He photographs them leaning against soccer goal posts, arms folded and brows furrowed. He photographs them raising the bottoms of their thobes as they wade into the sea. He photographs them adjusting their ghitras, holding roses and eggplants, and talking on the phone, with friends and family and herds of goats. Rarely have today’s Gulf youth formed the centerpiece of a photographer’s portfolio, and, as reflected in the work of Bahraini photographer Ali Al Shehabi, had their inner lives revealed.
It is true that Al Shehabi prefers to photograph his subjects in traditional dress, often even accentuating theirs thobes with an additional bisht (a gold-rimmed black linen cloak worn on formal occasions), kumma (an embroidered cap worn in Oman) or burqa. Together, these accessories can look stylized and awkward: the burqa, in particular, placed on two visibly young women in one photograph, is usually worn by considerably older married women. The bisht, donned coquettishly by a young man standing amid palms in another photograph, is not customarily worn in such a setting. One almost wonders if the photographer, himself usually dressed in trendy Western streetwear (black Vans and sling bags are particular favorites), is engaging in a form of self-fetishizing. Al Shehabi is, it turns out, far more ambitious than that, however.
In one photograph, two young women wear burqas, one of black cloth and one of golden metal. Peeking out from the bottom of one and clearly visible to the viewer are a pair of sun-yellow Converse shoes. It is a pose of shyness, playfulness, uncertainty—but above all of adolescence. The girl holds a bouquet of matching chrysanthemums, one of them placed on the burqa just above her eye, and matched by the long-sleeved, daisy-patterned blouse of her friend – sister, neighbor, peer? – whose hand she is holding as the two gaze squarely into the camera lens, unafraid.
This is a composition of confidence, of an ability to grow into the spaces and clothes and traditions left to them by previous generations, modifying these where necessary. “This is not only yours,” the image seems to be saying – as with the young man in the bisht whose father may well become angry upon learning his son had taken such a delicate and expensive fabric into the wilderness. Such anger, hypothetical or real, is met with audacity (or its younger sister, teenage angst). The chrysanthemum series, for example, includes the captions ‘freej sisterhood’ (freej is Arabic for ‘neighborhood’) and ‘our love can destroy this whole fucking world.’ At face value, it is an unconventional coupling, Gulf Arab femininity and English curse words—unless one is tired, and resolute, and below the age of twenty-four. The series featuring men in thobes is equally unconventional, this time in its sensuousness: the captions speak of ‘days after spring,’ boys ‘in bloom,’ and ‘friday blues.’ Gulf Arab masculinity and melancholy are also not heavily promoted by the likes of National Geographic, international, or local photographers.
Ali Al Shehabi is among very, very few in the Gulf to document those aspects of everyday life that have become dear to those born not too long ago who are already wistful for the public telephones dotting their walks to the park, the grey-yellow sunsets of sandy cities, the purple interlock of beach-side walkways and the accoutrements, when they finally leave home, of their parents’ morning prayer sessions.