33. Postcards from Arabia


1920–80 CE
1339–1400 AH
Found in a variety of places, including bric-a-brac shops and on ebay, 2013–15

The red card
Sent from Mecca to Cairo

Nabil, my Nephew

Greetings this year for peace for everyone and for you especially.

Uncle Mohammed Hassan ibn Ahmad

The arches of Mecca

Dear brother Mustafa Lutfi

All best of wishes on this Eid Al Adha. May God reward you well with blessings.

From your brother, Fathi Mohamed Farghaly

An imaginary card

My dearest Aunt, I am sending you this message from the holy city of Makkah. See what greatness we are existing in for this sweet short time. Grandmother made it here well. Thinking of you.

Trading card

Sent from New York to California

Dear Doug

I thought you’d like this trading card, next trip Arabia?


We are messages from the far reaches of the world. We show you scenic vistas of a faraway place so that you can enjoy its exoticism. A city where Arabian beauties and Bedouin caravan leaders will lure you across the dangerous desert. A place in which the sun rises over the desert mountains. The East, the land of daybreak and dawn. Witness how savage the culture is, how uncivilised, how brutal and ferocious. Whilst you sip your expensive coffee, you can marvel at the wonders that you in the West might bring to these poor people as they scavenge around between bones and sand. You can dream of the epics, the novels that you might write, your destiny as the wife of a barbaric native, drawn to your blond hair and blue eyes. Yes! Come this way so that you may rescue them, bring them to your table, teach them the refinements of coffee and tea, tea cups and lace, cutlery and table manners, pomp and magnificence.

They don’t mind that you make them the subject of your stories, art and conversation. They know that ignorance is bliss and that if you only knew how much you’re mistaken, your faces would flush with shame and embarrassment. For one day, not so long from now, the tables will turn. You’ll need them more than they have ever needed you, and your incomprehension, your fear-induced misconceptions, will make you the outsiders. For they are strong and their land makes them powerful. No longer is the Ka’aba their defining architecture: towers, malls and five-star hotels draw people towards them.

Text on back of trading Card:

Mecca (Makka), the great holy city of Islam, lies in the heart of a group of hills, a sort of outpost to the great mountain wall that divides the coast lands from the central plateau – a sterile valley about 45 miles east from Jidda on the Red Sea. The hills surrounding Mecca are intersected by a large number of minor valleys connecting with the principal passes of the mountain ranges beyond, thus giving ample means for commercial relations with the outside world. Long before Mohammed, Mecca was established in the two-fold character of a commercial center and point for religious homage – religious observances for pilgrims being held jointly with a series of annual fairs in the heart of the locality. The special ceremonies of the great feast were always arranged to occur at the time of readiness for the market of the hides, fruits and other merchandise. The victory of Mahommetanism greatly enlarged the importance of the city, making it the center of pious resorts for the entire Mohammedan world; but the curious ceremonies of Islamism savor in many details of the ancient heathen rituals. The ancient walls were only at three points where three gates led into the town. The length of the main axis of the city from the farthest suburbs of the Medina road to those of the extreme north, now frequented by Bedouins, is canned[spanned?] 300 paces. In about the middle of this line is the vast enclosure containing the sacred Ka’aba and other holy places. This is the only architectural feature of any significance in the city. The Ka’aba was the chief sanctuary of Mecca in very ancient times. Its walls are covered with rich curtains of black silk embroidered with texts from the Koran in gold. The grand object of reverence is a great black stone in one corner of the building, placed at a convenient height for the kisses of the pilgrims. Population (est.) 56,000.

This work transcends the objects. Ultimately, what I’m working with isn’t only the artefacts themselves, but the stories attached to them. For me, each tale is the manifestation of the object, and each object is a tangible materialisation of an underlying narrative. The work finds its equilibrium somewhere between the stories and chronology they’re chaptered into, the objects becoming knots or points along the timeline, woven into stories as part of the language of this artwork. Each story draws out a tale that intends to trigger imagination and memory, mixing fact with fiction, with the ultimate aim of straddling, conflating and confusing fixed notions of history to open up the unofficial histories that shape the character of place and memory.
Ahmed Mater
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