By Pratibha Umashankar
email@example.com 26 March 2009
Her Highness Princess Reem Al Faisal, granddaughter of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, talks about her recently-inaugurate d photography gallery The Empty Quarter in DIFC, a woman’s place in society, the Gaza conflict - and more
Q: Why have you opened a gallery dedicated entirely to photography?
A: The Arab world needed one. There are other galleries which exhibit photographs, but they also exhibit other works of art. Here, we even have books on photography. We also plan to produce our own books on the subject. We opened the gallery with the works of Eve Arnold. She came to the UAE in the late 1960s and photographed the country extensively. She is 96 now.
Q: You are a Saudi princess. Why a gallery in Dubai?
A: It was Elie Domit, my partner in this project, who persuaded me to open the gallery. Also, Dubai is a central place. Culturally and geographically, it is where people come from all over the world. If I had opened a gallery in Saudi Arabia, it would have been just for the Arab World.
Q: What is your genre of photography?
A: I’m what you call a documentary photographer. I like to capture urban life. I take only black-and-white pictures and I don’t use a digital camera. I’m an old school type. I believe in using a film roll and getting hard copies. I don’t believe in storing images only in the computer. These days, people take pictures and put them on their laptops and no one sees them. They don’t put them in albums anymore. I use a Contax 645 Medium Format camera. The Contax company has gone out of business. If my camera goes bust, I don’t know what I’ll do. The good thing is, it’s made up of various removable components. So, every time I find a used part, I buy it.
Q: Why didn’t you inaugurate your gallery with your works?
A: I’ll never exhibit my works in my gallery. It doesn’t seem right. I’ve held exhibitions in other galleries of DIFC. And I’ll exhibit again in Dubai elsewhere. But, I won’t do it in The Empty Quarter.
Q: What do you hope to achieve through the gallery?
A: I hope to give good photographers of the Middle East a place to exhibit their work. I also want to encourage the younger generation to use photography as an artistic medium of expression. I want people from other parts of the world to come here and showcase their talent, which might start a dialogue of civilisations.
Q: Would you be encouraging women photographers to hold exhibitions of their work?
A: I’m not going to show partiality to women. I’ll encourage anybody who’s good. I’ll not encourage a woman just because she’s a woman.
Q: Do you think the world has been and is still unfair to women?
A: I believe in justice. But, I believe in justice for all - men and women. It includes an equal opportunity for a good education and a just society. If you can guarantee these, there will be a place for everybody in society. So, I’m not merely interested in the upliftment of women, but of the poor and the oppressed, be they men or women.
Q: Don’t you think in poor and oppressed communities, women are the most vulnerable?
A: Yes. And women suffer the most, when the society is unjust. But then, there are the weak and the poor who suffer, too. So, I believe in reform for everybody. I don’t believe that the rights of someone should be at the cost of someone else.
Q: Do you think there is equality in the Saudi Arabian society?
A: No, there’s an imbalance... due to many reasons. One of the major reasons is that we evolved very quickly. Too quickly, in fact. (I commend the Saudis for adapting to changes.) The country came out of the 13th century to the 20th century within my own lifetime. It created a lot of ills in society, not just for women. It was unfair to many people.
Q: In what way?
A: Traditional society was very balanced. Women of the older generation were very powerful. All the inequalities like women not allowed to drive came in the ‘70s… after the petrol boom. Before the massive oil wealth came, yes, women covered their faces, but they were equal to men. They were traders, they went to the souk and talked to men on equal terms. There was never this connotation that a woman is nothing but a sexual object. This strangely came when we became more modern. The traditional society and the position of both men and women changed. But, we weren’t able to create a new balance. That’s why women suffered.
Q: Are you and others like you advocating a return to that balance?
A: Yes, I’m advocating balance and justice for women. And I believe that the greatest justice for women would be the reform of the judiciary. I don’t care if I can drive or cannot drive. What I care for is my rights in the legal system. In fact, we have very good rights in our Islamic Law. We can apply them. We want them to be applied.
