Middle East

This weekend I was on the road with the European Union Election Observation Mission, traveling around southern Jordan on a field visit. We met with political and tribal leaders in Tafilah, Aqaba, Maan, South Badia, and Karak, and I tagged along to take pictures. While most of the time was spent driving or in offices for meetings, these are some of my favorite images, including a huge tent for campaign rallies outside of Karak, training election workers, Bedouin guys sitting at a coffee stop, and a Roma family.

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Ok so I selected this #2015bestnine myself. Some actually were my “most liked” but this is pretty representative of a crazy, challenging year. Living in two different countries, documenting the industrial war complex, getting #engaged… Here’s to a new year in #Amman. #jordan #turkey #cairo #travel #airports #camels #neverhome #vsco


Since a good part of my day is spent perusing news from around the Middle East (and by extension, occasionally Europe, Central Asia, and Africa), editing articles from some of these organizations and wire services, and writing about various warlords and rebel groups, I want to take a minute to explore the kinds of language journalists use and how it varies from place to place.

The organization I work for recently made the decision to strike the word “terrorist” from its lexicon, and it’s a decision I happen to agree with. We only use the word if it’s in the context of a categorical definition (eg. “designated as a ‘terror’ group by the US”) or in a direct quote. Even then, I think we hesitate to use it unless it’s an integral part of the story. Like if we’re discussing the meaning of “terrorism” or if new counter-terror laws are passed somewhere. At best, “terrorism” is a subjective word and oversimplifies complex issues. At worst, it promotes prejudice, dehumanizes people presumed to be associated with it, and might even lead to more violence.

To quote Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation: “Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. In the Middle East, in the entire Muslim world, this word would become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all our lives, a full stop to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up. Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? In the 17th century, governments used "heretic” in much the same way, to end all dialogue, to prescribe obedience.“

Fisk goes on to say, either in the same book, or in another, that since our definition of terrorism is beholden to the interests of a government on a given day, when journalists use the word, it does more than make us biased – it turns us into combatants.

Let’s say news breaks about a Palestinian stabbing an Israeli soldier or police – since this has been an ongoing string of individual violence going on for the last few months. If Jerusalem Post breaks the story first, the headline inevitably reads “Palestinian Terrorist Stabs Officer.” I don’t support ANYONE stabbing people. But what follows, in an article that’s about four sentences long, is the words “terror” “terrorism” “terrorist” “criminal” “suspect” and so on repeated five or six times, with very little information about what actually happened, and certainly no context to explain it. So I wait and maybe Ma’an News or Reuters or Anadolu will pick it up, and I can get information about where the attacker was from, what hospitals they were sent to, and so on. And it’s so predictable – usually following this, travel permits for the attacker’s entire village get cancelled, or the IDF does a nighttime raid and arrests 10 people – and the next morning there are more headlines about “terrorism.”

From the other end of the spectrum, parsing the language of Anadolu Agency (Turkey) or Press TV (Iran) is also a fascinating exercise. Sources like this are interesting because they often break stories before other outlets, and their reporting is at least factual. I can verify the events and people and what was said. But an Anadolu article will always read “205 PKK Terrorists Killed in December,” when we’re talking about a low-intensity urban war in southeast Turkey, with curfews, civilians cut off from communications, and snipers picking people off streets. 

Press TV on Yemen is a whole other thing. Again, it’s all pretty much factually accurate. But where we would say “Yemen’s embattled president” or “Saudi-backed President,” they say “mercenary former president.” Where western media says “Saudi-led coalition fighters,” Press TV says “mercenaries fighting for the regime in Riyadh.” Where we say “Houthi rebels/fighters,” they say “the Yemeni army.” They also love throwing around the word “takfiri,” a word used to accuse another Muslim of abandoning one’s faith, which is pretty serious business.

