Adel Quraishi's Portraits of The Guardians

by Aisha Stoby | Article published by Tribe Magazine. Issue 00 / 2015

 

The Prophet's Mosque (Al-Masjid Al- Nabawi) in Medina holds the Prophet Muhammad's burial chamber. Since the Ottoman Empire, the keys to this holy site and the mosque's minbar have been kept by a group of eunuchs originally from Abyssinia, known as the Guardians. At one time the Guardians numbered in the thousands, there are now only seven remaining, who live in recluse and spend their days in a small room connected to the burial chamber itself. Though they have an 800 year history, their existence is ephemeral, they drink their coffee in paper cups and break their fast with a piece of bread, not leaving marks or keeping belongings there, remaining transient in their role as keepers of the chamber. Though they are glad to meet and connect with anyone who visits them, they live modestly and quietly, and without many dealings in the outside world.

 

As the only man to have ever been permitted to photograph them, the photographs hold enormous historical significance as documentation of their final generation.

 

The Guardians exhibition

In nearby Al Khobar, Adel Quraishi grew up captivated by photography and began to experiment with different cameras at an early age.

Under the tutelage of Brazilian photographer Humberto da Silveira, Quraishi developed a vast repertoire in medium and material, but has focused on portraiture. In 2014, the governor of Medina commissioned Quraishi to photograph the remaining Guardians, an historic documentation of their final generation for the 2014 exhibition, 'Letters and Illumination' in Medina. As the only man to have ever been permitted to photograph them, the photographs hold enormous historical significance as documentation of their final generation, the oldest of whom is over 110 years of age. "I was aware of them as a kid", Quraishi recalls, "In particular of the great authority in their dress. I was not aware they still existed, there was no coverage of them in the media, and we thought they were extinct. I think the reclusive nature of their community was a conscious decision made by the Guardians themselves. It is part of their character. Because the order of my portraits came from the government to their Sheikh, got dressed, sat for the photographs, and left. The surprising thing was that they were not interested in documenting their story at all. They only agreed because they were asked. It was clear the Sheikh who received the request was the alpha male of the group and as they take their responsibilities and duties very seriously, he took this order from the government as a professional obligation."

 

"There was light in the room - not my own lighting, but there was something beyond that.

A beautiful energy."

 

Quraishi describes the large scale of the photographs as fitting to the magnitude of his subjects. The intimacy and emotions of his subjects are striking and disarming in the enormity of the portraits. Quraishi explains, "As a photographer, I can connect to people more than I connect with still life. In a very deep way there were emotions not easily expressed, but I still felt it. You feel at ease around them. They have very balanced personalities. There was light in the room - not my own lighting, but there was something beyond that. A beautiful energy."

 

During their tenure, they have seen major changes in Medina, they recall a time before electricity when the entire mosque was lit with one lamp. During the holy month of Ramadan, they recollect two lines of men present for prayers, today crowds spill past the expansions. With these vast changes and in their old age, they have taken on fewer responsibilities, they open the burial chamber for visits, from heads of states and dignitaries, but chief among their tasks, they maintain the burial chamber, and with greatest care take their time to wash its floors with rosewater. In future, it will be left to the religious community to decide whom the next custodians of the key and chamber will be.

 

The Guardians ExhibitionOf the eight men photographed, their leader, known as the Sheikh of the Azzawat, passed away since sitting for his portrait. Quraishi says of their new Sheikh, "He was succeeded by the most interesting character of them all. I had to travel three times to Medina to photograph him. When I finally met him I asked, 'Where were you?'. He said, 'I was in Texas.' He had family there who was studying and he went to visit them. He was such an interesting character, very different from the others, and he became their Sheikh, and justifiably so. He speaks English and I'm sure he learnt other languages. Can you imagine what he would answer at immigration when asked of his profession?"

 

Quraishi has an ongoing relationship with the Guardians and prays by their side of his frequent visits to Medina, "Inshallah I will continue to be their friend as long as God keeps them all alive - for me it is an honour and a pleasure."

 

The Guardians exhibition is on display at Leighton House from 21 October to 29 November.

As part of the Nour Festival of Arts, celebrating contemporary arts and culture from the Middle East and North Africa.

In partnership with The Park Gallery

 


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