SWALIF: how new UAE publishing house wants to further critique in the Gulf

Its first book, 'Encapsulated Volume 1: Photo Essays on Khaleejiness', is now available and accompanied by a photography exhibition

Salem Al Suwaidi loves conversations – starting them, having them and igniting an argument or two along the way. In fact, that’s what he named his new publishing house after – Swalif, the Arabic for the word.

SWALIF Publishing House’s beginnings also go back to a conversation, one the half-Emirati, half-Moroccan founder was having with a friend at the end of last year.

Both university students, they discussed how academic discourse was, at times, impenetrable and skewed by, as Al Suwaidi describes it, “elitist, privileged white men”. They agreed that what was needed was a type of forum for intellectual thought that was not only accessible, but also “written by youth in this region”.

The next day, he decided to go into publishing and SWALIF was created. “It felt like the best avenue to facilitate these arguments I wanted to have. At the root of this publishing house is a desire to have as many conversations as possible,” he says.

SWALIF was established this year, with Al Suwaidi as editor in chief, and a team of four to keep it running, including Maitha Al Omaira as art director and Medyyah Al Tamimi as creative writing editor.

The publishing house’s first book, Encapsulated Volume 1: Photoessays on Khaleejiness, was released last week. It contains the works of 16 photographers from the Gulf, detailing their reflections on the meanings of Khaleeji identity in visual and textual forms, and also includes commentary from SWALIF’s editors and writing contributions from academics and cultural practitioners. Graphic designer Azza Al Shaikh, part of the SWALIF team, worked on putting the pages together.

Encapsulated Volume 1 is accompanied by an exhibition, currently on view at Manarat Al Saadiyat’s Photography Studio. It features 11 artists from the book.

Filled with contemplative images, the book explores the urban landscapes and architectural textures of the Gulf, as seen in photographs by Buthaina Al Zaman, Latifa Al Khayat, Malaika Munshi, Khaled Esguerra and Hamad Al Fayhani. Other works play with stereotypical portrayals of gender, as in Hajar Al Mutairi’s portrait of a mustachioed women in traditional dress, or Khaldoun Khelaifi’s image of a Saudi man with a colourful ghutra.

Across Encapsulated Volume 1’s 150 pages, the artists argue that the concept of Khaleeji identity remains unfixed, subject to rapid reshaping, much like the region. Khaleejiness is what the editors at SWALIF refer to as “a new plane upon which we currently roam”.

“I want all people who grew up feeling that they were not Khaleeji enough to read this book … I hope young people feel validated by their experiences as young Khaleejis raised on the English language. I hope non-citizens get a copy of the book, too, because those narratives are important to acknowledge, to say that they are just as Khaleeji as we are,” Al Suwaidi says.

He recalls that the book was created in seven months. Using social media as a starting point for finding contributors, he and his team at SWALIF searched for photographs they wanted to feature online. “Everything started with a DM on Instagram. We always talk about it … me writing a message to everyone and now we have a book and an exhibition. It’s crazy,” he says.

Al Suwaidi, 20, is driven and eloquent. He speaks fast and with confidence, presenting a clarity of vision that led him to launching a publishing house in less than a year. In the course of setting up SWALIF, he has not only curated and edited its first volume, but he has also been learning the ins and outs of publishing in the UAE on the go – obtaining permits from the National Media Council, producing samples, dealing with printing suppliers and promoting the book on social media.

A student of politics and geography at King’s College London, he says academia now has a grip on him and he hopes to pursue teaching as a career. But he also sees what is missing from it, particularly in the region, and in that gap lies SWALIF’s role.

“A lot of rhetoric that I’ve heard in academia celebrates the West’s progressiveness, capitalistic drive, its fortunes and individualistic spirit, but doesn't acknowledge the fact that the Middle East still has the time and opportunity to develop as much,” he says.

The future for the Gulf, he says, exists outside of “whitewashed and westernised” ideas of development and modernity, and instead is something that can be defined and charted by its own citizens and residents.

“There’s a lot of collectivism in the Middle East that prevents individuals from self-actualising … We need to allow ourselves to evolve and change without fear. I’m not saying we should follow the West’s programme. We should be able to develop our relative path,” he explains.

For this to happen, more critical dialogues need to take place. “As we attempt to modernise, we should be able to start being critical about ourselves,” he says. “In the region, there is a lack of critique when it comes to different institutions - in art and literature.” What critique looks like in the context of the Gulf is complex, he adds.

The team at SWALIF are already sparking conversation, not only with this book, but also with its podcast, Shul’Salfa, which translates as “what’s going on?”. Drawn to the intimacy of the medium, which allows listeners to tune in on their own time and in private spaces, Al Suwaidi says the show is an “opportunity to have conversations in a very casual way”. He co-hosts the show with Shamsa Al Ameemi, SWALIF’s communications director.

The episodes feature interviews with artists from Encapsulated Volume 1 and contain personal insights about growing up in the Gulf, including dealing with stereotypes and the push-and-pull of tradition and globalisation.

“Many people have these conversations behind closed doors. It’s shocking to me how many people share these experiences. They are tiptoeing around their beliefs until they find someone and discover that they have the same thoughts,” Al Suwaidi observes.

I want all people who grew up feeling that they were not Khaleeji enough to read this book … I hope young people feel validated by their experiences as young Khaleejis raised on the English language
Salem Al Suwaidi, founder, SWALIF Publishing House

SWALIF hopes to keep uncovering these subjects – visualising and vocalising narratives that may otherwise not find a platform. Currently, the publishing house plans to release a collection of short stories and a poetry book.

Al Suwadi also has plans for the next two years – tracing various artists’ process, from their references and research to the development and execution of their work.

While SWALIF is currently self-funded, he says he hopes that the sales of Encapsulated Volume 1 and other forms of financial support will enable him to translate and publish an Arabic version of the book. Photographic prints of the images, proceeds of which are split with the artists, are also helping to raise funds.

The project, which started as an exchange between friends, is a promising addition to a developing literary and cultural scene in the region.

‘Encapsulated Volume 1: Photo Essays on Khaleejiness’ is available for Dh175 at swalif.store

Updated: September 29th 2021, 10:43 AM