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Photographing ‘windows to the soul’

In an emotional theologian who has photographed lives in the Middle East THEO PANAYIDES finds a woman who has had her faith challenged when left angry at God

When trying to interview someone in a busy place – like, for instance, the poolside café at the Landmark (formerly Hilton) in Nicosia – I’ll often take my tape recorder and hold it close to the person’s mouth, to make sure I catch their words clearly. It’s something I do without thinking – but, after just a few minutes, Teresa Craig gives a low embarrassed chuckle and asks if we could please set it down on the table. It’s getting in the way – not physically, but spiritually. She needs to look me in the eyes, without being distracted; she wants that connection. “The Bible even says that the eyes are the window to the soul,” she notes. “When I’m looking at someone, and I’m taking a picture of them, I look directly at their eyes.”

She does take pictures, though that’s only part of it. She’s written two books on the Middle East, Face to Face (on Israel) and Remembering Egypt: A Treasure Along the Nile, both combining text with dozens of her black-and-white photos (galleries of photos, not just in black-and-white, may be found on her website, focusedonthenations.com) – but both books took many years to compile (the latter documents a 20-year relationship with Egypt, from her first visit in 1993), so writing clearly isn’t the entirety of what she does. Her husband Tom came to Cyprus as a teacher, when they moved here from Colorado in 1992. What about her? What’s her capacity?

“A wife,” she shrugs mildly, and laughs. “Writer, wife. I’m an observer… I was hoping to be a mum, but that didn’t happen. I love people,” says Teresa, “I want to be with people. I want to understand people, I want to know how I can make their life better. Is there something that I can do? Can I be a voice for those who are voiceless?” That makes her sound like an activist, which isn’t strictly true either – though she’s taken pictures in refugee camps, trying to shine a light on the stories she encountered there.

She’s also a Christian, which some will presumably view with suspicion (she and Tom are both trained theologians); the couple run the Lighthouse Network, an NGO in Larnaca, whose rather high-flown aims include “preparing for what the prophet Isaiah spoke about regarding a ‘Highway of Worship’ that will be established from Egypt to Assyria”. Mostly, however, Teresa’s particular gift seems to be for empathy, hence the eye contact she’s so keen to establish. I note that she often unconsciously echoes my body language, crossing her arms shortly after I happen to cross mine; she’s good at picking up on people’s rhythms, which must’ve come in handy during 30 years as a photographer, not to mention a woman – not to mention an American woman – in the Middle East. “Where my husband would take his theology in more of a teaching capacity, more of an intellectual way,” she muses, “I take mine probably more from the heart.”

It’s been tough, in some ways. For one thing, expat ranks have thinned considerably since she and Tom first arrived (not a huge problem for Teresa, who tends to hang out more with Cypriots despite her tentative Greek); she used to know hordes of Americans living here, now “I could probably count [them] on both hands”. More importantly, she’s had ups and downs, living as a foreigner in an often-chaotic part of the world.

Browsing through her Egypt book, for instance, I note that she spent three years (2007-10) back in the States after a two-year assignment in Cairo (the couple are based in Cyprus, but Tom’s work often takes them on extended trips to nearby countries; they’ll be spending more time in Israel next year, for instance). “I was exhausted,” writes Teresa, explaining why they had to return; she’d suffered a severe infection of the sinus cavity due to bad dental work, there was “residue from a parasite I picked up in Egypt, as well as some adrenal fatigue”. Nor are the challenges only physical. I ask if her faith has ever wavered, and am somewhat surprised by her answer. “Oh… I would say yes, it has,” she replies. “I’ve learned to cry a lot. I’ve had to cry a lot. I mean, I could be on the point of tears right now.”

Partly (as implied by that last sentence) it’s because she’s emotional by nature; she leaves herself wide-open – it’s a conscious choice; that desire for eye contact again – and absorbs all the energy around her, good and bad. She recalls a time, once again in Cairo, just before the Arab Spring, when political and personal turmoil seemed to merge intolerably. “Egypt was imploding. There was a lot of insecurity, extremism was increasing… But, in a time period of probably just a couple of weeks, I had many people around me die. Just horrible deaths, freak accidents.”

One couple, Australian expats looking forward to retirement, went to a friend’s home for dinner; later, walking down to their car, the husband slipped on the marble stairs, hit his head and died soon after. One friend was involved in a terrible car accident; another, a pastor, fell from a nine-storey building. Teresa herself witnessed the grisly aftermath of another fatal accident on the Alexandria to Cairo highway. “All of this is happening at the same time,” she recalls, visibly upset just at the memory. “And people are fighting on the street, there’s demonstrations. I could feel the emotion coming up inside of me – but it stopped. It was like, ‘I do not have the capacity to feel any more’. Because I thought, if I start crying now, I will cry and not stop. The pain and suffering around me right now is too much, all at one time… I believed, if I start crying now, I will go into a void and not exist anymore.”

They left Cairo, back to Larnaca on a two-week break: “I came back to Cyprus, and I knew what I needed to do. I knew I needed to cry. I knew that if I didn’t, I would be traumatised – and the trauma, if I kept it inside of me, would” – she hunts for the word – “spoil me. It would spoil inside of me, it would spoil like bad food. So I went for a walk on the beach, not just one time. I just walked – and I was angry. I was angry at God, saying ‘God, why do You allow such suffering to go on?’ and crying at the same time. I just had to get it out… Walking, throwing things, throwing rocks, being angry – and just getting it out”. Teresa nods gravely. “So yes, I’ve been angry at God. Yes, my faith has been challenged. But I’ve learned how to process it. And I pray that I’m always that way.”

