Serving the Lord, through the lens

Afifa Jabeen Quraishi

Published — Wednesday 1 August 2012

Last update 3 August 2012 6:44 pm

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Omer Faruk Aksoy describes himself as a servant to God and His Messenger (peace be upon him). No, he is not an imam or a daee. He is a photographer specializing in shooting in and around the Two Holy Mosques of Makkah and Madinah. “When my grandfather was 80 and I was five, he gathered us around and said: ‘Read, learn and be the servant of God and the Prophet.’ Shortly after that he passed away in his sajdah while praying in a mosque in Istanbul,” recalls Aksoy, who recently finished filming a documentary on the Makkah Clock Tower. The project took three years to shoot since it covered everything from the tower's inception, building, designing, etc.
He has produced several documentaries on Haj for the BBC, Nat Geo and Discovery channels, held photo exhibitions and workshops on Makkah and Madinah around the world and shot the famous Saudi comedy serial ‘Tash Ma Tash’.
Arab News chats up with Aksoy to find out more about his adventurous projects and how it felt to be on top of the Makkah Clock Tower:

Tell us about your latest documentary on the Makkah Clock Tower.
The Makkah Clock Tower documentary is a unique and a very special project for me. I was requested by Mahmood Bodo Rasch and Sheikh Bakr Binladen to be involved in it. It is one of the longest lasting documentaries and took us more than three years to make it. It has been directed by Bensalem Bouabdallah and produced by Achmed Rasch. It was a very challenging project.
We had three crews working on this project over the period of three years, from the designing till the putting it together in its place 500 meters above the ground level. Although there is more than 500 hours of footage, the film is 45 minutes only.

When will the documentary be released and where can we watch it?
The documentary will be released perhaps at the end of Ramadan. We are not sure where it can be viewed but the producers are in negotiations with several TV networks, such as Nat Geo, Discovery and Al Arabiya.

How did it feel to be on top of the Makkah Tower?
Being on top of the Makkah Clock Tower is a privilege. It is the second highest building in the world measuring 607 meters. Everything is different up there. In winter, it is very windy. There were times the tall tower cranes were not able to work. Even in hot summer days, it is windy and you do not feel the heat as much as you do on the ground.
It has a 360 degree full panorama view of Makkah. In January and February, when the clouds come down, they cover the top of the tower. Sometimes the mist or fog hides the clock and the crescent. No doubt, it is the best place to have a bird’s eye view of the holiest city of Makkah.

How did you obtain permission from the Saudi government to shoot the Makkah Tower as well as all your other projects?
To film at the Clock Tower, shooting permits were granted by the Bin Ladin and the main designing German company Sl-Rasch. However, filming the Clock Tower from different corners of the city certainly requires other permits, which were given by the related ministries and the Municipality of Makkah.
For my other projects across the Kingdom, I always secure the most important permit from the Ministry of Information and Culture. My team is the one that shot the very early TV commercials for Saudi and Middle East TV Channels. Most of those commercials were directed by Shane Martin. Banqu Saudi Fransi TVC was selected to be the best TVC in the Middle East in 1990. One of the Toyota commercials was also selected as the second best Toyota TVC in the world in the same year.

You have shot Makkah and Madinah since the 1980s. Please share with us any anecdotes/interesting stories from your experience.
The first time I came to Saudi Arabia was in 1981 from London to film the Islamic Countries Summit Conference held in Taif. After two weeks, I was supposed to return back to London. But my destiny kept me here for 30 years. I was offered a position at the King Abdul Aziz University’s media department to work as a cameraman. Later on, I was transferred to the Haj Research Center, where I worked under the leadership of Dr. Sami Angawi, making films on Haj-related subjects, such as, Tawaf, Jamarat, sacrificial meet, fires in Mina, etc.
One of the major Haram things I saw in Makkah was that the Hajis tried to slaughter the sheep with their pocket knives. Some professional butchers were unable to slaughter the camels properly. Once, the poor camel's neck was half way cut, it managed to escape and started running around with blood drizzling all over. It was crying. The scene was incredibly tragic. By the time the people could get it, the camel was weak and lay down powerlessly. It was no longer able to scream and it had lost much blood. These moments were captured by our 16 mm film camera. Together with other studies, which took around four to five years, all related government bodies such as the Ministry of Haj and Ministry of Interior have agreed to build here the largest sacrificed houses in the world. Now, a million big and small animals are annually slaughtered during the three-day Haj period and the meat is distributed to the poor in Makkah and some of that is sent to countries in need.
What are your future projects?
I have a few dream projects. One of them is based on an old saying, which is known by calligraphers around the world and goes like: “The Qur’an is revealed in Makkah and Madinah, read in Egypt and written in Istanbul.” Basically the recitation of Qur’an was done by the most beautiful voiced people from Egypt.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, calligraphy flourished in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire and the most beautiful copies of the Qur’an were written by hand. As we know the Qur’an comprises around 600 pages and we can appreciate how difficult and time consuming it can be. Even today, tourists can see some of those glorious past writings at mosques and other monuments in Turkey.
Another documentary project idea is to produce a Haj film in 3D and show it around the world. Even non-Muslims who are unable to come to Makkah can experience Haj. The film can be titled as ‘The Haj experience.’

Tell us about your book ‘The blessed cities of Islam: Mecca-Medina’. Are there any new books in the cards?
So far I have only one book that has 232 pages. It is a coffee table sized book. It is forwarded by Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the OIC. The photographs in the book reflect the last 30 years of Makkah and Madinah. Some of the places and buildings have changed forever. Few of the very first pictures in the book were taken during the time of King Khaled bin Abdulaziz. Some of the photographs were shot inside the Haram in Makkah with a very exclusive permit of the Riyasat Al-Haramain Al-Sharifain (The Two Holy Mosques Authorities).
There are a few very rare pictures, which are impossible to be shot again. One of them shows an Indian man who came for Haj on foot all the way from the north east of India, crossing Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and finally Makkah. It took him two years. A picture shows another slave of God aged 132, who came for pilgrimage with his grandsons aged 60 and 65. My book is translated into six languages and is sold around the world.

Apart from photography, what are your other interests?
When I was young and lived in Switzerland, I used to cycle. I was strong and sportive. I swam several times between the Princess Islands in Istanbul. I love traveling. So far I have traveled and filmed in 55 countries. I took my son, daughter and wife around the globe in 33 days. This was a rehearsal for a documentary project called ‘Around the World in 99 Days,’ which awaits generous sponsors for its production.

What is your message to aspiring cameramen/photographers?
I, poor Faruk, would like to give this message to the young Muslim generation who are inspired by television, movies, video games and animations: GO AHEAD with it. Learn it well and use it well in serving Islam and the entire humanity. This is the media era, which is countlessly beneficial but could be very dangerous too.

Email: [email protected] 

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