Romaisa Baddar. Showcasing an overlooked side of a vintage Middle East.
"The interaction is more important than the following"
If you’re on Instagram, you’ll most likely have come across a beautiful vintage image from somewhere around the world at some point during your endless late-night scrolling. For those from the Middle East and North Africa, you probably have Romaisa to thank, the founder of The Middle East Archive. It’s an Instagram page sharing vintage pictures of the MENA region showing its beauty, variation and complexity. It’s amassed such a following and reputation that it might just be the most popular page of its kind on the social media site today.
Because of my repeatedly voiced adoration for the Middle East, being of Iraqi and Egyptian descent myself, and my love of photography, these images leave me stunned and speechless. So it was a real honour to catch up with Romaisa, currently a student at the University of Amsterdam, and get behind the scenes of the widely loved page which is giving the Middle East’s international image a well-needed makeover.
Enjoy and see you next time,
Follow the ME archive here.
Images courtesy of The Middle East Archive. Palestine, 1950.
“They were showing a very beautiful side of the Middle East that many people hadn’t seen, including myself.”
Firstly, how did the Middle East archive start?
I almost want to say, by accident. One day, I came across some work by a photographer (whose name I have since forgotten); he travelled all over the world and took some photos in the Middle East and North Africa. I was amazed by the beauty of the images and after that, I entered a rabbit hole of googling other artists for a whole year. I found so many images, I started saving and posting them on my own stories with all the details. I really liked doing that because they were showing a very beautiful side of the Middle East that many people hadn’t seen, including myself. With that in mind and the fact that people only really know a lot about dictatorships and wars in the region, I felt like the images needed to be shared so people know there’s another side – in a short time I gained an audience.
This is such an honest and beautiful intention to have with the page. You’re very right in saying that our representation has been repeatedly maligned and I think that’s why you gained such a large following in such a short time; you were starting something that Middle Easterners and North Africans have wanted to see done for a while.
Do you think gaining such a mass following has changed your intentions for both the account and for yourself?
I don’t think my intentions have changed. Shortly after sharing these pictures, I started looking for more things like movies, poems, songs and I started sharing those too. They were full of beauty, art, culture, beautiful places and faces; I thought they deserved an audience and I still feel that way. What changed was that I began to take it more seriously, it was a bit of fun at first but I spend more time curating it now.
The United Arab Emirates, 1970s.
What's the most gratifying thing about the Middle East archive for you?
Having a lot of people appreciate your work and knowing that they’re looking forward to seeing their country or a place they’ve visited makes me take it more seriously. People are always requesting images so I start looking for them; I love to help show them something they can’t find that easily and I receive messages thanking me for showing these. The interaction is more important than the following – it’s what drives me and what I enjoy the most.
I know that feeling - I get so excited when I see an image of Baghdad on the archive. What is it about the Middle East and North Africa that you love and that you want to show and share with the world?
I like everything! I think about the endless possibilities of what to share; how people express themselves through poetry, how they dress or used to dress, the geography and architecture. There are so many amazing places in the region - I love seeing them represented in movies and images, and seeing how events and social problems in the past were being addressed through art.
“People feel like the current representation of their country doesn’t match how they see their country”
What lesson have you learnt that's been most valuable to you?
I realised shortly after posting these images that people feel like the current representation of their country doesn’t match how they see their country or how they’ve experienced it and heard about it through their parents. Politics has overtaken the narrative about this region which has caused the beauty to be discarded. I love to see people reclaiming the representation of their country. I often come across other people who are doing the same thing as me but in a different way, that’s really valuable for me.
I definitely feel that same frustration with representation which is why I love the archive so much and why it has so many fans. So, what's been the most challenging aspect of running the ME archive?
Despite all the things that I’ve told you, there are still people who focus on political or religious aspects and debates surrounding conflict; this is something that I’m trying to shift the focus from. Of course, these conflicts cause people to create art in their own way, so I’m not saying I want to pretend like these issues don’t exist. But I find it hard to receive critiques surrounding political issues because it’s not my intention to trigger any political messages.
One time I posted a picture about the Lebanese civil war; for me, it was a beautiful representation of Lebanese people, but some people criticised me and things escalated in the comments. Going forward, I try to prevent this by researching the events heavily before posting an image. It’s quite challenging.
“What I find most fascinating is people trying to change the discourse and challenge the dominant narrative about the region and misconceptions.”
I'm interested to hear your thoughts on where you think the Middle East is heading. We've seen such a huge boom in creativity, pride and ingenuity coming out of the region and within the international diaspora. What excites you the most about the future of the Middle East's culture and creative scene/industries?
I’ve seen a huge rise in people showcasing their creativity tied to their identity, exploring their origins and heritage. I think this will do great things for the youth in the region and in the diaspora; what I find most fascinating is people trying to change the discourse and challenge the dominant narrative about the region and misconceptions. Everyone expresses this in a different way: writing, art, music, photography; I love discovering it all.
Finally, I always ask my interviewees what they've been reading, watching, listening to and doing recently that's been inspiring, insightful or comforting to them, or they simply wish to recommend.
I’ve been going through a lot of archival images and working on creating a narrative based on these pictures. I hope that I can publish them soon. More importantly, I’m building an online platform with my best friend bringing together art and culture, from music to fashion to poetry, from the Middle East.
I also really love poetry. Almost every day, I write poetry and I read a lot of Mahmoud Darwish and Khalil Gibran.
I am an Arab,
A name without a title,
Patient in a country where everything
Lives on flared-up anger.
Took firm hold before the birth of time,
Before the beginning of the ages,
Before the cypress and olives,
Before the growth of pastures.
My father…of the people of the plow,
Not of noble masters.
My grandfather, a peasant
Of no prominent lineage,
Taught me pride of self before reading of books.
My house is a watchman’s hut
Of sticks and reed.
Does my status satisfy you?
I am a name without a title”
Then said Almitra, Speak to us of Love.
And he raised his head and looked upon
the people, and there fell a stillness upon
them. And with a great voice he said:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.