The photos in Kai Yokoyama’s “I Miss the Smell of Jasmine in Palestine” are fleeting memories. How much can photos really tell us about someone or what they are going through, anyway? Memories, however fleeting, stay with us. Childhood memories stay with us forever. I’ll never forget the roughness of my father’s whiskers when he would hold and hug me as a child. There are smells that I remember that are as potent as any photograph could be: the cinnamon smell of the trash heap on a back street next to the incense fragrant temple where the local lion dance troupe trained.
And so it is with Yokoyama’s photos. Ostensibly, they are fragments telling a story of a woman who fled Gaza for the promise of a better life in Japan. We don’t know her name. But we don’t really need to know her name.
There’s so much mystery that makes up a life that sometimes trying to cram it into neat little storytelling conventions (every story has a beginning, middle and end — or does it, really?) misses the point entirely. We don’t need to see her toothbrush in a cup in her bathroom to know that we’re encountering a very personal story intertwined with trauma as well as hope for a better life. There’s a palpable sense of longing, cast both forward and backward, in the photos.
But what do we know, concretely? Yokoyama didn’t go looking for this story, It found him. Interested in learning Arabic, Yokoyama used a language-learning app to search for someone who could help him. By chance, he met a woman new to Tokyo who wanted to learn Japanese.
But there was much more to it than that, as Yokoyama would find out.
For decades now, Gaza has been in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of violence. It touches everything and everyone who lives there. In the last two decades, I have spent enough time there to know that this isn’t just something we say in news coverage (I worked in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank early on in my career). It’s true. In fact, the whole area is so wracked with human devastation it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been there to fathom.
The story of Gaza, Israel and the West Bank has been told ad nauseam over the decades, to the extent that the world has more or less become desensitized to stories of ordinary human beings trudging their way through the endless morass the cyclical violence conjures on a daily basis.
Most people are just trying to live life, even if there is a backdrop of despair that seems infinite. That despair is vividly real on both sides. I’ve witnessed death in the West Bank and the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. I’ll never forget the look on people’s faces after the bombing or the sound of wailing at funerals for the newly deceased. But my time there was scant. What I saw and experienced pales in comparison to the everyday reality of the people who call it home.
That backdrop of despair can be so wearying. How can someone keep going through the nonstop cycle of violence and retaliation? For some, such as the woman in this series of photographs, the answer is to leave and never look back.
And, according to Yokoyama, that’s exactly what happened. The woman told her mother and family she was going to leave Gaza but would come back. Arriving in Japan via Israel and Jordan, the woman started a new life. She hasn’t seen her family since the day she left. She still has indelible memories to remind her, though, vivid memories that will remain. As she told Yokoyama:
“My father died of cancer due to the banned chemical weapons in Gaza. He asked me to cut his nails.
“It was just before he died and it was difficult to cut them by himself. I haven’t told my family all that happened in Japan.
“Living alone in Japan is not easy, but I don’t want them to worry. I miss the smell of jasmine in Palestine.”
You can see more of Yokoyama’s work, here.
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