Four Israeli-Arab female students’ stories told in words and photos

The book puts to bed the notion, which some of us may harbor, that our perspective of Arabs feeds off a uniform brush.

THE FOUR Israeli-Arab female students: Samar, Aya, Saja and Manar driving in Ramat Aviv, 2014  (photo credit: IRIS HASSID)
THE FOUR Israeli-Arab female students: Samar, Aya, Saja and Manar driving in Ramat Aviv, 2014
(photo credit: IRIS HASSID)
Home may be where the heart is, but emotions have a tendency to ebb and flow, and one can develop a sense of belonging over time. Then again, connecting with one’s milieu is not necessarily an exclusively subjective exercise. There can be objective factors beyond one’s control that may color our perception of our surroundings. That can certainly be said of members of ethnic minority groups, particularly when the ethnic divide generally comes loaded with some powerful political undertones. 
All of the above, and more, are central to photographer Iris Hassid’s latest tome, A Place of Our Own. The inviting and highly attractive user-friendly book, with mostly English, but also Arabic and Hebrew texts, is predominantly a visual affair with close to 100 documentary prints. Hassid has also worked in some illuminating and thought=provoking textual passages with some intriguing quotes from the four protagonists: young Arab women trying to make their way in secular urban Israel. There are also some learned contributions from lecturer, activist and feminist researcher Manal Shalabi, and from culture and arts researcher, and curator and lecturer Gilad Melzer. Shalabi, an Arab from Haifa, offers insight both on the sociopolitical backdrop to the pictures and also on some of the minefield elements Hassid and her subjects had to negotiate en route to completing the fetching project. 
Melzer’s essay, tellingly, is called “There Are Many Ways Not to See,” which, naturally, refers to the tendency of any society’s mainstream to sidestep and marginalize, if not downright discriminate against, those who come from outside the accepted social norms. He talks of “blind spots” and suggests that the Jewish Israelis have selective vision, and often simply do not, consciously, see the country’s Arab citizens.
Hassid has plenty of prior experience in taking on immersive documentary escapades, in which she eventually manages to strike up a rapport, and a genuinely close relationship with her subjects, based on trust. That enables her to get close up to them – personally and physically with her camera - and, thereby, offer the public a clear path through to the personal ins and outs of the individuals in question.
The book also puts to bed the notion, which some of us may harbor, that our perspective of Arabs feeds off a uniform brush. Each of the foursome – at the time all students at the University of Tel Aviv – Samar, Aya, Saja and Majdoleen, comes from a different social, familial and religious background. Two of them are Christians and two are Moslems, one of whom is observant.
Hassid did her homework before embarking on the project, with a portfolio that incorporates similar sociopolitical-artistic ventures. 
“I am drawn to groups, mainly, of young women,” she notes. “I did a project on IDF women soldiers (At Eighteen) and one on my daughter and her friends (Make Believe).”
Hassid doesn’t just drop by, take a few candid snaps and scoot over to the publishers. She gathers information, gradually wins her subjects’ trust and documents them over time. This, as with A Place of Our Own, allows her – and, naturally, the reader-spectator public – to get some idea of the evolving dynamics between Hassid and the young women, and between the subjects themselves, also taking in the changes the girls go through and how they grow into their circumstances and themselves.
One of the most striking aspects of the prints in the new book, is how “normal” Samar et al, and some of their pals, appear. And, when you think about it – Hassid would dearly love us to do that – why shouldn’t they?
The youngsters may have dropped into Ramat Aviv, the embodiment of supposedly liberal thinking Israel, from very different social climes but, basically, they are just a bunch of newcomers to the big city looking to settle in and get their education done.
Hassid had her work cut out for her, to navigate the girls’ suspicion of her and to allow her to attain a fly-on-the-wall role in their lives, but she managed it. That comes across palpably in the delightful, fun, evocative and emotive pictures.
The photographer intervened very little in how the women presented themselves in the shots and while, at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be too much in the way of artistic intent, all the photographs tell a story. 
The quotes of the four women – all rubber-stamped by them before they found their way into the book – reveal much about them, and their outlook on life in general. Saja, for example, says: “I don’t relate to Israeli roots, of course, and not so much to Palestinian ones… I’m not at all a political person. I’m interested in human relations between people. My motto is: Live your life, moment by moment.”
But perhaps the most telling mindset observation appears right at the start of the book. 
“It is important that you photograph what you see here, in real life, and not how an Arab woman is portrayed in the media,” says Saja. 
She also addresses the fact that Hassid came to the project fray with highly contrasting personal baggage. 
“What’s different here is your point of view in the photographs, how you, an Israeli, learn to see us fairly, with no masks. Otherwise I would have done this project myself.” 
It is, Saja stresses, a two-way street. 
“It’s interesting how you, the Other, see us. And how we see you. This is the beginning of every solution – seeing the other side.”   
By Iris Hassid
Schilt Publishing
168 pages