middle east

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.

'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


update: i'm back from beirut and it gives me hope

Bliss Street, Beirut.&nbsp;

Bliss Street, Beirut. 

Beirut, Beirut, Beirut... where do I begin?

I just got back from three amazing days in the Lebanese capital. It's been 8 years since my last visit. The last eight years have been disastrous for our region and it saddens me that the turmoil and destruction have kept me away from Lebanon for so long. Political instability and speculation about war have kept many of us from venturing around the region; a kind of ban on mobility and a barrier to exploring our history, culture and who we are as a people. Coming back to Lebanon brought back memories of summers there as a kid and premature partying as a teenager. It also made clear to me how disgusting the war in Syria really is.  My earliest memories of Lebanon have always been connected to a transit in Damascus - we often drove to Beirut from Amman through Syria - a kind of right of passage for any Levantine Arab. Syria connected us all by land, by history, by culture, by identity. 

Today, we fly over Syria to get to Beirut. The idea that I may never feel effortlessly connected to Lebanon in the way that I used to as a child makes me angry. And it makes me realize that the imperial drive to destroy the region is calculated - destroy the mobility, the connection - to drive animosity and difference. But in any case, seeing Lebanon once again made me feel hopeful. Beirut is relentless - it continues to be the home of art, culture and contemporary critique that we (as a people) always admired. 

I spent three nights in Beirut before Easter. On my second night, we danced till late to political songs of freedom and resistance. "I breathe freedom" - the lyrics of a Julia Butros song I still can't get out of my head. I almost cried that night while dancing and watching young Lebanese drink to the lyrics of resistance. It almost felt like we were no longer in 21st Century Middle East - we were transported back in time to the victories of the Civil War. My nostalgia was real. 

In any case, I am preparing a Beirut photojournal that I've yet to decide the title. I can't wait to share it with you all and show the beauty of Beirut that we haven't had the priviledge of seeing in a long time. 



exhibition review: habibi funk at d3

source: kickstarter

source: kickstarter

When I first heard of Habibi Funk a year or so ago, I was intrigued. I wanted to know everything behind the brilliant project that re-releases underground music from the Arab world. Luckily for Dubai residents like myself, you can now get an insider view of the project at East Wing Gallery. Habibi Funk is a label headed by Berlin-based DJ Jannis Stuertz who is on a mission to re-compile and release Arab music that never really had its time in the limelight.

I headed to East Wing last week to check out Habibi Funk's first exhibition which will be rolling out across the world this year. I spent a relatively long time going through the stories, photos, records, and old clippings absorbing the journey of Habibi Funk from its early days in Morrocco to where it is now, re-releasing priceless records from across the region. The exhibition was not only perfectly intimate but truly reminiscent of the beautiful time creatives had in the pan-Arab era. The exhibit includes underground music from Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt with interactive displays for sampling records and music videos. 

I know the word underground seems a bit too "westernized" to use in today's Arab cultural context but I feel the word is genuinely reflective of the era. Habibi Funk complies old records that is pretty much unheard of - music from 20th-century Arab bands that rarely made it to the timeless ranks of Umm Kulthom and Abdel Haleem. Basically, the underdogs of the Middle Eastern music scene of the last century, a real underground scene that doesn't apply to the alternative scene of today's Arab fusion. The exhibit made me wonder to what extent today's alternative scene is truly groundbreaking... 

In any case, I highly recommend the exhibition. I met Jannis on his last day in Dubai whilst wandering around the gallery, and I can only say that his passion is infectious and admirable. I asked Jannis how he managed to stay motivated while looking for remnants of the artists he was going after, seeing as it took him years of searching to find the music of Faddoul, a funk artist from 1980s Morocco inspired by the soulful sounds of James Brown. He told me that he never gave up on finding the story, especially since Arab communities are so interconnected, and he knew that eventually, he would find something. Jannis found the family house of Faddoul in Casablanca in 2014, where his three-year search had simultaneously ended the search for Faddoul and began the journey of Habibi Funk. 

With the noise of the Art Season in Dubai this month, Habibi Funk was a breath of fresh air. I especially enjoyed the interactive aspects of the exhibition which is sometimes difficult to find in the premature landscape of arts and culture in our region. I recommend this exhibit for lovers of North Africa, music and those interested in alternative storytelling. 

