daily inspiration

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

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.

daily inspiration: the pleasure principles 

source: topic.com shot by Yumna Al Arashi

source: topic.com shot by Yumna Al Arashi

It's not the first time I feature the work of Yumna Al Arashi on my blog - for as long as I can recall Yumna's work as been inspirational to me. As an Arab and as woman and as an aspiring documentarian her work touches me. Her latest project, "The Pleasure Principles", which she shot for topic.com, resonated with me on an other-worldly level. I thought it deserved a post of its own. 

Although I have been aware of the project for over a month, Yumna's latest newsletter motivated me to write about it. I love that she shared her thought process behind the project, in the delicate, poignant way she does everything. The Pleasure Principles is a photo-essay that challenges the notion that the Middle East is devoid of sexuality and sensuality, and more specifically, that Islam is a religion that denounces sexual pleasure. I would love to go on about the project myself, but Yumna explains the concept more concinvingly than I ever could, so here is an excerpt from her newsletter: 

"About a year ago, I attended a conference in London where I spoke about the work I create. A man there told me that making erotic art was a Western made concept - that I wasn’t respecting my culture and history because of my interests in human sensuality. 

I immediately remembered a text translated by Sir Richard Burton, The Perfumed Garden. His introduction threw praises at the Arabs for their ability to please the senses and enjoy the delights of humanity; everything from incense, music, fabric and sexual desires. He specifically stated that without the influence of culture from the East, the West would be stuck in the dark ages... Soon after that conference, I found my way back to that book, but with a desire to find more like it. My treasure was overwhelming. 

Source: topic.com (additional note: the model here is my sister, Rama Ghanem) 

Source: topic.com (additional note: the model here is my sister, Rama Ghanem) 

My ancestors were perverts.

Edward Said was famous for coining the term “orientalism,” the infamous ways in which we as non-white people, have been rendered in imagery, tales, and stereotypes. Orientalism has ultimately led to an unbudging view of who we are to the white man. This includes our sexualities. For long, the majority of artwork about my ancestors was made by white men, and still is. We have been fetishised and demonized, from images of harems as sex concubines for men, to Disney’s Aladdin, and even now, Sex with Refugees. Arab movements towards conservatism have left many of us who do wish to speak for our own bodies too scared to do so, or censored completely. I want to take ownership of our sensuality and the imagery that is created around it.

There are many heroes out there who are doing the work of reopening our worlds, and speaking on behalf of our sexualities for ourselves. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Shereen El Feki, and Hayv Karahman, are but a few in our contemporary world bringing sensual topics into the modern spheres of art and literature. They truly see the importance of reclaiming our sexualities and our sexual representations for ourselves. 

source: Yumna's Newsletter

source: Yumna's Newsletter

This body of work hopes to breathe new life into these texts, to resurface them for those who may have forgotten the importance of sexuality and erotica in our culture. My goal is to remind myself and others that our culture and religion praises the importance of sexuality, in all of its forms. Many may not know that Islam holds sex as a sacred act, that which brings one closer to God. It insists that sex is a vital part of a relationship, not just to procreate, but also for pleasure - so much so that, a woman may legally leave her husband if he does not sexually please her." 

Everything you've just read makes my heart beat so fast. I spent a good part of my life wondering why, as Arabs, we couldn't express our sexuality openly, and why our God didn't like the beautiful intimacy of human sexuality. I won't get into the geopolitical and historical complexity of the region - which Yumna touches on briefly in her writing above - but I am very much aware of its effect on how we see ourselves sexually. It is work like this that makes me feel less "othered" by my own culture. The Pleasure Principles make me proud of my heritage and sensuality while taking ownership of it. This is how one reclaims their own sense of empowerment. 

Above all, I think Yumna's concluding thoughts that motivated me to share all the above with you. She finishes by saying: 

"I've been thinking and talking a lot about privilege these days. Mainly about my own, and my duty to take full advantage of every privilege I have. So many Muslim women approach me regularly asking how I can do what I do without fear of consequence from my family or community. The reality is that my family is my support system. They have always been my biggest cheerleaders, especially my father. 

