The Quest for Belonging - An Encounter with Rehab Eldalil
10 May 2022

Your personal, long-term visual storytelling project, “The Path of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken”, won the National Geographic Society’s Emergency grant for Journalists 2020 and the Creative Activism award 2021. Most recently, you were awarded the Fotoevidence W Award 2022 to publish your project in a book format and you won the World Press Photo Regional Award 2022 (Open Format/Africa). Could you tell us more about the project and how these awards are being employed to maximize the project’s impact on its community constituents?

I started this project to reconnect with my ancestry. I come from a Palestinian and Bedouin family, who went through intergenerational trauma because of our history, and failed to open up… until, growing up, I started to ask questions. So the project started off as a tool for me to reconnect with my Bedouin roots, but as I began researching and working on it, I realized that it is not my own story to tell, but rather the Bedouin community’s story. And that’s how the collaboration started; I wanted to include the community’s voice in the project hoping that I would reconnect with my ancestry while still respecting their stories.

With time, through conversations with the community and different experimentations with how they could be involved, the project became this fluid process merging my photography and the community’s traditional mediums like embroidery, poetry, and sound. It did not just talk about the Bedouin community anymore; it also talked about the indigenous experience in general, about the quest for a sense of belonging. The indigenous communities around the world feel this sense strongly, because they never left their land; they know where they belong. Whereas many of us who were either forced to leave our lands or migrated, have lost touch with our lands, with where we belong and with who we are.

The awards enabled me to fund my project for the past two years and complete it. The Fotoevidence W award is amazing because I am going to finally be able to turn the project into a publication that will be used in different ways. On one hand, it will represent a documentation of the Bedouin community’s history. And on the other hand, it will incite the wider audience to reflect both outwards about the indigenous experience, and inwards on the notion of belonging.

The awards have also helped me gain recognition for the project and acknowledge the existence of the Bedouin community who have long been silenced. The community is also proud of the project’s achievements; seeing their images being exhibited around the world is a big recognition and a way to pay back to the community who contributed so much to the project.

Where do you draw the line between the inner space (the personal), and the outer space (the Bedouin community members and their cause)? Is this sense of belonging the thread that connects them both?

I really struggled with this for years, specifically with the idea of whether I could take photos of the community, and call this “my story”. It just did not feel right, it did not make sense. I think my story is the motivation behind the project, but it’s not what is depicted in the work. What’s depicted in the work is the community’s story through their space, their insights, their stories… The stranger in the story is me, because even though I have been connected with the community for more than fifteen years, both as a member and a civil rights activist, the fact is that I am still a stranger. I need to make peace with it, and find power in collaborating with the community.

Long before I started the project, I had admired the Bedouin community; how they felt at home in the Sinai lands, how much they knew about their history, about where they belong, about their grandparents, their great grandparents and their ancestors. That’s what ignited a lot of questions about my own ancestors. So when I started the project, and I sought this sense of reconnection and understanding of what belonging means, I started asking the community about what it meant to them. For many, especially the older members of the community, belonging is about the land and its interconnectedness with the people. It is about how the Bedouin community has been suffering for so long to gain their civil rights, simply because they have remained on their lands during the occupation; how they have invested so much in this land and how they continue to receive in return through the flora, water, and so on.

So there is this codependency between the people and the land that I think defines the notion of belonging. One example of this is the Bedouin community called the Jebeleya tribe, specific to St. Catherine’s. Their main income, or 80% of it, comes from tourism. When the pandemic struck, tourism declined dramatically. After more than a decade of drought in St. Catherine’s, where many gardens and lands had dried out, and in the same month of the pandemic’s outbreak, there was a major flood that affected the entire region, and so many valleys that had been dried up for more than ten years, regained their fertility. This helped the survival of the community, who regrew their gardens, cultivated plants, and sold them to other cities around Egypt. One would feel that this was a miracle, that the land had given back to the community in a time of crisis. This is a simple example of this interconnectedness between people and land that defines the notion of belonging.

In your Artist Statement, you mention: “In my practice, I explore how to challenge traditional documentary frameworks by developing methods to involve subjects to become part of the creative process and have agency.” Could you tell us more about this approach?

