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michael christopher brown – libya

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Michael Christopher Brown


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Since arriving ten days ago, I have tried to understand the situation here in Libya. People swap facts, predictions and rumors, the news feeds me information, but the complexity of the conflict makes it impossible to fully comprehend. Once a picture is taken or a word is written it is already old news. There seems to be no way to catch up, as the database of history is filed before it is processed. And as a result I have become more confused. But I can attest to one reality, shown in these photographs. They form a loose record of my experience during the war in Libya.

Around midnight we piled into a tiny car and drove for 7 hours, from Cairo to the eastern border of Libya. A wide eyed nicely dressed Egyptian city man, our driver with slick black greasy hair, persuaded military officer after officer standing beside tanks that he had foreigners and therefore special privilege to pierce the curfew barriers and drive west, as if in a high-speed chase on empty highways, past the beautiful night city of Cairo and into a deep desert countryside as cigarette smoke escaped out the window. Somewhere sometime we passed the pyramids, not too longer after a pit stop with a McDonald’s and a shopkeeper selling ‘StarFuck’ ashtrays shaped as green coffee cups. The jetlagged dreams of 3 packed in a backseat took us elsewhere as the sun rose over the Mediterranean just beyond the sand dunes. The barren desert, looking left to nowhere looking right to the sea. The towns were simple shacks and here and there and rare were men in long robes without faces standing still. Wearing white robes and black robes, with camels near the sandy highway.

Would Libya be different? Would it be a different world? Something told us so. Something would be there for us. Danger, excitement, importance, freedom, death. Perhaps all. Smoking cigarettes. We arrived beyond Salloum where lines of trucks and cars waited for those leaving Libya. Arms in the air, Egyptians and Chinese and Indonesians crossing to somewhere safe. We moving in the opposite direction, elated. Then more journalists, then some we knew. On the other side more people piled up. A hall full of Indonesians, laying about as if dead so I exchanged my Egyptian money with their Libyan, using a rate in their favor and losing $100 in the process. Something to do. Then we walked the 1000 yards or so to the Libyan gate, guarded by men in plainclothes and rebels.

A man in dark sunglasses glanced suspiciously at us. They inspected our passports, we filled out a quick form and walked to Libya, to a road bordered on both sides by tall cement walls. Two Libyans of about 25 offered to take us to their hometown of Benghazi. We jumped into the van, looking a lot like my Jinbei in China. The concrete walls, looking like blast walls, surrounded trucks and cars wedged together in a narrow dusty strip with men wrapped in scarves holding automatics and eying the interior of our ride suspiciously. They were young men, these rebels, with old men in the background watching. No uniforms, like bandits, they were among the opposition who had recently wrested eastern Libya from Gaddafi. They nodded heads with our driver, who sped up, then sped up again, passing cars and whizzing past a littered landscape of wrecked automobiles and buildings and into an emptier desert than Egypt’s.

Faster faster our driver outsped his buddies in the other van, and his eyes faster than anything existing in the desert that day or anytime before. His eyes beyond the horizon, beyond what was happening in the country. All the fighting could not reach the (what was it in his eyes?) it in his eyes. A few windy turns but not many, the highway whisked through abandoned (after coming from china everything looked abandoned) tiny sand towns with few buildings, all small and plain and square or rectangular against the pastel landscape. But mostly phone lines, empty phone lines carrying messages to the west and we were messengers to the west. Driving faster now our drivers eyes not leaving the road. Faulty communication. I know little Arabic and him the word ‘smoking.’ One stop at a road café we ate tuna sandwiches and photographed a man and his gun. Our drivers buddies caught up and we raced each other down the road, the landscape turning from sand to rock then greenery. It began to rain. We made Benghazi by nightfall and arrived at the African hotel. The first night spent in a real bed in Africa, with dirty sheets and one cockroach.


Raised in Washington State, Michael moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer in 2006. His clients include GEO, Time, National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Fortune, The Atlantic and ESPN The Magazine, among others.

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Michael Christopher Brown

– Book Review: “Searching for Schindler” by Tom Keneally

In 1980, Tom Keneally (author of "Schindler’s Ark") was looking for a briefcase when he came to a halt in front of a store called the Handbag Studio in Beverly Hills: "I hesitated, always a nervous shopper. But the shopkeeper soon appeared beside me, having stepped out from within. Atlanta Driveway repair . He had a stocky Slavic look, and resembled the great character actor, Theodore Bickel – a touch of Tartar in the cheeks, a barrel chest, powerful arms, a wrestler’s neck. He wore a white shirt, a conservative tie and a good jacket with an Eagle Scout pin nested in its lapel. There was a glitter of fraternal amusement in his eyes. Even then, I believe I preceived that he had dealt in markets beyond my knowing." Excellent visual writing, isn’t it? It immediately produced strong pictures in my mind.

