It was Tunisia. 1993.
I was a junior in college, studying in France with others from my liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, and we were on a 5-day excursion.
I have never forgotten her – the woman weaving.
She was sitting on a pile of carpets. Had she woven them all herself? For that was what she was working on – another intricate design. Multiple threads in varying colors hung down from above. Countless hours of work and sitting cross-legged like that – oh – how her legs must have ached.
I stood there – quiet. Self-consciously aware of the gap between us. Me – a privileged child. Not wealthy, exactly…middle-class in our nation…But compared to her? I was with a tour group, staring at her, nearly mute and unable to express my appreciation for her artistry and skill.
And I thought back to weeks earlier….
We’d had an academic assignment. To take photos of various ‘types’ around the city where we were studying – Toulouse. One was of a homeless person. I was uncomfortable with what was requested of me, but determined to do it anyway.
There was an Algerian woman who often camped out on the steps of the Post Office and I tried clandestinely to capture a shot of her by taking it from across the street and behind a phone booth. She saw me and raised her foot to me – showing me the sole of her shoe – and yelling at me. It was an egregious insult, and I was ashamed of myself for not having asked her permission.
So here I was again. I wanted a photo, and decided this time would be different. Because something about the woman weaving was teaching me….about the dignity of the human person.
I leaned in.
We made eye contact.
I nodded to her and to her work. I smiled at it. I might have managed to say it was lovely. I know I waited.
My camera was around my neck and I raised it to my belly, cocked my head to the right as I habitually do, and hesitantly asked permission.
She nodded, ‘Yes,’ and I felt – forgiven.