“What do you know about the refugee situation in Lebanon?”
Standing under the dimly lit awning of a terrible karaoke bar in Los Angeles, the question seemed strangely fitting for the night. By virtue of odd statistics and luck I’d just been introduced to Eric Czuleger, a friend of a friend about whom I’d been told little more than “he travels to intense places and you’ll love him.”
The question about Lebanon came between slow drags from his cigarette. We had been talking about recent travels and hopes for future projects. He was about to start working on a book, and I told him I was interested in doing on a piece about refugees. In truth, my interest in the topic of refugees was part reactionary and part self-serving.
“…there I was against the delicate backdrop of flickering patio lights, American Spirits, and bad Will Smith covers, listening to Eric explain the broad strokes of a remarkably complex geopolitical landscape.”
On a personal level, I’d grown disgusted with what I perceived to be the dehumanizing rhetoric coming out of political circles in both the United States and Europe. I’d noticed even outside of the demonizing language, when a compassionate eye was turned on the topic, it was only to witness the fleeing. I hadn’t seen much about what happened to people who had been displaced for a long time, and I was curious about their stories.
His question felt both intriguing and embarrassing. Eric, who had spent time working as a writer and geopolitical analyst, seemed to have an endless wealth of knowledge, whereas in spite of my lofty interest in refugee stories, I was remarkably ignorant as to the details of many places where refugees were living.
Where Eric had a background as a journalist and had worked very hard to cultivate an in-depth understanding of the regions he reported on, I had cobbled together a life out of a chaotic mixture of photography, television work, and camera work on documentary films. Those gigs most often centered around working in challenging locations or on heartbreaking subject matter. As a result, I had become adept at recounting anecdotes of machete-wielding bandits in India, tracking jaguars in Mexico, or time spent with schizophrenics. However, hidden under the anecdotes was the fact that I was almost always working for someone else’s vision, and my own personal work had been rather limited and fairly unpublished.
Nonetheless, standing before Eric, I understood the importance of appearing to have it together. So when I cavalierly stated I’d be interested in creating a piece dealing with refugees, I never expected to find the road I wished to walk suddenly materializing there in front of me.
Yet there I was against the delicate backdrop of flickering patio lights, American Spirits, and bad Will Smith covers, listening to Eric explain the broad strokes of a remarkably complex geopolitical landscape.
“If you can get there, I can hook you up with some people,” he said.
At this point my then-girlfriend had told me she’d been looking for me for a while, and kindly asked if we could head back home to get some sleep. I shook his hand and we laughed upon realizing how long we’d been sequestered outside the party. As I parted ways with Eric he told me to call him.
Three days later I did.
“..when I cavalierly stated I’d be interested in creating a piece dealing with refugees, I never expected to find the road I wished to walk suddenly materializing there in front of me. “
I’d like to paint a picture of some altruistic intention, some wholly benevolent action I wanted to take. But if I’m honest, the reason I called Eric came down to a simple truth. My heroes were people who walked into spaces most of us are terrified to go. They told stories that they felt mattered, and Eric was offering me a chance to try to be like them. After a career of helping other people’s visions come to life, I wanted to see if I could tell a story I thought was important. I wanted to be like my heroes, and I believed Eric might be my best chance to do that.
“Either way, I had nothing left to come home to, and no idea how in over my head I was…”
Within a week of our phone call, Eric had found me a good fixer, armed me with a dossier on the research and understanding he’d cultivated from his time in Lebanon, and even given me directions to his favorite coffee shop/art space in Beirut. Meanwhile I booked plane tickets and found an $18-a-night room with no air conditioning in the middle of the Lebanese summer. I lacked financial backing or even a publisher, so this project would require burning through all my savings. I knew I needed a good fixer to get me into places, and that would be costly, but it also wasn’t something I was about to get cheap about, so physical comfort was falling pretty low on the priority totem. With all details lined up, permissions secured, and a sabbatical scheduled from the TV show I’d been working on, I began counting down the days to my departure.
Three weeks before I left and the morning after landing from a stint on a travel show, the words “I don’t think I’m in love with you anymore” landed upon me shattering the veneer of the life I’d been creating. I’d been living with my girlfriend for two years, and prior to that I’d been living in a van between gigs. During that period I thought going to Lebanon would be a continuation of the trajectory of “getting my life together.”I still can’t say whether the timing of the news was perfect or awful, but with three weeks to go I packed the life I’d built into a small storage unit, said a tearful goodbye to the cats, and boarded a plane to the Middle East. Suddenly I didn’t know anymore if I was putting my life together, or watching a new iteration of it falling apart. Either way, I had nothing left to come home to, and no idea how in over my head I was.