In much of the Muslim world, most things can't happen in a woman's life without the approval of her father - even small things like going to school to study. Since day one, my father has had my back and supported all of my artistic endeavors, and continues to feed me inspiration and knowledge. He not only accepts what I do, but he is an active part of it. That is one of the greatest privileges of my entire existence, and because of it, I can continue to allow so many other women to be inspired to do more. All because my father's choice to not raise me with restriction solely based on my gender.

Because I know my privilege, I try my best to make full use of it during my time on this planet. It also has made me realize that there is such an important role we as women take in raising our sons to be supportive men, either as fathers or in the communities that they will exist. Please remember this. And please always remind yourself of your privilege, and that your greatest contributions to society will exist solely due to your awareness of your privilege, whatever it may be. 

Be good, you all. Think for yourself. Don't let the machine think for you. Learn about the importance of securing your data and your free will. And for god's sake, get the fuck off the internet. Make your own food, be good to the people you love, don't drink too much, use your hands for more than just scrolling, and speak your mind." 

I think getting the fuck off the internet is my favourite part of the whole newsletter, and the advice of raising our sons to be supportive, active individuals to be great contributors to society. As women that is how we empower ourselves and one another, and how we empower future generations. I cannot get enough of women like Yumna, who continue to produce cultural work that breaks boundaries and influence women like myself to be who we want to be. Hats off to Yumna and all the other female creators out there who inspire me and my peers. 

The future is fiercely female. 

xx 

Darah (for follow the halo issue #5 - reclaiming empowerment). 

daily inspiration: tanya habjouqa 

source: lensculture.com

source: lensculture.com

I think I've found my forever woman crush. Tanya Habjouqa is everything I aspire to be - witty, smart, confident, vibrant, emotional, energetic, spirited and a world-class photographer. She's the winner of the World Press Photo (Photo of the Year) in 2015 and was my recently my mentor at Gulf Photo Plus Photo Week 2018. From 7 - 12 February I was part of a workshop lead by Tanya (workshop of my dreams frankly) that brought together a group of 10 Arab photographers working on long-term documentary projects. I can't even express how I feel about the last 5 days. Being around Tanya for that long was just... rejuvenating. I never felt more motivated to go out there and share the stories I believe matter so much. 

It was an experience I am so humbled to be a part of, mostly because I got to see some of Tanya's most recent work - which often touches on the political tensions of Palestine/Israel as well as the war in Syria - and also because I got to be intellectually stimulated by an Arab woman I fiercely admire. Tanya's work challenges the Occupation and Israeli apartheid in subtle ways making the audience question the short stories in each image. Her work also shares tragic stories of love and loss in the aftermath of the Syrian refugee crisis. My most favourite project of hers is "Tomorrow There Will be Apricots" - a title that insinuates sunshine harbours darkness when translated to Arabic. "Tomorrow There Will be Apricots" is a metaphor for broken dreams and wishes unfulfilled. Tanya's intense passion for the stories of the people photographed is awe inspiring. 

For more of Tanya's work click here or here

daily inspiration: photographer abbas habiballa

abbas_habiballa_photography.jpg

I stumbled upon Sudanese photographer Abbas Habiballa's work while scouring the internet for more resources about Sudan (I have an article currently under construction and looking for references). I love finding the work of photographers who lived before our digitalized age because it shows the true extent of their talent - no easy digital equipment to make everything look good. It takes true artistry. 

From what I gather Habiballa was born in the 1950s and pursued photography in the 60s and 70s, during the era of Sudan's post-independence, post-modern aesthetics. He took everyday photos around his neighbourhood and hometown. Sometimes you just need plain old raw artistry to shake and move you. 

I love this photojournal of his work. 

daily inspiration: azeema mag

Sometimes when I am running low on inspiration (or motivation) to share the stories I am dedicating my time to tell, I search for something that can push me. I look for women or projects that do the same - working towards creating a movement for something. The inspiration I found today was from the founder of Azeema Mag, Jameela El Faki. Jameela is self-publishing Azeema, and says that her main purpose is to inspire "strength, togetherness and self-acceptance" and wanting to "empower not offend". 

Empower not offend. That's the inspiration I needed today. You can follow Azeema mag on Instagram @azeemamag or azeemamag.com

Photographs sourced from banatcollective.com

travel: what I am intellectually "packing" for sudan

artwork by Sudanese visual artist Abdallah Abbas 

As I welcome the new year today, I am bursting with excitement. I fly out to Khartoum, Sudan tonight and I cannot be more emotional. It's funny how you can have a longing for a place you've never been  - I think that word is "hiraeth" - and feel frenzied at the idea of meeting it finally. I can't wait to capture Africa's most hospitable capital at last. 

