In this Book Club event, Ziyah Gafic speaks with Rehab Eldalil, about her project “The Longing Of The Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken,” which won the FotoEvidence W Award (which is supported by The VII Foundation and the Grodzins Fund).
Rehab’s project is a means of reconnecting to her roots and involved working collaboratively with the Bedouin community of South Sinai, Egypt, to explore the notion of belonging and the interconnectedness of people and land.
Tanya Habjouqa, Ziyah Gafic, Rehab Eldalil
Ziyah Gafic: If you’re not aware about all the work that PhotoWings does for photographic community, I urge you to check out their website. Anyway, today we have with us Rehab Eldalil. She, in her own words, Egyptian photographer of Bedouin origin. And welcome Rehab.
Rehab Eldalil: Thank you. Thank you, Ziyah.
Ziyah Gafic: Rehab is joining us from Cairo, Egypt, and we’re going to talk about a very special body of work and the work had quite a year. So, first of all, the project, the photographic part of the project won one of the awards at this year’s World Press Photo, which is massive. Congratulations. And it is also a recipient of Photo Evidence W Award, which is partially also supported by VII Foundation. And finally, the title of the book is “The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken,” which is beautiful, beautiful title. Before we dive into that, I’m gonna share here, because the book hasn’t been shipped, but it’s about to be.
Rehab Eldalil: Yeah. It’s still in printing.
Ziyah Gafic: So, we are just going to share a simulation of what it is that you will get once you pre-order the book, which you can do if you look at this link here that I shared. This is where you can pre-order the book. And I see, and we’re going to start. I would like to, a little bit, start from the from the back of the book, if that’s possible with who did what, because I just noticed that we have Tanya Habjouqa here.
Rehab Eldalil: Yes, Tanya, amazing photo editor of the book.
Ziyah Gafic: A very dear friend, and also photo editor of the book. So, Tanya, I assume you’re still with us. So, we’re going to drag you into this conversation at some point, if that’s okay with you since you edited the book. And again, for everyone, I guess by now there’s, there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t know what kind of books Photo Evidence does. But in case you didn’t make, in case you don’t know, make sure to check it out. Because usually it is amazing selection of books. And I’d like to mention a few other things before I hand over finally, to Rehab, important parts in this project was also played by the Arab Fund, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. So, make sure again to check that activity, that program that has been going on now, I think for five years, if I’m not mistaken.
Rehab Eldalil: I think it’s eight years.
Ziyah Gafic: Eight years, even better.
Rehab Eldalil: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.
Ziyah Gafic: And Tanya Habjouqa is also—
Rehab Eldalil: It is nine.
Ziyah Gafic: Nine, there you go. And Tanya is obviously integral part to that. So, if anyone has any questions about that, I’m sure we’re going to convince Tanya to answer it. And the project, or actually the book, if I’m not mistaken, also received Albert Camus award. Is that correct?
Rehab Eldalil: Yep. Correct.
Ziyah Gafic: So, I think this was a lengthy, lengthy introduction for everyone. Just very few housekeeping rules. If you have and I do hope you have any questions for Rahab or for Tanya, she’s here. And maybe even Svetlana will join us, who is the publisher of the book. So, if you have questions for any of the people, make sure to just post a question in q&a box which you have in your zoom, and I’ll relay the message to want to whoever needs to answer the question. So anyway, they have Thank you very much. And again, lengthy introduction, let me just go full screen and why did you do this project?
Rehab Eldalil: Wow. You went in with with a big question.
Ziyah Gafic: Well, that’s why, that’s what, I think that’s what’s important. That’s what people buy in— when I buy in and not necessarily financially, but everyone is interested in why. So, while we talk, I’m gonna go through PDF, by the way, and if you want to stop somewhere or go back to certain page, make sure, just let me know. So yes, so why?
