Hamdah and The Spice Souk

26 Aug
Finding Inspiration in a Foreign Land while Fighting Jet Lag, Culture Shock,
and Unpopularity

Spice Souk Preview

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I recently traveled to Dubai to teach a series of workshops. It was an amazing experience on many levels that was as rewarding as it was stressful. It truly tested my limits—as a photographer, as an artist, and as a person.

It tested my limits physically and psychologically, too—I have had jet lag for so long now that I’m going to have to give it a going-away party when it finally leaves. Dubai is a roughly 16-hour plane flight from Los Angeles, with a 12-hour time difference. 12 hours ahead. I hit the ground running when I arrived, and I didn’t have one day off the entire two weeks I was there—in addition to teaching workshops the first week, the second week I had to shoot three editorial assignments: Two for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia and an editorial assignment for Maniac magazine, the last of which I had no time off to prep or even come up with a concept. Not that I’m complaining, but it was difficult. No sleep doesn’t make for an easy temperament; plus, I had just gotten over a bout of walking pneumonia immediately before leaving for Dubai. The pressure to be creative in those circumstances while undergoing severe culture shock was brutal. But I made it through without too much damage.

I had some wonderful students in my classes. Some were blog readers, and it was a blast to finally meet some of my loyal followers. Here I was, halfway around the world and meeting people for the first time that I had been e-mailing and communicating with for over a year. And in Dubai! It was incredible.

Of course, Dubai is known for “incredible”: The tallest building in the world, the only six-star resort in the world, the only indoor ski resort in the world, the biggest mall in the world. To be honest, it all sort of reminded me of Las Vegas, but without the sin. As an L.A. native and a fairly extensive international traveler, I wasn’t eager to do the touristy things, though. I was more interested in seeing the traditional Arabic architecture and experiencing the local culture.

Watch the Trailer

Special Thanks to: Harvey Glen and Andrew Clemson at Alchemy Films Dubai

I met some extraordinary people in Dubai. A few stand out piercingly in my memory. One student who really made an impression on me was a girl named Hamdah. She was a local Arab girl who was in my first two-day workshop for intermediate students. She sat in the front row, and she was veiled. Her presence confronted me with something I’d been dreading: How I was going to get along in a society that—in my Western eyes, anyway—oppressed women. I’m about as feminist as you can get. I believe firmly in equal rights for women and being able to have a voice. I’ve been playing ball in a male-dominated industry (photography, not fashion per se) for a long time now, but this was different. So I was a bit nervous when I first arrived in Dubai. Can I admit that my initial reaction to seeing women veiled was a natural aversion? And there I was, on day one, perched on a desk in front of my students, and Hamdah sitting right there in front of me.

I immediately suspected that Hamdah was not going to be a “fan” of me. In fact, I predetermined that she would find me way too “American.” But I noticed she kept making attempts to connect with me throughout that first day. She showed me some photos she shot in class and engaged me in several conversations. “OK,” I thought. “That was cool.” But I was still on guard. The second day she engaged me even more, and I was really touched by her genuine openness—she even laughed at some of my lame jokes.

“You either like me and accept me for who I am or you don’t, and we leave it at that…”

I was pleasantly surprised by the acceptance and warmth this local girl was showing me. As excited as I was to be in Dubai, I didn’t expect to be popular there. It’s a very conservative, buttoned-down culture, and I don’t censor myself much nowadays. You either like me and accept me for who I am or you don’t, and we leave it at that. I’m not out to win friends anymore. Those days of people-pleasing are long gone, thank God. But I got the impression that Hamdah sort of understood that about me intuitively, and she accepted me with all my faults and rawness. And jet lag.

But what caught me off-guard about her took place four days later. On the only morning I had off, I desperately needed to go location scouting. I had to shoot that editorial spread for Maniac magazine in a few days, and I really needed to see some locations to get some creative juices going and plot out a shot list. I had eight pages to fill, with no real clue of what I was going to photograph or where I was going to shoot. It was lovely that Maniac’s fashion editor, April Hubai, trusted me so much, but I really did need to prep the shoot thoroughly. Hamdah generously offered to drive me around old Dubai and help me location scout. I accepted, though at the time I don’t think my jet-lagged brain understood her sincerity.

Did I mention my jet lag? It was BRUTAL. I averaged between two and three hours of sleep a night. I would crash around midnight and be wide awake between 2 and 3 in the morning. Of course, the morning Hamdah was supposed to pick me up at 7 a.m., I fell back to sleep around 6. The front desk called me at 7:30 to tell me that Hamdah was waiting for me in the lobby. I was shocked, to be honest. No one in L.A. ever keeps their word. I grabbed a hat (I had terrible bed head, I couldn’t go out looking that wanton!) and ran down to meet her. She had come with a driver and an assistant, and off we went to location scout.

