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Houston Chronicle, ZEST, April 9, 2005

Focusing on the Arab world
Through the lens, a clearer picture of the Middle East

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Lalla Essaydi
A LOT HAS BEEN WRITTEN ON THE SUBJECT: In Converging Territories, Lalla Essaydi of Morocco has written Islamic text in henna on the clothes of the women, the girls and the surrounding walls she has photographed.

The Middle East has obsessed the West for millennia. The historic land of the Bible and the Quran is the territory against which the Vatican launched its Crusades; that France and England conquered, divided and lost; and that the United States is both courting and warring against. It is a complex region that is also at war within itself.

Now it enters our daily lives through photography. Nazar, a two-part exhibit about the Middle East by Arab and Western photographers, allows us to explore that world and perhaps understand it better. Organized by the Noordlicht Foto Festival in the Netherlands, it is the first Arab photography exhibit of this scope and breadth in the Unites States, where it will be shown only in Houston and New York.

Our perceptions

Western ideas of the Arab world derive from two primary forces: Europeans in the 19th and early 20th centuries seduced by the exoticness of Bedouins and minarets, and current news coverage, which focuses on veiled women, masked men with guns and crying, barefoot children. Nazar -- the Arabic word for seeing, insight, reflection -- puts such images in a larger context, undercutting some clichés and creating new frames of reference.

The diversity is staggering. Nazar gathers 200-plus images by 24 photographers from 10 Middle Eastern and eight European countries plus the United States. It offers symbolic images and surrealist ones, appropriation, formal portraiture, candid shots, landscapes and cityscapes.

In both content and style, the show is as complex as the region it covers. The Arab world comprises 23 countries -- from Egypt to Iran, Qatar to Syria -- and extends across roughly 4 million square miles. The area has a combined population of about 300 million people who share Arabic as a common language. Islam is the dominant religion.

The differences between Nazar's Arab and Western photographs are as elusive as the individual points of view are apparent. In general terms, Arab Eyes sees people trying to live and improve their world even as bloodshed tears their countries apart. Western Eyes tends to be more romantic, focusing on views that speak of history and tradition, though often seen through the contemporary smoke of war.

Arab Eyes

Among the most striking images are three large-scale color prints collectively titled Converging Territories by Lalla Essaydi of Morocco. She has written Islamic text in henna on the garments worn by the women and girls she photographed, and on the background against which they sit or stand; the figures dissolve into the ground. As beautiful as a fashion page, these seductive images are symbols of a strident reality and quiet personal rebellion: Islamic calligraphy is forbidden to women, and Essaydi took the photos in her family's home, in the room where women -- including the artist -- spent weeks locked up for transgressing the rules of Islam.

At the opposite end of the art-versus-documentary spectrum lies Ahmed Jadallah, a Gaza-based photojournalist who displays far more overt politics. To show the "despair of the Palestinian people," he makes tough color photographs of wounded and dead men, bereaved children and women. He makes no apologies about his work's political agenda.

Greta Torossian photographed Beirut in 1999, capturing its cycle of destruction and construction in a succinct series of images titled Real Visions. (The site is the same war-torn neighborhood that Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and billionaire, was trying to rebuild until his assassination earlier this year.) We see a five-story apartment building, its face veiled by protective netting and scaffolding but work evidently at a standstill. Behind it, a rosy new building rises next to the yellow crane that helped construct it. For another picture, Torossian stood across a paved street from an old building whose former elegance is evident only in its facade, a brave mask for the ravaged structure behind it.

From her 14th-floor apartment in Cairo, Randa Shaath discovered a far different cityscape. Intimate black-and-white pictures capture the complex skyline of a city in transition, as well as the lives that unfold on rooftops high above the streets.

The hope signaled in Torossian's images of reconstruction also shows in the black-and-white works by Hicham Benohoud of Morocco. A teacher, he portrays his students as they avail themselves of props in the classroom. The children make odd choices and surreal pictures. In one, two boys stand in the center of the room wrapped in clear plastic sheets that cover them head to toe; in another, a young girl is seated on a chair shrouded by a massive black burka that hovers like a ghost. Countering the vaguely threatening quality of these fantasies is the underlying fact that this teacher-photographer encourages the imagination.

For his self-portraits, Tarek Al-Ghoussein's garb suggests a terrorist -- black clothes and checkered kaffiyeh hiding all but his eyes -- and thus transforms normal settings into vaguely unsettling situations. He carries a stone in one hand, a prop for the role he's playing. We see him standing with his back to us, a lone figure staring across the Dead Sea. In another image, he walks almost out of the picture on a pier alongside the colorful sides of tankers. His intentions are unclear.

In a single panoramic montage, Noel Jabbour, a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, is matter-of-fact as he illustrates the effect of the Abu Dis Wall that separates Israel and Palestine, imprisoning both.

Western Eyes

Nazar's European, Israeli and American photographers see the same people, cities and landscapes as their Arab counterparts. But for the Westerners, the "reflective" part of the word Nazar differs subtly.

Jabbour's counterpart in Israel, Gaston Zvi Ickovicz, addresses the wall of demarcation with implied criticism. He examines the wall from both sides -- decorated on the Israeli face with painted scenery intended to blend with the landscape, and left blunt and raw on the Palestinian side.

The landscape is a place of joy and relaxation in the eyes of Lars Tunbjork of Sweden. He focused on the seashores and mountains of Oman, where tourists from surrounding countries swim, picnic and play. Finnish photographer Laura Junka also focused on joy and relaxation in middle-class homes where birthdays are celebrated and children play.

Wouter Deruytter, a native of Belgium, uncovers anachronisms behind modern appearances. In one photograph, a sheik's imposing black limousine forms the background for two Muslims kneeling in prayer on the sidewalk. And in a formal portrait, the handsome Sheik Manal of Oman wears traditional white garments and weapons.

In the tradition of war photography, Jeroen Kramer of the Netherlands put himself in the middle of the action in 2003 when he accompanied the U.S. 124th Brigade on patrol in the Sunni Triangle. For security reasons, he could use only available light; the restriction yielded theatrical images that also convey the danger. In one, the profile of a soldier is outlined by the orange glow of a firebomb; in another, the soldiers are like ghosts in the weird emerald glow of night-vision filters against dense blackness. Those figures in the darkness serve as apt metaphors for the Western lack of clarity about that not-so-distant world.

Not every picture in Nazar belongs in what is nominally an art exhibition; a difference still exists between photography as art and photography as document or propaganda. But even for an art lover, the documentary and propaganda photos have value. Whatever its poetic license or agenda, every image contributes the equivalent of a phrase to the ongoing narrative of the Middle East.