A Photo With a Few Messages

"Jaber Al-Obaidi"

This photo is one of hundreds in my album. I never set out to collect photographs; they accumulated organically over my lifetime. For reasons I find hard to describe or define, this one, along with maybe two others, occupies a special place in my heart. Photos, especially those taken by family, friends, classmates or colleagues, usually capture a joyful celebration or mark an important event. The moment you revisit a photograph like this is often accompanied by a sense of rapture–or at the very least, it puts a nostalgic smile on your face.

We all have those photos like these, and I suppose that we (you, and I) don’t really take the time to analyze their compositions, their shadows, or contents–unlike visual semiologists, who burden photographs with meaning.  

However, this photo is a little different. Or, to be completely honest, it radically departs from everything I just said. The motivation for capturing it, and the feeling I experience when I pull it out of the album keeps changing. 


This photo has been loaded with various messages, and it has impressively managed to deliver those messages to all their intended recipients. The first message is this: in the 12 arid years we spent in jail–my 23 friends and I–none of us ever turned against the other. There goes Thomas Hobbes's theory. 

Secondly, the photo is living proof of our capacity to turn the barren, worn out prison walls into a school campus, or a garden, or a platform across which we cultivate our bodies and spirits.  

The dictatorship had targeted our unity, our dreams, and everything we were building together.  Yet, eventually, photos like this one reached the regime and its associates and proved that, if anything, we were growing stronger, more mature, and more resilient in prison. Our opposition to the regime was only fortified during our time behind bars. In our togetherness, we found proof that we would be able to find alternative structures to meet our people’s aspirations. 


One day, one of our visitors said something that validated this belief. Apparently, the regime leader had stated the following: “If I had a hundred of those men who read Darwish, memorize Sheikh Imam, and sing Nass El Ghiwane [on my side], we would conquer the world.” It was an indication that we had succeeded in delivering our message. 

Yes, we did all that calmly and with incredible patience, the kind of patience that knows that neither the jail nor the jailer were permanent.

Born in Alexandria, he is a literary critic and opinion columnist.

Jaber Al-Obaidi
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