Q: But what about driving? Isn’t not being able to drive a handicap?
A: Of course, it’s a handicap. What I’m saying is if you allow me to drive, and give me no rights, then what? Driving is a very superficial aspect of the issue. I want to go deeper than that. A woman has to have her true position as a woman.
Q: How can it be achieved?
A: Through a lot of hard work - through education, through social reforms …
Q: Is it happening?
A: Yes, it is. This is mainly because more and more women are getting educated. The more you are aware of yourself and your rights, the more you can ask for them.
Q: So, you wouldn’t be against driving in Saudi Arabia?
A: No, not at all, though I don’t like driving. I use public transport when I’m in Paris or Dubai. I take cabs here and I’m waiting for the Metro to start.
Q: Where do you get your courage from?
A: I don’t see myself as courageous. But, I’m a critic of society.
Q: You are also a writer.
A: Yes, I am, but more than a writer, I consider myself a journalist - a political journalist. I write mainly for Arab News and occasionally for Khaleej Times.
Q: Have you ever been persecuted or felt persecuted because of your outspoken views?
A: No, but I have been targeted because I’m a woman photographer. I did get a lot of flak for my views, mostly from American readers. But, I have faced problems because I take pictures.
Q: In what way have you been targeted because you are a woman photographer?
A: They stare, they insult you. I wouldn’t say all, but some people are aggressive when I’m photographing in Saudi Arabia. They even hit you.
Q: What do you photograph in Saudi Arabia?
A: I’ve mostly worked on the Haj. I worked on the subject for three years. It’s very difficult to get permission to photograph it; being a woman makes it even worse. But, I have done it. I’ve a book coming out in a few weeks: The Hajj, by Garnet Publishers, a collection of 180 photographs.
Q: What is your opinion on child marriage?
A: Oh, yes, eight- and nine-year-olds. Yes, it’s allowed. Utter nonsense!
Q: It’s recently been declared legal.
Well, you can declare it! But, that doesn’t mean I agree with it.
Q: Is it the law or the interpretation of it that’s at the root of it?
A: You see, we have the basic laws. It’s the judges that are bad. The interpretation is left to the judge. He can do whatever he wants with it.
Q: Coming to the recent conflict in Gaza, don’t you think the Arab World could have spoken with one voice? Don’t you think there was a conspiracy of silence?
A: Not just a conspiracy of silence, but an active conspiracy. It was scandalous!
Q: Was Saudi Arabia guilty, too?
A: I think Saudi Arabia could have done more because it is Saudi Arabia - the heart of the Muslim world.
Q: Is Arab unity ever possible?
A: Yes, it is. It is possible when Arabs respect themselves.
Q: Will there be a solution to the Palestine problem?
Q: Will it be Barack Obama who will solve it?
A: No, it will be Hamas. In fact, it’s the spirit of the resistance, whether it’s Hamas or Fatah. You see, the Palestinians are not Hamas, the Palestinians are not Fatah. It’s the resistance of the Palestinians that will solve the problem.
Q: Will the two-nation theory come into being and usher in peaceful co-existence?
A: Yes, when the Israelis realise if they want to survive in the area, that we don’t accept foreigners in the Arab World - at least not for long. You see, people assumed the Ottoman Empire was colonisation. It wasn’t. The Ottomans were Muslims and as far as we were concerned, we were married to them and they married us and they were part of us. So, there was no nationalism involved in that sense of the term. So we saw the Turks as Muslim leaders. At one point, the entire Muslim world was ruled by Turks. The Mughals were Turks, the Safavids were Turks. Everybody talks of them as being part of the Persian Empire, but they were Turks. It was not colonisation. But, the moment the Turkish national identity began to emerge, we kicked them out!
So, how long has Israel been around? 60 years? It’s just a flash in the pan for us. If Israel wants to continue for a certain time, it has to give concessions. It has to give freedom to Gaza, to the West Bank and has to give at least half of Jerusalem.