Against Orientalism on Instagram – World – Al-Ahram Weekly

The crystal clear, translucent waters and the soft, slightly wavy white sand are surrounded by stones. The scenic green mountainous backdrop with perfect blue skies does not suggest Algeria. And few outside the North African country have heard of the ancient neighborhood in question, Collo, where forests, mountainous terrain, stunning beaches and Roman relics are only partially captured in the Instagram account, Kheir. , in the hope of redefining “the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] for real.”

There is a pun out there, kheir – which is the Arabic word for “good” – being driven by selfless principles. The organized Instagram “art and culture of travel” strives to finally put an end to stereotypes of the MENA region.

Yemen here is simply beautiful. In one video, a boy in rolled up blue jeans jumps off a white stone cliff into the turquoise water below. The narrow lagoon surrounded by a limestone precipice displays shades of green, yellow and aquamarine where the water meets the cliff of the island of Socotra in Yemen, in the northwest Indian Ocean , near the Gulf of Aden.

From her home in South Carolina, USA, curator Joy Camel scours different platforms daily looking for photos and videos of architecture and nature that she would like to see in the MENA region. . This labor of love is motivated by a deeper sense of “restoring” the region’s global representation.

“I know this can sound very grandiose,” Camel, 25, said in a telephone interview. But it works.

Launched in the spring of 2020, the striking Instagram account is a judicious selection of tireless images widely invested in the Arab world, but also includes Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

In his attention to detail – the textures, patterns, panoramas, even the faces of the region – Kheir is a genuine effort by a young Egyptian-American to decolonize Arab tourism. Here, MENA is not the tired, historic and monolithic category still presented by Western media. Camel also shies away from the clichés of voluntarist Eastern otherness exported from the region to the Western public.

From northern Sudan: Nubian pyramids in the ancient city of Meroe. Lush landscapes of Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman. A woman leads water buffaloes, canoeing through the UNESCO-listed Chabaish Marshes in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Old Damascus, Syria. The oldest building in Amman, Jordan. The heritage village of Ushaiger, Saudi Arabia. Palestinian teenagers playing on a steep fence above the West Bank. An elegant room in a 200 year old house converted into a hotel in Kfour, Lebanon. A window on Ghadames, Libya.

The idea of ​​representation arose from Camel’s own experience as the daughter of Egyptian immigrant parents. Born and raised in the United States, she has spent summers in Egypt where she says she has “a taste of both worlds” and “the gap” between the two. She grew up in environments that didn’t know where Egypt was, let alone what language was spoken there, and it was alienating. During her visit to Egypt, she also saw the awe-inspiring people associated with those “from the west”.

“I know we have a lot of good things, but I want to give them a sense of value. We also have something beautiful to offer to the world, through our history, our art and our culture. Camel started the Instagram account after spending eight months in Egypt for the first time as a freelance adult. “I was able to travel and saw things that I had never seen before, opening my eyes to the beauty, history and culture of the region, which the western world did not know. ‘opportunity to see. ”

In 2017, she was involved in humanitarian work in Europe’s largest refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos, where she found herself with displaced people seeking safety and better housing. “I really saw myself and my own family in this situation. It could have been us.

In Moria – the “open air prison” as Human Rights Watch calls it, which was inundated with refugees of 60 nationalities – Camel met an Amazigh person for the first time in his life. “I didn’t know they existed, and when I did, I realized there were some native groups that I didn’t even know about.”

A self-educating journey ensues as she sets up Kheir, sharing images that speak to her, from an awareness influenced by her experience with refugees, among others. “Obviously everyone wants to go to Europe and experience ‘cool western life’ when there is so much beauty here. When I show these places, it comes from a sense of pride, a desire to represent who we really are, not just what we’re known for because of the political headlines.

The sentiment also resonates with her experience as a minority American citizen. Growing up in a private school largely among white American children, Camel says she couldn’t fit in no matter how hard she tried. “At one point you realize that it just doesn’t work, and then you start to relate more to people of color who come from similar backgrounds.” It is in this community that a sense of pride in where it comes from and in whom it is developed has developed. It was different from the generation of his parents who were just trying to survive, have a career and fit in, so their kids could have an opportunity.

Camel assumes that the internet and being connected has helped validate this sense of pride among a community of like-minded people and reconcile them with their identities.

A recent poll of his audience showed that 60 to 70 percent were diasporas from the Middle East and North Africa. While Kheir primarily caters to Western eyes, Camel says she is aware of her audience of Arabs located in the area. It is not lost on her that her US passport gives her the freedom of movement to travel in the MENA region without restriction, a privilege denied to Arabs themselves.

But while postcolonial borders are difficult to cross as travel policies are designed to distrust or discourage intra-Arab tourism, there is little demand for the company anyway. A 2016 list of the ten most popular travel destinations for Arabs released by the World Tourism Organization included just one Arab city: Dubai. Formerly a medical student, Camel is now involved in her family’s Air B & Bs and produces photography focused on travel, art and architecture. She was due to transform Kheir into a travel guide and cultural blog this week, highlighting the artists.

“Travel is tough, but I also think when you’re a woman it’s a whole different experience,” she says. “So I would also like to capture some of these experiences through the eyes of a woman. A traveler is absolutely not represented and it is a bit risky and sometimes scary.

* A print version of this article appears in the September 2, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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