Update - June 2019

Test shot from a personal project I’m working on

Test shot from a personal project I’m working on

It’s been a while since I’ve been on here. Almost 5 months to be exact. Wow, how my life has changed since January 31 2019. I’ve been through ups and downs that are usually attributed to the ups and downs of entire life-times, or so I believe. But this isn’t a personal life update so I am going to leave it at that. I will share a few professional ones.

Since my last post I’ve made some major career moves. For starters, I was commissioned by the amazing women at girlgaze.com to create stock images that challenge conventional beauty standards. Totally up my street. I was among 135 female photographers from around the world that were selected to be part of the project, which went live around March 2019, and recently won a Golden Lion award at the Cannes Lions convention for exceptional content creation. The project was created in partnership with Getty Images and Dove, and I am really proud that my images made it to both the Getty platform as well as Dove advertisements around my city, Dubai. You can view the project here: https://www.gettyimages.ae/showus. A couple of the images I personally shot were featured in publications like elle.com #Superproud.

Another career move, which I consider to be pivotal to my aspirations as a storyteller and a documentarian is that I am officially a freelance producer with Kerning Cultures! Kerning Cultures is an audio storytelling podcast from the Middle East. What I love about KC is that shares carefully-made documentaries that push boundaries and tell stories from in-between spaces in our region, and it should be noted that they’re the first venture-backed podcast in the region. I released my first short audio documentary with them in March (to honor International Women’s Day) titled ‘Break the Cycle’. I’m currently working on a long-form story about the 2011 North-South Sudan split which is supposed to come out end of this month (very timely seeing as Sudan is going through a revolution at the moment). Both documentaries mean so much to me; gender + identity politics.

Since January I’ve also done a bunch of photo workshops (as part of Gulf Photo Plus Photo Week and others) and halo zine debuted its collaborative project at this year’s Art Dubai.

Finally, I’ve also joined the team at Sharjah Art Foundation as their content editor so I’ve been working a 9 to 5 with them since February (which explains my lack of activity on here).

Of course, I did all the above all while working on my own personal projects - which I hope will see light of day before the end of this year!!! I’m also waiting for a bunch of grants and programmes to get back to me about funding, support etc so fingers crossed.

That’s it for now. I’ll probably be back on here when I have the time and when I have more interesting things to share. But, like I said, we’re only halfway through 2019 and I already feel like it’s been a lifetime of changes.

a conversation with my sister about history, archiving and art

My sister recently interviewed me on followthehalo.com about my latest project, the middle east archive project. While I do get some interest from digital publications about my work, my sister has always been the one to pick my brain (and I her’s) about the work that I do. She always asks me the most interesting questions, and is always unafraid to question and re-phrase my work. Also, she is objectively the best question-asker in the world. I think she’s such a thoughtful, creative person that it’s always such a fun experience to be in conversation with her about my work. I think anyone who talks to her feels the same way.

Anyway, I thought that it might also be interesting to post the interview on my blog too since I’ve always used my blog as a space to exhibit our conversations (like the time I wrote that post about Susan Sontag and copy-pasted our email exchange). So, in keeping with the tradition of airing my family interactions, here’s the discussion I had with my sister about my latest work.

MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE PROJECT is a crowd-sourced digital archive from the MENA. It takes the accessibility of instagram, a space typically used for self-promotion and the ‘archives’ of contemporary life, to bring to the forefront personal Arab and MENA generational narratives that are brushed over and rarely seen all in one place.

Rama: As interdisciplinary artists, you and I are constantly looking for nuanced ways in which to explore identity. But I think we’ve spoken extensively about this delicate balance between identity politics and the real personal narrative that transcends any kind of surface level ID politics. What I love about how you started MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE PROJECT is that it turns the discourse back to personal narratives that are complex and layered, that provide substance whilst still giving the stage to MENA individuals. 

Darah: Yes exactly. Also I think personal narrative says a lot more about identity politics than historical narrative does. We all know the supposed history of the region, but it’s what happens in our personal lives - collectively - that truly tells the story of a community, place, geography. 


R: As your sister I know that you have always had an interest and personal endeavour in uncovering old photographs like the ones that our parents have kept in old 80’s style albums and in Kodak envelopes among letters and poems and family records that we rarely get to see; because of the sheer volume of archival material they are difficult to sift through but they’re also endlessly fascinating. What prompted you to start this project? and in collecting material from others in the region as well? 

