Medina’s Angel of History

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Medina’s Angel of History

I always find myself coming back to Walter Benjamin, the maverick German critic and philosopher who worked between the two world wars. Even as I’ve grown and changed, leaving Western paradigms of liberal Marxism for the vaster oceans of Islamic scholarship and thought, Benjamin always comes back to me – a thinker whose ideas transcend paradigms and disciplines and continue to resonate decades later. Whether considering his ideas about the “lost aura” of authentic artwork, the well-nigh impossible task of the translator, the dreamy potential of shopping arcade malls, or, most urgent of all, the danger of a future-oriented notion of progress, there is something in his writings that can prove useful for just about anything today.

Case in point: his “Angel of History” in his Theses on the Philosophy of History serves as the perfect foil to current events in many parts of the world today. The angel is blown forward into the future by “Progress” as it looks helplessly back on history, which is nothing more than a pile of destruction. At the time of writing, the allegory of the angel was a warning call for the forces of modernisation between the world wars; but it could just as easily be a warning call to the destructive commercial forces that currently overwhelm the heritage of holy cities Mecca and Medina. Mecca’s drastic (and arguably unnecessary) facelift been well-documented, but Medina too is now on the cusp of becoming a similar tabula rasa.

Captured through the poignant photography of Moath Al Ofi, a Medina native who recently returned to massive changes afoot, this pile of destruction is not metaphorical, but real and literal. His Instagram account says he is “searching for Medina” and his photostream shows his struggle to come to terms with a beloved hometown in the face of change that incorporates both positives and negatives. His photographs show the beautifully sublime Masjid Nabawi and its worshippers, themselves a colourful range of age, ethnicity, and clothing; his photos show commerce and the open expanse of the surrounding desert; his photos show the hidden, forgotten spaces and public, populated places. Taken together, they show a city that thrives amidst diversity and contrast, all revolving around the mosque and the tomb of the Prophet. However, the photos that stand out most to me are the ones marked for eminent demolition, facades of residences soon to be erased forever. If Moath is searching for the soul of his hometown – a nostalgia most of us can appreciate – he is finding it through the colours, textures, and compositions of these images.

These days, new buildings are all shiny facades, artificial neons, and sterile spaces that lack any organic, human, or emotional element; whether that be in Los Angeles, London, or the Gulf. Just as Starbucks couches have replaced the shabby chic of mix-matched sofas in local cafes, globalised commercialism is buying out the soul of local identity across the world. It is all the more unfortunate that it has to happen here in Medina, where the spirit of the city is one that celebrates a moment in the past as the ideal founding of a world religion. Even so, one antidote for this, as found in Moath’s photos, is colour. One of the images features a white metallic door outlined in pink nestling behind an arched doorway, itself swathed in a baby blue that sweeps across it on a concrete wall dotted with power boxes and blue stickers. The blue mixes with the brown dirt that has seeped into the wall from years of weathering the Medina sun, creating a pleasant mottled effect. Yet, rising out from all this is the foreboding dark blue of the six digit number of death; the number that marks the building out for destruction. Meanwhile, in another photograph, the six digit number – more of a royal blue here – is centred, surrounded on one side by a faded blue shuttered window and on the other by a faded green metallic door, half of which is open. Below the number is a random swatch of light blue paint, as if it half-heartedly tried to cover up something else on the brown concrete (another demolition number perhaps?), while above the number is a patch of faded pink paint that appears to once have been the prominent colour of the façade. All of this sits against the rough decayed concrete wall that fades to grey as it approaches the ground. Then, my favourite, a chequered tiled doorway  pops from the image frame with yellows, pinks, minty green and three shades of blue.

Colour alone would be one thing; but it is also the texture that really deepens the effect of these walls. 

You’d hope the home of the Prophet Mohammed, the physical embodiment of purity of desire in Islamic interpretation, would be exempt from the corruptive influence of commercialism

Grainy, rough walls that are chipped, decayed and peeling stand in contrast to the smooth metallic doors, like the bright yellow one  in one image that is framed by a thin red outline and surrounded by brown, greying, and cracked concrete whose dullness serves to make the yellow of the door practically glow. Yet, the bright reds, blues, and greens also fade and become pastels as they age over time. The green shutters in another image are weathered and roughened to a pale lime green,  measured against the forest green of the door even as the rest of the wall boast shades and textures of grey – grey drips, grey holes, grey floor. Time here is the great catalyst. Only through weathering time, like a wizened old man, do these walls gain such depth and character.

This aesthetic is not unique to Medina or to Moath’s images. If you take a quick search through Instagram using hashtags such as #texturelicious, #wallsonly, or #filthyfacades, you’ll find many similar images of foregrounded walls, canvases in their own right, tapestries of asymmetry, colour, and texture. They all represent a statement against the new and pristine. But, here, with Moath’s photos, the difference is in the location; a place where history should matter, where heritage should be more than simply a simulation.

As Moath captures these facades, flattened and foregrounded, they become almost like canvases, each with their own unique composition. You couldn’t fathom paintings like this. One photo shows a rhythmic crisscrossing of windows, from the high green ones to the floor-level ones below and the door to the left. The tilework of the chequered doorway is suggestive of digital pixilation, while the rest of the façade is grainy, chunky, and wiry. Several of the images consist of beautiful arrangements of blues, balanced especially by the pinks. Who would have thought Medina would have such wonderful pinks and baby blues – colours symbolic of gendered infants in the West?

If Moath is searching for the soul of his hometown – a nostalgia most of us can appreciate – he is finding it through the colours, textures, and compositions of these images

As much as anything, these images are about the doors themselves; colourful, ornate, metallic contrasts to the rugged concrete walls. More fascinating, however, is the fact that many of them are open – either completely or halfway. Moath tells me that people live in these open-door homes and simply leave their doors ajar to the world; belying a sense of openness and trust, of brotherhood and hospitality formed over centuries by living amidst the followers of the Prophet — not a commercial mindset that must be protected and replicated. Again, it is a stark contrast to today’s commercial slick that transcends nation-s