Sabiha Çimen, Hafiz

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Red Hook Editions (here). Hardcover with an open spine (20 x 27 cm), 140 pages, with 99 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist. Design concept and editing by Sabiha Çimen and Jason Eskenazi. Page layout design by Bonnie Briant. Cover graphics by Ali Ulvi Mıhoğlu and Şaban Demirdağ. Endpaper marbling by Uğur Taşatan. Drawings by Sumeyye Yaman, inspired by Melike Mete. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As a child, Sabiha Çimen and her twin sister attended Girl Quran School in her native Turkey. In these schools, girls spend several years working hard to memorize Quran verses, and this is also the place where they grow up, play, laugh, and dream. Over twenty years later, after becoming a successful photographer, Çimen started a long term project documenting the girls attending these schools and their vibrant girlhood. Over the period of four years, Çimen visited six different cities across Turkey, spending time in various Quran schools. The project was released as a photobook, offering a rare glimpse into a world usually hidden from the public eye. “Islamic women are underrepresented in photography, and as an insider in the media, I want to create a platform for discussion,” Çimen has said. On the strength of this project, Çimen was invited to join Magnum as a nominee, and was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant.

The striking cover of Hafiz immediately stands out. It echoes the design of the Quran, with a black graphic ornament placed against a sugar pink background, with details including female figures in hijab woven in with flowers. The cover and exclusive marbled endpapers were made by local Turkish artists, and the title page was drawn by one of the Quran school girls. The book has a consistent layout, with square photographs appearing one or two per spread with generous white space around them. The captions, along with thumbnails, are placed at the end of the book. 

The title of the book, Hafiz, means “guardian” or “memorizer” and refers to anyone who has completely memorized the Quran, all 6,238 verses (or about 77,000 words). Usually this learning process takes between 3 and 5 years, and is considered an exalted accomplishment in the Muslim world. Once memorized, the recitation of these verses also requires “delicate attention to pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm of the holy word”. A hafiz has a key role during Ramadan, as the entire Quran must be recited over 30 days.

The visual narrative of this photobook unfolds in an intimate and tender way. Hafiz begins with a photo of two young girls at a table, one of them holding the Quran and following the lines with a pencil, while the second girl leans on her hand looking up; she is trying to recite Quran verses from memory. The polka dot patterned tablecloth underneath the work going on matches the olive green color of the wall with dots in various sizes. This gentle but earnestly committed photograph sets the atmosphere for the visual flow of the book. 

As Çimen introduces us to the girls, their portraits are delicate and sympathetic. There is a photo of Melike in the backyard with an ice cream – she leans on a ladder placed against the wall, wearing black clothes with bright blue sneakers and yellow socks. The image on the right is the portrait of Büsra – her face fills up most of the frame, while out of focus dandelions appear at the bottom. Then, two sisters are photographed at graduation, each dressed in uniform and standing in the same position holding their Qurans. This portrait is paired with a shot of an open Quran on a shadowed bed, with a girl’s hand gently touching the pages. In another delicate portrait, Çimen photographs a girl standing behind a window curtain that billows outward; she was too shy to show her face. Çimen’s approach is consistently compassionate and patient, waiting for the quiet moments when the girls reveal themselves.

As we move through the book, Çimen shows the girls as they study, play, and dream, bringing forward diverse moments from their lives. She captures them playing hopscotch in the yard, learning to roller skate, performing in the theater, goofing around with a gorilla mask, and making lemonade. One spread shows three girls squatting in the road as they snack on broken watermelon, while the nearby photo on the right shows a close up of the smashed fruit; this unfolds to a sequence of four images showing the girls enjoying their time in an amusement park. In another photograph, four young women dressed in black stand in a cloud of pink smoke coming from the colored smoke bomb one girl is holding; they look straight into the camera, capturing a moment somewhere between daydream and reality. Shot with respect and care, the range of images tells an engagingly intimate and nuanced story. 

In the past few years, a number of photobooks by women have offered more nuanced depiction of the lives of Muslim women. In her photobook Hello Future (reviewed here), Farah Al Qasimi addresses the intersection of women’s roles, Western influences, and gender stereotypes, while the Iranian artist Mashid Mohadjerin brings together the personal and the historical in her book Freedom is Not Free (reviewed here), creating a layered timeline of women influencing political change. And in I Read I Write (reviewed here), Laura Boushnak shares a hopeful visual survey of women’s literacy and education efforts in the Arab world. Çimen contributes to this complex conversation on representation and gender with this striking series documenting the joyful and magical moments of girlhood in the Muslim world. 

As a photobook, Hafiz is beautifully produced, thoughtful and elegant throughout. It captures an intimate and poetic journey of growth, paying attention to the complex inner world of these girls. Çimen’s portraits challenge the narrow, one-sided narrative of passive and oppressed young women in the Muslim world, offering a view with more compassion and understanding. The personal stories of these girls clearly relate to Çimen’s own life, and her connection brings authentic intimacy to the photographs. Seen together, these photographs form a series that successfully honors both the hard work and the dreams of these girls, while educating us about the actual rhythms of their lives.

Collector’s POV: Sabiha Çimen is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where she became a nominee in 2020. Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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