Tanya Habjouqa's 'Occupied Pleasures': Keeping Our Humanity


"...there are two types of people:
those who cast their suffering and sins
into the streets so they can sleep
and those who collect the people's suffering and sins
mold them into crosses, and parade them
through the streets of Babylon and Gaza and Beirut"
-- from "Sleeping in Gaza" by Najwan Darwish

I first discovered photographer Tanya Habjouqa in Florence, where her photo exhibit was showcased during the Middle East Now Film Festival. There I was, in my birth city, being absorbed and entranced by photographs of Palestinian women practicing yoga, men pumping iron, girls posing on the beach and feeling every inch of the dream that is Palestine, and the displacement that can be life there. The emotions, the joys, the disappointments, the expectations and the realities, peeking out from Habjouqa's beautiful images were all too much and I soon found myself in tears, in the midst of a festive cocktail party and the brisk afternoon Florentine spring air.

Ever since that day, I have not been able to go two days without thinking of Habjouqa's work, seeing her images or hearing her name. Granted she's that hot, probably one of the hottest, most sought after photo journalist living in the Region, and yet, what she does is so unconventional, so beautifully different that she cannot even be described by any simplistic label. Habjouqa may not be on the front lines of war, but rather discovering the back alleys of everyday life lived in occupation. She doesn't need to travel to the edge of conflict, but finds her images in the homes, the cars, the streets of Palestine, thus showing the world that most important of concepts: The magic of the place. I adore her work, and the woman behind it... Well, she's pretty damn fabulous too.

This month, Habjouqa's book project "Occupied Pleasures" -- featuring images from that exhibit that made me cry -- is on Kickstarter raising funds. Within a few days after launching, the crowdfunding campaign had already reached half of its goal but with Kickstarter we know it's all or nothing, so I'm putting my own money where my pen is, for once, and helping out. The finished product promises to be as unique, beautiful and OK, I'll say it one more time magical as what I've come to expect from Habjouqa. And if that wasn't enough, it will feature Palestinian proverbs, poetry from Najwan Darwish -- who has been called "one of the most exciting young voices in the Arab world" -- as well as an intro by renowned Middle East political scholar Dr. Laleh Khalili.

I caught up with Habjouqa via email this time, across the divides and through the times zones that divide us, to find within her answers what I cherish most, that most welcomed of all combats -- cultural resistance.

Can you talk a bit about your unique, multinational background?

Tanya Habjouqa: My father is Circassian. My family originates from the Caucasus Mountains, but we had our own dark period of displacement and dispossession and great numbers ended up in the Middle East. Vibrant communities, integrated into the cultures of our host countries which became our own communities in Jordan, and once, Syria. So, as proud as I am of my Circassian roots, I feel equally Jordanian. But my mother is Texan, and at a young age, we left and I spent majority of my formative years in Texas. I would visit Amman in the summers and live there on and off. Both places are home, both informed me. I describe by self as Circassian, Jordanian, and Texan. I laugh when I consider the loaded identit(ies) handed to my children adding Palestinian to the cocktail. So much love I have for all these places, so many stereotypes each carry, but such raw character, hospitality, and warmth. Oh, and humor.

Increasingly, we are living in this "us against them" world, yet your roots are in both the Western and the Arab world. How do you come to terms with that, in everyday life? And in your work?

Tanya Habjouqa: I think that the result of my upbringing, bouncing between places and additionally being from an uber-minority group left me as the constant outsider in many ways. And an addiction to narrative and framing at an early age, as I would witness such distinctly different perception and framing of events like the '91 Gulf War. Leading up to it, I was a rebellious Texas teen. Within days, before the US assault began, I was a fish out of water in a Jordanian high school. Suddenly I was a teen in Jordan, witnessing outrage and a sense of injustice and street protests against war. And, before the internet and satellite, because of proximity I had access to four countries' news framing of that war. Distinctly, absurdly different.


Later, I studied anthropology, and then had an MA in political communications and Mideast politics. My dissertation was on narratives of resistance and suffering, between Israel and Lebanon. So again, perceptions of events and how they are framed, reframed, and sometimes misappropriated. I feel a deep responsibility when I create work and send it out into the world. How am I framing the people whose story I tell? Will they recognize themselves in it? Am I being respectful? Simultaneously, am I being critical? Am I telling this in a way that can capture the attention of the "West" and give them a second look?

