Rehab Eldalil, The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2023 by FotoEvidence (here) and Trobades & Premis Mediterranis Albert Camus (here). Hardcover (21.6×15.5 cm), 182 pages, with 44 color photographs, and 9 images with embroidery by community members and native plants from the Sinai region foraged and described by tribe elders. Includes texts by Eric Gottesman, Moussa AlGebaly, and the artist, with poems by Seliman Abd AlRahman. Design by Bayan Dahdah. Cover design by Fernanda Fajardo and João Linneu. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Longing of The Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken is the first photobook by Rehab Eldalil, an Egyptian photographer and Bedouin civil rights activist whose work focuses on “the broad theme of identity explored through participatory creative practices.” The book is a personal project spanning over ten years, and is a quest to reconnect with Eldalil’s indigenous Bedouin ancestry through collaboration with the Bedouin community in Sinai, Egypt, who have been inhabiting the region for more than 1400 years.

Eldalil has always had a genuine curiosity about her Bedouin identity, and through conversations with a Bedouin elder, she learned that that Eldalil, her last name, means “the guide”, and that there was an Eldalil family from the community who had left four generations ago and settled in Zagazig, the same place where her father was born. In learning about this history, Eldalil realized that she was rerooting herself without even knowing it. Her photobook tells this story. 

The Longing of the Stranger is a relatively small photobook, intimate and elegant. It has a simple light yellow cover and an illustration of an embroidered star, a vital navigating tool, appears in the top right corner. The name of the artist and the title in Arabic are placed on the back cover in green. The book has an open spine and a drawing appears on the end papers. Inside, the photographs vary in their sizes and placement, and are interwoven with texts and handwritten notes. Throughout the book, there are links to audio recordings that accompany the visual narrative, and occasional fold outs add another layer to the visual flow. 

To build her narrative, Eldalil brings together photographs, soundscapes, diaristic texts, embroidery, poetry, and a field guide to species of native plants and herbs detailing their medicinal potential. Eldalil also engaged in long conversations with members of the Bedouin community of the Jebelaya tribe of St. Catherine, South Sinai, talking about belonging and its meaning. Some of the people contributed poetry, others shared stories, and several women hand-embroidered over Eldalil’s portraits. “The project opened up a wider question about belonging, and over time I realised this was not just my story – it was the community’s story.” 

The opening image is a full spread, capturing sand sprinkled over a white background, a reference to the Bedouin community and the land. A couple of pages inside, another full spread image shows a close up of a hill against blue sky and a person walking up. In general, Eldalil’s photographs of the land are mixed with portraits of the members of the Bedouin community. Every woman she photographed was invited to add traditional embroidery to her portrait, with the complete freedom to reveal or conceal any parts of it, taking full control over the representation. Those pages also have slightly different paper texture, echoing the embroidered surface. 

One of the first photographs in the book shows the portrait of a young woman, both front and back, with her choice of embroidery tracing her face and filling her arm, while also creating a frame around the image. Then, a portrait of a boy is paired with another photo where the figure is completely covered with embroidery stitches. Later, a vertical photograph of a woman in a red scarf walking in the desert is paired with a photograph of a red flower embroidered to highlight its contours, making a formal connection between the two.           

The book also features images of plants and herbs found in the region. The photographs and the supporting information are printed on transparency paper, creating a feeling that we can touch them. Short descriptions, in Arabic and English, provide more detail about each species. One of the plants is called “mountain tea”; it grows in valleys and mountains in St. Catherine and Sheikh Awad, and is used to treat high blood pressure. Its image is placed right after a photograph of a cracked desert surface, making them feel connected. The knowledge of these plants holds both medicinal and traditional benefits for the community.

Throughout the book, short writings tell the story of the Bedouin community, emphasizing that the Sinai’s flora and fauna are essential to the livelihood of the community and that it is a highly spiritual place. We also learn that in defiance of Bedouin culture, the government built apartment blocks in the region, which remain empty, symbolizing the ongoing power struggles between the community and local government. One of the full spread photographs depicts these empty structures, painted the same color as the hills in the background. These permanent structures interrupt the cycles of life the Bedouin respect; after years of drought, a major flood in March of 2020 brought life back to dried up land. 

Eldalil’s thoughtful approach to documenting this community (and her relationship to it) can be placed in dialogue with a number of recent photobooks. The work of Stacy Arezou Mehrfar explores similar questions of belonging in her photobook The Moon Belongs to Everyone (reviewed here). Eldalil’s collaborative approach to storytelling also brings to mind Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse (reviewed here), as he invited members of the community to amend the photographs using the technique of dot painting, an integral part of Australian Indigenous culture. And in her book El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (reviewed here), Tarrah Krajnak searches for her family roots as she explores the circumstances of her birth and adoption, using unorthodox portraits and archival recreations. 

As Eldalil constructed her complex and multi-layered narrative, she realized that her book was also becoming “an alternative archive of modern Bedouin life”, and a record of the natural and cultural heritage of the region. While The Longing of The Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken is a deeply personal project, it ultimately raises universal questions about belonging and identity, and our connection to the land. Working on this project helped Eldalil to reconnect with her past and reimagine her artistic future, and it will be exciting to follow her practice as she moves forward. 

Collector’s POV: Rehab Eldalil does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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