x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Zamaaan: a visual archive of Middle East memories and nostalgia

The days of taking one picture at a time on real film, rather than a disk, have never lost their romance. Neither have the images, a website is proving. Rym Ghazal reports

Photographs of the Middle East on Zamaaan – your Passport to the Past are keeping alive links with the region’s recent history, and the people who lived it. Courtesy Noor Al Midfa
Photographs of the Middle East on Zamaaan – your Passport to the Past are keeping alive links with the region’s recent history, and the people who lived it. Courtesy Noor Al Midfa

Even in the age of instant and immaculate digital photos that can be taken anywhere at any time, there remains a longing for the old and the imperfect.

When Fatima Moussa decided to merge new technology with old, by setting up an Instagram account dedicated to archiving and posting old photos from the Middle East, she had no idea the level of interest would be so overwhelming.

Images range from black and white photos of simpler times when almost everyone wore traditional clothing and looked majestic, to colour photos of families on road trips next to cars or camels, to the more romantic pictures of couples posing for wedding shots.

The different hairstyles, car models, landscapes and houses, and even the food and drinks that were once in vogue, are all revisited. There is a photo there for every occasion and now everyone can see them as they are shared online.

Called "Zamaaan - your Passport to the Past", there have already been more than 500 photos submitted, most from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Palestine and the UAE.

"I'm obsessed with the notion of memory and nostalgia," says Fatima, a digital-media specialist in Doha, Qatar. "There are countless archival projects in the Middle East but sadly the content is not made publicly available online. I believe part of the appeal of Zamaaan is the accessibility of the content."

On the website www.zamaaan.me/purpose, Fatima, 26, explains her project.

"It is a crowd-sourced, curated, visual archive of the Middle East region. The goal is to piece together as many family albums from the region to create an organic, ever-growing digital database of our personal history.

"The more submissions and stories we collect, the more impact we can have in shaping perceptions about the region. So please share the project with friends and family. Dust off the old family album and submit your memories here."

In just six months Zamaaan has had more than 44,000 tweets, 292,000 Facebook likes and plenty of stories coming from photos submitted.

"Old photographs are like time machines, they whisk you away to another time," she says. "These photos are also a way to anchor ourselves to our roots. These memories and images are something to be proud of, and I really do hope that the archive inspires creative projects."

Fatima, from Mauritania, has lived in many places as she is the daughter of a former ambassador to the UAE, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Sudan. Dr Mokhtar ould Mohamed Moussa was posted to the UAE from 1988 to 1993, and his daughter has posted a photo of her father with the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, taken in the late 1980s.

Another photo she posted is of her uncle and father in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, earlier that decade. The Canary Islands are only 45 minutes from the coast of Mauritania so it is a common vacation spot for her family.

"I like spotting the different themes, like the ubiquitous family photo in front of the car, or the fun road-trip photos," Fatima says. "The photos from the seventies are also really fun to see. They evoke a certain playfulness and leisurely state of mind."

Youssef El Deeb liked the project and submitted a self-portrait of himself from the seventies at a film school in Toronto, where he is seen smoking a cigarette.

"Having photographed and developed my own photos since I was a boy, I am charmed by photography and how it has become available in everyone's hands - the ability to take great photos without any skill," says the filmmaker and founder of Dubai's Fatafeat TV.

"Old photos were not instant. So a lot more planning in technical and composition took place and therefore the end result was somehow more meaningful, more charming."

Youssef says he likes Zamaaan for giving its viewers a peek into the past.

"The way we somehow look back with romance at an age gone by, where everything seems nicer, which may not be always the case but we still feel attached to what has come to pass," he says. "Time washes away real memories, only the scent remains."

For the Emirati photographer Noor Al Midfa, the old photos she has posted helped her to rediscover and meet her ancestors.

"Through my childhood it appears that I always understood the sentimental value of a photograph," Noor says. "I saw my late father putting a lot of effort into finding and certifying his family tree. And thanks to his efforts it was the only way I met some of my ancestors."

One of the photos she cherishes is that of her great-grandfather's brother, Humaid Ali bin Kamil Al Shamsi, the first Emirati to take pearl trading to France, in the early 1900s. He lived there for at least 15 years and was also known for exploring other parts of the world.

"Photography is my passion," says Noor. "I spend a lot of time refining, perfecting and even obsessing over my work. I owe all of this to my inspiration, hero and love, my late father, who strongly believed in photographs.

"Also my beloved mother is an artist who handed down to me the ability for loving this form of art. I believe sharing these old photographs depict the immortality of my family's lifetime, as I can pass it on as generations go and generations come."

As the photos continue to trickle in, including some taken more recently using cameras on smartphones, Fatima was inspired to search and investigate the stories behind some of the more historic photos.

"There's this photo of Muhammad Ali, the boxer in Doha from the 1970s, and I'm sure the people who were in the audience could very well be the fathers of some of my Instagram followers, and some of them might have even took photos," she says.

"So I would love to go offline and scavenge for photos that could collectively recount the events of that day.

"One of my absolute favourites was a submission from Kuwait. It's a photo of Balqes Al Thaidi's father and friends in Kuwait during the 1970s. The five friends with their Beatles haircuts pose in front of an elaborate curtain backdrop.

"Shortly after posting this photo, this comment popped up: 'I am rapidly realising that Kuwait was and is quite a fun place. It seems to always be attached to anything cool that crops up in the Middle East'."

"I was happy to read that comment because it meant that this account was, in one way or another, subtly subverting stereotypes about the Gulf region."

rghazal@thenational.ae