D: I think what prompted me is the realization that every home in the region (and it’s diaspora) is a kind of museum. It’s not just our home that has these huge volumes of records. I know for a fact that records exist in every home in the Global South. But unfortunately, due to a long history of colonialism, most of our family records are just that: at home, in private. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but because the history of the region has always been written FOR it, by outsiders who don’t truly understand it, our family records become an alternative story to what history has written about the region. Family records provide nuance, showcase diversity, spirit, and a narrative closer to the “truth”. I’ve always been jealous of how in most Western cultures, they have museums dedicated to every strata of society and aspect of life. They have a holistic narrative. Their history is written by them and for them. With us, our true history lies inside our homes, suitcases, briefcases, jewelry boxes, envelopes, notebooks etc. I think this project is my way of saying: I want to reclaim our history and the narrative around it. 

R: I feel like theres a lot to say here about how our understanding of history and what counts as such is rigid and informed by a scientific methodology of recording or “explaining” that makes personal/oral histories subservient and conditional to those traditional methods that are held in higher regard. How do you think people seeing their own photographs among other people’s personal histories impacts them? 

D: It’s been so interesting seeing how people react. This actually didn’t even cross my mind before I started the project, but I noticed that once someone makes a submission and their history is kind of out there for the public to see, they become more invested in the history of others. They start following the project more closely, seeing what others are sharing about their families. I think for a lot of people they share their history because they are proud of it, and then once it’s out there, they wait in anticipation to see what others will share. It’s kind of like they suddenly become aware that others have a history that’s meaningful too. 

R: I have definitely felt that way after you had images of our family posted up! I follow the archive very closely. Its amazing because it’s like these strangers' stories truly become ours too in the process. You’ve cornered quite a niche here- in a sense you’re saying that the personal is political, in that it is necessary to see the intimate lives of MENA families reflected in what history we are writing as the “internet generation.” Why is it important to you to archive our private family histories in particular?

D: As I said, our family histories are the REAL museums of the region. The diversity of the stories shared with me so far, if pieced together, show a very different overall political, social, and economic dynamic than what our current written history shows. These personal histories are a reflection of the climate of the region at different points in time, and the many nuanced layers of the MENA that current orientalist and imperial narratives will never be able to capture. 

R: What I love in particular about this is that you’ve nonchalantly launched it on Instagram. You’re making something consequential and meaningful and its disrupting the usual Instagram flow. Where would you like to see this project going?

D: I started it on Instagram because I thought it would be the easiest and simplest way to get people’s family archives and showcase them. Ideally what I would like is for this project to become a sort of open and public digital library that is accessible to everyone. Especially to people invested in the history of the region, because it will help to challenge mainstream narratives. 

R: It might seem somewhat Pan-Arabist but I think it’s far more inclusive than that- it would do a disservice to your project to reduce it to that. It recognises the differences and provides nuanced untold stories. It is the Middle East that we really know within ourselves but that is scarcely reflected back at us in both the media that we consume and the history that we read. And on that note do you feel that such a collection deserves a formal physical space beyond Instagram that is widely accessible to the public? What would be your thoughts about this collection  displayed in an archive among the ‘public’ histories of MENA in a library or somewhere of that sort?

D: That is the dream! I think if this becomes some sort of on-going public library that anyone from around the world can just add to, and anyone from around the world can access, and where maybe researchers can come to find the answers they’re looking for, or maybe a missing link to a story they can turn to this project. As a person who does visual research, I know how hard it is to find records when you’re working on a story. This can totally change things, make it easier for journalists, researchers, historians, storytellers, writers and anyone invested in understanding the region to tell our history differently. The way it deserves to be told. 

Also you’re right - I think Pan-Arabist is a reductive box to put it in. As much as I love the spirit of Pan-Arabism that we were raised to believe in, I think it has been unfair to a lot of communities in the region - from Kurds, to Sudanese, and so on. Pan-Arabism said that it believed in inclusivity but it didn’t manage to be truly inclusive. I think a lot of political movements from that particular time, decolonization movements, didn’t succeed because they always had blindspots. Of course there are other geopolitical reasons - we can’t deny that - but there were blindspots. And for me, this project is trying to look back that the ideals of that time and improve on them. I believe that this project is about amplifying every single community that has an sort of relation to the MENA. I also hope to see other identities represented, including those that are currently repressed. 

