Documentarian and researcher Rana Jarbou has been documenting the evolvement of street art in the Arab world, and in particular in cities and villages across the Gulf, since before the uprisings began. This is her collection of counter-narratives, graffitied on walls and houses between 2007 and today.
One can easily see the impact of the GCC cities’ rapid modernisation by looking at their visual culture and urban discourse, which are manifest in graffiti. However, finding graffiti in the Gulf states is challenging. Only a few buildings have become canvases for graffiti artists and writers, and they are mostly found in old villages in Bahrain, scattered among Kuwait’s abandoned pre-invasion structures or in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. With little-to-no open-air public spaces, one can go long distances searching for a mere expression or drawing.
It is no mystery why public spaces are impoverished or even nonexistent in such wealthy oil-rich countries. There are few green spaces and shaded streets, and thus there exists little street interface. These countries afford only isolated spaces, such as shopping malls and commercial centers, to which people most often need to drive. With the exception of the Dubai Metro, which only opened a few years ago, the poor public transportation systems in most Gulf cities cause over-dependence on vehicles. The lack of a rich and integrated graffiti culture reflects the ensuing absence of an urban ecosystem of social and public spaces, and thus the lack of outdoor activities and relations.
This is why graffiti has become confined to villages and residential areas, where there is a sense of community. Censorship and surveillance play roles, too. And yet even on the clean white walls of the new oasis cities, people have left their marks.
The walls of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain harbor some degree of social and political commentary, but for the most part themes like religion, love, poetry and song lyrics, tribal codes, nationalism (and nostalgia for one’s homeland), football, hip hop and digital codes (such as Blackberry pin numbers) seem to be dominating the graffiti culture of these “cities of salt.”
“I am gay,” written on a wall in Kuwait city. LGBTQ are stigmatised in Gulf countries, but still Kuwait’s abandoned buildings provided a space for individuals and communities’ deepest secrets.
In Doha’s outskirts and those areas inhabited by expat communities, much of the graffiti asserts one’s racial or national identity. “Baluch” is one dominant identity marked on Doha’s walls, even though Oman and the UAE are more populated by them. 50 Cent is celebrated here, in line with how many Western hip hop icons are esteemed in GCC cities.
“No wind shakes you, bu Azooz,” is a line derived from the old Arabic proverb “Oh mountain, no wind shakes you,” which signifies strength and resilience, and is a common expression used in numerous colloquial song lyrics. Bu Azooz is a name tag; also seen here are 3-digit tribal codes, a common graffiti practice in the Gulf.
United Arab Emirates
This photo essay was first published, in a shorter form, in Gulf Affairs, published by Oxford University’s Gulf and Arab Peninsula Studies Forum.