My connection to Sudan began after meeting my best friends Ahmed and Salah at University. They spoke so proudly of Sudan, always excited to go back, often making social commentary about Sudanese society over coffee and cigarettes. Fast forward 5 years, and I've become under the influence. I've soaked up everything I could from friends, the internet, from exhibitions, galleries, Sudanese creatives in the UAE and so on. I'm in awe of its people, its food, its arts, its culture.

Sudan reminds me of my own Palestinian roots in so many ways, and yet is so different. I am particularly intrigued by Sudan's Arabness/Africanness - to what extent is Sudan "Arab" or "African" - a question I continue to ask Sudanese friends and loved ones. I ask not because the answer matters, but because I just love hearing the processes of explaining what is "African" and what is "Arab". The conclusion I've come to is that Sudan is the epitome of cultural fusion, a testament to the influence of Africa on the Arab world and vice versa. 

In any case, I digress. Today's post is the daily inspiration, so I'm sharing what I am "packing" intellectually before my trip to Khartoum (in true anti-travel blogger fashion): 

Books

One of the most influential works of literature in contemporary history is the novel "Season of Migration to the North" by Sudanese novelist and thinker Tayeb Salih. My reading of this book is long overdue, and I can't wait to delve right in.  Check out this fantastic review of the book by The Independent. 

Music

Sudanese people are notorious for loving music and dance. As I prepare myself for my flight, I am listening to Sammany Hajo. Sammany is a young Sudanese producer and musician who's known for sampling traditional Sudanese music with modern sounds. You'll definitely find his music in the background of my insta-stories this week. 

 

Art

Sudan was once renowned for its arts and culture scene. Unfortunately, due to international sanctions it has become increasingly isolated which has affected the creative community's visibility. Thanks to the internet, however, I've come across some incredible Sudanese artists. I personally admire the work of  Dar Al Naim @daralnaimart, Abdallah Abbas @abdallah_abbas, Alaa Satir @alaasatir, and Rayan Nasir @popkhartoum. They all touch on Sudanese life and culture in a way, and tell stories of home. Their works are below: 

Other things I am packing are my trusty Fujifilm X-T2 and Sony a5000, and a heart full of "hiraeth". Can't wait to share more when I get there. 

daily inspiration: arab female photographers

This year has been the year I discovered a number of incredible Arab female photographers. As an aspiring photojournalist and storyteller, this discovery was transformative. For as long as I remember, I always wanted to tell visual stories - but growing up I never knew any Arab women who were involved in visual storytelling. This was because a) most photographers/filmmakers who make it to the mainstream are men, and b) many female photographers that do make it often aren't WoC. 

On some level, I think this discouraged me from ever believing that I could one-day share stories and be taken seriously or heard. But this year, things changed. Thanks to technology, more than ever before, WoC are able to share their work and be heard. And that's something that has encouraged me to fearlessly share stories. I am so proud to see so many incredible Arab women smashing glass ceilings and telling beautiful stories about us

So, for today's daily inspiration I am sharing the work of female photographers/photojournalists from the Arab world that I fiercely admire. Here's to a year of catching dreams and telling stories.

In the photos above are works from Yumna Al-Arashi (Yemen/Egypt), Tasneem Al Sultan (Saudi Arabia) and Tamara Abdul-Hadi (Iraq). 

daily inspiration: "becoming ugly" 

source: jezebel.com

source: jezebel.com

Although I no longer use Facebook as I once did years ago, sometimes it has its perks. For example, I woke up today to a notification from the app letting me know of a memory I made last year today - namely, an article I shared titled "Becoming Ugly". The titled sounded familiar, and I was intrigued - what embarrassing thing have I shared a year ago today? 

Luckily, it wasn't embarrassing. On the contrary, it was something I consider to be worth remembering. As per my status, I added a year ago today: "a compelling read on how women who don't play by the rules make us uncomfortable." Although the article is over a year old, I believe it to be forever relevant. 

So, without further ado, here's the piece. Let me know your thoughts.