You can find MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE PROJECT on Instagram and submit your own records and stories by direct message, at @middleeastarchive.

finding biso 

Those of you that follow me on Instagram might already be familiar with #findingbiso. Since its the start of a new year, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of the images from the hashtag on my blog, since I haven’t been great at archiving everything I’m doing on my website the last few months. For those of you that aren’t familiar, I’ll explain.

#findingbiso is a project that started on Instagram in September 2018. I was regularly documenting and posting photos of my 9 year old sister Bisan (Biso for short. b. 2009) after realizing how quickly she was growing. I also realized that, unlike Biso, my pre-teen years were rarely documented. I really want to capture her at this delicate age because I wish someone had documented me - I remember being really camera shy, and was developing a really complicated relationship with my body at the time, something I want to look back on and really understand. But I also remember being very innocent still, making my naivety and maturity a paradox that I wish someone caught on camera. I often find myself thinking of that time in my life, and looking for ways to re-narrate it, but finding very little. I hope this project serves as an archive for Biso in the future, and I hope that you’ll (she’ll) never have to wonder what you were like before you became you.

All these photos were captured on my iphone 7. For updates just come back to this post, I’ll try to keep it up to date every few months.

I couldn’t find flowers the colour of your smile

my work was recently published in the HARAKA issue of Azeema magazine

my work was recently published in the HARAKA issue of Azeema magazine

I recently wrote a piece for Azeema mag titled “I couldn’t find flowers the colour of your smile”, a title inspired by a letter my father wrote to my mother in the late 1980s. At the time, my mother was living in Damascus and my father was serving in the Jordanian military making letters and postcards the only viable form of communication. I found these letters as well as a set of photographs that my mother kept stashed away in a worn out tie-dye album, and began examining them. These pieces of my parents’ history began to form a a larger picture in my mind of who I am - like pieces of a puzzle I have been trying to piece together for the longest time.

After interviewing my mother and asking her a million and one questions about why she never showed anyone these letters and photographs, I began writing an ode to their relationship. I never realised how much the Occupation had influenced their connection and it dawned on me that, had the Occupation never happened, there was a very high probability that my parents wouldn’t be together today. I worry that this take might romanticise the Occupation - but that is far from my intention. My intention is to showcase the ways in which the Occupation was a source of incredible pain for my parents and their families as well as a mobilising force of love; love that was passed down to me and my sisters. The Occupation taught us resilience, and in this case my parents’ love is a form of resilience.

I always felt a responsibility to be part of a movement to re-write our histories. This piece is my way of re-writing the narrative about the Palestinian experience, through a personal and individual lens. Global forces have made sure that the Palestinian experience was always written for us, and my writing aims to combat that by sharing a more humanising story within a larger story of what it means to be Palestinian today.

To read the whole piece, you can either grab a copy of Azeema’s HARAKA issue or through this link.




a little victory dance

FOCAL POINT is Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual art book fair running from 8 - 11 November 2018

FOCAL POINT is Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual art book fair running from 8 - 11 November 2018

Pardon me if I sound a little rusty writing this, but I am in the midst of reading “Death of the Author” by Ronald Barthes for my art writing class, and it’s a bit weird to go from reading about the downfalls of authorship to writing a blog post. In any case, this post won’t be very long, as I have the longest to-do list that I need to get back to. I just wanted to get on here quickly to share that follow the halo (the digital zine I founded almost exactly one year ago) will be at Sharjah Art Foundation this weekend for the annual art book fair!

It’s honestly a dream come true to have anything at Sharjah Art Foundation, let alone the printed works we’ve made in collaboration with artists from the MENA. I feel so proud - I’m proud of our work and also of myself. I feel proud of myself for taking a leap, for making myself uncomfortable, for doing things that I ordinarily thought “weren’t for me”.

I know that for many independent publishers, artists, and zine makers this isn’t really a ‘big deal’ - I can already imagine the very Dubai attitude of "oh, yeah, cool whatever” approach that many might have and are expected to have. I am sorry guys, I am the cringey Arab girl that gets excited at things like this, and really cherishes every tiny step forward. It’s always been a dream of mine to have my hard work acknowledged by a great institution like SAF, and I feel proud to be part of it.

I really hope that this is the beginning of many little victory dances because I’ve been dreaming big for over a year - and I have so many plans in mind that I am hoping to manifest before the end of this god-awful year. It’s been such a very difficult year so far - which means that every little reward goes a long way and it’s things like this that motivate me to keep going.

