“It is a happy happy day, for everyone and for my family,” are the words of Tariq Zehawi toay. It has been a busy day for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) photographer (RPCV Mali - 1998-2000) who has two things to celebrate this October 20, 2011. First of all it is the 39th birthday for this son of a French mother and Libyan Father. I was fortunate to get him on the phone as he was fielding calls from all over, not only to wish him a happy birthday, but also to get his thoughts on the capture and demise of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Colonel Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years. Tariq, who was born in France, but lived as a child in Libya, left Libya with his family when he was nine. He still has many cousins, aunts and uncles in Libya. Tariq’s reaction to the news today is “As a Libyan I am extremely happy he is no longer there. It shuts the door on that chapter. I am not celebrating the fact that he is dead. I am celebrating the fact that it (the dictatorship) is over.”
Tariq went on to say that he has much hope for Libya and that he can’t wait to go back. He said that he was really surprised that the “Arab Spring” movement made its way to Libya, and describes how it was different for Libya. The other countries that experienced this movement such as Egypt had some semblance of Democracy. People had more experience in having some say than in Libya. According to Zehawi the people of Libya were under a dictatorship and had no say in anything.
The actual movement against Gaddfi, according to Zehawi, came out of the arrest of an attorney who was trying to uncover the murder of 1200 family members by the regime. As a result of the arrest of this attorney Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi to protest. This link from the BBC tells the story of this uprising: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12517327
Despite the violent crack down (or perhaps as a result of) on this protest by the Gaddafi regime, it did not quell the rebel movement against the dictator, and has cumulated now in his ouster and hopefully what will become a free and Democratic Libya.
Although Tariq has not been able to return to Libya since he left at age nine, he maintains fond memories for the country. He told me about the beautiful beaches, the historic ruins - historic heritage sites. Tariq has fond memories of family picnics amongst these ruins - that were Greek and Roman. He said it was quite a setting to have a picnic amongst these abandoned Corinthian Columns. He said that now people from the outside will see all of this.
Tariq says that he can not wait to go back to Libya. He says that he has much hope for Libya, and it sounds like his relatives in Libya share this. He told me that right after Benghazi fell, but while still much fighting was still going on, one of his cousins called him and said, “Now you can come visit.”
Tariq is hopeful that his employer, The Record, will send him to do a story about Libya. Even as the conflict raged Tariq begged his editors to send him. He thinks that they did not want to risk sending him because of the dangers due to the bombings.
Tariq is no stranger to travels. Tariq graduated from the University of Missouri in 1997 with a duel major in French and Journalism. He spent that summer in France and then interned at the Kalamazoo Gazette in Michigan in the fall. (His second internship. He interned at the Piqua Daily Call as well). He also applied to Peace Corps, and received his invitation that November while completing his internship.
Zehawi, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, left to serve in Peace Corps in the Western African country of Mali. Zehawi says that he joined Peace Corps because he wanted adventure. “After college I was tired of the American way of living.” He describes how he did not feel connected. He wanted to experience something real. “The only way I could figure out how to do this is to have someone else pay for it. Peace Corps was the most logical way. It was an ends to a means. Peace Corps paid for the adventure. I went there for more selfish reasons. I did not go to save the world. What happened after that - took off on its own.”
No matter what his motivations¬† were it was Peace Corps was a transformative experience, and he made lasting connections during his service. Connections with people who he continues to help. Tariq tells of going back to Mali in 2004 and reconnecting with one of his closest friends from the village of Bankas. This friend whom Tariq spent many hours with just hanging out or playing cards, was a baker when Tariq was a volunteer. Since that time the man had decided that he wanted to do something else. Tariq said that since his service the country has seen an influx of technology. He said that now there are computers and cell phones everywhere. He convinced his friend to study IT and helped him enroll into a school in the capital of Bamako. The man completed four years of study and now has his own computer technology, networking and repair business that employees others as well. Tariq tells of another man from his village with whom he worked who was illiterate and had three kids. Tariq helped the man get these children enrolled in a private school that will help give them the kind of future their father was unable to have. Tariq describes all of this as “teaching to fish” - referring to the much quoted saying “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” To me it is illustrative of why we are called “Returned” Peace Corps volunteers and not “former” Peace Corps volunteers, or Peace Corps alumni. Once you serve in Peace Corps it seems that you are forever committed to a lifetime of service in one way or another.
I was interested in discussing with Tariq about photography during his Peace Corps service. He served two years before I did, and it turns out we both had a similar kit of camera gear for our service. I took a single Nikon FM2. Tariq said that he brought along two FM2’s because of their ability to be used without batteries. Of course this was pre-digital. Tariq mailed all his film back to his mother, so he did not see the results of his photography until he returned. He says that he took most of his photos to document cultural subjects such as the goat herder in the bush or the old man in the Dogan village.
Now days Tariq is working as a daily news photographer for The Record in Bergen County, N.J. He mostly photographs news and spot news events. I asked Tariq how his Peace Corps service has influenced his work. In short his answer was that it has influenced him more indirectly than directly. He only started working full-time professionally after he returned from Peace Corps. He says that, “I think before going into Peace Corps when I was doing internships I didn’t feel that compassion that you are hunting for. Now, I definitely have that compassion. I see how people live and I get into their shoes. That has helped my photography …. In Peace Corps you see poverty and you can put yourself in their shoes. You are taking bucket showers and shitting in holes just like they are.” Tariq says that this experience helped him to not sweat the small stuff, and to see the bigger picture.
Although his work mainly keeps him in New Jersey, it has allowed him some opportunities for travel.¬† Just a short four months after being hired Tariq’s boss called him at home and asked if his passport was still current. The paper sent him to Malta, Holland and Lockerbie Scotland to cover the news surrounding the trials for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
Zehawi also traveled to Sri Lanka to cover the aftermath of the Tsunami in 2004. More recently Tariq was sent to Haiti to do a story about the earth quake. See pictures and read about this trip here: http://blogs.northjersey.com/blogs/haiti/2010/02/01/ Hopefully, the next travel destination for Tariq Zehawi will be to cover the newfound freedom of Libya, where he once lived, the country of his father.