personal project

a conversation with my sister about history, archiving and art

My sister recently interviewed me on 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.

e-mails to my sister

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz. Source:

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz. Source:

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:

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:

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 


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.