Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jeddah Diary by Olivia Arthur

When U.K. photographer Olivia Arthur went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to give a photography workshop at the private women's college, Effat College, she began a photography project that has culminated in her self-published, JEDDAH DIARY.  The UK's Daily Telegraph features it today. The link to the article is here. The text is pasted below. You can see a gallery of the photos in the article link. The link to the website where you can order the book is here

Photo caption by Olivia Arthur: "This was taken on campus at Effat, the college in Jeddah that had just become a university when I was there – it’s women only. The girls are so stylish under their abayas. I must have been the least fashionable woman in Saudi. They despaired of me. They’d say, "OK, Olivia, you’re going to wear some make-up, we’re going to show you how to be feminine."

Olivia Arthur Lifts the Veil on Saudi Arabia
by Lucy Davies

In 2009 the photographer Olivia Arthur travelled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for what would be the first of three month-long stays. She had joined the prestigious Magnum Photos agency the year before – at 31, she is one of its youngest members – when she was part-way through a series exploring the East/West divide, photographing women in Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran. When the work came to Saudi as part of an exhibition of British and Middle Eastern photographers, Arthur was invited to teach a workshop. It was open only to women, aged from 20 to 50, and cost them nothing to attend.

As the workshop progressed, Arthur became friends with a number of the women, who granted her exceptional access to a world usually tightly sealed not only from Western eyes, but also from the eyes of Saudi men. Jeddah may be relatively more tolerant than the capital, Riyadh, but even so outside the family the sexes remain segregated.

Men cannot see photographs of women they could potentially marry, and cameras are shunned. For Arthur this meant that photographing even in women-only environments required elaborate negotiation. ‘I could have photographed them in their abayas [the black cloak they must wear in public] but I didn’t want just that, I wanted their reality. I asked to go to their houses, their private spaces, but I always said, I’m a professional photographer; I want to publish these pictures, so be as covered as you need to be so that we won’t have a problem.’

Arthur used a little digital camera, the type of camera the women would use to take pictures of each other. ‘We were friends, we were comfortable, but then I’d take pictures and later they’d say, “Please don’t show my face.” It was complicated.’

Thursday, April 19, 2012

THE SAND FISH; A Novel from Dubai by Maha Gargash

It took me a while to read THE SAND FISH by Maha Gargash. I was wary of it at first, expecting it to be a tale of woe and disaster that befalls the feisty heroine Noora. But then, I was drawn in by the beauty that the author painted on every page with her stark and lustrous sentences. I've posted my five star reviews over on Goodreads and Amazon, and now, will share my thoughts here. I do recommend this book to anyone who's interested in Arabian culture, especially the 'old days' before the urbanization from oil wealth. Until the 1930's, the Arabian Gulf was the center of the world's pearling industry. Every year, for six months out of the year, men would go out on wooden dhows and would dive (without scuba gear) over pearl beds, hauling up oysters one basket at at time. A brutal way of life, it crippled and blinded the divers, but made the captains rich. The advent of the cultured pearl was the death knell for the pearl industry. And it is just as well, given the hardship and physical damage it caused to generations.

THE SAND FISH takes place during this period, but I didn't feel I was getting a history lesson as I read. Set at a time when the economy and whole social structure was in flux, the 1950's, Gargash tells a tale of a young feisty country girl who ends up marrying a wealthy pearling merchant and captain. In the Goodreads reviews, some of the Arab readers are upset with Gargash for including a controversial plot twist they say is 'unbelievable', implying it could never happen. To that, I say, pish tosh. Gargash interviewed many elderly women from the old days. I bet that twist came from one of her informants. Also, truth is always stranger than fiction. Lastly, people don't write fiction to represent a culture, they do it to tell a story. So below is my review.  I recommend this book.

Maha Gargash's debut novel, THE SAND FISH is a poignant tale of a young girl growing up in the mountains in the United Arab Emirates (near Dubai), who eventually moves to the city and has to find her way in the complex world of her husband's family. But it's so much more than that. Gargash has captured, in her protagonist's story, the vanishing of an old way of life and the dawn of a new era in Dubai. The story takes place as the last of the big annual pearl dives set out, when the oil era was beginning. It's a marvelous novel, deftly told, with language at once rich and stark. The research Gargash undertook to write the book shows in the depth of every aspect of the story. Yet it is not weighted down with ethnographic information. The details inform and seem to lift the plot along. It is like the slightest desert breeze blowing at dawn: understated, intoxicating, and true. I salute the author for this work. She's excelled in every aspect of it: - character, plot, style, voice and setting. A hearty mabruk (congratulations) to the author. I hope she will write more.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Wadi Runs Through It - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

My husband is a fly-fishing fanatic, and I love all things Arabian. So it seemed an easy choice to head to our local theater for a showing of "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen."  According to this review in the New York Times, the book by Paul Torday morphed from political satire to romantic comedy on the screen. And I think it worked as such. It was a little like "Love, Actually" in that sense.

A visionary billionaire shaikh from Yemen, who also has several estates in Scotland and loves to fly-fish for salmon, looks for technical help in the UK to build a salmon fishery in the hills of Yemen. He finds an uptight nerdy fisheries expert (played by Ewen McGregor) via his private banker Harriet (the lovely Emily Blunt). Amr Waked does a great job in the role as the Shaikh. However, Kristin Scott Thomas adds much needed zing to push the improbable plot further into the realm of satire as she plays the role of Patricia Maxwell, the British PM's head of press relations.

Despite the fact that I would have loved any Arab music themes - and as far as I could tell there were absolutely none - I did enjoy the film.

As the credits ran, my husband turned to me and said, "I'm haunted by wadi's," butchering the last sentence of his favorite book A River Runs Through It, which is 'I am haunted by waters." Apologies to Norman Maclean fans.

On the way home, my husband said, "Thanks for going to a fishing movie with me." I responded, "Thanks for going to an Arabian movie with me."  For us, it was a perfect movie date.