Rehab Eldalil: Why. Okay, well, actually the project I started at around 10 years ago. And during that time, I was trying to understand what it means to be Bedou because at that time, I recently discovered that I had Bedouin ancestry. And that was after I connected with the Bedouin community and the signer land on so many levels, because, as a young girl, I, I’ve always travelled to Sinai, I’ve always had this connection with the community because I was taught by my father, who was a war veteran who fought during the occupation and retrieval of Sinai, how important this land is, and how important the community who has been protecting it for hundreds of years are. So, I already had this very profound connection with the community. And to my surprise, I discovered that I also have this blood connection as well. My last name, Eldalil, is translated to the word guide. So, I always always wondered, like, what kind of guides were we because usually, Arabic families, they get their last names based on the occupation of the family. So, I was sitting— that was like, 10 years ago, I was sitting with a tribe elder, and he was very curious about my last name, and explained that the Eldalil family left Sinai around four generations ago, and went to another city, and that city is where my father was born. So, that sort of was a huge bomb you know, to me, and it gave me the opportunity to speak with my father and try to understand more about our family history and the trauma behind it. So, I started the project to try to understand what it means to be Bedou, try to create this connection, sort of reroute myself, within the Sinai community, the Bedouin community and Sinai lands. And by time, the story sort of developed, you know, it became not just about me trying to look for where I belong, it became more about the community and the community stories and celebrating the community and celebrating the indigenous experience at large. And then it became more about questioning what it means to belong, you know, and our, like, our universal quest to, to search for where we belong, and the meaning of belonging, and the notion of belonging, which I personally think is defined through the interconnectedness between people and land. And when we are disconnected from our land, whether by choice or by force, we start to wonder where we belong, because there’s this disconnection happened, and there’s this distance that happens to a huge part of our identity. So, you know, the book went through a lot of journeys in order to reach its, I don’t want to say the final point, but its current conclusive chapter. And yeah, and that was the main drive behind doing it.
Ziyah Gafic: So, can we just before we go into the picture, I’m just curious about this part of the family history, how come it took so long, if I understand well, for you to figure out your well, your origins, if you like? I mean, is that part of the integration and assimilation into broader Egyptian slash Arab society? Or? I’m just curious. If it’s too personal, you don’t have to answer.
Rehab Eldalil: It’s fine. I think I mentioned it in the book already. It’s a complex answer. I mean, having a traumatic family, you know, family background and family history. My family from my father’s side come from both Bedouin and Palestinian backgrounds. Both backgrounds, very traumatic. And so, my father who had the role of giving or passing over stories of our history, he’s a military man, and very, very tough and never have gave me the opportunity to speak with him, open up about our family history and the only uncle that was really open about our history passed away. So, it just took me a long time to try to find a piece of a puzzle. And that was the tribe elders answer to me, and that piece of the puzzle gave me a key to, you know, to speak with my father and encourage him to open up.
Ziyah Gafic: My father is in the military, well was in the military, so I can relate.
Rehab Eldalil: You know.
Ziyah Gafic: Ah, I’m gonna actually, I’d like to ask, we already have some questions. But we’ll dive into that. But I just want to mention something that I guess both you and Tanya could answer. I’ve really, I’ve really loved the distance that you have between you and your subjects. I think that’s really, for me, always refreshing and always important. And I think you took it the notch further, and I think people will see that later on even more. So, I’m just curious. I’m trying to phrase the question. How much—and this might be a tricky one, how much of this distance that we see between you and your subjects in the book is sort of result of the editing process? And how much is just your way of seeing and contextualizing people in this amazing moon-like, well, Mars-like, landscape? And why do you have such a distance between you and your characters rather than subjects?
