It's frigid days like this that I think about the desert.
Here's a link to my new blog, which is intended to present my favorite stories, photos and interviews throughout this journey (Africa, the Middle East, the DC Metro area) that might just eventually find us sealed in the air-tight wine cellar of my beachside mansion in the middle of a hurricane where you'll be forced to listen to my ramblings while everything above us is destroyed in a frenzy of wind, water and flying debris.
"Ha! At least we're not in the wine cellar on my boat," I'll say.
...Anyhow, back in 2012 when I was a young photographer I traveled to Algeria for the second time. And one evening I found myself sitting at a long table with crossed legs on a cushion in the tent of the First Lady of the Polisario Front, Khadija Abdelaziz.
I was contracted by the International Women's Media Foundation (who were funded by Howard Buffett) to take photos of the telecommunications capabilities in the five Polisario camps in the desert. There were three of us, and after all the work was finished, our group ate a dinner of chicken soup and goat with about 20 VIPs, who represent over 100,000 people who have been sequestered from civilization in the desert for decades and desperately want to get their story out by increasing their technological reach.
Hoping to lighten the mood with some friendly verbal ping- pong, I leaned over to a translator sitting next to me.
"Karbash, please tell the First Lady that I have a burning question."
He raised his eyebrows. "A burning one?"
I'd met the president a year before, and had given him a single question, which took him five minutes in silence to answer. The question was: What do you think would happen if the U.S. formally recognized your country? And he said, maybe thinking about the last 40 years of struggle: "If that happens then there would be peace all though the Maghreb."
Anyhow, I leaned over and said: "Can you ask the First Lady what her husband, the President, does for fun?"
"Eh?" Karbash said incredulously, his thin, sensitive mustache covering the decayed teeth that everyone has over there, his eyes flashing like crystals after years of desert sun.
"Go ahead. Ask her."
He asked, and she laughed from the simplicity of the question.
The tent became very quiet. Eyes and ears turned as profound, yet simple truths could be revealed at any moment to people with nothing else to stimulate the brain except small-town gossip, especially from the lips of someone so highly regarded.
She dignified the question by answering it, but spoke like a politician.
Karbash turned: "She says that he does not have time for such things, but that he likes to walk."
"I see. And what does she like to do for fun?"
The women giggled at the forwardness of such intimate questions. I mean, these people have fought the Moroccan government for control over a Colorado-sized piece of territory in the desert since the 1970s, and the small audience of ministers and high-ranking military officials sat rapt with attention. But sometimes you have to loosen up to understand who you're talking to.
The First Lady gently responded with a personal gift of disclosure, but quickly followed it by declaring her tireless loyalty to a cause that has no time for such frivolities as personal pleasures, because underneath the question lingered others: How can you find happiness in such a place as familiar faces wither and age as your hopes for independence go on for years and the world has forgotten about you...
Karbash turned to me. "She says that she likes to read and she used to sing. But she has no time for such things now."
And at that moment Nadine, the leader of our group, said: "I suppose there is no denying your husband."
"Can't deny him?" I asked. "She's the only one here who can deny him!"
Karbash quickly translated and the entire room burst into laughter. See, even in a Muslim society deep in the desert with the Sahrawi, it was absolutely true.