Mama was the first storyteller I knew. Whenever she came into the living room with a family album filled with photographs, my siblings and I knew our entire history would be relived in front of our eyes — all it took was her pointing at one photograph, whispering “kan ya ma kan,” which, in English, means “once upon a time.”
A photograph of my grandmother and her sisters with gas masks during the Gulf War. Another of her with her hands covered with henna for her wedding preparations. A photograph of my dad in front of my uncle teaching my sister and me how to swim on the beach in Sharma, Saudi Arabia but failing miserably. Each photograph told an intimate story, yet it simultaneously reflected a larger political, social and economic narrative of the moment it was taken.
I grew up in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, with no museums around. The only image I had of museums was probably identical to what I saw in “Night at the Museum,” without the exhibits coming back to life after sunset. The way I learned about the larger narrative of the story of Tabuk and the place I call home had to be through one of the following ways: passing by the Hejaz Railway Station (a marker of the Ottoman Empire, which extended from Damascus, Syria to Medina, Saudi Arabia) every day on the way to school; attending my history, geography and social studies classes, filled with books containing photographs taken by white orientalists or going through the albums Mama collected meticulously. I always chose the latter.
It is undeniable that the history of the Arabian peninsula and its tribes would have been far less documented had it not been for the emergence of early white orientalists and their cameras in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is crucial to note, however, that the photographs of “home” that flood our textbooks and public memory were not taken with pure intentions. Camels, tents and seemingly endless deserts of exotic nature represent some of the images in which the West has trapped the supposedly “uncivilized,” “backward” and “savage” East. Each photograph capturing one of these scenes was taken from the angle of “Orientalism” — a concept established by Edward Said that describes the portrayal of the East by the West. Said describes the purpose of this pattern of degrading representation of the East as “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”
It’s ironic that I’ve lived my entire life in this Orient, yet all of the exaggerated stereotypes in “Aladdin” come to my mind when I hear the phrase “the Middle East.” (The “Middle East,” by the way, is a colonial term, and the preferred term is Southwest Asia. But I’ll leave that for another day.) And I honestly can’t help but remember those clichés at this point.
Said opens his book “Orientalism” with this quote by Karl Marx: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” Unlike the Western representation of “the East,” and all of the black and white images I know of home, the history these museums represent was created by us and for us. They represent a decolonized reclaiming of our image and our stories — not for Western audiences, but above all, for ourselves. And that’s why I always choose Mama’s albums, alongside all of the albums I went through in friends’ and family members’ houses, to learn about our history. They are, as multidisciplinary artist and researcher Darah Ghanem puts it, “the REAL museums of the region.”
Having noticed the importance of personal narratives, Ghanem founded the Middle East Archive Project. She asked all people of the Middle East and its diasporas to share with her Instagram account all the pictures that fill their families’ albums.
When she was asked if this project is an example of how the personal is political, she said, “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 (Middle East and North Africa) that current orientalist and imperial narratives will never be able to capture.”
And here lies the power and importance of these personal narratives: No one can truly grasp the complexity of a story unless they’re part of it.
Long before I learned through Ghanem’s project that the tradition of reviving family histories through albums was practically universal, I still remember the incredible excitement I felt when I learned about Jaffat El Aqlam, an independent platform that celebrates the arts and personal narratives of the creatives of the Middle East and North Africa. Since orientalism isn’t limited to photography but also includes the arts and literature, Jaffat El Aqlam was one platform that enabled creatives from the region to go beyond orientalist stereotypes of what our art and creativity should look like.
Before that, art to me was a luxury, one that didn’t exceed the frame of a painting or the borders of a page from a short story. What I didn’t realize was how these different personal artistic expressions capture and reflect the rapidly evolving political, social and economic climates. And that’s when I decided to found Ward, an art platform and magazine that documents the different facets of Tabuk and the rest of Saudi Arabia from the people who are part of these tribes and families and villages and cities.
From the magazine Unootha and my sister’s new Fujifilm instant camera to the magazine Sumou and my aunt Sahar’s new album, I still get incredibly excited when I come across different albums and cameras and platforms. In the words of Tasneem Alsultan, a Saudi photographer, these platforms take us beyond histories and representations that are “largely homogeneous and based on stereotypes, masking intricacies of daily life and colorful nuances.” So unless they can represent themselves and tell their histories for themselves, they don’t want your shallow, one-dimensional representations and narratives.
Khaled Alqahtani writes the Wednesday column on decolonization. Contact them at [email protected]