Rehab Eldalil: This is actually a very good question, especially that you’ve mentioned Tanya, because, as I mentioned, the project has been going on for 10 years. And the first seven years, I struggled with distance, I struggled to sort of to get my rights to— And so there was a lot of distance between myself and the community members who were photographed. Even though, you know, on the personal level, we’re very much connected. They’re not any more subjects, they’re part of the project. But I had this internal struggle to try to get closer and try to create more intimate images that does not interrupt their, you know, personal life. And then I met Tanya. So, Tanya has been with me throughout that tipping point that like extreme change in the project, she gave me so much power, and encouragement to challenge myself and to break the distance, you know, so you would see in the book, there is this sort of movement from a distance between myself on the community and then closeness. And that is where Tanya entered, Tanya and her magic came in. So, she is not just the photo editor of the project, she is my mentor, she is she has been my supporter, throughout change and elevation of the project, and she gave me a lot of very tough questions for me to answer and to try to defeat or to get over the hurdle, that internal hurdle that I had and the struggle that I had with having the— and understanding why exactly do I want to get closer to the community visually speaking and the drive behind it, which is to try to create a different narrative of who this community is. And in order to do this, I need to get close. And it’s not about inter, you know, intervening, their privacy, it’s more about collaborating with them in order to tell this different story. You know, and by the end of the day, the project became an alternative archive of this community because it became this way for the community to tell their own story, and it wouldn’t become that way. If it wasn’t for challenging, you know, this distance and try to get more closer and that I give 100% credit to Tanya Habjouqa’s magic, the queen, and I would love for her to also talk and share her thoughts about this.
Ziyah Gafic: Well, before then, Tanya, this is, well, I guess, same question sort of applies to you if you want to chip in before we move to this particular image. Are you still with us?
Tanya Habjouqa: Ziyah. You never thought you were going to unmute me, did you. Hahaha.
Ziyah Gafic: That’s unfair. So, yes. Can you chime in within the context. Well, well, you can speak on many different counts because you’ve been with this project since its beginning. But I’m just wondering if you can sort of explain a little bit better. Because we don’t have an entire, we don’t have time to explain the whole genesis of your relationship with the project, but at least the editing part of it.
Ziyah Gafic: So, it’s, it’s, can you hear me? Yes, absolutely. Fantastic. So, it was a gift because I met Rehab, in the ISSP, the Latvia program. And you know, for those who don’t know about those workshops, they are brief, intense and magical. And when she came, it was a different project. I mean, in a sense, some of it was even rendered NGO photography. But there was a sense there, you could just sense the the poetic. And when I would look at the poetic images, there was clearly a block, and I kept pushing and pushing. Why, why, and then it became, despite the fact that Rehab is an example. I think this is work that really challenges what we take, and documentary, she gives. I mean, she worked with the community to build a medical clinic. So, knowing everything is as a question, what’s your reticence? Why, why the distance? And why when you are closer is it such a fleeting, reductive image, why, when this is clearly not what you want to say. And there was a guilt where she didn’t feel she had the right. And it was, and I’m trying to remember why the guilt was so deeply embedded. I mean, I’d have to turn that back to her. But once she started to sort of question her intent, and her motivation and that’s what I think all of us need to do when we’re working. Once you have a real honest answer for that it transforms. And so even when there is distance, whether it’s the sky or someone within the landscape, it’s intentional distance. It’s a poetic reflection on man and land, but then the intimacy. I mean, you’ve seen the, Ziyah, we’ve all had those assignments where we know, oh, a Bedouin woman, you’re not supposed to photograph her. So, make sure you get any image that you can, even if she’s making bread, and she looks reluctant, grab the image. It’s just so disrespectful, and why? And here she is working beautifully, and challenging that approach. And then it’s just it’s magic. And in a place that had their archive stolen for geopolitical reasons, and others that are too vast to go into here. I think this project of Rehab, what she has done is a game changer. And I hope others in our region and beyond learn from it.
Ziyah Gafic: Thank you, Tanya. So, I want to dive into something that people still couldn’t see, because they didn’t see the book. But let me go at the beginning. Because I think there’s a better example, well, there’s a few things. But I’m very curious, in book, it sort of explains it at the very end. But I’m very interested in this embroidery because this makes this— by the way, for people who still haven’t seen the book, it’s kind of a it’s actually a multimedia book, because at some point, you also have a QR code, which I listened to, that connects you to all your streams, with sounds, poetry read by people, by the protagonists of the book, the sounds of the, of the place, and so on and so forth. And obviously it has photographs, but it also has this embroidery, so I’m just, I just want to know more about it, I mean, why embroidery and why this kind of and I would while you edit, why embroidery, I would also like to know exactly how this particular has been done like what was the process like, the physical process of it. So, first of all, why embroidery?