The Habibi Funk exhibition is on at East Wing Gallery in Dubai Design District until May 2018. More info here. To know more about Habibi Funk you can follow them on instagram  @habibifunk or www.habibifunk.com 



rama ghanem: this month's featured culturalist

I interviewed my sister, Rama, about her most recent projected titled "Girls in Conversation" a photo-journal about what it means to be a woman of color living far away from home, and the feeling of loss that comes with it, amplified by heirlooms left behind. 

Hi Rama! Tell us a little bit about you

I’m a mixed media artist based in London, where I study, and Dubai, where I grew up. I make work about a lot of things - but mostly about feminism and Arab women, Western Pop Culture, transnational identity, and sometimes about my own lived experiences. I often work with various media including photography, time-based work, installation and net art. 

And tell us a little bit about your project

This project was a series of unstructured interviews with women of colour who come from a diaspora background, with questions around their home(s), identity, material items passed down to them as heirlooms, what they might pass down themselves, memory, and creative output. Photographs were taken during and after the interview process.

To what extent does being part of a diaspora group influence how you see the world and in turn your art?

It absolutely influences how I see the world because diaspora is more than physical displacement. There’s a mental disorientation that comes with that shift in environment. Diasporic individuals experience what is called a double consciousness, a term used to describe that fragmented sense of who you are. Sometimes your identity can become a matter of choice and other times (due to inequality) some of us have no choice but to conform to one thing or another. What I find compelling about looking into those layers of identity is seeing what unifies individuals from different diaspora backgrounds, but also the dissimilarities between them. It's interesting to think about how our condition changes in relation to the spaces we occupy and move through, in that sense also, the diaspora are very fluid and alive.  What was beautiful about each of those interviews was the vast difference in cultural experience but also how each of them expressed an attachment and sentimentality to their belongings, which I imagine is particular to people who are familiar with loss.

 It was quite a personal and intimate project. there’s an unstated trust there, when you’re taking pictures of somebody. There’s a vulnerability on my end as the photographer too, because it is my gaze that is imposed on somebody else, and so in a way it becomes about who I am as well. I stopped taking things at face value and recognized that everything is delicately connected to everything else in like for example how the things that belong to you shape your sense of belonging to something else. 

Why photography?

It wasn’t always my choice of medium in much of my previous work but when it came to looking inward and probing around this idea of holding something dear, photographs that you could touch made a lot of sense. I think I’ve actually always had a fascination with freezing a moment in time. As someone who came from a displaced family old photographs were my window into what life could have been like for me if I had grown up closer to my roots. It can be such a potent medium, but I don’t think it’s the aesthetic potential of it that pulled me. Though we’re bombarded with so many images every day, and that oversaturation of beautifully curated content from social media and advertising etc makes it difficult to create something really eye catching because we have almost seen it all. I decided to follow a different approach and to look past the composite aesthetic and try to just give you the person behind it. I don’t think it’s about the images really.

What’s next for you?

I think I’m going to venture further into photography or film. I’m not the type of person who plans my projects in advance, it is always the case for me that I reflect on my daily experiences and am able to express an idea inspired by that experience when it happens.

You can follow Rama's work on instagram here @itsactuallyrama

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

Hassan Sharif: the uae's iconic contemporary artist

This morning I woke up to a fabulous review of the late Emarati artist Hassan Sharif in the New York Times. I highly recommend checking out the article, and visiting the Sharjah Art Foundation (before March 2018) to experience the most comprehensive exhibition of Sharif's lifetime work. 

The New York Times article inspired me to share my love for Hassan Sharif. I really think it's worth noting that contemporary art in the Arab world, and particularly the Arab Gulf, did exist long before the discovery of oil. Unfortunately, our region lacks an authentic and comprehensive historical narrative. But I digress. Hassan Sharif is arguably the most iconic artist in UAE history and is the founder of the UAE's avant-garde art scene (Emirates Fine Art Society) in a time when the Emirates was still considered the small Trucial States. As you might figure from my newsletter, I have an affinity to artists that send a thought-provoking message through pattern and color. Sharif's work is critical of consumerist culture in the Gulf post-oil development - one of few artists I know that makes such a bold statement about contemporary life. 

I also loved the exhibition currently at the foundation. Curated by the Sharjah Art foundation founder, Sheikha Hoor Al Qassimi, it is basically the largest solo exhibition for an Emarati artist inside the UAE. I really admire and respect Sheika Hoor's work who has shaken up arts scene in the region. 

Check out the exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation and I highly recommend reading this review by the New York Times. 

Thank you to my dear friend, art-lover and architect Salaheldin Shams for the photos (above) that he captured while exploring the exhibition with me.