Your Face Tomorrow is the title of a trilogy by the brilliant Spanish writer, Javier Marias. Meanderingly and meditatively (he’s no John Le Carré!), Marias tells the story of Jacques Deza, an Oxford-educated Spaniard who returns to England after the breakdown of his marriage. He’s recruited by an Oxford don into an elite, ‘off the books’ group that may or may not be connected to MI6. Their task is preemptive espionage: through close character observation, they attempt to predict what betrayals and atrocities their subjects will be capable of committing in the future. Your face tomorrow.
For diametrically opposite reasons, I love to look at other people’s faces. I became aware of this, aged seventeen, during my first visit to Paris. I noticed that people were looking at me on the streets. After a few hours of wondering what was wrong with me or my clothes, I realize that nothing was. They were simply doing to me what I was doing to them. Looking.
Although I’d spent my whole life looking at strangers, Parisians were the first to look back. In England, where I grew up, people studiously avoid eye contact on the streets, even — especially! — with people they know. It’s a kind of social contract. To look at someone is to make a demand: recognize me, smile at me, acknowledge my existence. The English are raised not to be demanding in that particular way.
If you’re not familiar with English manners, you may wonder in what circumstances people avoid looking at people they know. Here’s an example. You’re on the platform of Cambridge railway station, just before the arrival of the King’s Cross train. Standing alongside you are a handful of other academics you sort of know, en route to lectures or meetings in London. You all have articles to read, papers to grade, lectures to write, but even though you’re all in exactly the same situation, it’s too ‘awkward’ to announce that you need to sit alone. Much better to feign collective short-sightedness and pretend that you haven’t seen each other.
I stare at people on the street because I love looking at their faces: the tantalizing glimpse of a life story you’ll probably never know. I also love looking at babies, whose stories have yet to unfold. You can stare at their faces for as long as you like, and they don’t usually mind. And when babies stare back, it’s like … it’s like seeing the face of God (as Jacob said to Esau). In case you’re wondering what I mean by that, I think I captured it recently on my iPhone with two-month old Tziporah.
Looking at faces on the streets of Jerusalem can be as good as it gets: an infinite variety of faces hinting at an unlimited number of life stories. But it’s not without challenges. There’s that tiny number of ultra-Orthodox women who are determined not to be seen. When I took this photograph near Meah Shearim, I wasn’t sure if the woman was walking towards me (she was) or away from me. It was disconcerting. In Jerusalem, unlike London, it’s rare to see fully veiled Muslim women, so these ‘burqa ladies’ (as seminary girls call them) stand out.
Then there are the hasidic men whose faces you can’t see because they don’t want to see yours. It’s hard to take it in your stride when they duck aside and shield their eyes as they pass by, but it’s nothing personal; they’re just avoiding distraction. If I see an uncomfortable-looking hasid walking towards me, I look quickly at the ground to spare him the embarrassment of seeing me see him trying not to see me. Oy, the complexity of it all.
For far more complex reasons, I think it’s hard for most Jews to look at the faces of Arabs on the streets of Jerusalem. It wasn’t always like this. But now there seems to be an unwritten rule that Jews and Arabs who don’t already know each other should avoid unnecessary eye contact. It must have emerged from fear, anger, mistrust, hatred, embarrassment, self-delusion — the usual suspects. But the result is disorienting: two sets of people walking around in the same confined space, apparently not seeing each other and not being seen.
The great French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in his Nine Talmudic Readings discusses the rabbinic notion that the first human was an androgynous being with two sides. Until God divided it in half to create male and female, the first human had two faces. It was thus open to the world, able to see both sides of whatever it encountered. At the same time, the first human had no back of the head, and thus no dark chamber in which to hide secret thoughts. Again, but differently, it was open to the world, always seeing and always seen.
Emmanuel Levinas had a lot more to say about faces:
‘…the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation’.
‘The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation’.
‘…the face presents itself, and demands justice’.
‘In front of the face, I always demand more of myself’.
‘[I am] not free to ignore the meaningful world into which the face of the Other has introduced [me].
As one of the philosophically-challenged, I’ve struggled with Levinas, but help came in the form of an excellent documentary. Among those interviewed was Rabbi Daniel Epstein, who powerfully related Levinas on justice, obligation, humanity and the face of the Other to our situation in Israel today. I came away inspired but devastated. How hard it is to come face to face with the Other on the streets of Jerusalem.
I thought about Levinas and Rabbi Epstein when I read the reaction of 30 year old, pregnant, Michal Froman to the Palestinian teenager who stabbed her as she shopped for shoes for her daughter near their home in Tekoa: “Even when I saw the knife I still didn’t believe that he was really coming to stab. I saw his eyes, his confusion. He didn’t have a scary face; he was a youth with a baby face. I didn’t want to really believe he was terrorist.” Michal Froman came face to face with the Other in a situation that’s the stuff of nightmares, and yet somehow, miraculously, she managed to see, really see, his face. For that, she’s been criticized, derided and much worse, but in my eyes it makes her a hero for our sad times.