Rehab Eldalil: So, as I was developing the project, I was involving the community in the process itself, like how they would like to be photographed and why and so on. But then by time I wanted to show this collaboration visually and the idea came when I was sitting down with one of the female tribe elders, Hajja—, and I asked her like how she would like to be photographed and so on and she described this almond garden that she wanted to, you know, to be photographed in, but she doesn’t want to because she was afraid of how her image will be—
Ziyah Gafic: —used. Can you just tell me which picture which pages that if you have it just so we can get to it?
Rehab Eldalil: Actually, you just missed it.
Ziyah Gafic: This one?
Rehab Eldalil: Yeah, yeah.
Ziyah Gafic: Okay.
Rehab Eldalil: Can you—the front? Can you go into the front one? Yeah. Awesome. So, she did not want to get photographed, she was afraid of how her image will be used later. And even though she knows me, she doesn’t know where I’m going to be putting the photograph. And you know how people are going to see it. Are they going to see the context and so on. So, she suggested that I draw her instead. And I’m not a good drawer. So, I was like, I cannot draw. Can you draw? And she was like, no, I embroider. And that’s, that’s where the idea came because embroidery is very traditional Bedouin medium, a lot of many, many of the women know how to embroider, and they embroider things in their home, but also they sell items of embroidery to tourists and so on. So, that ignited the idea of creating this collaboration, visual collaboration with the female Bedouin community members, where I would take photographs of them printed on fabric and give it back to them. And they would embroider on their images. So they have full control over what to show and what to hide and have this visual commentary and power over their own, you know, own images, you know, and by time the women started to choose also images of sometimes their families, their neighbors, their favorite, you know, neighborhood and so on in order to embroider so that created a series of embroidered photographs that are within the book. And when you get the physical book, you’ll see that the embroidery is printed on a special type of paper, textured paper in order to try to mimic a little bit the embroidery, you know texture. And you’d also enjoy the back of the embroidered piece as well in order to really immerse yourself in how each woman embroidered her photograph. And you would start to notice the difference in personality, you know, each woman is embroideries in a different way, especially the different ages, you know, the older women, they’re very intricate, you know, the embroidery that they make is very tight. The younger women, they’re more hasty. So, their embroidery is very wide, they want to finish really quickly. So, you start to recognize the different women, as you look at the embroidery front and back.
Ziyah Gafic: I get it, I get it. Perfect. Rehab, so these are so like, what’s this side? I’m just imagining because I imagine you’re going to have, or you will have an accompanying exhibition for this. So, I’m just wondering, how big are these art pieces?
Rehab Eldalil: Well, the original embroidered pieces, they’re not super big. So, the biggest one is around an a4. So that’s the like the biggest one. And then a lot of the pieces, they’re actually a bit smaller. So, around 10 by 15. I think 10 by 15 is the smallest. No, I think six by eight is the smallest size. So, it changes. Right now the original embroidered pieces are being exhibited in Switzerland as part of an embroidery exhibition. And it’s running until mid-November.
Ziyah Gafic: So, did I understand right correctly that at some point during the project, you actually moved to this area of Sinai, correct?
Rehab Eldalil: Yeah, for the past 10 years I was based between Sinai and Cairo. I just recently settled more in Cairo. But hopefully I’ll return back. I’m right now I’m in Sinai. I actually I mean, but not, you know, in my house.
Ziyah Gafic: Right. And I’m just I’m just curious. I guess you have shown this PDF to the protagonist. So, I’m just wondering what is their— I guess it’s gonna be different once they see the actual object, but I’m just curious about the reactions to them.
Rehab Eldalil: Well, a lot of them like got really excited that their images made the cut. Because I mean, I like I had a huge archive of work. So many people being part of the project. Some did not make the cut. But I made sure that everyone was acknowledged in the back of the book. But the general reaction is sometimes people get surprised that their images from like eight years ago is featured here, or you know, Seliman Abdel Rahman, for example. He is the poet that you would see his handwriting everywhere. And you will also see a QR code that you could listen to him reciting his poetry, he was very pleasantly surprised to see all of his poetry pieces being put in the book. He always wanted that. So, that was a huge thing for me to know that, you know, it’s something that he really wanted. So, at the moment, people are just excited to touch the book finally. I’m just excited to give it to them.
