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April 25, 2014

Gaza Riding Club: The Seduction of Seeing Palestinians Better Off

If you remember this year’s World Press awards, I was impressed with a body of work by Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa that captured Palestinian life in a more everyday way, especially the life of women and girls.

In another photo story — this one by photographer Monique Jacques in The New York Times this past week — the trend, and the less stilted media depictions, continue. Out of the 14 pictures in “Female in Gaza,” however, this one particularly stands out. If the photo is wanting for story, what it represents is, well, rich. The caption states:

A girl completed a jump at Al-Faisal Riding Club in northern Gaza. Horses are brought in from Egypt and are well cared for by elite families.

If pictures of Gaza in the Western media mostly bring to mind violence and squalor, this photo is something of a mind bender — obviously confounding the regular diet of blown out buildings, checkpoints and clashes with the IDF. It’s even more dissonant in light of facts and statistics — the Gazans pinned down not only physically and economically, but struggling under 39% poverty,44% food insecurity (UN) and 28% unemployment — 58% for young people (IMF) and 53% for women (Gisha).

When you search out information about these Northern Gaza equestrian clubs, such as Jabaliya or Al-Faisa (this from less missile-weary 2010), you discover there’s not much available. Knowing they operate under the scrutiny of Hamas and have had to resort to bringing in horses through smuggling tunnels, I’m not sure what point this photo actually makes, or the role it plays relative to the well being of Gazan females in this short photo essay accompanied by the most cursory text.

What I’m tempted to say is that, when a hyper–capitalist society like America looks at Gaza —  the way well-heeled Americans tend to admire their fellow citizens based on photos framing class and wealth rituals – the fact some Palestinians also own horses and spend time in riding clubs might be a game changer. I’m tempted to add that the potential existence of an elite class in Gaza – as much as America worships wealth and the demonstration of it – makes the Gazans not only look more normative, but more like us and less like “the other.”

I’d like to say all that and believe that the photo represents more than an anomaly, more than the suggestion of upward mobility and the existence of a credible class structure. Otherwise, with temptations even higher to play on Western denial, guilt or simply wishful thinking, I feel more comfortable leaving it as just one photo taken up north.

(photo: Monique Jaques)

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