All photos courtesy of Humans of the Middle East/Facebook
Inspired by the global success of the website and Facebook page Humans of New York, three Qatar residents have started up their own version of the venture, offering glimpses into the different lives of people living in the Gulf country.
Egyptian Khalid Zidan, 31, his New Zealand wife Elizabeth and Palestinian colleague Abdullah Al Talla spend around 20 hours of their own time during evenings and weekends approaching strangers in malls, in parks and on the streets.
To encourage people to share different aspects of their lives here in Qatar and back home, they asked various probing questions:
- What’s the biggest obstacle in your life?
- Who is the most loved person you have lost?
- If you had the chance to live your life again, what would you do differently?
And while a few people have declined to engage, most have been keen to talk and share, Zidan said. Speaking to Doha News, he added:
“People generally like talking about themselves. The most common answer we get is that they miss their families. They miss kids’ birthdays and anniversaries with their wife. Even though work here is good and the salary is good, it doesn’t stop them feeling a loss of their loved ones.”
A procurement officer for Qatar’s new port project, Zidan is not a professional journalist or photographer and said he has never done anything like this before.
But when he discovered the Humans of New York (HONY) blog last year, he felt inspired to do something similar in Qatar, and eventually across the region.
Established by photographer Brandon Stanton five years ago to chronicle snapshots of the diversity of the vibrant city’s population, the quirky and honest tone of HONY has helped it gain more than 8 million followers world-wide.
Zidan said Stanton’s work with homeless people in the city particularly struck a chord, and inspired him to employ a similar method to highlight the personalities and stories of a cross section of Qatar’s population, from the very wealthy to the blue-collar laborers.
“I thought, if he’s doing that in New York, imagine what we could do in Qatar where there are so many people from all over the world. That would be great,” Zidan told Doha News.
Additionally, by offering glimpses into people’s lives, Zidan said he felt HOME could go some way in dispelling stereotypes about the region and those living in it.
“When my wife goes back home, she tries to explain that the Gulf isn’t bad, where we live isn’t dangerous. We want to show people ‘this is the Middle East’. It’s not just all the bad things you read about in the media. We are all ordinary people, living and working,” he said.
Since the HOME page began in June this year, its popularity has been spreading, gaining around 2,000 new likes a week for a total of more than 16,000 followers.
The three contributors go out sometimes individually, sometimes together, and seek potential interviewees.
“Everyone has interesting stories but they think they have a normal life – they don’t know they have something special. You get to learn something important – even the person smiling and looking happy, he has his own story he thinks of every day but doesn’t share.
I just walk up to them, say that I am from HOME. Some people know our page, most don’t yet. I explain we are trying to improve society. Some people share very personal stories and so don’t want to show their face. That’s fine, we can photograph their hands. And we don’t use names – we don’t even ask their names,” Zidan explained, talking about his approach to strangers.
So far, the team has interviewed around 60 people. During the summer months, they are mostly limited to malls, which Zidan admits he has been criticized about. But when the weather cools, the team hopes to spend more time on the streets and parks interviewing subjects.
One of the most memorable people Zidan has interviewed is due to feature on the site next week, he said.
“I saw him on the Corniche, just sitting alone, smoking a cigarette. He had a look in his eye that said he had an interesting story but had never told it to anyone.”
The Egyptian man told Zidan he had three sisters and a brother. His parents divorced when he was eight, and they both left the family.
Though he was the youngest, he quickly assumed the role of man of the family and began looking for work. He took on all sorts of legal, and sometimes illegal, jobs to pay for his siblings’ educations.
“He had no childhood,” Zidan said.
After their schooling was complete, the man told his sisters he had an offer to work in Dubai. In truth, he had no job and was traveling in the hope of finding a job, but feared if his sisters knew that, they would stop him from going.
He successfully found a job, worked there for three years, then was offered a position in an international company in Qatar and is now living here. His sisters are now married and since their brother had become successful enough, he was able to help them with their weddings, Zidan recounted.
As well as providing an insight into people’s lives, Zidan said he hopes also to use the page as a platform for philanthropic work, alongside a charity, to raise funds and help some of Qatar’s lower-income workers.
“Imagine if we could really help the laborers here, every year do something to help them. We could use the page to raise awareness about who they are and their situations,” he said.
“When you see something bad in the society you live in, I believe you have some responsibility. Being part of society means contributing to it. There’s no perfect city, but you want the city you live in to be better,” he said.
While the group is starting in Qatar, the team hopes to eventually expand the reach of the page throughout the region.
“Some people say we’re not as good as HONY, and we’re not. But we’ve just started and we’re learning and improving. Generally the feedback we get is positive, and it makes me happy that we are making other people happy,” Zidan said.
Have you seen the page? Thoughts?