Anyway, enough personal disclosures. If you’d like to pass by the fair this weekend its running from 8 - 11 November at Sharjah Art Foundation for more info check out the event link on their website: sharjahart.org.

Please come down and support your local girl gang! xxx

hello havana

HAVANA, CUBA, APRIL 2017. Prior to my arrival in Cuba, I didn’t think I would meet anyone from the Arab world. I spoke little Spanish, and although I knew an Arab population existed, I didn’t know much about the Island nation apart from its turbulent political past. To my surprise, the very first person I met in Havana was an Arab. I met Mr Jorge Luis Coury del Castillo, my taxi driver, on a wet Thursday afternoon on the way from the airport to my casa. Jorge is very proud of his Lebanese heritage, and told me of his Arab roots as soon as he knew I had just flew in from the Middle East. If you didn’t catch the Arab hint, it’s in his name - Jorge Luis “Coury” a.k.a Khouri (خوري). According to Jorge, his paternal grandfather was a Lebanese immigrant who left Lebanon 1930s, and had settled in Cuba in hopes of starting a new life. Although Jorge didn’t speaking a word of Arabic, he clearly inherited our warm hospitality, because he gifted me a rare Che Guevara Cuban peso (pictured here) and invited me to stay with him and his family next time I’m in town.

This story is part of a series of vignettes I put together from the archives of past trips. To read my New York piece, check it out here.


remembering miss universe 1971

Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971

Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971

Last Thursday night, my mother proudly proclaimed, “check out my smokey eye - don’t you think I look like Georgina Rizk?”

My mother, a lover of natural make-up and vintage fashion, seldom does a smokey eye. She’s an au naturale kind of woman and rarely opts for the sultry beauty standards of the Arab world. Yet, that night, my mother seemed particularly inclined towards a ‘smokey-eye’, and was quite proud of her ability to make dark eyeliner look good despite - in her opinion - her age. “I am so good at this, I could totally be a make up artist! You know, I could’ve been better than all these so-called designers in Europe, I could’ve been, you know, a true artist. If only I had the opportunities and exposure as a child…” she trails off. “Anyway, I definitely look like Georgina Rizk”.

In 1970, Lebanon announced Georgina Rizk the winner of the nation’s beauty pageant and crowned her Miss Lebanon. She was crowned Miss Universe in Miami, Florida only a year later. She was the first woman from the Middle East to be crowned Miss Universe, and only 4th in Asia to ever win the title. My mom must have been around 4 years old at the time.

For many young Arab women, Georgina Rizk was an icon. She was beautiful and symbolised a kind of “liberation” that was revered by the then youth of the Middle East. She controversially once said that she was “for pre-marital sex” and thought that women should “experiment” before making a commitment because “marriage is not a simple thing”. This, of course, did not go down well with the older generation, but many women in the region idolised her anyway.

In 1972, when Georgina Rizk was due to hand over the Miss Universe crown to her successor in Puerto Rico, 17 Christian pilgrims from the island were killed in an attack on Lod Airport in Tel Aviv by the Japanese Red Army - a militarised Communist group acting on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ms Rizk was, despite having nothing to do with the incident, banned from attending the ceremony in Puerto Rico.

That year, my mom must’ve been 5 years old - her family in a state of disarray having only left Palestine five years prior. As refugees, my Grandmother collected her children - all 5 of them my mother being the youngest - and moved to Jordan. Without knowing it, so much of my mother’s potential would be defined by forces outside of her control. In the mid-80s, when the Soviet Union was still supporting Palestinian rights, my mother obtained a scholarship to study Fine Arts in Kiev, Ukraine. About a month before she was due to attend the University of Kiev, an earthquake devastated the capital. My grandmother wouldn’t let my mother leave and my mother never got the chance to become the artist she wanted to be. My mom was, despite having nothing to do with the earthquake or the geopolitics of the region, forced to limit herself.

Georgina Rizk was banned from attending the Miss Universe ceremony in Puerto Rico due to “terrorist activities” which had nothing to do with her. The attacks were committed by the Japanese (she’s clearly not Japanese) on Occupied Palestinian soil (a place she is not from: her father is Lebanese and mother Hungarian). Funnily enough, a few years after the attack on Lod Airport, Ms. Rizk married a Palestinian man who was responsible for attacks during the 1972 Olympics in Munich (he was assassinated by the Mossad in 1979).

In many ways, Georgina Rizk’s life was defined for her too.

. . .

