Gallery Al Quds Hosts Khawaga; Photography Exhibit Exploring Identity
September 04 2019

Layla Alshaer is based between Egypt and the United States, both are homes away from her ancestral home, Palestine. Her photographs aim to capture the journey of exploring her identity.

Around 30 people attended the opening of Khawaga, a photography exhibition hosted by the Jerusalem Fund on August 28. Showcased at the in-house Gallery Al Quds, the organization welcomed attendees to meet the artist, Layla Alshaer.

Alshaer, 25, was formerly an intern at the Jerusalem Fund. She used her undergraduate thesis on the relationship between group identity and the psychological well-being of individuals in diaspora as inspiration for the exhibit.

“I was trying to approach [the] Palestinian identity [from] a psychoanalytical lens [to] see if it affects mental [well-being],” Alshaer said. “being a Palestinian who’s never been to Palestine and who’s been raised outside kind of [gives me] a different approach and perspective.”

Alshaer is based between Egypt and the United States, both are homes away from her ancestral home, Palestine. Her photographs aim to capture the journey of exploring her identity.

“I was in the desert between Libya and Egypt, and the Bedouins associated me with [non-Arab] foreigners,” Alshaer said. “You’re [a] Khawaga!” She was told.

“Khawaga” s an Egyptian Arabic word used to describe tourists, referring to them as foreigners. Another connotation for the word is “master” or “lord.” This overarching theme is seen towards the end of Alshaer’s exhibit, where a photograph of her grandfather hangs beside an excerpt that says:

What are [your identities]?
Egyptian, American, and Palestinian.
Egyptian because I was born there, and there is no place like Egypt.

American because I carry the passport.
Palestinian because when I look at what’s going on with the people… they are my family, my home.”

Excerpt from “Khawaga” photography exhibition by Layla Alshaer

Gallery Al Quds opened its doors to the public in 2000 as a non-profit art space. Dagmar Painter, the Gallery’s curator, said that the space hosts an exhibition every six weeks, displaying paintings, sculptures, and photographs by Middle Eastern and Palestinian artists from the region and the diaspora.

Alshaer’s photography fits under the Gallery’s emphasis on introducing contemporary art that tackles issues of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Painter worked with Alshaer to bring her vision to life.

“We created timelines,” Painter said pointing to the red tape on the wall. “the important thing is the dialogue… these are the places that she’s lived. There are questions and answers.”

The tape led the viewer along Alshaer’s journey to discovering identity. Each photograph was accompanied by excerpts of conversations she had with the subjects of the exhibit. Her subjects are Palestinian friends and family who, like her, find themselves in between identities.  

“[The exhibit is like] a stream of consciousness of [Alshaer’s] position as this somewhat un-rooted Palestinian woman where she’s finding her roots and how she’s living in the world.”

Each photograph tells a different story. One, in particular, portrays a stark image of a young Palestinian woman in a traditional thob sitting beneath a tree and glancing anxiously to her right. In the background, a group of policemen stand-by. The silhouette of the White House hovers over them.

“[The scene] was not intentional, it just happened,” Alshaer explained. “She was nervous, I was nervous, we were uncomfortable. People [were] staring at us, we [were] not wearing American clothes, the White House, the police… the shot reflected our energy in that moment.”

For Chris Dabney, 43, Alshaer’s work made him think of his Vietnamese-American heritage.

“I like the reflection on the greater concept of identity, [Layla] saw [her identity] shaped by conflict, from afar,” Dabney said. “I believe it works similarly [for me], I’m half Vietnamese and I see the conflict shaped not by distance but by time because it’s been resolved.

Stephen Nakagawa, 24, a native of California and an apprentice with the Washington Ballet, found the exhibit to be personal.

“It’s not just something that you see, it’s something that you feel,” Nakagawa said. “You can almost feel a whole story when you’re looking into these [photographs.] I think this is fabulous work.”

“Khawaga” Photography by Layla Alshaer
Through Sept. 7 at Gallery Al Quds, 2425 Virginia Ave NW, Washington, D.C.

About The Author: 

Laura Albast is Palestinian-American and works at the Institute for Palestine Studies. She holds a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut, and an MA in International Affairs and Communications from Boston University. Her research has focused on public diplomacy, arms control, and community health work in the Middle East. She is also a professional translator.

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