I know I’m picking some extreme examples. JPost is definitely considered right wing, Anadolu is state-owned (and PKK=terrorists is part and parcel to the Turkish state’s raison d’etre), and Press TV represents (frequently at least) the official viewpoints of Iran. But it gets murky. Yemen’s president Hadi went into exile in Saudi Arabia, and has set up a de-facto capital well outside Sanaa. Is he a “former president”? That’s why we say things like “embattled” or “Saudi-backed.” And by the way, there are actually mercenaries fighting against the Houthis, but it’s not correct for us to refer to the whole coalition as such.

Most of the news we read, if you’re reading something fairly mainstream, is going to fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe they won’t throw around “terrorist” so liberally, but they will probably say “2 dead in shooting; terrorism suspected.” It comes up in more subtle differences like referring to “migrants” instead of “refugees,” or “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants.” Over time, one way or another, language affects the way people feel about these issues. And for most people, it’s not their job to read news from 20+ Middle Eastern news sources everyday, many people don’t speak the languages of the region, many people, in short, don’t have time to be critical thinkers of news.

Words matter in war, and we have a choice in how we tell these stories.


After a crazy, unpredictable, unexpected year, I think I have a job. I’m going to be covering breaking news, business, and politics in the Middle East for the English section of a news website here. I don’t know how they feel about the Oxford Comma yet. More details TK once the ink is dry on the contract.

It’s been a weird road getting here, mostly because I haven’t been actively job hunting most of the year. First of all, I haven’t been in one country long enough to seriously apply for jobs, and I was trying to make freelancing work. I still am. I love working for all sorts of publications, the plum assignments they send me on here, the people I get to meet. I’m hoping that having an actual base in the coming year will be helpful for that. That, and I’m realizing I have to be much more aggressive, which just isn’t my nature.

The point is, with freelancing, when it rains, it pours, and in between, it’s just dead. And I’m not great with downtime. I get depressed. It’s been a main topic of my writing for Arabic class. “Ana ma ba7eb a7ass inni kasouleh ou mish moufeedeh.” “I don’t like to feel that I am lazy or useless.” So when I arrived back in Amman, Layth’s mom very kindly reached out to a friend and they arranged an interview for me at an international school. “You won’t have to work with kids,” they assured me. “You’ll be like an administrative assistant.”

Secretary. Okay. On the one hand, it would give me something to do, and a paycheck. On the other, it’s not my field, I don’t want to change my field, and I don’t like being the person who quits after a month or two. I went to the interview, and they asked me: do you know how to type? Have you used Excel before? Can you manage two tasks at once? Do you show up on time for work?

I almost cried in the interview. Not only were these things something a first year university student should be able to do, they wanted me to work about 50 hours a week for maybe $500 a month. I did the math, comparing it to my last salary, and cried even more. And it was halfway out to the airport, so I didn’t even know how I would get there. 

And then on top of it, I felt like I was being ungrateful, which is horrible, because I know all of this came from good intentions, and people were trying to help me. I called my friend who also lived in Jordan and then went through a two-year period of under- and un-employment in the US. She’s highly educated, qualified, and made ends meet by nannying. She told me not to think of the interview as a gendered response – which, of course on some level, the whole job was gendered – but more as a response to the fact that I’m young. Plenty of recent college grads in America are shockingly lacking in soft skills, and actually don’t know how to use Excel. In Jordan, where high unemployment is endemic – especially among young adults – it’s unlikely that I, as a young person, would have even had the opportunity to learn these skills in a workplace at my age. Or maybe I wouldn’t have had the appropriate training courses in university, or access to certain software.

Earlier this year when Layth came back to Jordan, he applied to over 40 jobs and never heard back from any of them, despite being a highly qualified engineer. His sister, an architect, was searching for full-time work for two years. While looking for work, she tried starting her own firm, she designed furniture, you name it. One of my dear Jordanian friends from college had finally gotten a great job with an educational outreach NGO, only for them to cancel all the contracts and close the office in Jordan. She’s been looking since April for another job. Another friend moved to Dubai for work, only to realize she couldn’t afford rent there, and has to live with 5 or 6 other girls.

So I don’t know. Alhamdulilah, as we say. I only had to look for about a month, and this was the first interview I went on. Alhamdulilah, we have a supportive family. Alhamdulilah, this job is something I’m excited about.


