and the journalist he’d traveled with had turned out to be a nightmare of a person. By the time his trip was through, he’d felt a disappointment he hadn’t seen coming. There was a hole where he had poured his sense of adventure, looking to fill it with milestones that were objectively wonderful, even if horrible. Instead, the hole was still there, dragging him down as though it were, in fact, weighted.

With one day left in his travels, he decided to get drunk in a local bar. Not a bit tipsy. Not “I probably shouldn’t drive.” Wasted. He’d been let down, if ever so slightly, and for whatever reason, that was a difficult burden to bear. He had been robbed of the fruits of his efforts to find that fire of truth and didn’t know what else to do. By the time he had to pay his tab, he was wobbling and slurry, his gratitude prostrated to the bartender that knew just enough English to call him a cab. Passing through the threshold of the door to his hotel, he all but collapsed into the back of the taxi, rubbing his face and moaning.

“You doing alright, sir?”

Thomas stopped rubbing his face and looked at the driver through the rearview mirror as though he’d found an oasis in the desert. For the past two weeks, he had been traveling from one place to the next entirely reliant upon his interpreter, a man whose English was only slightly better than Thomas’s Arabic. With this newfound opportunity, he took full advantage, his drunken state halved by his excitement. Leaning forward to speak with the man, he eventually found himself in the passenger’s seat, having been bequeathed the throne by the patient cabbie.
He spoke about America and its culture, about why he was a photojournalist and why he’d come to Lebanon, all of which led to the present moment and the heavy disappointment he’d felt at not bringing home a story worth framing. Of only having one day left to a story that would leave him as empty as his bank account. The cab driver listened intently while Thomas spoke, only chiming in to pose questions before allowing him to continue, eventually leading him to tell the cab driver that he was, in fact, of Lebanese descent. Pulling a photo he had kept in his wallet as a reminder, Thomas showed the man a picture of his great-grandfather. With this, the cab driver smiled and posed a few more questions, each one slightly more invasive than the last.

“You said you have one day left?”

Thomas nodded.

“I’m going to pick you up early tomorrow morning. I’ve got a place you should visit.”

Thomas agreed immediately. His only plans for the next day were to nurse a hangover and prepare for the final flight out for the United States. The thought of having one last attempt at the glory of a solid story was too much to turn down. His slightly swaying gate had turned into a chipper step by the time he got out of the cab. He thanked the driver for the wonderful conversation, tipped him well, then walked into the lobby of his hotel, eyes wide with potential, heart beating to the sound of hope. He pressed the button on the elevator and woke up to an alarm burning his mind like a grease burn.
His room was a mess, the morning daylight piercing through the shades and shimmering off the drool his pillow had accumulated the night before. Eyes blood-red from the night before, slivered and aching, they shot open as he recalled the conversation he’d had with the cabbie the night before. Throwing back the blanket with Herculean effort, he mustered the will to rise, beleaguered steps a testament to the profound excitement he’d remembered having previously. With the same style of determination that had caused him to cross an ocean in order to brave alien warzones, he found the strength to brush his teeth, tie his shoes, and met up with the cabbie in the hotel lobby.

The cabbie’s, eyes shining brightly, just like his smile, awake and prepared for the day as though powered by sunlight itself. That same sun stabbing Thomas in his retinas with unrelenting blades of regret, he donned aviators and and ordered coffee, a languid standard in the life of a culture that was anything but. Once finished with their coffee, they headed to the cab and forged ahead. The mustiness inside had a strange effect, calming his stomach which had been heaving in protest just an hour previously, and stoking the thrilling sense of adventure he had left at the bar the night before.

Driving through a swath of paved roads and verdant mountain passages, the conversation was thankfully light, allowing for at least a little bit of an opportunity for Thomas to collect his wits. About an hour later, they arrived at a place that was more a village than a town, small homes made of concrete with red tile roofs, dusty and spread apart, giving it a sense of openness that matched perfectly with the cloudless, blue sky. This openness was further underscored by the dialogue between the cabbie and one of the people that lived there, Arabic verbiage flying past Thomas like suppressing fire from a machine gun.

After a few minutes, the cabbie told Thomas to show the man the picture of his great-grandfather. After a short pause before a frenzy of activity, with the people yelling to one another, pointing at Thomas and continuing to speak Arabic. After another few minutes of this, the man hands him a sheet of paper with a phone number on it, the cab driver continuing to smile the whole time. Thomas looked at the phone number, looked up at the man, then to the cab driver. Then the man who handed him the note, the man who had been speaking Arabic the whole time, said in perfectly clear English “You need to go to Beirut and talk to George.”
The cabbie nodded his head with pride, teeth glinting. Thomas turned to the man who had handed him the note, not knowing George from Adam, and thanked him as genuinely as he possibly could. Then, with a gesture from the cab driver, he got back into the car and off they went to meet George in Beirut. As they past through more gorgeous countryside, he was realized he now had more questions to ask than were answered. The cabbie certainly wasn’t speaking too much. However, this added the style of momentum Thomas had been craving this whole time. He didn’t know what to expect, but he also knew that brought the sort of adrenaline that creates the best stories.
Once they arrived in Beirut, the cabbie made the phone call and set up a time to meet. Less than an hour later, they arrive at their predesignated location to find George, a middle aged man who apparently learned to grin at the same school as the cab driver. The two spoke for a minute or two, more Arabic to mock Thomas’s ignorance of the language, then both cars took off, the cab following the other. At the end of the short ride, Thomas got out of the car and was met with the man, still smiling, who shook his hand, then hugged him, speaking with the cab driver before gesturing up to what was his apartment.

After a prelude of cigarettes and coffee, which is the custom, Thomas was introduced to the man’s wife, daughter, and father. This was at first strange, as the custom had stopped after the last cigarette was put out and the last sip of coffee was imbibed. And then the realization hit him. A realization that would prove of far more personal depth than he could have ever imagined. He had traveled hundreds of miles through all manner of terrain to find the sort of truth that is all too wild and elusive. He had done this in order to bring those truths back to him home in America. What he found instead was one of his cousins. What he found instead was an extension of his home.