Under the Spell of Arabia
by Mathias T. Oppersdorff
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 121 pp. $49.95.
Reviewed by Hume Horan
former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Middle East Quarterly
It is a privilege to comment on Oppersdorff's epiphany of the people and landscapes of Arabia and Jordan. This reviewer is almost of an age with that photographer, and we both lived and traveled through similar landscapes at similar times.
Oppersdorff's photos date from the early 1970s and portray an Arabia still linked to pioneer photos of the British travelers and military engineers of a century and more ago. His Arabia was linked as well to that of more contemporary photographers—I think of William Mares in particular. It is an Arabia, however, that today mostly lives on in Opperdorff's magnificent, moving photographs. The oil boom has scoured away much of what he (and I) saw and appreciated. The task was beautifully accomplished and could not these days be undertaken.
It is easy to take okay photographs of Arabia. You have the landscape, the light (preferably at around ten in the morning), and the faces full of character of your subjects. But it takes a high degree of empathy and the acquired trust of one's subjects to take photos that are great.
The book has many greats. The very first one, "The Burden," shows a dockworker in the Yemeni port of Mocha that (not to drift into jargon) has a plasticity and the modeling of a Michelangelo statue. "Blind man" caught my eye: It shows an old man being led through the streets of Jidda's picturesque Old Quarter by a young girl. Their eyes seem to meet as he "glances" down and she looks up to see if he is still comfortably following. I love "Pushing a taxi, al-Jauf, Oman," showing three men and a recalcitrant car; such a common scene back then—and so uncommon now! One can gaze for long minutes at the faces presented in Opperdorff's portraits recalling George Orwell's remark how, after the age of fifty, one is responsible for one's face. These men have lived a hard life. They need no biographies; Oppersdorff has done that for them.
The architectural photos are no less gripping: "Fort of Sa‘ada, Yemen" could have been taken a millennium ago. "Terraced fields, Hajjah, Yemen" showing a mountain fortress atop a lattice of fields, makes one think on the (women's) labor it takes to establish these contoured fields, and then to maintain them.
Related Topics: Hume Horan | Spring 2003 MEQ
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