The collaboration started through conversations with the community, which inspired me to start taking photos. I wanted to visually depict this approach. I started talking with the community and observed the different mediums they used. The women of the community, for example, used embroidery to express themselves and generate income (many of them make handmade crafts that they sell to tourists). One day, as I was sitting down with Hajja Rabea'a -one of the older members of the community-, I asked if I could take a picture of her; she declined (like a lot of women within the community), and asked if I could draw her instead, out of a fear of having her photos used without consent, or out of context on social media. Even though I had a strong connection with her and there was mutual trust, she was still hesitant. And when she asked me to draw her instead, something clicked… I did not want to draw her as drawing is not my medium of preference, but I thought she could embroider herself instead. So I took a photo of her favorite almond garden, printed the image on fabric and asked her to embroider herself on it. This was the beginning of the embroidery collaboration and I worked with other women from the community in the same way, giving them full control over what to show and what to hide from their portraits.

Bedouins of Sinai are commonly misrepresented in the media, portrayed as isolated from, and a threat to, modern society. What are your plans for the dissemination and circulation of their cause? Do you have plans to connect this community with other indigenous people across the region?

I want the book to give the community the space to document their archives and of course, to raise awareness about their cause, and challenge many of the stereotypes about the Bedouins. What I would love is for younger members of the community to add more content to the book in the future, and to take control over their archives. I am not sure about other indigenous communities and how I could connect with them, because my process requires close contact with the community. I prefer to invest time and effort working with one community rather than doing short visits to different communities and creating something that is not exhaustive.

However, the idea of working with more communities is intriguing and I do see myself getting into another project with a different community. I just need to give it the right amount of time and make sure to do justice to the community.

You have been working with the Bedouin Jebeleya tribe in South Sinai, Egypt to produce a flora field guide. The guide, targeted towards the younger generations, includes photographs of the native plants and herbs that are used as alternative medicine or for personal practices, information on where and when the plants grow, how to pick them and description of its traditional use handwritten by collaborators from the community. Would this field guide help in halting, or at least slowing down, the accelerated process of loss of sense of belonging of these new generations towards their land and community?

I really hope so! This was one of the goals when I first started the flora field guide, and the content was generated directly by the older generations of the Bedouin community, who wanted to hand over their knowledge to the younger generations who have distanced themselves from the community, and are trying to look for acceptance and opportunities in other regions around Egypt. So I really hope that with this field guide, I could create a bridge between generations, and that the community’s younger generations could reconnect to the land somehow. I remember when I did my first demo of the field guide and I printed a couple of samples and went to the community to get some advice, check some facts, etc., one of the older collaborators, Sheikh Ibrahim, took the field guide, called out Youssef, his youngest son and they sat down together with the guide. Sheikh Ibrahim showed Youssef the different plants, and that for me was proof that this could really work.

Another Bedouin, a tour guide in his twenties, looked at the first demo and said “please add English into it, because I would like to use it in order to sell these plants to tourists”. So I did.

I also have this huge storage of dried plants from my different experimentations for the flora field guide, and my dream is to create a multisensory exhibition for the project where the audience could see their photographs and videos, hear their voices, maybe not the embroidery but definitely touch the plants, and even smell them and remember the scent of their home.

How has the ADPP program assisted you or opened up avenues for you to design, concretize and promote your project? And what is the role of the ADPP alumni community in this respect?

Joining ADPP has been a dream come true. ADPP is not just a program where you learn a few things; it is a mindset of how you could approach your project in a creative and ethical way.

I was mentored mainly by Eric Gottesman during the program, and we would spend so many sessions just talking about what this project means, and dissecting every word I got from the community and every word I said about the project. We explored how the project could elevate to something much bigger than just my story; the community’s story grew bigger because I started using metaphors and talking more about the sense and notion of belonging. I don’t think I would have been able to develop the project that way, i.e. in a more metaphoric and poetical way, without ADPP.

Working with Peter Van Agtmael and Randa Shaath [ADPP mentors] during the last workshop also helped me look at my work differently, because their backgrounds are so different. The way they looked at my work and the way they analyzed it in a way that differs from mine really changed my outlook on the project. I thought the project was just a small one that tackled a story that not a lot of people could relate to, but with ADPP I found that this story is much bigger and more universal than I thought.

I've been working on the project with Tanya Habjouqa before, during and after ADPP. She has been a crucial part of the development of the project which ultimately led me to be eligible to join ADPP. Now, she's my book editor.

The ADPP family and the alumni network have been really supportive. I found tremendous support from them when I started winning awards, when I had my daughter Aida, when I started to think of different ways of disseminating the project… I don’t think there is a supportive network in our region that is as strong as this one, and I am really grateful for being a part of it.

What keeps you up at night?

The book, without hesitation. As much as I love the challenge, I am constantly thinking of how to create a book that is not just a typical photography one; and of how this book could strengthen the Bedouins’ voice in the world without taking their voice out of context. At the moment the book is my main target and then comes the exhibition.