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.”


Saudi streamers seek gaming glory during COVID-19 crisis

Twitch’s top channels during April included Saudi Arabia’s ixxYjYxxi, which recorded 210,257 views in 44 hours of streaming during the month. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 25 min 44 sec ago

Saudi streamers seek gaming glory during COVID-19 crisis

  • Saudi streamers in particular have also enjoyed great success on Twitch

RIYADH: As the Arab world emerges from lockdown, the data obtained from the period of forced confinement shows what the region’s gaming community has been up to, most notably on one streaming website that has gamers in the region “doing the Twitch.”
The coronavirus lockdown in the Middle East sparked a significant increase in the platform’s Arabic-language content, with Arabic streams more than doubling during March and April.
Twitch allows users to broadcast their gameplay live to fans around the world, and the website announced a total of 62,582 active streams as countries across the region followed strict social distancing rules.
Saudi streamers in particular have also enjoyed great success on Twitch. The platform’s top channels during April included Saudi Arabia’s ixxYjYxxi, which recorded 210,257 views in 44 hours of streaming during the month, and RakanooLive, with more than 561,000 hours of watch time.
Whether it is for attention, to show off their skills or even as a way to make money, Saudi streamers spoke to Arab News about why they choose to broadcast their gameplay, and why viewers find it appealing.
Fahad Alshiha, a member of Saudi gaming news website TrueGaming, also streams on an independent Twitch channel where he has garnered over 16,000 views.
He has been streaming for over 5 years as a way to share his gaming skills while being able to interact with his viewers.
“Streaming is popular because viewers find it entertaining,” he told Arab News. “It’s like watching a famous TV show, where people tune in to see the new episode. It’s popular with the streamers themselves because they get attention, and sometimes even money. But I think the majority are doing it to just have fun.”
Erum Alnafjan, a financial collector, said that she enjoyed watching streamers for a variety of reasons, playing games she was familiar with and games she was not.
“Some games I wouldn’t play myself, but I’m interested enough to see what they’re about,” she told Arab News. “Some streamers make it entertaining. And sometimes I watch games I’ve already played just to see how they would go about it.”
Ahmad   Suliman, a  senior   manager and a “father of three gamers,” enjoyed watching streams, but had specific criteria regarding what sort of streams he would or would not watch.

It’s like watching a famous TV show, where people tune in to see the new episode.

Fahd Alshiha

“The only two values I watch streams for are the funny reactions, such as rage or trash talking, or information about the gaming world and industry. If they don’t engage me in the first 10 to 15 minutes, it’ll be a hard pass,” he told Arab News.
However, the surge in streamer popularity is unlikely to remain sustainable, as people begin to move forward post-lockdown and many beginner streamers realize that streaming is not quite for them.
Fajr Bantan, a former gaming streamer, said that he stopped streaming partly due to real-life reasons and also because it was not what he thought it would be.
“To be honest, I thought it was just about gaming and showing my skills, but it appears it is more than that,” he told Arab News. “You have to engage with your audience and entertain them, whether it’s by chatting, doing their challenges, responding to their requests, and so on.”
It is undeniable that Arabic-language streams have made a mark on the Twitch ecosystem, and official statistics from Twitch back that up. According to Twitch, the number of streams in Arabic increased by 95.3 percent in March — compared to numbers from the previous year using a year-over-year analysis — and 109.9 percent in April.
The figures also pinpoint the surge’s hotspots as the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The MENA region has the world’s most active gaming community and, at 25 percent year-on-year growth, the fastest growing online gaming population in the world.
A recent white paper from internet company Tencent, creators of one of the region’s most popular mobile games PUBG Mobile, the MENA gaming market will be worth some $6 billion by 2021, up from $4.8 billion in 2019.
But, as the demand for Arabic content on Twitch grows, Arab streamers hope that the platform will be just as willing to accommodate their feedback as they did their language.
Alshiha said there was a huge Arabic Twitch community, but Twitch needed to work on meeting their needs in order to keep them engaged, such as easing some of the restrictions on their Twitch Partner program, which allows streamers to monetize their content, among other benefits.
“They need to relax some of their criteria in order to make their ‘partner’ program more accessible. We would also love if Twitch opened dedicated servers in the region to accommodate the influx of streamers,” he said.