x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Tanya Habjouqa’s Occupied Pleasures: Lightness in the time of conflict

Tanya Habjouqa's images of Palestinian life are fresh, honest and humourous. She is currently having her first regional solo show in Dubai.

After gruelling traffic at the Qalandia check point, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. He is bringing home a sheep for the upcoming Eid celebration. Courtesy Tanya Habjouqa
After gruelling traffic at the Qalandia check point, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. He is bringing home a sheep for the upcoming Eid celebration. Courtesy Tanya Habjouqa

It was the last day of Ramadan at sundown and Tanya Habjouqa was at the Qalandia checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank. She was with Mohammad, whom she accompanied to buy a sheep for the following day’s celebrations of Eid Al Adha, the festival of sacrifice.

But it was more crowded than normal as people swarmed to get home to their families and they got separated. Mohammad could not wait so he went ahead, bought the sheep and waited on the other side for Habjouqa, a Jordanian-American photographer, with the sheep in the passenger seat of his car.

“The sun was setting and time was of the essence,” she recalls. “I had one external light and a sheep and a man in a car. I didn’t know whether to light him or the animal, so with seconds to make it work, I threw the light in the middle and prayed. It all fell weirdly and magically into place. Mohammad, in his ever-sarcastic nature, lit up a cigarette and turned to the sheep. Somehow in his glance, all the surreal reality of the occupation seemed to come into play. The sun disappeared and so did Mohammad and his sheep.”

The image, now part of Habjouqa’s solo show Occupied Pleasures, on display in Dubai’s East Wing gallery, captures so many elements of what she is trying to say as an artist: the struggle, the irony and, at times, the sheer ridiculousness of the Palestinian situation. The image was printed in Le Monde Diplomatique last October in an article analysing the 20 years that have passed since the Oslo Accords, something that Habjouqa calls “a rather appro­priate choice”.

The rest of the show is made up of equally compelling images in which she has managed to capture the everyday elements of life in the Palestinian Territories that usually pass by unnoticed or in the shadow of war, bombings, death and fear.

In one set of images, women practise yoga on top of mountains on the outskirts of Bethlehem and in another, a group of kids from Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza practise the sport of free running.

“There is extreme poverty in that camp,” says Habjouqa, “and these kids use walls and buildings to literally fly... only to land in the same place. They have dreams of travel and of performing outside, but it is in their dreams that this wish will remain.”

What is different about these images is that they are heartbreaking if you listen to the stories and think about the reality of the situation but, on first sight, they are fresh and humorous, which elicits a different reaction from the norm.

“I want people to get beyond the headlines when they see these images,” she explains. “Rather than just reducing people to the headlines, where quite often their humanity is denied, I want them to see their characters and their lives.”

Habjouqa also says that humour can be a great healer.

“It doesn’t hurt to make people laugh,” she says. “I find the Middle East one of the most hilarious places I’ve ever been because people use humour to get through situations. So, I want people to look, outright laugh and see the place with fresh eyes.”

In one image, a boy is attempting to pull a stubborn donkey into the sea to bathe it. The situation is slightly absurd and Habjouqa describes it as “a parable for the political issue of Gaza and the reluctance to solve it”.

But this award-winning photo­grapher is also aware of the delicate nature of handling such a sensitive topic with humour. It is a balance that is important to get just right and for that she relies on her subjects. “These people are particu­larly adept at handling these issues to get beyond the ridiculousness with panache and I think the audiences are relieved to laugh.”

Occupied Pleasures runs at East Wing, Dubai, until July 10. For more information, visit www.east-wing.org

aseaman@thenational.ae