Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women & Photography

Published July 17, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on the newspaper's website

I'm writing this with my feet in buckets of cold water as I recover from a seven-hour hike with all my camera equipment through an unnamed city in a faraway land where I am taking an intensive outdoor urban photography course.I know it’s not considered the most feminine of activities, especially for a young woman from the conservative south of Oman. Fortunately though, being feminine and proper is the least of my worries most of the time.

I cannot recall exactly when I first became interested in photography, but over the past ten years or so my interest has evolved into a passion. My early days involved experimenting with black and white photography using film cameras (remember those?). I have since progressed to Digital SLRs with multiple lenses.

Despite my passion and ability to take good photos, I am not by any means a professional photographer. I would like to become one someday though, hence the investment in good equipment and the intensive photography hikes overseas with an incredibly talented photographer and teacher. Had I attempted the same adventure in Salalah, I would have ended up in serious trouble for endangering the reputation of my tribe (I’m only half-kidding).

This brings us to the topic of today’s column; females and photography in Oman and Salalah in particular. First of all, I’d like you to keep in mind that the relatively small community of photographers in Oman has traditionally been all-male. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the public emergence of females in the field of serious photography has occurred only over the past three to five years at the very most.

In Salalah, the only semi-acceptable photography profession for women is wedding photography. Women who take on this profession usually see it as a quick way to make money (approximately RO100 per wedding) in an all-female environment. Most of them go out and purchase an expensive camera, but due to lack of proper training the results are usually far from professional. I’ve seen results where the bride had red-eyes in almost every photo.

Besides wedding photography and without sounding too pessimistic, I can almost say that society frowns upon female photographers here in the south and perhaps in other parts of Oman as well. I know this from experience. I’ve appeared in public a number of times with my big chunky camera and was either given strange stares and asked what on earth I was doing, or word reached one of my male relatives that I was seen in public drawing attention to myself. A couple of years ago I ventured out into Muttrah Souq in Muscat with a female photographer friend and we also received plenty of glares.

To be fair, things are definitely improving quickly in the Muscat area and very slowly in other parts of Oman. There have been a few exhibitions in the capital over the past couple of years highlighting the work of female photographers including a very recent one at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah.

Furthermore, a little over a week ago, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said ordered the establishment of a governmentsupervised Omani Photographers’ Association. Up until now the only outlet for photographers innSalalah has been the photography branch of the Omani Fine Arts Society. Again, it has been entirely male dominated until very recently. The handful of females who were brave enough to join is practically invisible according to an inside source. Personally, I have always felt a little intimidated by the club and didn’t consider joining.

On a final note, I hope the new association pays extra attention to training and to the unique role women can play in the Omani photography scene. After all, we do represent half the population! I know there are many hidden female talents behind closed doors in Salalah that are simply waiting to be encouraged and unleashed. The future looks a little brighter. Till then, I’ll be counting the days until I can freely set up my tripod in central Salalah and shoot to my heart’s delight without feeling judged or intimidated!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Khareef Salalah

Published July 3, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article on the newspaper's website.

You guessed right. Today’s column is about the Dhofar monsoon season, commonly referred to as the ‘Khareef’. What kind of Dhofari would I be if I didn’t write an annual piece on our overrated rainy season? Nearly a fortnight ago the first drops of rain graced my car windshield at 7 am as the south of Oman slipped gently into Khareef mode.
To most outsiders, Khareef-mode means monsoon rain and emerald green mountains. To Dhofaris it means - among other things - weddings, picnics, mud, Salalah Tourism Festival, insane traffic, monsoon bugs, tourists and yes… rain.

As hundreds of thousands of GCC nationals and locals from the north of Oman flock to Salalah to escape the soaring summer temperatures in July, yours truly gets on the first plane out of this town.
To be honest, I had planned to write a piece describing why I can’t bear the festival or being in Salalah during the peak of tourist season. However, in a moment of serenity a couple of days ago while cruising at an altitude of 2,000 feet in a hot air balloon in a faraway land, a voice inside my head told me to stop being a snob.

Despite my short bouts of pessimism, July is actually a really fun time to be in Salalah. First of all, the weather is really great compared to the rest of the Arabian Gulf. Temperatures hover around the mid-twenties during July, August and most of September. To quote last year’s Khareef column ‘The heavy mist, gushing springs and emerald green mountains may look like tropical East Asia or even Scotland until you spot the first herd of camels grazing happily in a valley of wild flowers and butterflies. Sometimes it’s too good to be true, and it’s unbelievable to think that just a few hundred kilometres away lie the rolling sand dunes of the Empty Quarter’.

Between June 21 and July 18 this year, all the action will be taking place at the Salalah Tourism Festival. I have not been to the festival for a couple of years, but I keep tabs on the different activities and exhibitions that are held at the festival grounds. Highlights include the usual exhibitions, cultural events, concerts, traditional dancing and music, theme park, camel rides, and plenty of great food. The shopping pavilions hosting cheap products from China are a big hit with the women. If you’d like to acquire a few bargaining skills, I suggest you shadow a Dhofari woman at one of the shopping pavilions for a couple of hours.

Over the years the festival has hosted some incredibly wacky events including cheap freak shows involving half-animal half-human creatures, strange eastern European dance troupes and odd talent shows. This year’s wacky touch includes a traditional medicine kiosk where you can get branded with a hot iron rod (I kid you not). They also offer blood-letting services. Google it.

The festival means a lot to many people in Dhofar. It’s a fun place to take the kids and there are plenty of activities to keep all members of the family entertained. If I were to brave the festival at some point in the next few years, I’d probably head straight for the book exhibition and photography exhibitions. I might also stay for the daily fireworks and stop by the heritage village to see some of the dancing. I have a soft spot for traditional music.

All in all, monsoon is a great time to visit Salalah. The beaches may not be at their finest, but the rest of the atmosphere makes up for it. This year the holy month of fasting – Ramadhan – is expected sometime around July 20 depending on the sighting of the moon. This of course has affected the dates for the festival and will affect tourism in Dhofar. However, as far as I’m concerned the best time to visit Salalah is afterRamadhan. Dhofar will be at its greenest and hopefully the number of tourists will have declined. You might just be able to find a hotel room and a picnic spot!