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.

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.

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.

'48 hours of holiness' 

Gemmayzeh, Beirut 

Gemmayzeh, Beirut 

Just a quick public service announcement: my Beirut photo-journal '48 Hours of Holiness' is now live! Check it out here

"Unlike many places around the world, Lebanon’s diversity is synonymous with religion. There are 18 officially recognized religions in Lebanon — the majority of which are either Christian (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Protestant) or Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Druze). Lebanon also has the largest community of Christians in the Arab world. Religion is a strong marker of identity in Lebanon, and Lebanese pride in the traditions, rituals, and history of their respective faiths is clear throughout the country. Many publications and outlets have made Lebanon’s religious diversity the scapegoat for its political instability. Yet it seems that it is precisely it’s ‘holiness’ that brings peace to many of those passing through.

Below are a series of images captured in the two days prior to Easter Sunday where biblical symbols and rituals are prominent particularly in the outskirts of Beirut. Each image tries to capture the spirit of the capital as well as the stories of those who have come to Lebanon precisely for a type of peace they believe only it can provide." 

Hope you enjoy it. All comments and feedback welcome <3