“a young Muslim girl raised in traditional Arabic culture and a seasoned Hollywood fashion photographer who claims no religion…”

I could hardly believe it: Here was a girl that I thought wouldn’t want to give me the time of day outside of the photography workshop, and not only was she choosing to spend time with me, she was also driving me around in her car, helping me find inspiration for an eight-page editorial. Hamdah was so generous with her time and her spirit. She had a driver, so she sat in the back seat while I sat in the front, and I got to actually SEE Dubai. In the daytime. At my leisure. The Dubai that I wanted to see, not the tourist traps. We talked. I mean really talked. And it turns out there were a lot more similarities than there were differences between the two of us, a young Muslim girl raised in traditional Arabic culture and a seasoned Hollywood fashion photographer who claims no religion. I was completely moved by that morning spent with her, driving around old Dubai and talking about religion, culture, marriage, love. And lo and behold, I not only found my location for the Maniac shoot, I was flooded with inspiration for it!

The whole experience brought to mind a question one of the other workshop students had asked me just days before. “How do you find inspiration?” he’d asked. “How do you keep getting ideas, year after year and shoot after shoot?” I paused for a moment. This question doesn’t have an easy, 1-2-3 answer. I told him that I needed to think about it and that we would continue the discussion over the next two days. A couple of students offered their own thoughts: “Watch the light”, “Music!”. But those weren’t the kind of answers he was looking for. He wanted to know about the creative process, that journey of discovery that wells deep within us and propels us forward to accomplish a shoot that we’re proud of. It’s not an easy thing to explain. That student and I had many conversations over the next several days. He even came to the hotel where David and I were staying, and we all sat up at the pool bar talking about inspiration. The answers came through many discussions. I can’t just give a one-liner on how I get inspired. It’s a process. And it’s organic. There’s no formula, and there are no rules.

The morning I spent with Hamdah is a great example of how inspiration happens, at least for me. Before I met Hamdah I was told so many things, so many warnings about how to treat the veiled women in Dubai. Don’t do this, don’t do that. I was actually nervous about spending time alone with her, yet her ease and genuine kindness spurred me to take a chance and get to know the culture for myself by asking her questions that maybe one wouldn’t normally ask in polite, formal society. And not only was she was open to discussing things with me, she actually encouraged me to ask. Because of this, I was flooded with emotion, ideas, and most of all, openness. And that’s one answer to finding inspiration.

Being open to experiences is what sets us free. And when we are free, we are most creative. I think I’ve said it before, I don’t run around with a point-and-shoot camera when I travel. I live. I take in the moments. I want to meet the local people, I want to see the local places. I want to breathe in as much of the moment as I can. And then…the ideas come. The creative juices start flowing, and soon I’m wading in vast amounts of ideas that I can later translate into images.

“This was no fancy Hollywood set, this was the real deal…”

Hamdah took me to the Spice Souk in old Dubai. It was a Friday morning and Fridays are their weekend, so most of the shops were closed. But the few that were open were tantalizing to me. Big barrels of spices set out in front of small shops, spices flowing out of the barrels. Reds, yellows, greens, a visual candy store for a visual artist. And the shop owner taking me through every spice he owned, in his broken English. Fantastic! I was allowed to touch the spices, feeling the textures and listening to him explain each barrel. I could smell the frankincense. I could taste the anise seed. I could feel the lavender. It was a sensory delight. And it brought me ideas. I walked around the Souk alone while Hamdah ran to the car to get her camera (ha ha—yeah, I didn’t bring my own). I wanted to just grab a few shots so I could continue to build a shot list back at the hotel. I shot some of the wall textures there. Magnificent pale pink washed-out walls that were naturally water-stained. This was no fancy Hollywood set, this was the real deal.

As we headed back to my hotel, I gathered up the courage to ask Hamdah a question that up until then I’d been too shy to ask: I asked if I could shoot her with my model on Tuesday for the Maniac editorial. In fact, could I shoot her and about five of her veiled friends? I was so nervous asking her, I think I went dizzy for a couple seconds. She answered back: Sure! And not only did she say sure, she photographed her five friends beforehand and sent me their pictures for approval. AND her sister provided the hijabs that the girls wore. AND she organized the girls to arrive at the shoot in the Spice Souk for the following Tuesday. AND they all showed up! On time! All looking gorgeous!

Openness. It’s key to the freedom that is the path to creativity. Uncensored, raw, unapologetic, honest openness. At the end of our shoot, amid the film crew, the mobs of spectators, the wardrobe stylist, hair and makeup people, assistants, equipment all over the place in a public place, I came back to my camera bag and there sat a gift. In glorious wrappings sat the most beautiful incense burner I’ve ever seen. It was from Hamdah.

While we were location scouting at the Spice Souk and the shop owner was describing each spice he had, I began collecting some to take home with me. She asked me if I was using them for cooking. I laughed. Noooooo, I don’t cook. She asked me what I was going to do with them. I sort of looked away, avoiding the subject. I told her I burn them as part of a spiritual way to connect with, you know, God. ; ) I mean, I didn’t want to go there. Religion. Murky subject. Especially since, you know, I was in the Middle East. But I did. I went on to tell her some personal things about myself and my view of spirituality. It opened up a floodgate of communication between the two of us. That experience, that morning, Hamdah and The Spice Souk will remain with me forever. And the incense burner sits proudly in my living room in the center, on a table that holds my precious memories.

Hamdah and Melissa
Melissa and Hamdah

Oh and yeah, I ended up shooting a pretty damn good editorial that day. ; )

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