For the first time in a year, I don’t have a plane ticket to somewhere. I have unpacked my suitcases for the first time since August, and Layth and I are slowly moving into our new/old home here in Amman. Oh yeah, we got engaged a few weeks ago.

This house is new to me, but Layth lived in our apartment about 15 years ago with his mom and siblings. His 94-year-old jedo (grandpa) lives one floor below, which is, or used to be, a pretty typical Arab family setup. The other night, I brought some soup down for Jedo. The next morning, I had breakfast with him. Most days, Layth’s mom has been taking me out to run errands during the day, and yesterday she showed up with groceries and a year’s supply of olive oil. 

As a city-dwelling American who has hardly known any of my neighbors for 15 years, this is a change for me. Over the course of 4 ½ years around Arab culture, my ideas and expectations of personal space and privacy have shifted somewhat, but moving into an apartment with my soon-to-be spouse, I’m realizing that even that is always going to be somewhat communal.

Things have been really up and down for me this year, professionally. I am still grappling with a lot of things related to work that I won’t get into right now. But I’ve decided I need to write or do something creative and productive on a regular basis, inconsistent diary-keeper that I am. Even if it’s just keeping a shitty food blog or details about my daily Arab family drama. 

I’m putting myself on a schedule. I’ve signed up for spoken Arabic courses, which start Sunday. That will basically keep me busy for 20 hours a week for the next several weeks. I’m applying to jobs. I’m bound to find something eventually. I haven’t even been in one country long enough this year to seriously apply for anything. I’m going to make some new friends here, which is also part of the reason for signing up for Arabic class.

I’m getting my stress under control. I’m happy to be out of Turkey. I was on high-alert all the time, and was about ready to strangle the next kid who thought it was funny to set off firecrackers in a busy market. Eventually, things are gonna fall into place and life will feel normal. In the meantime, join me for some tales of everyday life in the Middle East.



This past week, I had the unforgettable experience of participating in the 67th Missouri Photo Workshop in Perryville, MO. I’m struggling with how to put it all into words, but I do want to write it down while the memories are fresh. With a little distance, I’m sure all of this is going to sink in again. It’s difficult to quantify, but I learned a lot about myself. I learned how my experience the last few years has changed me, and a little bit of it tells me where I fit into all this and where I’m going.


I’m including some photos that didn’t make it into the final edit, and for what it’s worth (maybe it will help other people thinking about this sort of thing) I’ll write about how I worked through all of this.

The genius of this workshop is that unlike other workshops, you have to find, research, pitch, photograph and edit your own story – no one does the legwork for you. And the other part is that everyone – no matter how accomplished you are – is sort of on an even playing field. We’re all strangers in this town. Through on-the-ground research (read: walking and talking to people, making some cold calls, being out of your comfort zone) we have to find a personal human narrative that illuminates some truth about what it’s like to live in this time and this place.

While I was still in Jordan, I did some research by contacting nonprofits and advocacy groups in the St. Louis area. I contacted a refugee resettlement agency, thinking it’s a newsy topic and it would be nice to see the refugee stories come full circle – but the nearest family that had been resettled was 30 miles away. I contacted a migrant farm workers advocacy group, but realized that wasn’t an issue impacting this particular area of Missouri. I contacted autism support groups, who were friendly, but didn’t get any leads.


So I arrive Saturday night, and my throat hurts a little. By Sunday night when we have our first team meetings, I am delirious with a sinus headache and can barely talk. My team members had 3 or 4 fleshed out story ideas they were going after. I had ideas, but no real people or connections yet. “I’m going to make some calls tomorrow,” I croaked, before returning to my hotel in despair.

So Monday morning, I walked into the high school’s main office, fully expecting (from years of city living) to be kicked out. But one of the administrators walked me around and introduced me to a special ed class, where I spent some time photographing and talking to people. I couldn’t see how I was going to move from talking to kids in class, to getting permission from parents, to being allowed to photograph them at home. By evening, I was considering running away from the workshop. I have this nice rental car for a week, I thought. A road trip would be nicer than putting myself through this.

