‘All What I Want Is Life’: Mideast photographers recount covering the region’s protests 

Fethi Sahraoui - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 September 2020

‘All What I Want Is Life’: Mideast photographers recount covering the region’s protests 

DUBAI: A man stands in the street with his hands stretched angrily in the air. Other men surround him in groups, also gesticulating in fervor, some wearing the Algerian flag with its unmissable red star. The black and white picture by Algerian photographer Fethi Sahraoui captures the Algerian Hirak protesters who took to the street in February 2019 demanding the immediate resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Sahraoui’s photograph encapsulates a historical moment in Algeria’s road towards political transformation.

“As an Algerian citizen, even before I became a photographer, I developed a special connection with the protests,” Sahraoui told Arab News from Algiers. “Then I started working on taking pictures. It was my way to document what was happening around me. I came from a generation that has been betrayed by our politicians and for many years people in Algeria avoided (talking about) politics but now the youth are managing to orchestrate a movement for change.”

Amir Hazim - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)

In “All What I Want Is Life,” a recent exhibition at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, works by photographers around the Middle East showcased scenes from the region’s wave of recent protests. The title was inspired by one of the many graffitied messages onto the walls of war- ravaged Baghdad — All What I Want Is Life — in one of the sites where protests there are held. The message is one that reveals the common emotions and desires for change that bind all protesters as well as photographers documenting such movements for change in the exhibition. 

On view are images and videos capturing recent protests in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan. Their power lies in their ability to create a legacy of these times of change and to preserve the ethos of the protest movement. 

“The protests in the Arab world that kicked off in 2019 arose from a complex set of circumstances and legacies; that nuance is often lost in a Facebook post or newspaper article or tweet,” said Mohamed Somji, photographer and founder of Gulf Photo Plus. “Our exhibition was aimed at presenting a variety of visual perspectives by photographers from these cities that we hope offers a more well-rounded and complex narrative than what is offered in the mainstream media.”

Abdo Shanan - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)

The year 2019 saw protest movements around the Middle East that demanded a change in current political regimes. These cries from citizens sought to end years of corruption, economic inequality and the disruptive politics of division and exclusion. Nearly all of these movements have continued well into 2020. Total and long-lasting change has yet to come. 

“Covering the protests felt like a duty to me even if at first I was hesitant,” added Sahraoui. “Algeria went through a bloody civil war during the 1990s and I was born in the middle of the nineties. I grew up during the civil war and trauma was all around us. At the start of the protests we were afraid that they might become violent. But they didn’t. They were peaceful but this didn’t attract Western media. They were interested to cover the protests only in the beginning but when they were largely peaceful, with no violence or political clashes, they did not get any more international attention.”

Roi Saade - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)

Iraqi photographer Amir Hazim has been covering the protests in Baghdad since October 2019 when protesters took to public areas such as Tahrir Square voicing their need for change and grievances against the Iraqi government. Hazim would hear the embattled cries of people yelling, demanding to have a new life after years of corruption, unemployment and poverty. 

Lana Haroun - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)

“Partaking in the protests and documenting them with my photographs has been one of the most life-changing events for me,” said Hazim, 23. “It was new for me and my generation to go to protest against our government. It was thrilling but also dangerous. It’s a choice you make from the first day you decide to go and photograph the people.”

Hazim said that the act of taking pictures of the protests offers “visual statements” and is itself a form of protest. “These photographs made me feel more connected to my community,” he told Arab News. “You see firsthand the suffering and hear the need for change.”

Taking pictures during a protest with dozens of people around the risk of violence at any moment is not easy. 

Myriam Boulos - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)

“I had to adjust my camera so fast to capture those moments; I definitely wasn’t in my comfort zone,” he added. “It was also the first time that I had used the camera that I bought after my graduation in the protests. I want the faces and the feelings of the protesters to be remembered in history.”

