From Cairo to Bethlehem: a dialog with Samar Hazboun

Haneen-Hush Project-Samar Hazboun

4:48 pm. I’m 18 minutes late. Samar Hazboun is waiting for me on the other side of the Skype line, on the other side of the border. After ten minutes a certain feeling kicks in: this will be an interview to remember. A dynamic woman with many messages, with a portfolio as mind blowing as her words.

Samar Hazboun is a photographer. “I don’t consider myself a photographer. Photography to me is a tool to express something,” the artist sets off. She is also not really a photojournalist. And to call her a pur sang documentary photographer would not feel right either. Hazboun covers topics in Palestine that interest her and that, according to her, are not covered enough by mainstream media.

The young Palestinian takes me back to a couple of years ago, when taking photos of herself was her personal remedy to deal with emotions. After a first solo-exhibition that featured these therapeutic images, Samar Hazboun decided there had to be a deeper message.

Palestinian Women © Samar Hazboun

Palestinian Women © Samar Hazboun

Starting with Palestinian Women, Samar guides me through four projects she has worked on so far. “It was an answer to all the random questions I got studying International Relations abroad: do you dress like this at home? Can you work? Are women allowed to walk in the streets? Are they allowed to drive?” she sets off. Palestinian Women showed women from all kinds of backgrounds. “Muslims, Christians, women who struggled but made it through, girls who represent Palestine through sports… They all represent Palestine in one way or another, in a positive light,” Samar explains.

This violence against women goes hand in hand with the occupation

A second project, Hush, was about gender-based violence. “It was a bit of a shock for people. Some of them thought it was great and saw it as a taboo that needed to be talked about. Others thought: we are struggling with the occupation right now and there’s a lot of other problems that are more important to talk about,” Samar tells, but she disagrees. “This violence against women goes hand in hand with the occupation. Had the occupation not been there, had there been more freedom of movement, a better economical situation, then the violence would be less.”

“A lot of times, the husbands of these women lost their jobs because of the occupation. Because of the wall, for example, they can’t go to their work in Israel anymore. When men are unemployed, they can become more aggressive and depressed,” the artists adds. She refers to ‘Army of Roses’, a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara Victor, which describes how the humiliation of men at the checkpoints naturally causes an aggressive reaction later on.

Hush © Samar Hazboun

Hush © Samar Hazboun

“Women still tend to be the weaker part of society. So when a man’s manhood is broken, there is a correlation between him being violent towards the weaker. The completion of the wall coexists with the rise of violence: it has made moving harder and has made people more frustrated,” the artist states. She finds confirmation in the words of Yael Weissman, an Israeli architect. He sees the wall as a strategy of construction, as something that is visually polluting and psychologically imprisoning.

Samar Hazboun deals with this strategy on a daily basis. “When I look outside my window, all I see is a wall. Everywhere,” she depicts her surroundings. “We’re very limited in where we can go. I live in Bethlehem but it takes me 45 minutes to get to Ramallah, which is ridiculous. It should just take me 10 minutes by car.”

Although she does not reveal the identity of the women captured on film, Hazboun wanted to offer the victims of gender-based violence a platform to tell their stories. “They are not only victims of the occupation, but also victims of a society which is very harsh towards women who have been sexually abused.”

Abeer - Hush project - Samar Hazboun

Hush © Samar Hazboun

But why does she mainly target a Western audience, I wonder? A mix of criticism, like “you’re putting us in a bad light” and “we have more important, political problems to talk about now”, caused this to happen. “It is so hard to change anything on the ground, because the law itself needs to be changed,” Hazboun defends this choice.

“If they don’t think this is an important problem in society, then I ask them to reconsider their values,” she says when I inquire about her answer to criticism from fellow Palestinians. “Women in our society are not treated well and that’s why society cannot function well. Women raise and educate children, so if you don’t perceive this as a problem your morals have a bit wrong in them. We need to admit we have a problem of harassment. And it is not just our men treating our women badly, it’s also the soldiers, the whole region has a thing about treating women with disrespect. I’m not generalizing, but it exists. It’s here.”