By Tuesday afternoon, my story idea had fallen through; the parents weren’t interested. The administrator was still on the phone with me though, so I punted, trying to keep him on the line. Apparently there were other photographers already in this particular classroom, which told me I had to get a different angle. “I am really interested in doing a story about this community,” I told him. “I wonder if there are any volunteer groups or parents…?”

Before I could finish, he was telling me about the high school art teacher, Bettina Comstock, who had her own son with special needs. He would walk over and talk to her and give her my phone number. Great. She called me on her lunch break and agreed to let me meet her after school, go with her to pick up her son, and at some point, come over to their house.

I met Bettina and immediately felt like I’d found the right people to photograph. I think sharing my experience of having a brother with autism helped her to feel more relaxed. I went grocery shopping with them and then she invited me back to their house, where I made this photo of Treven doing his homework. Then, concerned about my hotel being expensive, she invited me to sleep over a couple nights later. I could start to see all the little elements of the story lining up. 

I left her house around sunset, and driving through the Ozark hills back into town, I felt euphoric. You know Kant’s idea of the sublime? The way I felt that day comes pretty close. It’s not the first time it’s happened, but the fact that in the space of a few hours, I’d had one story fall through, found someone else, and that they’d somehow let me into their lives to document them – that’s when photography feels like magic. That feeling can sustain me forever. That’s why I do what I do.

I was still sick through all of this, though, and had to drag myself to the elementary school on Wednesday, where I got to photograph Treven in class, at lunch, and recess. One kid, seeing me sniffling and sweating through my shirt in the air conditioning asked “are you sick?” and I took that as my cue to take off.

We had planned for me to sleep over Thursday night, and that morning, Bettina texted me saying “tonight’s not a good night.” I was worried, but at that point in the week, she still hadn’t fully cancelled and I had a feeling I could salvage it, even if I couldn’t sleep over. She called me over lunch because I was still going to her son’s therapy session after school. We talked for a few minutes, and she told me, “now that I’m actually talking to you, I remember that I like you and you’re really easy to be around.” Everything worked out.

To sum up, here are the bullet points of what I learned this week.

1. If you’re a college student and haven’t gotten the kind of intimacy or access you want in your stories, don’t freak out. I didn’t either, and I couldn’t imagine being able to do this in a week. 
2. Going into this, I was thinking “maybe I’m just not a narrative photographer.” It’s okay if you’re not. There are loads of other things that can still make you a strong photographer and journalist.
3. I can do this again. I am an introvert, but somehow I think the last few years have made me less shy. Having the one week deadline also made me get over my fears right away and get the job done. My personality may not be right for every kind of photojournalism, but it works for what I want to do.
4. Yes, you can tell a story in under 400 frames.
5. When you’re in a new place, out of your element, it’s all about figuring out very quickly where you can fit in and get comfortable with the story you’re trying to tell. I clicked with this family. But my first couple of days, it was a culture shock for me, and I found myself – maybe not unlike an anthropologist – trying to understand religion and community ties in terms of what I’d learned from living in the Middle East.
6. The story is never about you – it’s about them. You can honor and validate someone by telling their story right. And in situations like this, yes, do your research, but be prepared to throw out your expectations. You might not find traces of a pressing national issue to photograph. Instead, you might find unconditional love and companionship – and that is a wonderful thing to witness.
7. I think I understand my “visual voice” better now. At no point in the workshop was I making photos because I thought I needed variety or this was how someone else would shoot it. My editors told me – and I knew – when I missed things, but the frames I made were something that were intuitively part of my own experience and what I was bringing to the story. And, like good editors, they helped me to recognize when I was really tuned in to that.

I know this experience is going to stick with me for a long time, and I can’t wait to apply these lessons when I get back to work in Jordan.



Almost six months ago, I left my job in DC to freelance in Turkey, to be closer to people I love, in a region that’s become my second home. Since I finally, officially received my residency card yesterday, I thought this was a good time to reflect on where I’ve been so far.

