Rehab Eldalil's photobook reshapes Bedouin narrative through collaboration, using landscape, flora, legends, and community.
In her award-winning photobook, The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path has Been Broken, former Falmouth Flexible MA Photography student, Rehab Eldalil, examines how flora, landscape, and community shape Bedouin identity. It’s a beautiful book where collaboration and a consideration of her own background create a nuanced insider’s view of an often neglected and exoticised people.
Image 1: A woman stands with a desert backdrop in South Sinai, Egypt. It is overlaid by colourful embroidered animals and plants.
The book begins with a dedication: To the Bedouin community who gave me life. Eldalil herself has Bedouin roots, her family ‘rumoured to have come from Bedouin and Palestinian roots…’, a family living ‘…with generational trauma: a grandfather imprisoned for years of advocating for Palestinian rights,’ from a community living on marginal land ‘in perpetual struggle with the authorities.
In her book, Eldalil seeks to reset perceptions of the Bedouin community, both the representation of them in Egypt as separate and other, and the exoticised colonial view which lies beneath the surface of most western representations. It’s a reconfiguring of a multitude of gazes in other words.
Image 2: A lone figure walks across an orange barren desert hilly landscape.
The landscape, the flora, and the environmental immersion of the Bedouin people (the Sinai indigenous Bedouin community of the Jebeleya tribe to be precise) are a major narrative element in the book, as is poetry and storytelling.
So we see rockfaces of the arid cliffs that form much of the landscape, we see the burnt sienna sand of the desert floor. A man walks up a rocky hillside, and then a woman walks down, in her arms a bunch of flowers, herbs, spices.
Image 3: Medicinal flowers accompanied by handwritten text explaining their uses and benefits
With that collection of flora the narrative changes. The landscape stops being some Lawrence of Arabia (in the UK at least, this is perhaps the best-known exoticisations of male Bedouin) depiction of an Empty Quarter to be endured, and instead becomes a place of growth, of life, of flora and fauna that connects to a way of life and being that places women central to considerations.
Image 4: Empty government apartment buildings in the town of St Catherine. Built from orange materials, they feature against a mountainous desert backdrop and a blue sky.
A following image, printed on glassine paper, describes the plant being gathered – Alrabel (or Mountain Tea), a tea used to lower blood pressure, to treat gallstones.
More flowers are shown along with their medicinal uses, there are images of empty government apartment buildings in the town of St Catherine as it is rapidly and damagingly ‘developed’, and then images of footprints on rockfaces. In the past if a man wanted to marry a woman, he would follow her out of town as she took her herd into the mountains. He’d engrave a drawing of his footprint on the rockface. If she accepted his proposal, she would engrave her footprint next to his, a tradition that continues to this day in altered form.
Image 5: The left page features a young boy in front of a construction site. The right page is a man next to a tree with decorative embroidery outlining his clothing and as a border.
The landscape is given further depth by legends included in the book, legends which present a woman’s perspective on the community.
Legend tells of three beautiful Bedouin girls; the prettiest among the tribe with the longest most luscious hair of all. The girls’ parents forcefully arranged marriages for them all on the same night. Feeling forced to wed, the three girls decided to go up a nearby mountain. Bonded by their long, strong hair braids; together the three girls leaped off the summit. Since then the mountain has been named after them as a reminder for women’s right to choose.
- Jabal Albanat, The Mountain of the Girls.
Image 6: The left side is a portrait image of a local man in front of a barren rocky landscape with a contrasting blue sky. The right side features donkeys in the desert overlaid by embroidery.
The idea of integration with the environment is compounded by images of men holding kid goats, or with leaves held over their faces. There are stories of togetherness and community, a shared sense of female togetherness that Eldalil yearns after.
That sense of togetherness is added to in Eldalil’s own practice; in the threading that takes place over some of the women’s portraits; embroidery they made themselves.
In this sense, the book differs to Wild Pigeons by Carolyn Drake, (a publication this book resembles in certain elements). The embroidery in Eldalil’s book show a deep level of collaboration, one that goes beyond participation to become a process of physical engagement with the images, a process of informed consent that is intensely connect with the language, the soul, the very being of the people she photographs. It is a collaboration that does not shy away from being avowedly political in other words.
Every woman I photograph adds embroidery on to her portrait printed on fabric. She has the freedom to reveal or conceal using the traditional medium of embroidery. Taking full control over her representation in the project using a traditional Bedouin medium.
- Rehab Eldalil
Human rights do matter in this book. The community Eldalil portrays and is part of is under threat of development; the road-building and construction of hotels and luxury apartments leading to an accelerated marginalisation of the Bedouin. This is also shown in the book, and also leads into Eldalil’s own role as an Bedouin civil rights activist, involved in setting up a community health centre and transforming the world view of Bedouin life, culture, and economy. And that is exactly what she does with this book.
Read more about Photobooks in previous blogs:
- The Grid: Bringing Order, Comparison and Narrative to the Story
- Laia Abril and Rafal Milach: Windows on the world of Misogyny
- Women and Photobooks: Unwriting History
- Photobooks and Collaboration
- Ernest Cole, Photography and Justice
- Photography and Brexit
- Arian Christaens and Returning the Gaze
- Photobooks and the City Destroyed
- Photography and Grief
- Photobooks and the Immersive Landscape
- Through their lens: Exploring travel photobooks that captivate
- Greenland and photographing the world you inhabit