Your photographs capture a side of Palestinian life that cuts to the heart of the matter. They show the humanity behind the headlines. Did you set out to make such a unique statement?

Tanya Habjouqa: It was not in my mission statement. I won a proposal from Magnum Foundation which empowered me to do this work. But for sure, in almost every story I have done in Israel and Palestine, I am always grappling for an angle to shake up what so sadly are dogmatic, reductive views of this place. So from my exploration of the Jerusalem drag queen scene with Jews and Palestinians, to the exploration of heroin addiction in the old city of Jerusalem, every story I have done was from an angle of bringing a fresh analysis, or new gateway into this place. Because this place is hyper narrated, so as a storyteller I need to find a fresh angle. And as an anthropologist, I need to go beyond the hackneyed tropes and bring something real. And now as a mother of Palestinian children, somewhat weary of this heavy narrative and identity they are inheriting... I need to make sense of this place myself to teach them about their world.

And, having covered some dark events in the Region, Palestinians continue to amaze me, how they keep their humanity. It seems to be crumbling in Syria, and elsewhere....

Now you're crowdfunding for a book to showcase those images. Why a book, and why now?

Tanya Habjouqa: It was always envisioned, dreamed to be a book. This project was a departure for me, something far more intimate than anything I have every done before. I had something to say in what I was documenting, a personal stake. It was for my children, a push back against misrepresentation. A move from traditional documentary to what is being called new documentary, and an attempt to say something different in the hyper narration of this place. But still, with this story, there is so much more that has been left out. Quotes, stories behind pics, colorful Palestinian proverbs that I see when I look at my pics. Sequencing, addition of super dark poetry of Najwan Darwish, because yes, there is a dark humor and sad political, existential darkness to these photos, underneath. I want to go in-depth, frame this project all the way.


It has to be a book. And David and Svetlana from FotoEvidence sought me out and pushed me to make it so... If we can pull off this fundraising, we are gonna make something super special.

Do you think it's harder to be a woman photographer? And why?

Tanya Habjouqa: My colleagues and best friends at rawiya.net - an all women, all Middle Eastern photo collective, get asked this a lot. I would say no, it is easier. We get such access, we are not as threatening. When dealing with conservative situations, we can often gain trust of sisters, wives, young girls who otherwise may keep a distance or not be photographed. I mean, of course, there are fears as a woman, a woman in any situation, like what happened in Tahrir Square with the horrible rapes. But in general, no, being a woman is a gift in this field.

Filmmaker Elia Suleiman said something that struck me, in a recent interview -- "I was thinking about how incompetent language becomes in the face of such horrors." You are a witness, with your lens, to so much. What has touched you most in these last months?

Tanya Habjouqa: Genius quote, by Elia. He is one of my most favorites. Absurd, dark, funny and political. He was a great influence to my work really, in Palestine. I have not been photographing so much these last few months. The events of last summer, Gaza again, and the horrible murder of the teen in East Jerusalem and flaring tensions and violence and unfair tit for tat... I have been too depressed to address it. It is being well documented and told. I have nothing new to say about it, which is standard for me in how I approach a story. But there have been moments photographing, while on a news assignment or working for an NGO like Oxfam, the quiet ones. A mentally disabled woman who had been arrested and beaten, hiding her smile when I took her portrait because she was ashamed of her teeth. These things. These small moments, encounters.

From your front and center position living in East Jerusalem, what do you see, as far as Israeli Palestinian relations? Is there hope?

Tanya Habjouqa: I have met some of the most phenomenal people from Israel, beautiful souls who are front and center questioning and demanding. But they are small in number. Most people I meet are kind but purposefully unaware or unquestioning of status quo. And that depresses me and worries me. And as to the violent episodes of the so-called lone wolf intifadas, that worries me. Because Jerusalem, in some ways more than other place here, is the darkest place in Palestine and Israel. Because it is burdened with agendas, squeezing the humanity out of that place. So... Not sure. If the inequities are addressed, there could be hope, yes. But I don't see that happening anytime soon... In fact, it is getting worse.

Finally, three words that describe you.

Tanya Habjouqa: Passionate, goofy, curious.

All images courtesy of Tanya Habjouqa, copyrighted and used with permission.