Sudanese Musician and photographer Lana Haroun captured what has become known as Sudan’s ‘Nubian Queen’ protester. The woman is 23-year-old Alaa Saleh, an engineering student from the Sudan’s capital of Khartoum who Haroun shot as she stood atop the roof of a car clad in white with her right hand raised over head with one outstretched finger pointing above demanding change. 

“She was calling for change,” Haroun told Arab News recalling how she quickly took out her phone on 8 April 2019 and shot Saleh’s picture. Within hours it was trending on social media and became the defining image of almost four months of street protests against the authoritarian rule of President Omar Al-Bashir.  A few days later, on April 11, 2019, Bashir was ousted. 

Salih Basheer - from ‘All What I Want is Life’ (2020), Gulf Photo Plus. (Supplied)

“I wanted to portray the real picture of what was happening in these protests and get away from the fake news in the country,” said Haroun. “Without photographs and videos no one will know the truth.” 

Haroun tells how many felt afraid to go to the protests. “Some people died but sometimes you have to sacrifice for the life you want to live,” she adds. 

In 1999, renowned Palestinian intellectual Edwards Said decried what he called the “disorganized” state of Arab collective memories. There was a lack of documentation and record-keeping. But today the Middle East, particularly through the voices of its youth, have turned a page. At the end of one of the most eventful decades in the region’s history the common citizen is taking his destiny into his or her own hands. They want to write their own future and these artists have given their voices a place in history. 

View the photographs in the exhibition online at gulfphotoplus.com

UK to return looted Sumerian artifact to Iraq

Updated 28 September 2020

UK to return looted Sumerian artifact to Iraq

  • Temple plaque found in online auction spotted by experts at British Museum
  • Thought to have been stolen from Tello in southern Iraq, site of ancient city of Girsu

LONDON: An ancient artifact that may have been looted before being smuggled to the UK is set to return to Iraq.

The item is a Sumerian temple plaque featuring the seated figure of a high priest or ruler, carved from limestone and dating from around 2400 BC.

It will be sent to Iraq, where it is thought to have originated, after it was spotted for sale and seized by police in 2019 following a tip off by experts at the British Museum in London.

The plaque will be put on display to the public for the next two months at the museum before its repatriation.

Prior to its discovery, no record of the plaque was found in any official record or museum inventory, lending credence to the theory that it may have been looted.

It bears physical resemblances to other Sumerian artifacts discovered at Girsu, one of the world’s oldest known settlements, at modern-day Tello in southern Iraq.

Girsu, originally excavated by French archaeologists from the late 19th century, has also been the focus of researchers from the British Museum in recent years. Even now, only a small part of the site has been successfully excavated.

The trade in stolen and smuggled items of huge value from the Middle East is lucrative, and a constant source of dialogue between the British Museum and international police forces hunting stolen goods.

“We’re used to coming across tablets, pots, metalwork, seals and figurines on the art market or in seizures that have been trafficked. But it’s really exceptional to see something of this quality,” said Dr. St. John Simpson, the museum’s senior curator.

“There are only about 50 examples of these known from ancient Mesopotamia. So that immediately places it on the high-rarity scale,” he added.

“We can be fairly sure that this object comes from the Sumerian heartland. That is the area that got very badly looted between the 1990s and 2003.”

Christopher Wren of TimeLine Auctions, where the plaque was spotted for sale by Simpson’s colleague Sebastien Rey, admitted that it was possible that it had been looted from Iraq. 

“The vendor, who had casually and innocently acquired it from a German arts fair some years ago, was horrified to hear this and immediately volunteered to renounce any claim to ownership and expressed the wish that it be returned to its place of origin,” Wren said.

“The piece is not documented as having been looted and is not listed on any database, so it did not show on the checks undertaken by us.”

Mohammad Jaafar Al-Sadr, Iraq’s ambassador to the UK, said: “We extend our gratitude to the British Museum staff for their efforts and cooperation with us.”