Images of Syria’s destroyed heritage revealed in London exhibition that ‘journeys through Islamic world’

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A Hajj caravan about to depart from Damascus. (Supplied)
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A souk in Aleppo. (Supplied)
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Camel drivers in Palestine. (Supplied)
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A funfair in Suez. (Supplied)
Updated 03 May 2019

Images of Syria’s destroyed heritage revealed in London exhibition that ‘journeys through Islamic world’

  • A new exhibition in London explores the heritage and history of the Middle East
  • Co-curator Richard Wilding says he spent 500 hours painstakingly retouching the photographs shown in the exhibition

LONDON: A treasure trove of historical photographs and postcards reflecting the rich social and cultural diversity of the Islamic world is currently on show in London in an exhibition organized by the Barakat Trust and Asia House. The amazing images in “Departures: A Photographic Journey through the Islamic World” range from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, and were collected over 40 years by Jeddah-based historian Tarik Alireza. They capture scenes that are unlikely ever to be encountered again, so rapidly has the world they represent changed over the past century.
Particularly poignant are the images of places in Syria which have been either totally destroyed or severely damaged by the ongoing conflict there.
Arab News spoke to Richard Wilding, who co-curated the exhibition with Alireza, to learn more about the 500 images on show — narrowed down from the 15,000 in the archive.
Wilding, a photographer and filmmaker documenting identity, heritage, archaeology and costume in the Middle East, who has worked in Saudi Arabia since 2003, says that “Departures” showcases a great legacy that, in many cases, has been forgotten or neglected.
“I am conscious above all of the way in which the Islamic world has been flattened over the past 100 years,” he tells Arab News. “This great richness of diversity and culture has been forgotten both in the West and also, sadly, at home. A new generation has grown up that doesn’t really know their own history and culture. I find that tragic.”
He continues: “I think that the West is preoccupied with certain stereotypes of the Islamic world. We are fed a steady diet of stories and images of war, sectarianism, terrorism and extremism. That leaves very little room for any other stories — stories about culture and heritage and people leading fairly normal lives. There is no room for this, and in the respective countries themselves there have been too many distractions. A rapid modernity has taken place; Saudi Arabia, since the discovery of oil, has changed beyond recognition and the young generation has grown up with their eyes more on the West in terms of the things they take inspiration from. I find myself having conversations with people of my age or younger in Saudi Arabia who have never even heard of, let alone visited, many of the wonderful places I have traveled to, such as Asir.
“Even in Jeddah itself, you have Al-Balad, but many people living in the city never go to see it. Because is associated with being run down, it has been avoided rather than celebrated, though thankfully that is changing — there have been some very positive initiatives.”
Wilding says he spent 500 hours painstakingly retouching the photographs shown in the exhibition. This work was necessary to remove scratches and dust visible when they were enlarged. The images were all scanned in Jeddah with the generous support of the Abdul Jawad family who paid for the digitization.
“The images show a great diversity of cultures — there is not a single Islamic culture; there are multiple cultures and forms of architecture and costume. One of the beautiful things about them is that you can identify immediately where each was taken, whereas now of course you can’t. People wear the same uniform of jeans and trainers.”
The majority of the photographs were taken by European photographers, Wilding explains. “It’s very much outsiders —  these are not people documenting their own society or culture,” he says. “At the time, these were the people with access to the equipment and the publishers. So to some extent you are looking at an Orientalist approach to the photography. It is very much catering to European tastes for the exotic. But it’s better to have this than to have nothing documented. It’s not perfect — but what is perfect?”
And to counter this, he adds, there is an element of the exhibition that features contemporary photographs taken by nationals within their own countries — capturing the everyday lives around them.
“Many are taken by amateur photographers on their iPhones. These are selected from Instagram from a range of locations including Pakistan, India, North Africa and Saudi Arabia. There are some really wonderful pictures,” Wilding says.
The names of the contemporary photographers are shown but the historic photographs are largely anonymous.
“The photographer is rarely credited, which — as a photographer myself — I find very difficult,” Wilding says. “Quite often, the backs of the photographs are completely blank with no information at all — at other times you have quite detailed information. Some of the images are hand-colored — this work was done by specialist studios. The colors are very beautiful. They were reproduced on a huge scale and reprinted over many years. A photo that might have been taken in 1890 was still being published by a postcard printer in 1920. It makes dating them quite difficult as you quite often find that the date on the postcard is not the date of when the actual photo was taken, which might have been 20 years earlier.”
Completely covering one wall of the exhibition is a huge map; an illustration of the Islamic world as it was in the middle of the 19th century.
“At the time, the Islamic world stretched from Morocco in the West to China and Indonesia in the East, and from the Balkans in the North down to Zanzibar in the South,” says Wilding. “We have overlaid some images on top of the map in their respective locations. We chose a range of images showing costumes from Uzbekistan, North Africa, Yemen, Albania, Turkey and Northern Iraq. We show images that illustrate the Silk Road, such as the camel caravans moving between China and Afghanistan. And we have mosques built in a huge variety of architectural styles.
“This map is a way of recognizing that the Muslim culture is valued,” he adds.
Wilding says he hopes the exhibition will go on tour, once it finishes its run in London on May 3. Some may think it odd that a non-Muslim should be so passionate about this archive of the Islamic world. But, for Wilding, it is no mystery.
“I get asked a lot why I am promoting this heritage. And I always say that you don’t have to be something to value it. As an outsider working in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq I have a different angle,” he says. “The fact that I am not Muslim doesn’t in any way diminish the love I have for the history and the culture and the tremendous gifts it has given to the rest of the world which are largely forgotten.”

International Hay Festival set to arrive in the UAE

UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance announced Wednesday that the event will start on Feb. 24. (Supplied)
Updated 18 September 2019

International Hay Festival set to arrive in the UAE

DUBAI: For its first edition in the Arab World, the international Hay Festival will arrive in the UAE on Feb. 24, at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al-Saadiyat and other venues across the city, UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance announced Wednesday. 

The four-day event will host workshops, artistic performances, new technology discovery, storytelling and many more art and literature-related activities.

The festival will take place at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al-Saadiyat and other venues across the city. (Supplied)

Since 1987, the Hay Festival has launched 125 events globally, attracting more than 4.5 million people to events in 30 locations. 

The festival, originally based in Whales, will bring together writers and thinkers from different cultures and backgrounds to discuss ideas, share knowledge and host conversations. 

The festival aims to spark imagination and curiosity, from children and young literature enthusiasts to seasoned readers.

The Minster of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al-Nahyan said: “Hay Festival Abu Dhabi will be an important initiative of our Year of Tolerance, which celebrates the legacy of our nation’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, whose tolerance enabled the success we enjoy as a country today.”

Minster of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al-Nahyan announced the news in a press conference in Abu Dhabi. (Supplied) 

 “(The event) is not only about bringing the festival to Abu Dhabi, but taking Abu Dhabi to the world,” the international director of the Hay Festival, Cristina La Roche, told Arab News.

Cristina La Roche is the international director of the Hay Festival. (Supplied)

The award-winning Syrian poet Adonis is said to be attending the festival and will celebrate his 90th birthday with the participants. “He is one of the world’s greatest poets. He is unquestionably influential not only in Arabic but to poets all around the globe,” Peter Florence, director of Hay Festival, told Arab News.   

Peter Florence is the director of Hay Festival. (Supplied) 

Other award-winning novelists like the Saudi Muhammed Hasan Alwan and the Omani Jokha Alharthi will also attend the event. 

Conversations will take place in multiple languages and all sessions will be live translated into Arabic and English. Tickets to all sessions will be free for those in full time education.