Hard to know how that beautiful speech reads on paper. Maybe it sounds slightly maudlin, like an affectation or an over-reaction – because of course it’s missing the personal connection, the actual experience of sitting opposite Teresa Craig at the poolside café of the Landmark (formerly Hilton) and looking in her earnest green eyes as she tells the story. The modern world doesn’t really suit her, in some ways. The age of the internet is why so many fellow expats have relocated (Middle East experts can now work just as effectively without actually living in the Middle East) – and of course social media is the polar opposite of eye contact. Teresa is something of a throwback, a purposeful innocent. We live, after all, in a time when everything has to be second-guessed (is the news fake news? does that Twitter account belong to a real person, or a Russian bot?), in a part of the world where a Syrian refugee may be hiding a secret past as a jihadist, or a torturer – yet she chooses to meet the world head-on, without guile. “I’m kind of naïve in this way: I want to take people at face value. Life is too complicated otherwise.”

Maybe it has something to do with being American – and an American of a certain age, raised with ideals and a can-do attitude (Teresa is the fifth of seven kids; both her parents were civil servants). “I believe there’s a lot of innocence in the heart of the American people,” she observes. “We are still young enough to believe that we can make change wherever we go”. Some might call that meddling rather than ‘innocence’, especially coming from a person whose natural home seems to be on the Right – though she doesn’t come across as a big Trump fan (referring to him briefly as “this man”), except in condemning those who’d disrespect the President, whoever he may be; the current polarised climate in her country “breaks my heart”, says Teresa. (And what of her own politics? She smiles: “Can I be apolitical?”) Her gushy openness does indeed stem from a certain confidence, a confidence in her faith, and in being American.

I suppose it goes without saying: after all, insecure people don’t exactly yearn to make eye contact. Yet confidence also implies a certain arrogance, whereas Teresa’s style is the opposite of that – a craving to connect which is also a desire to be accepted, to belong. “I love family,” she tells me. “I love big families.” The family – or tribe – is the unit of belonging; she comes across as a person who’s reflexively tribal, and fiercely loyal. Her childhood was spent in a big, close-knit family; Christianity is another kind of family – and Cyprus, which she’s loved since Day One, is also tribal, like any small island. “The Cypriots, as a culture, are a family,” she says with feeling. “Wherever you are, you’re Cypriot. And you know you’re a Cypriot. Even though you don’t know that person’s name, immediately you have a bond with one another.”

Living here as a foreigner is like living in a parallel world, she admits; Cypriots are protective of the tribe – but “I don’t think they’re protective intentionally, it’s because you’re a culture that’s preserved itself… It can almost bring me to tears, how much I really, really have appreciated the Cypriot people, your values. Your protectiveness of one another, and your family,” she says fervently – and her voice chokes up, she seems ready to weep right in front of me! “Your tenacity to survive, when you could’ve not survived. Your ability to still love, and to still be welcoming. People may say ‘Oh Teresa, you’re being naïve’ – OK, I choose naiveté in situations like this.”

One last thing to mention, but it’s quite an important one: the fact that her own family has remained – despite her and Tom’s best efforts – a family of two. “We wanted them so much,” she replies when I ask about children. “We went through all of the processes, everything you can imagine.” She tried infertility treatments till she felt like a lab rat; 14 times the couple tried to adopt, both in the US and the Middle East, and every time something went wrong – the last time, in 1997 when Teresa was in her late 30s, being perhaps the most heartbreaking: an Arab baby born of strife (his mother had been raped by her employer, but would’ve been killed by her family for bringing dishonour had she tried to go home), dumped on a dysfunctional system that kept him in limbo for six years, during which time 12 families – including Teresa and Tom – tried and failed to cut the bureaucratic Gordian Knot surrounding his adoption. After months of trying, the couple gave up – and that was it: “We decided this was the last time that we were going to put our hearts out there”.

It doesn’t take much to connect the dots. The dull ache of childlessness, the pain of repeated disappointments, praying to God not to make her bitter and twisted – “Make my heart tender,” she prayed, “so I can love people more” – and finally this compulsion to connect, to understand people’s lives, to tell their stories and record their cultures. “These are my children,” says Teresa, making the metaphor explicit. “Honestly, I would say all of my photographs, the people that I photograph, I would say they become my children”. The young Bedouin girl who’d already had six kids (three of them stillborn) at the age of 24. The Nubian women of Aswan. The Jews and Palestinians, pointedly together in her book on Israel. Her encounter with the Bedouin sheikh with the very distinctive expression – “focusing on his eyes, looking at his full face, and feeling totally one…”

How to pin down Teresa Craig? She’s a photographer, sure, but not quite professionally. She helped run a (recently shuttered) centre in Larnaca, training foreigners in the cultural peculiarities of the Middle East. She now writes blurbs on the Holy Land for an Israeli tour company (they have a travel app called LocoMole), her mind on possible book projects. What would she say is her God-given talent, I ask – trying to sum it all up – if she had to choose one?

“I hope it’s compassion,” she replies. “I hope that – if truly there’s a day, as the Bible says, that we all stand before God, and He says ‘So what did you do with the life I gave you?’ – I hope that I can say: ‘I loved people for You’… Or, ‘I tried to record the beauty of those people’. I’ve always made it a rule that I would never photograph too much tragedy, unless I could find beauty in that tragedy”. I nod, obscurely moved by her hopeful idealism, my tape recorder forgotten.


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