Many people think that Occupation and colonialism end at check points and borders but for me, it’s been inside my home my entire life. I look back at the privileges that my parents never got to experience simply because of their history and, therefore, the privileges I never got either. I sometimes wonder what “could have been” - I can’t escape the could-have-would-have. I guess its a symptom of inter-generational trauma.

Despite all this, my mother thoroughly enjoys a Thursday night smokey-eye courtesy of Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971.

on finding a japanese bakery in dubai

Gif from the Hello Kitty and Friends cartoon

Gif from the Hello Kitty and Friends cartoon

Last night I had Korean BBQ at Hyu Korean Restaurant. Hyu is a family-owned Korean place in Jumeriah Lake Towers (JLT). JLT is the quintessential Dubai neighbourhood: towering skyscrapers, city lights, taxis, traffic, restaurants, bars, office buildings. Hyu is authentically Korean - clear from its frequently visiting Korean clientele - and is nestled between JLT’s modern buildings and awkward infrastructure (if you’ve been there you’ll know what I mean). The modernity and awkwardness of JLT doesn’t bother me much - I have taught myself to be indifferent to the pointless skyscrapers and accepting of the fact that the future of the city is uncertain and possibly dystopian. For me, I just wanted to enjoy and devour the Korean barbecued beef, which by the way, was insanely mouth-watering-delicious.

A Korean barbecue, a plate of Dakgangjeong, and a green tea later, we decided to go looking for Japanese cheesecake. “There’s a Japanese cheesecake at Yakitate in Al Rigga” said my companion who was researching Japanese cheesecake options on his phone for the last ten minutes. “Al Rigga it is” I said, ready to trek on the 40 minute drive across Dubai, to one of its oldest neighbourhoods. Al Rigga is the quintessential neighbourhood of old Dubai; low-rise buildings, flickering shop signs, bicycles, traffic and shared living spaces. Anyone who grew up in Dubai knows Al Rigga as the neighbourhood that held Dubai’s promise of modernity and is now part of a forgotten past. It is a glimmer of hope that a bit of the city’s history - my history - is preserved. To me, finding the Japanese bakery in Al Rigga was a relief. When we got there, I ordered a Japanese cheesecake, a tart, Mochi and a Nutella-filled croissant for the both of us. To my dismay, I didn’t really like the taste of any*.

The confusion and disappointment I felt at the end of this East-Asian adventure in the heart of Dubai made me think of our experience of Dubai in general. The continuous striving for modernity, the promise of the future, the idea of a “utopian” life in the Middle East. This all of course was triggered by my recent reading on Gulf Futurism and the image of Dubai as a “city of the future existing in the present”. For those of you that might be interested in reading more about these themes, check out this article by Yasser ElSheshawy, Professor of Urban Studies at UAE University.

Of course the idea of a utopian Dubai - or a utopian anything for that matter - is a sham. I don’t even think utopia is a necessary ambition. And also, its okay for everything to just be as it is. Al Rigga doesn’t have to be a sign of hope that Dubai’s past is still alive, and JLT doesn’t have to be a sign that the future is all gloom and doom. I guess what I am trying to say is, its okay to not enjoy Yakitate in Al Rigga. And its also okay to enjoy Korean in JLT. Maybe Hyu is a sign that the future will be alright after all.

*By the way, Yakitate is a really old Japanese Bakery that now has two branches in Al Rigga and also has great reviews on google. It’s affordable in relation to the more recent Japanese concepts popping up around the city. I highly recommend you try it.

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e-mails to my sister

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz. Source: lithub.com

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz. Source: lithub.com

I wanted to write a blog post about my love for Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” but my enthusiasm for the essay was so great I wrote about it in an email to my sister instead. The essay touched me so profoundly that I felt the need to share it with her, the person who knows me the most in this world, because I knew that as soon as she read it, she will recognise that it touches on the many unresolved feelings I have towards "aesthetics”. Particularly those relating to the region. I decided, that instead of writing about Susan Sontag’s seminal essay here, I will share the email I wrote to my sister.


Darah Ghanem

Fri 10/5/2018, 12:18 pm

rama ghanem; rama; Rama Mustafa Alghanem

Hey sis, 

I don't know if you've already read the work of Susan Sontag at art school but I've been reading a lot of her essays recently and I am so enamoured. 

