47. The Aramco Photograph


c. 1950 CE
c. 1369 AH
Taken from the catalogue of an exhibition promoting the new National Archive of King Fahid in Medina, 2013

I am a photograph in the archives of Aramco and the national library of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ‘What an ordinary shot!’ you might say, for you can only see the nose of the aeroplane against the mountains and there are no human faces to read; most backs are turned or heads lowered. Perhaps the child, appearing in what seems like a formal event, is a clue. Well let’s see. I’ll help you read me.

Let’s say it’s a day in April 1950, in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The air is still fresh and cold, but all who live here know that it’s only a matter of days before the sweet oppression of the heat will start to win over the winter. The plane you see, with the polished silver nose, belongs to Aramco. It’s called the ‘Flying Camel’, and is on the last leg of a 7,000 mile journey from New York, stopping in Lisbon, Rome and Beirut before landing on these sandy shores of the Arabian Gulf.

The men in the foreground are checking through American passports. This is the first time they’ve had to do this, and they can’t stop looking at the portraits, the fair skin and light hair. The images they can read, but not the script, in some foreign language. It takes time to copy all the numbers, and they’re thankful for their strange jackets that stretch tightly across their shoulders, keeping in the heat and protecting them from the crisp winds.

Behind them is a holy man; he has travelled from Syria through Beirut and he’s checking with his sister that she’s remembered all their belongings. They’re both overwhelmed after their first flight, recovering from the motion sickness, working out what they should do next. Beyond them are the two new Aramco manager’s wives, stretching their legs after the long flight, taking in the air. One woman is wearing trousers and the red shemakh she was handed by the flight attendant to cover her hair. The other is practising her Arabic with the flight attendant.

The boy is from the village; his name is Ahmed. He’s run down to greet them. His uncle, who is also crouching, checking through the papers, works for Aramco.

On a different date, we could provide a different reading: this might be the plane that came as a gift from the Americas to Ibn Saud. Let’s say it’s March 1945, and ten years since the attempted assassination of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1935. The men must check the papers, for whoever comes in must be registered as going out. The women have come as school teachers for the royal daughters; they’re nervous as the men approach them gruffly. They’ve been ordered to cover their hair, and so pull out the scarves they’d bought to send home to their fathers and brothers. The ‘holy man’ is in fact an assistant to a leader from Syria, here to carry documents and swear allegiance to the League of Arab States. The document controllers have been made, against their wishes, to wear suit jackets over their dishdash as a symbol of their welcome. They’re in a rush, for it’s prayer time and their sons are waiting for them by the gates. A cheeky one has managed to get through and is staring at the ladies with their blond hair and pale blue eyes.

You try to read signs that you believe to be universal: how close to each other people are standing, what stance they take, the position in which they hold their heads. Are they submissive or in control? Are they in conversation? Are they nervous or staring with curiosity? Does the image refer to the past, or is it speaking of the future? Am I just a photograph or am I a piece of publicity? Do I propose that people somehow transform themselves?

I suggest that you focus on my certainties – the perspective, the colours, the mountains, the endless skies, the heat from the sun on the rocks in the distance creating an illusion of water – for this is where the true story lies: black gold under the hard crust of this land’s sacred earth.

I am just a taste, one small example of what exists in these inaccessible archives, in Saudi’s forbidden libraries. Seemingly endless filing cabinets full of documents such as I, are locked up for fear of being misread, for a photograph can tell too many lies.

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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