1. You Are Not Your Job. You are more than your job. This has been the hardest and most unexpected of challenges for me. I didn’t realize how much of myself I identified with simply by having a title at a publication – even if I left that job voluntarily. But what about the downtime, when you’re in a new country, checking your email every hour, praying that someone wants you to go do something? What am I then? Maybe at previous jobs, I would have a weekly cry that came pretty much on schedule every Thursday afternoon, but now there are cycles of panic, wondering if I will ever work again, of avoiding any other commitments for fear that I might have to turn down an assignment, and finally, feelings of euphoria and fulfillment when I work on a story again. 

Down time doesn’t have to be down-and-out time. It doesn’t mean that you’re not still learning and growing in other ways. My wonderfully supportive partner put it this way: “you’re not a journalist because of a visa, or because of credentials, or because of a paycheck: this is who you are as long as you are telling stories.“ 

I’m choosing to view this, as I hope I will see it in hindsight: in the space of a few months, I  moved to a new country, learned a new language, made new friends, navigated an insane bureaucracy system to get a residency permit, read 15 books, wrote grant proposals, did research for projects, and traveled to two other countries to work on three separate stories. By most accounts, I think that qualifies as being productive. 

2. Letting Go. Letting go of control is one of the hardest things for westerners to do. This is especially true if you’re like me and consider yourself a pretty independent person.  But suddenly, I had to get help for such basic things – getting contact solution from the pharmacy, adding credit to my cell phone, finding out why my bank card was mailed to the wrong address. 

Everything feels like it takes way too long to happen. You spend a lot of time waiting and hearing “tomorrow we will take care of this.” A fellow freelancer in Mexico told me her new motto is “poco a poco” – in Turkish, mine is "herşey güzel olacak.” In Arabic, I think of it as “insha’allah kheir.” Everything will be alright. 

3. Little Victories. These victories, however small, make all the difference. You should celebrate them. There was the time that I went to the bank, successfully discussed a transaction in Turkish, and left with my brand new debit card. And then my insurance card arrived the same day! I probably cried with happiness.


4. Be Your Own Advocate. Living abroad is a lesson in how to fight, every single day, for the basic things you need in order to live your life and do your work. No one in any kind of official role will want to make things easy for you. You have to find a way to either laugh at it, persevere (go back until you get a different person who gives you a positive answer), or go around them. Know your rights, because 90% of the time, the police don’t actually know what the law says. And sometimes this means calling up a personal investment banker in Istanbul, because the local branch thinks it’s against policy to set up online banking for you. Go around the idiots. It will make you feel like a baller. 

5. Get a Damn Planner. Going into this, I knew time management was going to be a challenge. When the next paycheck is unknown, it’s hard to justify doing things or going places because they cost money. But give yourself a schedule everyday and commit to it. Maybe that means you have to do yoga or run at 8 am. Maybe that means an hour for writing each day. Two hours for studying language. Planning group dinners with friends. Time for research for future projects, or searching for work opportunities, staying in touch with your long-distance colleagues. The day can fill up fast. If you can’t stick to your schedule alone, find a friend to study with or exercise with – that way you have to show up, and you get a little socializing in as well. 

When I arrived, I had a horrific jetlag-flu-depression combo that led to weeks of staying up until 5 am with insomnia, and not waking up until after noon. It was really hard to break. I honestly only started feeling like myself again in the last month or so, because I started actually taking this advice. 

6. Trust the Pace of Your Own Life. Between working in a competitive industry in a city like DC and being surrounded by Type A people all the time, I got sucked into comparing where I am – in my personal life, my career, my education – to other people. Having this target on your own back will only slow you down. It’s good to have people to look up to and to have goals, but honestly, being isolated from all this for a while has been good for me. Not only am I trying to trust that these things will happen in their own time – but maybe something entirely different, something right for me, will happen instead. 

Now, I feel relaxed, because whatever happens for the rest of the year, I have my own goals outlined. Maybe my path will be different, but I have my own compass. I know where I’m going and I know what I want.