There are two essays I recommend you read: 

1) Notes on "Camp" - Camp is an elitist aesthetic style that everyone in Dubai (and probably Goldsmiths) is obsessed with. Imo its the aesthetic of the ****** crew, and how it's so exclusivist and so elite and lacks any meaningful content or message. I never thought that aesthetics were political until I read Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag. She basically explains the politics behind why certain aesthetics are "in", and why "Camp" becomes a vessel for upholding the status quo. This is my interpretation of her writing anyway, pls take it with a grain of salt. Here's a link to the essay: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html

2) Against Interpretation - I imagine you've already read this at art school but I thought I would share it anyway. I only read it last night so I don't know what to make of it but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What I understood was that art doesn't need to be interpreted and by having armies of critics interpreting your work it essentially loses value. She says that we should focus on critiquing "form" rather than interpreting meaning in art criticism. What is form btw? does she mean aesthetics or does she mean technique? Lemme know. Here's a link to the article: http://shifter-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Sontag-Against-Interpretation.pdf

Anyway sis, I am sending these to you because I miss you and because I miss having someone to discuss these things with. I want to know what you think. Notes On Camp gave me so many ideas to create a parody zine. I think we can make the most hilarious parody zine -  "HOW TO BE A COOL ARAB". 

Lav you 

Darah

the unexpectedly therapeutic ritual of archiving

I’ve been thinking about archiving a lot recently. I’ve been thinking about how important it is to archive and how little regard we have for it as a culture. Some of the world’s greatest museums exist because someone thought of archiving the present in the past. Entire cultures are able to feel pride and shame because archives exist.

I’ve also been thinking about how archives make us feel. They give us access to the past in ways that no other human invention ever will. Archives hold the power of time travel.

I’m always excited when I come across a project based on archival research. The idea that someone pieced together a story based on bits of recorded history is so satisfying to me.

I somehow unknowingly always knew this. That’s why I’ve been doing my own form of archiving for as long as I can remember. I keep scraps of paper from trips, including air tickets, hotel card keys, museum passes, matchboxes, maps, notes, directions, even the smallest bits of recorded memory.

I recently went through my collection. I dug through postcards, art, stickers, photographs, tickets, maps, cards, and all sorts of travel related and non-travel related memorabilia from my life. I found the pieces to so many great stories that I never got the chance to tell. It was so therapeutic for me, to travel back in time and see all that I’ve experienced over the last few years. I smiled to myself, knowing that so far, I’ve had a relatively full life. No matter what twists or turns life throws at me, I am satisfied knowing that when I was able to, I chased my dreams and desires fiercely, and got to collect all these stories on the way.

That’s why, I’ve decided to put together a set of short stories, made up of mainly those scraps and some images. This way, you can go back in time with me, and meet the people and see the things I’ve seen. Below is my first story from my time in New York City in November 2016.

“The Opening”

NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2016. I’m a really sentimental person so when I travel I usually keep every little scrap and paper I come across on my travels. On this particular trip I was on a layover in New York City before heading to South America. I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, started the day in Chinatown and made my way to Washington Square park. That’s where I met Rahim, a Moroccan immigrant who almost beat the world chess champion and won the title himself. If you google him you’ll find an article about him on the New York Times. Anyway, Rahim asked me if I had some time to spare and I said yes so we spent almost three hours at the park playing chess. He taught me a strategy called “The Opening”. The Opening is basically a set of rules to follow in chess that make sure you win the game. I used “The Opening” against a few players that day and won. He wrote them down for me on a paper (pictured here) and even though I’ve forgotten how to play I’ve kept it. Rahim used to be a mathematician in Morocco but left that life behind him after moving to New York. Now he’s a full time chess teacher and hopes to break the chess world record again. I’ve kept all the bits of paper from that day with me, and although I wasn’t as skilled at taking photos back then as I am now, I am glad I have these photos to go along with my scraps.

- - -

Also, here are also some photos from my archive that I took around Dubai from 2017 - 2018. I wanted to share them cos they’re so cute to me. I wanted to share these alongside the story cos I couldn’t just share one thing at a time.



graffiti in Dubai

I recently sat down with long-time Dubai resident and photographer Jalal Abuthina to talk about his photobook series “Inside Dubai”. Inside Dubai is a project that aims to document a unique account of Dubai - something that few photojournalists have attempted to do in the past. Jalal decided to start project after noting the lack of resources that gave an authentic account of the city - and also the need to break away from stereotypical and one-dimensional images of Dubai. I spoke with Jalal about his project, representation and the city we both grew up in, for Sekka Magazine. You can find the interview here.

