“There could not be so much beauty. It was so beautiful, really very picturesque,” Sherif Sonbol, Al-Ahram Weekly’s veteran photographer, said of his memories of Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province and now the unfortunate epicentre of the outbreak of the coronavirus that has infected over 60,000 people in China and killed close to 2,000 in the country.
For Sonbol, Wuhan was about seemingly endless greenery, wonderful trees, and peaceful people. The pictures he took of boats floating on the Yangtze River, the longest in Asia, are among the most cherished of those he has taken on his travels.
European monarchs portraits in a meeting room
Sonbol was in Wuhan two years ago. When he arrived with a painter friend, Nevine Guindi, they were both stunned at what they saw.
“I have been all over the world, and I have seen many beautiful places. This was not my first trip to China, and I knew that China has so much beauty to show, but Wuhan was really exceptional,” Sonbol said.
“I remember we were walking through Wuhan, and Nevine suddenly said that if God had put so much beauty in this city what would there be left in Heaven. I cannot think of any sentiment more accurate about this place,” he added.
In Wuhan, like in Beijing and Henan, Sonbol was overwhelmed by the diversity China has to offer a visiting photographer.
“In every city a photographer visits there are always some inevitably beautiful pictures: the faces of young and older people smiling and showing their beautiful teeth or beautiful wrinkles, or natural scenery or art performances or architectural heritage. But what is really special about the many cities in China I have been to is the easygoing nature of the people. They don’t get anxious or self-conscious when a photographer starts taking pictures,” Sonbol said.
Just eight weeks ago, Sonbol put on an exhibition of his Henan collection, a city he visited in autumn 2019. He showed photographs of an entire underground cultural city, palaces and temples built for kings and deities, women dancing and girls attending to the elaborate process of making tea.
However, of the many photographs, whether in colour or black and white, it is the pictures capturing one smiling face or another that seem to stand out.
For Sonbol this was a particular feature of his Chinese experience. “Every country has something that captures the attention in a distinct way. In Thailand, for example, it is the floating markets that are captivating: the way that the boats, goods, and people are somehow artistically clustered together. This is something very attractive to the camera,” Sonbol said.
In Tirana, the capital of Albania, there were monuments built by a country with a Muslim-majority population in honour of Christian figures, he added. A good example was the citadel dedicated to the memory of the 15th-century military commander Gjergj Kastrioti who had defied the Ottomans in Eastern Europe.
Mount Yuntai in Jiaozuo city
Places with stories fascinate Sonbol. A beautiful picture, he is convinced, has to tell a story. “I guess that if one looks hard enough there is always a hidden story that a photograph can show in every city,” Sonbol said.
In Warsaw, Sonbol was fascinated by the stories of the reconstruction of the city after the destruction inflicted upon it in World War II. In Pakistan, he found adjacent villages, one giving their daughters the right to education so girls could be seen walking in pairs to school, and the next, just a few km away, with girls and women hardly ever seen on the roads.
It is in his own city, Cairo, this year’s Capital of Islamic Culture, that Sonbol has focused his camera on such stories.
“Not many people know there is a small Christian tomb hiding in the Al-Rifaai Mosque in Islamic Cairo, as this was built by the khedive Ismail for one of his Christian wives. Not many people can immediately recognise whether a particular picture is taken in a mosque or a church because ultimately the thread of architecture and design flows in an uninterrupted fashion,” Sonbol said.
There is also a deep architectural resemblance between the city’s churches, mosques and synagogues, he added, and it was this that inspired Sonbol’s collection of pictures of Cairo’s synagogues, churches and mosques in an exhibition entitled “Cairo: Crossroads of Faith”.
The interconnectivity of religions, he said, was as much Cairo’s story as picturesque and tranquil beauty was the story of Wuhan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.