A fashion model and photographer have stirred controversy after a photo shoot among the barbershops and baqalas of old Dubai sparked debate about race, exploitation and cultural appropriation.
The photos were taken in Satwa, a neighbourhood of dense low-rise shops and flats that has long inspired photographers, artists and filmmakers as it has maintained its character while skyscrapers rise around it. They show model and fashion blogger Tala Samman posing with Satwa residents. In one, she stands on a chair behind the owner of a baqala, or corner shop. In another, Samman sits in a revealing red dress in a barber chair while a man gets his haircut in the background.
Waleed Shah received positive feedback when he posted the images as Instagram "stories", which only stay visible for 24 hours, but reactions turned against him when a few weeks later he shared the images to his more permanent Instagram feed. He was accused of exploiting the poor, showing insensitivity to race politics and cultural appropriation.
“There was no intended message behind anything,” said Mr Shah.
This, it transpired, was the problem. In an age of social media, every photo is open to public scrutiny and interpretation.
Taking the conversation to his 14,200 Instagram followers, as well as photographers and academics, Mr Shah posted about his experience on his blog and joined a panel hosted by Dubai podcast The Dukkan Show to discuss cultural appropriation.
He said he had not chosen the neighbourhood for its foreign look, but for its familiarity to him – Satwa reminds him of the Emirates he grew up in during the 1990s. Accusation of cultural appropriation were bewildering to him, he identifies the culture of Satwa as his own: it is the type of place where bananas dangle from strings in shops, there are jars of cheese and sachets of dried peas.
“Old Dubai, old Abu Dhabi – they are home for me,” he said. “I project [on social media] the things that I do in my life on Khalifa Street in Abu Dhabi. I thought, what do I do? I go to a barber shop.”
Raised in the capital’s downtown, Mr Shah does not give his nationality. “I don’t like to be put in a box,” he said. “Part of the reaction [to my posts] is maybe because people don’t know where I’m from.” He was in fact born in Abu Dhabi and identifies himself as a "Corniche Hospital baby".
Jaffrey Bhai, the founder of Project Chaiwala, addressed this in the podcast: “That’s actually not a minority culture, if you grew up here. That’s the life of the city ... everyone’s kind of going back to old Dubai, there’s a lot of nostalgia.”
While some critics levied accusations of cultural slumming, other observers noted that the men in the photos are entrepreneurs who, though removed from glassy towers, could hardly be counted among the unfortunate.
“I don’t perceive them as a lower social status,” said Mr Bhai. “These people are making a very good living for themselves working with integrity so I think it’s the people who are looking at it and saying, 'there’s lower social status and [that] big social divide', that’s where the problem possibly is.”
The work was an impromptu collaboration between Mr Shah and Samman, who were joined by two other photographers. At first, they tried to shoot around Jumeirah but shopkeepers there asked them for Dh5,000 to film in their shops. So they did what many Dubai photographers do – they went to Satwa, a diverse neighbourhood known for a laid-back atmosphere that is one of the easiest areas for photographers to shoot in Dubai.
“Usually, whenever you pull out a camera in Dubai, as soon as the camera leaves the pocket, there’s somebody that has a problem with it,” said Mr Shah. In Satwa, however, “everybody is happy to participate”. They began taking pictures with residents after two men joined them on the street, offering them tea and water.
“Waleed did [the shoot] in collaboration with the blogger that he shot and it’s not commercial,” said Mark Ganzon, a Dubai photographer.. “If the people that were in those photos said yes and gave consent, enough said ... [Waleed's] name is out there, so I think that’s why he was under fire.”
In Satwa itself, it was a non-issue. “[They're] doing her job, so what’s the problem?” said Seril Shihab, 28, a second-generation Satwa resident whose father owns a barbershop.
And at the Shabab Al Satwa barbershop and Kahoor Ali Grocery, the photographer and model were remembered as respectful. “You know, everybody is looking for a nice place and Satwa is a good place,” said Neyas Kadankandy Mangodon, the baqala owner in one of the photos.
“You know, everybody comes here because Deira’s so difficult. Everyone’s talk, talk talk there,” said Naman Binak, 30, one of the shop’s clerks. “They were good people and the photograph looks good. I think this is no problem. I don’t see any down side. I think the baqala looks good.”
Two years ago, a small film crew did a promo for the World Cup in the same shop. They paid Dh500 and gave them a small TV that sits opposite the counter.
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It was only their older colleague, clerk Abdulnasser Rasyibi, who was not quite sure. He giggled when he saw the photo. “This man [in the picture] is a conservative man who goes to the mosque and prays, so to have this woman behind him maybe isn’t good,” said Mr Rasyibi, 40, who is from Kerala.
Mr Shah has taken away two points from the whole debacle. “There is a global conversation about cultural appropriation that I need to be sensitive to," he said. "I just need to be aware of that and put thought into content as well as aesthetic."
The second is to tell the "whole story" and "give everybody involved credit". "Why didn’t I mention which barber shop it is and drop a pin there? I think that’s what it’s about – to bring that community together.”