Ziyah Gafic: And a third element that I find very interesting, especially because we are currently doing something that has with that has to do with plants. So, there’s, okay, very different, but occasionally through the book, we see, what we see this, basically, a photo and explanation of certain plants and their uses. I’m just wondering, why.
Rehab Eldalil: Okay, so. So, this was a collaboration with the older members of the community, men and women, I would, in general, I would go off and have these, you know, conversations with the community to ask them what it means to belong. For the older members of the community, especially those who lived during the occupation. For them, the answer is the land, the land is the meaning of belonging for them. So, when I asked them how they would like to collaborate, visually collaborate in the project, they just keep mentioning the land. So, what we did is that we did this collaboration to create an archive of the native plants in Sinai, specifically south of Sinai in St. Catharine. So, the community member would forge the plans and with their handwriting, which you could see at the bottom right here, they will write down its medicinal or personal use. And so, we collected around 30 plus plants and created this handheld field guide, I have it here. It’s a field guide of all the native plants in Sinai, I would photograph the forged plant and add in the handwriting of its description and translate it in English, because that’s what the younger members wanted, so that they could sell the plants to tourists and create an archive of the plants. So, when we were editing the book, we had this question, should we add this collaborative element, which you know, became a project of its own or not. And when we thought about the book as this archive, as this alternative archive of the Bedouin heritage, woven by the community themselves, it felt very important to add the plants, it’s very important to add some of the plants that are featured in the field guide. So, it’s only six plants featured, and they’re featured in transparent paper. And what you would see special in the book is that when you flip the plant, it will go over the image before it, so sort of like an interactive way where the audience or the reader would plant, you know, the dry land and so on and also learn a bit more about the rich heritage of the flora within Sinai.
Ziyah Gafic: Brilliant, brilliant. So, there’s a question that I wanted to bring that by Kathy Milani, or Milani I don’t know if I’m pronouncing. Well, she—
Rehab Eldalil: Hi Kathy. I know her.
Ziyah Gafic: She just ordered the book. And so, she’s asking how important was ICP to your— other than she’s obviously, Cathy’s obviously congratulating you, but she’s asking how important was ICP to your project?
Rehab Eldalil: Yeah, just to give context, I know Kathy from ICP, so I did, during the project, I went to a lot of programs, I did my masters and faculty University, focusing on the collaboration with the Bedouin community. And then after that, I took I got a one-year certificate at ICP, the International Center Photography. And then during that time, I also joined a DPP, the documentary photography program. So, during ICP, I was developing the project and what was interesting, working on ICP and ABPP in parallel, because ICP was very photography focused and ABPP was very experimental, focusing more on the multimedia and the collaboration with the community. So, what was great is that I was able to balance it because I felt while I was developing the project with the community, and encouraging them to visually, you know, contribute to the work, the photography fell a little bit behind. So, during—
Ziyah Gafic: Someone froze. Is it me or it’s you?
Tanya Habjouqa: I think it’s Sinai internet.
Ziyah Gafic: Ah. Okay.
Rehab Eldalil: Can you hear me?
Zayah Gafic: Yes, you’re back.
Rehab Eldalil: I’m here. I get cut off.
Ziyah Gafic: Last sentence. Last sentence. Sorry.
Rehab Eldalil: Oh, yeah. So, I was just saying that, during ICP, I developed more the photography aspect of the project.
Ziyah Gafic: Okay, let me just, I want to put the link, again, for pre-ordering. And again, if anyone has any questions, make sure just to post it in the in the q&a box or in the chat box. Okay. So the project is also part of your MA, right? Or is your MA? Yeah, right. Okay.
Rehab Eldalil: It is my MA.
Ziyah Gafic: Excellent. Let me just get to the end of the book, and then we’ll go to the beginning. Okay, perfect. So, this started as your sort of personal investigation of your roots and because of your need to belong somewhere, which is very, very common for photographers, and for people, everyone wants to belong somewhere. So where you are now, since this is done, in that sense of belonging, and clarifying roots, and so on and so forth.
