Friday, 20 August 2010

Mourning a Witness to History

Noor Ali Rashid was a witness to history who in fact became part of it. He passed away two days ago in Dubai and his funeral was held today at the Al Quoz Cemetery, a humble burial ground for many of the city's residents. Local Emiratis and expatriates walked together in the funeral procession to pay their final respects to a legendary photographer and give their condolences to the Rashid family. As would only be appropriate, there were several photographers mulling about trying to get the perfect shot of the rituals and prayers.

Rashid was a humble man from the Subcontinent (Gwadar province in what is today Pakistan) who came to the United Arab Emirates before it even existed, in 1958. His dispatch to Dubai was meant to dissuade him from his love of photography that his own father saw as a hobby rather than a profession. Yet it had precisely the opposite effect and it was indeed for the better. His unbridled passion and persistence for the perfect shot led him to become the official and family photographer of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, the then ruler of Dubai; he very quickly became the official Royal Photographer as designated by the founding President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. Noor Ali Rashid continued to take photographs to the very end of his days, such was the extent of his passion.

His personal profession, however, was in fact in the service of his adopted homeland (he was given UAE citizenship some time back) and the region at large, as he captured through the decades the transformational change that came to the Gulf. In an interview with Al Jazeera presenter Riz Khan, Rashid professed to have taken over 2.5 million photos throughout his career. Many of the most salient snapshots were displayed at a special exhibition last year and hopefully will be on display once again in tribute to him. Some can be found on the Gulf News website by clicking here. They range from images of icons including Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Queen Elizabeth, Gemal Abdel Nasser, Bill Clinton and the list goes on in an endless fashion. Even more amazingly are the pictures taken of the locations of where Sheikh Zayed Road and the now bountiful buildings of Dubai are, but when the land was just desert. Rashid himself had a personal and close relationship with many individuals from the royal family (as seen from the picture here) that gave him tremendous access.

In his humble portraits and snapshots of the UAE landscape, Rashid managed to document a history that will ultimately prove invaluable. Through the photographs we see the radical change that Dubai and the UAE have experienced in just decades. They also remind of us of the simple beginnings of what is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Ultimately, however, Rashid - like other great photographers - pushes us to reflect and ponder. He did this not with just one penetrating shot but with a totality of work that may remain unmatched in this region for years to come.

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