Canvas rating: *****
New publishing house and arts collective SWALIF’s first publication, Encapsulated Volume 1: Photo essays on Khaleejiness, marks a stunning debut as a crucial step forward in the Gulf’s literary development and general cultural discourse. Featuring work by 16 Khaleej-based photographers, including Mahmood Al Zadjali, Malaika Munshi and Hajar Almutairi, the book also weaves in several nuanced essays on various aspects of living in the Gulf. These are written by five global academic cultural practitioners: Gaith Abdulla, Mira Al Hussein, Nadeen Dakkak, Manishankar Prasad and AbdulRahman Al-Man.
The book’s central question is, what does it mean to be Khaleeji today? Is it citizenship, is it a performance of certain historically established codes and criteria, or is it just being physically present here? The dilemma of forming and stabilising an identity in both the individual and collective spheres is refracted through an admirably diverse set of angles, from urbanism, gender and language to religion, passports and beyond.
The photographers provide their own textual context to their work, which is then followed by polished, analytical commentary by the editors, creating multiple levels of conversation around the topics evoked by the images. Meanwhile, the long-form written contributions brilliantly offer more theoretical grounding for the complex discourse that the book seeks to address. Urban planner and writer Abdulrahman Al-Man’s essay The Khaleeji City and the Crisis of Identity is a standout, exploring the differences in current urban infrastructures from those of the past. All the while, both the theoretical and creative content feel helpfully accessible to the layman audience.
Most notably, this is one of the few books yet published – beyond those in academic spaces that does not shy away from discussing the emotions and sense of belonging (or not) among immigrants and non-citizens in the Gulf. Their rights and claims to feeling at home” here are a topic still barely touched upon in wider discourse. If more books like this follow, then the literary and Socio-political landscapes of the Gulf will be immeasurably enriched.