An other, more artsy photography endeavour Samar Hazboun has undertaken goes by the name of Not Your Harem. It is based on the world-renowned study ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said. “In orientalist paintings Arab women are presented in a way that they are housewives, oppressed… A lot of the time they are not even present,” she describes orientalist art works. “Arab women are a taboo: to get access to her you have to penetrate into the domestic sphere. At other times they are portrayed as sexual objects, exotic belly dancers in a palace… Just like a fantasy of Western colonizers.”

Not Your Harem © Samar Hazboun

Not Your Harem © Samar Hazboun

Not Your Harem is characterized by this orientalistic style, but the interior structure differs. There’s is a respectful approach to the women in the art piece, who visibly have a loving relationship with their partner in Hazboun’s photographic paintings. “The woman in these works would sit at the head of the table, for instance. And the truth is, in my house, my mom sits at the head of the table all the time. There’s a lot of wrong perceptions of Arab society,” she cites with obvious irritation. Hazboun consciously decided not to turn to the other extreme of objectifying men. “I didn’t necessarily switch the roles. For instance in my house, my dad always prepares food for all of us. It’s a stereotype about the region people don’t want to leave behind.”

What seems to be reoccurring in the young artist’s works, is that children and women play a central role. “Women are misrepresented and underrepresented. I still think that there is this gap that needs to be filled and a lot of the times it is not filled the proper way. As an Arab woman, I can speak for Arab women. And I feel like I can access them in a different way than a Westerner would, considering the language and culture barriers,” Hazboun replies when I ask her about this.

Samar describes her own childhood as happy, but tough. “When I was a kid, there was nothing around here. There was a lot of violence and frustration. I still see and feel it.” This brings us to Detained, her photo series about Palestinian children detained by Israeli soldiers. “We need to keep on documenting this issue until something happens about it. These children have no other way of talking about it or representing themselves,” she reasons.

Arab countries are looked at as intimidating, unexplored and not well understood

As a female, white, Belgian arts journalist living in and writing about the Middle East, I often find myself tending to stay away from topics such as oppression of women, sexual harassment in Egypt, or anything that confirms the stereotypical image that people in the global West have of societies in the Middle East. I could not help but to ask if Samar Hazboun is not concerned about having these stereotypical images confirmed with some of the projects she described earlier.

“If you take it out of context it does confirm these stereotypes. Of course. But if you don’t, it does not,” she replies. “France and England for instance have some of the highest national rates of violence against women. But for some reason or another, it is not talked about as much because it is not as exotic and interesting. Arab countries are looked at as intimidating, and as something unexplored and not well understood.”

“In the United States, there is no maternity leave. While in Palestine, there is. So people need to look at things within the context, if not it can be used for a bad purpose. That’s why I always hope that people look at more than just one project and think deeper,” she adds. Only when putting her projects into perspective, in correlation with the other projects she made, this makes sense.

Before The Wall © Samar Hazboun

Before The Wall © Samar Hazboun

Lastly, Before The Wall portrays the last generation of Palestinians born before the completion of the Israeli apartheid wall. “When you think of doing a project about the wall, the first thing you think about is photographing the wall,” Hazboun says. “Yet there have been no images that put a human element into it. I wanted to create something that is surreal. Living in Bethlehem and seeing the wall being built gradually, it is surreal.”

“They are young people. They are the opposite of what the wall is described to be for, which is against so-called terrorists. But in reality these are the people that are suffering the most from it,” the Palestinian woman describes the youth starring in the pictures. The white garments the children are dressed in represent their purity. Juxtaposed is the wall; the project puts in perspective just how big it is.

Samar and I change the topic to photojournalism in and about the Middle East the last couple of years. “The arts scene has grown insanely in the Middle East, and there is a lot of interest, especially because of the artists producing political art. There are so many photographers in the region right now.” Hazboun sees an opportunity in this to fill the void of documenting Palestine, and the stories of the Palestinian people. “We lost a lot of our photographic archive from Palestine back in the thirties and even before that. A lot of it was destroyed and sent out to Jews in Europe to be used as propaganda material of empty, fertile land. And with the internet, we can reach many.”

Again, she sees photography as a necessary form of therapy. “With the frustration and the stress we live with in Palestine, we need to express ourselves in whichever way. I really wish there was more focus on art therapy and self-expression through art here. We have a lot of bottled-up feelings. Living in a conflict zone, you really need art. Whether you keep it to yourself or put it online to expose certain things.”

You can follow Samar Hazboun’s work on her website or on Twitter.

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