Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Power of an Image

Photographer Tamara Abdul Hadi recently visited Fes to continue her project Picture an Arab Man. Vanessa Bonnin reports for The View From Fez.

Tamara Abdul Hadi in Fes - photo by Vanessa Bonnin

While writing this article I am sitting on a train and opposite me are two Moroccan men, travelling separately. One is sleeping, his dark eyes closed and shadowed under the hood of his jacket, his full lips peaceful under a long elegant nose. His dress is modern – jeans, striped jumper, black coat, except for the pair of traditional yellow babouche on his feet. The other is reading a text in Arabic (back to front in my Western eyes) and is slightly paunchy in the face, with thinning black hair despite his relative youth.

I am alone in a first class carriage with them and stereotype demands that I – a Western female travelling alone on a train, late at night – should be cautious and perhaps fearful.

In reality this concept is very far from the truth.

The sleeping man had helped me with my heavy suitcase onto the train, offering the moment I had paused uncertainly looking at the steps up to the carriage. He had also helped me find my seat and lifted the suitcase onto the rack, taking pains to ensure it was secure and would not fall. The reading man, on noticing I had finished my book and was resting, offered to switch off the overhead light in case I wanted to sleep. Despite the fact this would have meant he could not continue to read himself.
Neither of them have stared, leered or done anything to make me uncomfortable – they have been respectful and courteous.

The point I am making is that Moroccan men are as a different as they are numerous. There is no stereotypical Moroccan man, just as there is no stereotypical Arab man.

This is the premise of Tamara Abdul Hadi’s photographic project called Picture an Arab Man. I first wrote about it in April [See story here] and since she received the funding to continue she has visited Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and now Morocco. I caught up with her in Fes.

“Yes Morocco! I finally made it!” Abdul Hadi says. “My first impression is that the country is loaded with character and history, and I love that.The people are amazing, I’ve met people who are so very supportive of the project, who gave me their time and I am so thankful for that. In Rabat I saw the city, the art scene, the Kasbah, which was so inspiring.

“Fes on the other hand, I felt the history walking around. The medina was enchanting. Actually, I would use the word enchanting for Morocco in general.It definitely enchanted me!”

Abdul Hadi has been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to her project during her recent travels in the region.

“In each of the countries I found Arab men who were supportive of the project and agreed to be a part of it,” she says. “My general experience from the past four months of shooting for the project has been that no matter the man’s age/background/religion/social class/nationality - they had one thing in common. They wanted to support a project that aims to change the way they are represented in the media and challenge that stereotype.”

Her consciousness of the power of an image has been central to Abdul Hadi’s experience as a photojournalist and informs the direction her work has taken. In 2007 she was working on an assignment for the New York Times in Jordan, covering the visit of then US President George Bush.

“There were demonstrations against his visit and his policies,” she says. "I was photographing the demonstrations and at one point towards the end of the demo, they started burning American and Israeli flags. When that happened, of course all of the photographers ran to photograph that but I chose to put my camera down. Those kinds of images feed the negative stereotypes about Arabs.

“That image was going to get out, about ten photographers working for all kinds of newspapers and photo agencies were taking it, but I felt like it was up to me to put one less damaging image out there.”
Since then she has chosen to focus more on social documentary photography, which she believes has more of an impact in spreading awareness and challenging stereotypes.

However the recent media hype of the demonstrations about the US-made anti-Islamic film shows what she is up against.

“Honestly I don’t even think that ‘film’ is worth talking about,” Abdul Hadi says. “I’m disappointed with the reactions that have spread around the region, and feel like they do harm to the Arab and Muslim image. There are much more important causes to get together about and use our voices for - like Iraq or the situation in Syria.

“Look, there’s no doubt Arabs and Muslims are stereotyped because of the images the media feeds through. And there’s also no doubt that those images are from real situations. But that’s not all there is.
“That’s why I’m doing this project. To show another side. There’s always another side.

“I’m challenging the image we are used to.”

Abdul Hadi is clearly passionate about Arab issues – she wears t-shirts with slogans like ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘I Love Iraq’ and earrings painted with the Arabic saying ‘Al Sabur Miftah il Faraj’, which roughly translates to ‘Patience is a Virtue’.

And her family obviously share her cause of depicting the Middle East in a way that contradicts the Western status quo, through art.

Her sister, multimedia artist Sundus Abdul Hadi ( has produced the series of work Warchestra commenting on the war in Iraq and more recently Flight Series – a collaboration with Tamara about the uprisings in the Middle East. Her brother-in-law Yassin Alsaman ( is a musician and writer and has produced work such as the album Fear of An Arab Planet.

Abdul Hadi currently lives in Beirut but has spent time in both Palestine and Iraq recently, and was distraught by the suffering of the people of both countries.

“I went back to my country in October 2011, after a really long time, not having that many memories of it and the experience was a sense of complete shock at how the country looks and how the people are struggling to survive, and seeing my family and how they were living. But the youth really struck me when it came to a sense of hope and creating a feeling of renewal and positivity for the future.”

One way she feels that the younger generations can deal with their experiences is by expressing themselves through art.

“I helped with a workshop with an organization called Sada-Echo for contemporary Iraqi Art, which is an non-profit project supporting new and emerging arts practices through education initiatives in Iraq and public programs internationally. Seventeen young students from Baghdad’s Art institute went through a one-week intensive art course in Sulimaniyah, Northern Iraq.

“Also, I was in Palestine through 2010 and most of 2011 where I taught photography at a United Nations women’s college in the west bank city of Ramallah.

“It was one of the most inspiring and important experiences of my life.

“The kind of work they did really varied between trying to use art as therapy, and the work would be very dark, but others would do work that had nothing to do with the darkness. So it depended on their personal expression.

“I believe that art therapy, be it music, theatre, photography, painting, writing and more, is an extremely important tool in encouraging expression, especially in marginalized communities.”

Abdul Hadi’s experience of the youth in Morocco was equally inspiring and she found the response to her project overwhelmingly positive, while also learning more about Arab identity throughout the journey.

Whilst in Fes, Abdul Hadi photographed a variety of young men, including Yassine [pictured above], a local Gnawa musician.

“I was lucky to have met and photographed amazing young men who believed in the concept and wanted to support the project. Through these shoots I learned a lot about Morocco and Moroccan society, just by having conversations with these young men.

“I went to Tunis and Morocco without really knowing anyone – I went in with an open mind, and really had no idea what to expect. I ended up learning more about myself as an Arab from this North African country, which is a 7-hour plane ride from my home.

“One thing I definitely came away with was that I felt Moroccans were extremely proud of their Arab and Berber identity, and I think that is really beautiful.”

Tamara Abdul Hadi’s website can be found here:
Her stay in Fes was sponsored by Dar Roumana:


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