Images courtesy of Jalal Abutina

At the end of the interview, however, Jalal pulled out a white book/catalogue and gave it to me. It was a gift - a incredibly thoughtful one that has been in my thoughts since he gave it to me. It’s one of his earliest books, before the creation of “Inside Dubai”, that documented graffiti around the city. It particularly looks at a neighbourhood Al Badra also known as district 333. Al Badra is sandwiched between the more popular areas of Jumeriah 1 and Satwa, and is often times assumed to be part of either one. The book is a beautiful account that archives the history and phenomena of “street art” in Dubai (and the UAE at large).

As you can tell from many of the images, the writing is very simple, short, to the point. It is the complete opposite of everything we “know” about graffiti - it is the opposite of what you see in European or American cities - and the book presents it as a complete genre of its own. This project immediately took me down memory lane; images of graffiti from the neighbourhoods I grew up in came flooding back to me and I instantly blushed. I remembered how embarrassed I used to be of this overly simplistic graffiti. Seeing it on the walls of my school and near my apartment building used to make me cringe. I always assumed that our "overly-simplistic” graffiti was the result of our “backwardness”. Our communities were unable to coherently build a “proper” street art scene because we are in a way “primitive” and don’t understand the sophisticated rules of street art.

The book didn’t only bring me back to my childhood but it brought me back to myself - why was I so critical and so embarrassed? The answer to that, I of course, know very well. I now know that we have been taught from the very beginning not to understand our history. Not to understand the complexity and layers and multitudes of our communities. We have been taught not to think twice about WHY the graffiti is so simplistic (because vandalism is a serious crime in the region and therefore the writing has to be quick and short before anyone gets caught) and to just assume that everything we are part of is INVALID. That its not witty or clever or meaningful in its own right. That nothing we make organically of our environment can have meaning or validity.

Seeing this project restored my feeling of pride that I worked so hard over the years to gain. Its taken me so long to break down the stigma inside me and to truly see who we are with understanding and empathy. This is why its so important to archive our communities - we need to be creating works that help us understand ourselves.

growing is hard

This year started off on a high. Creatively, I was growing, finally exploring my potential and finding the medium to express myself. Emotionally, I was in a good place. I was travelling from Sudan to Nicaragua to Beirut, alongside my closest friends. My family and sisters were good. I was being paid to write. I founded follow the halo to give back to the creative community in the region. I was preoccupied with building my life - something I craved to do properly since graduating.

Everything I ever wanted was in the cusp of my hands and I was almost about to declare 2018 the best year of my life.

But sometimes, life takes a really - really - steep turn. Many things started to go wrong, and I had to halt plans. The adventures I was planning were put on hold and the goals I was working towards started to move farther away from me. Now, I feel like 2018 has to officially be the worst year of my life. It sounds dramatic but I really haven’t been through a tougher time. I can only compare this to the difficult years I had at University. I always thought I had left those behind me when I graduated.

Anyway, in the midst of all this, I wonder if I am handling it. I wonder if I am doing okay. I wonder if this is growth. I wonder if I am resilient. Am I?

I often find myself feeling intense rage and anger. Why is this happening? What did I do to deserve it? Moreover, am I the only 26 year old experiencing this? I feel anger and rage, at God, at the Universe, at life.

I also feel a deep sadness. I feel a sense of loss. I lost the ability to follow my dreams.

It’s funny because I found these zines (as I always do) about dealing with difficult emotions. Just looking at them makes me feel better. Below is a zine titled “For Girls Who Cry Often” by Canadian illustrator Lina Wu. I found her work on artsy.net.

I might make my own set of zines about how I am feeling right now. Maybe I’ll share them on my blog. I feel like it might be a good way to release a lot of what’s inside me.

Also I want to say, that just because someone looks like they have their life in order on the outside doesn’t mean that they actually do have it in order. I find it ridiculous how often I get snarky comments from friends or acquaintances - obviously envious of whatever they assume to be happening in my life - about certain achievements. Its funny how quick we are to hurt others without knowing anything about them. Its funny how quick we are to hurt others period.

I guess I wrote this post because I’ve been trying so hard to get my life together that I rarely come on here to share my thoughts or feelings. I want to do that more often.

Also, if you’re someone who knows me and sees this, please know that snarky-ness and mean things are not welcome in my space. I am only allowing good energy into my life these days.

Speak soon.

Darah