Rehab Eldalil: Mmm hmm. Okay, that’s a very reflective question. So, in regard to this project, I want to say I’m right now in this conclusive chapter, where I’m able to present something back to the community, you know, after so many years, you know, photographing and developing and asking questions. So my hope is that once I give the book to the community, I’m hoping that they will develop it further themselves, you know, I’m hoping that, you know, in, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 20 years, I would get the book back. And I’d find so many different notes, you know, photographs, dried plants, you know, whatever. And then, you know, republish the book, this is my hope, and sort of create this cycle of documentation of the community, and that changing aspect around it. So that’s in regard to the project. In regard to my practice. I’ve learned so much during the development of this project, whether it’s collaboration, my own, you know, personal and visual voice and so on, that I’m right now developing a new project. And I found that my practice is surrounded or focused around the idea of identity, you know, so I focus about my Bedouin identity during this.
Ziyah Gafic: Sorry, we lost you for 5-6 seconds. Rewind back 5 seconds.
Rehab Eldalil: Internet. Okay, Rewinding back, so. So, I was saying that my practice is focused about around identity. In this project, it was more about my Bedouin identity. And in my next project, which I’m currently developing, it’s more about motherhood and the notion of motherhood, collaborating with fellow mothers in Egypt and also abroad. So, hopefully, so hopefully, what I’ve learned in regard to collaboration, I would be able to develop it further in my future project.
Ziyah Gafic: Perfect. And I think to sort of bring the conversation to the end, I would like you to explain as the title now whoever gets the book will understand it, but I’m just I would like you to ask, I would like to ask you to explain the title, The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken.
Rehab Eldalil: Absolutely. It’s a very long title.
Ziyah Gafic: It’s great title, it’s great title.
Rehab Eldalil: It’s actually translated Beduoin poetry. And, and going back to the story about how I met Tanya, we were you know, we were in this workshop in Latvia, and I sort of tried to redo the project, you know, that it was seven years into the work. And I felt that, okay, I need to change everything. And the first thing that I need to change is the title. So, I brought up all of the, you know, the papers that I had that included poetry by the community members. And I started to highlight, you know, words and sentences that resonated to me. And then I reached “shawq algharib aladhi ankasar tariquh” which is translated to “The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken” and sort of like a light bulb came out, you know, I was like, yes, I’m the stranger, you know, and that’s why I’m unable to, you know, to feel that I have the right to—. Because no matter how much I do, how much I become part of the community, involved as a civil rights activist living within the community, I’m still a stranger. And that’s okay. Because when I am at peace with the idea of me being the stranger, I think I let go of the ownership of the project. And I give more space for the community to become protagonists rather than subjects in the story. So, when I saw the sentence and the poetry, it just, it changed everything, because it gave me the right, because it made me comfortable in where I am within the community, feeling that I belong, but also making peace with the fact that I’ll always be a stranger one way or another. And that’s okay. Because that gives me the space to respect the community’s voice and invite it to be part of the narrative of the project.
Ziyah Gafic: Brilliant. Thank you very much. I think this was really, this was really beautiful insight. I can’t wait to see the book. Everyone, I copied again the link to preorder the book. And, Tanya, if you have anything to add, in terms of the process.
Tanya Habjouqa: I can’t think of a more eloquent person than Rehab. I’ve heard her speak about the work many times. Every time she does, I learn something new. No, you’re amazing. And I can’t wait to touch this book and celebrate with you.
Rehab Eldalil: I can’t wait to show it to you guys. October.
Ziyah Gafic: It’s almost there. Rehab, thank you very much. Tanya, thank you for jumping in. Everyone else who joined us, thank you. Those who didn’t, this has been recorded and it will be available for viewing. So, make sure to check our VII Insider page once we publish the talk. Thank you, everyone. Thank you again Rehab and Tanya and see you soon. Thank you.
Rehab Eldalil: Thank you for having me. Thank you, everyone.
Rehab Eldalil: Bye. Thank you
Ziyah Gafic: Take care.