The shop owner, a Polish Jew by the name of Leopold Pfefferberg, introduced himself as Leopold Page (the name was foisted on him at Ellis Island in 1947) but Keneally soon took to calling him Poldek. Poldek had a story to tell and he wanted Keneally to write if for him. Poldek told him, "it’s a story for you, Thomas, It’s a story for you, I swear." Keneally reflected on the fact that "every writer hears that exhortation. People without any idea of how long a book takes pass on the tale of an amusing uncle or aunt, along with the strange addendum: I could write it if I had nothing else to do. The suggestion is sometimes made tentatively, sometimes with the sincere expectation that the writer will answer, Wow! That he will drop to his knees and embrace this jewel of a story."

However, in the case of Leopold Page/Pfefferberg/Poldek it was all different. "He opened two filing cabinets, selecting documents – a piece on Oskar Schindler from the Los Angeles Examiner , copies of postwar speeches by former Jewish prisoners made in Oskar Schindler’s honor, carbon copies of letters in German, and documents partly yellowed, old enough for the staples in them to have rusted somewhat even in Southern California’s desert climate." Of Schindler, Poldek said, "This guy Oskar Schindler was a big masterrace sort of guy. Tall and smooth in his suits … the cloth! He drank cognac like water And I remember, when I met him the first time, he was wearing a huge black and red Hackenkreuz , you know, the Nazi pin." Well, it is of course a Hakenkreuz , and not a Hackenkreuz . Moreover, labor camps are Arbeitslager and not Arbeitslagen , and the destruction camps are Vernichtungslager and not Vernichtungslageren . The worst mistake in his German expressions probably occurred when he said, "The cinema, when we got there for the premiere, was in chaos, and Judy, Jane and I were manhandled to our seats by a muscular security woman yelling, ‘Das Buchauteur.’" To be correct, he should have said Der Buchautor . Don´t pretend to understand foreign languages if you do not.

"Searching for Schindler" (Vintage Books 2008) is a memoir. When Keneally set out to become a writer, Australians thought that writing and the arts "were something which happened elsewhere, in Western Europe." However, when Keneally met Poldek (in October 1980), he had already "been a writer for some seventeen years or so."

Upon returning to Australia from California he told his family that he "had encountered the most wonderful story imaginable," but didn’t know if he was able to write it. Ultimately, he decided to give it a try. "Back in Sydney’s northern beaches, from the desk in my office, I began composing an account of Schindler’s activities, the basis of a possible advance from Nan Talese. I could see the husky, non-verbal surfers riding their boards on the beach below." I had never given a thought to where "Schindler’s Ark" had been created, but knowing now, it feels somewhat strange that it was begun at an Australian beach.

Keneally goes to see former Schindlerjuden (Jews saved by Schindler), first in Australia, and then together with Poldek in the US, Poland, and Israel. "I knew…that I would try to write the book in the spirit of Tom Wolfe, in what Truman Capote or his publisher called faction. I knew, too, that things that were said by one interviewee would have to be matched or weighed against what the historic record said, against context and the memories of other former Schindlerjuden ."

However, this is not only a book about how "Schindler’s Ark" was written, it also discusses the Booker prize, American book tours, and the writing of the screenplay of "Schindler’s List" (Spielberg eventually sacked him). Moreover, it reveals Keneally’s involvement with rebel Eritrea and with a new republican movement in Australia that wanted to turn the country into "an official republic with its own head of state," teaching at UCI, going to film premieres in Washington, New York, London and Vienna and so much more. It makes for supremely entertaining, interesting and informative reading.

I especially warmed to the following varied and telling tidbits:

* "Even at meals Spielberg was always asking questions. He liked having people around to discuss things with, even while the technicians changed the lighting or the camera crew set up for a new shot. Many of the survivors who visited the set were astonished by the extent of the questions Spielberg asked them. Part of his strength as a director, says Palowski, was his willingness to seek input from just about anyone who had any connection with the story."

* "In lunchtime conversation we revisited the issue of where in Oskar altruism ended and opportunism began. I made the claim that it was actually important that that question could not be answered, that the abiding attraction of Schindler’s character was wrapped up in the very conondrum."

* "The plane taxied past the sign on the runway that says No Turn Before the Ocean – a sign which always rather disturbed me, since I thought that any pilot worth his salt might already know that."

* And last but not least, when Keneally asked Spielberg whether the film could be called "Schindler’s Ark," Spielberg replied he’d do it "except that he wanted to use lists throughout. Lists were visible, metaphors weren’t."