Counter Orientalism on Instagram

Amira Howeidy , Friday 3 Sep 2021

Going on vacation to Iraq or Libya? said no one ever. One Instagram account is attempting to reclaim the narrative around the MENA region beyond news headlines

Counter Orientalism

Crystal clear, translucent waters and gently undulating soft white sand are embraced by stones. The picturesque green mountainous backdrop with perfect blue skies does not suggest Algeria. And few outside the North African country have heard of the ancient district in question, Collo, where forests, mountainous terrain, stunning beaches and Roman relics are only partially captured in the Instagram account, Kheir, hoping to redefine “the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] for good.”

There is a pun there, kheir – which is the Arabic word for “good” – being driven by altruistic principles. The curated “travel art and culture” Instagram endeavours to put an end to the stereotyping of the MENA region, finally.

Here, Yemen is just stunning. In one video, a boy in rolled up blue jeans jumps off a white stone cliff into the turquoise water below. The narrow lagoon encased with a limestone precipice displays shades of green, yellow and aquamarine where the water meets the cliff on Yemen’s Socotra Island, in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden.

From her home in southern Carolina, the United States, the curator, Joy Camel, scours different platforms daily for pictures and videos of architecture and nature she would like to see in MENA. This labour of love is motivated by a deeper sentiment to “restore” the region’s global representation.

“I know it may sound very grand,” Camel, 25, said in a telephone interview. But it works.

Launched in the spring of 2020, the striking Instagram account is a thoughtful selection of untired images largely invested in the Arab world, but also includes Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. 

In its attention to detail – the textures, the motifs, the vistas, even the faces of the region – Kheir is a true effort by a young Egyptian-American to decolonise Arab tourism. Here, MENA is not the tired, a historical, monolithic category still presented by Western media. Camel also shies away from the clichéd images of willing oriental otherness exported from the region to Western audiences.

 From northern Sudan: Nubian pyramids in the ancient city of Meroë. Lush landscapes of Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman. A woman leads water buffalos, canoeing through the UNESCO inscribed marshes of Chabaish, Nasiriyah, Iraq. Old Damascus, Syria. The oldest building in Amman, Jordan. The Ushaiger heritage village, Saudi Arabia. Palestinian teens playing on a steep fence above the West Bank. A stylish room in a 200-year-old house turned hotel in Kfour, Lebanon. A window into Ghadames, Libya.

The idea of representation was born out of Camel’s own experience as the daughter of Egyptian immigrant parents. Born and raised in the US, she spent summers in Egypt where she says she had a “taste of both worlds” and “the gap” in between. She grew up in circles that didn’t know where Egypt was, let alone what language was spoken there, and it was alienating. When visiting Egypt, she saw the awe people associated with those “who come from the west”, too.

“I know we have a lot of great things but I want to give them a sense of value. We have something beautiful to offer the world too, through our history, art and culture.” Camel started the Instagram account after spending eight months in Egypt for the first time as an independent adult. “I got to travel and saw things I hadn’t seen before, opening my eyes as to how much beauty, history and culture the region has, which the Western world doesn’t get to see.”

In 2017 she was involved in humanitarian work in Europe’s then largest refugee camp, Moria, in the Greek island of Lesbos, where she found herself with displaced people seeking safety and better homes. “I really saw myself and my own family in that situation. It could have been us.”

In Moria – the “open air prison” as Human Rights Watch calls it, which was flooded with refugees from 60 nationalities – Camel met an Amazigh person for the first time in her life. “I didn’t know they existed, and when I did I realised there are indigenous groups I didn’t even know about.”

A self-educating journey ensued as she set up Kheir, sharing images that spoke to her, from an awareness influenced by her experience with refugees, among other things. “Obviously everyone wants to go to Europe and to experience ‘the cool Western life’, when there’s so much beauty here. When I’m showing these places, it’s coming from a sense of pride, from a place of wanting to represent who we really are, not just what we’re known for because of the political headlines.”

The sentiment also resonates with her experience as a minority US citizen. Growing up in a private school largely among white American kids, Camel says she couldn’t fit in no matter how hard she tried. “At one point you realise it is just not working, then you start relating more to people of colour who come from similar backgrounds.” It was in this community that a sense of pride in where she comes from and who she is developed. This was unlike the generation of her parents who were just trying to survive, have a career and fit in, so that their children could have an opportunity.

Camel speculates that the Internet and being connected helped validate this sense of pride among a community of people who share her perspective and to reconcile them with their identities.

A recent poll of her audience showed that 60-70 per cent were diaspora Middle Eastern and North African people. While Kheir is primarily aimed at Western eyes, Camel says she’s aware of her audience of Arabs located in the region. It’s not lost on her that her US passport gives her the freedom of movement to travel in MENA unrestricted, a privilege denied to Arabs themselves.

But while postcolonial borders are challenging to cross as inter-travel policies are designed to be suspicious of or discourage intra-Arab tourism, there is little demand for the business anyway. A 2016 list of the ten most popular travel destinations for Arabs published by the World Tourism Organisation included only one Arab city: Dubai. Once a medical student, Camel is now involved with her family’s Air B&Bs, and produces photography with a focus on travel, art and architecture. She was due to turn Kheir to a travel guide and culture blog this week, highlighting artists.

“Travel is hard as it is but I think also when you’re a female it’s a whole different experience,” she says. “So I’d like to also capture some of these experiences through the eyes of a woman too. A female traveller is totally unrepresented and it’s kind of risky and sometimes scary.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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