Guardian of the past – this saudi photographer invites you to explore his country’s hidden beauty

Moath Alofi is on a mission— to unveil the beauty hidden in Saudi Arabia’s abandoned relics and untouched desert landscape. He speaks to Jethu Abraham.

There is something hauntingly beautiful about the photographs on Moath Alofi’s Instagram page – long, rugged roads leading to nowhere, remnants of a cracked wooden window with graffiti marks embedded deep into a rock crevice; a desolate mosque in the centre of a vast stretch of land. There’s a child’s abandoned shoe and so many other facets of life left behind with unanswered questions, all centred in and around the region of Medina, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“I spent my childhood around the city of Medina and my dad and I would often go travelling, visiting rural places in the Medina district,” explains Alofi, who holds a BA in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development from Australia and works on the Dar Al Hijra project in Medina. “We often travelled long distances and I would carry my camera back then to take family pictures. Looking back, I suppose I had already started documenting things since I was a kid.”

Alofi spent the next ten years after his schooling away from his favourite city, but Medina was never far from his thoughts.

“Things had changed so much in that short time span that I left. I literally found no one that I knew anymore and the city had changed so much. To be honest, I got a culture shock from my own culture. I then took the city as my friend.”

Alofi then went on to search for the true essence of the Medina that he once loved, the city from a bygone era and took photographs en route of whatever reminded him of the city from his childhood.

“I realised that I was searching for the Medina that used to be; the traditional houses, the practices, the familiar scents and even the short distances between houses and neighbours,” he says. “The older people would always have nostalgic conversations about the places they would go to and the type of architecture they would play around, such as the large, traditional courtyard houses where ten houses would have one large yard and a single gate for all the people staying there.”

The rising demand for houses saw the demolition of more than 12,000 traditional properties, explains Alofi and in turn it brought about the end of an era. Alofi believed that he had to document things for the next generation, to remember the architecture and the life in those times.

“I document with everything; my phone, camera, anything I have with me while I travel,” says Alofi who did his first exhibition called the ‘Doors of Barlik’ in 2016, a series on large, ornate doors from the traditional houses in Medina.

THE BIG PICTURE

Soon, the traveller met others through social media who shared his interests in photography and exploration.

“We met as a group of photographers and explorers who shared a common passion and love for the city and one of them had a small aircraft, with literally two seats and a parachute and we soon started exploring Medina from the sky.”

They went on to form Erth, a volunteer group that focuses on aerial photography, as well as exploring the heritage of Saudi Arabia.

Alofi expanded his exploration activities from the city to the region of Medina. His journey began “as questions and thoughts about our own practices and habits and what we really do in our cities and villages,” and gave him the material for his next display, ‘The Last Tashahhud-Mosque’ series.

“I was 200 kms away in the desert by myself and it was then that I started to notice these lonely, abandoned mosques. At the same time, I realised that if this mosque is a shelter, it needs to be one and not totally abandoned, as it stood. So that sparked the whole series.

“From late 2014 till 2017, I covered almost 2000 kms and photographed over 90 mosques. ‘The Last Tashahhud’, which means ‘the last testimony’ or ‘the last breath’, was a plea of help or a cry for attention for these abandoned mosques.”

Alofi’s next series focused on the human aspect in his long journeys. ‘The Shepherds of Arabia’ was a compilation of portraits of the few people left in the desert tending to herds, one of the oldest jobs in the region, and as Alofi describes, one that is no longer a part of the changing life and scene in KSA.

The village and city of Khyber, a distant, faraway place with castles, caves and a lot of boundaries, was documented next and Alofi dedicated two projects to the area: a movie called ‘Mihlaiel’ and a photography series called ‘The People of Pangaea’.

MAKING IT LAST

Now that the country is opening up for tourism, Alofi believes that Saudi Arabia would also be an explorer’s delight as it provides a diverse landscape with plenty of avenues to discover.

“We want people to come and visit us from across the globe and visit all the places in Saudi Arabia. Every spot you go, every direction you turn, there is a story to be told and a scene to be seen, an experience to be lived.”