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Ala'a photographed by Carol John
“When my grandparents were displaced from Palestine in 1948, they were farmworkers and couldn't read or write, but my mother was determined to change her life. She and her brothers studied hard at the UN school and they were the first family in their village to go to university.”
Ala'a was born in Saudi Arabia but moved to Jordan to study pharmacy. Her husband was living and working in the UK and when they married she came here to be with him. They now have two sons.
As we were restricted by lockdown rules I was initially concerned that we would not be able to build a relationship, but after chatting on WhatsApp we were able to meet outside and have coffee and talk about how we wanted to do the images.
I was concerned with making sure I respected her culture. I really wanted her to be happy with my interpretation of her story and needed to know that she understood what the project was about. I did feel privileged to have this opportunity of hearing about her history and a way of life that I knew very little about before.
We decided together to take the portraits on the beach as this is the place Ala'a feels most relaxed.
My favourite place that makes me relax is the beach, especially if I am stressed or missing my family. I love living in Bournemouth and I’m happy for my children to go to school here. I like that people respect individual differences and follow rules.
She talked about her brother’s wedding and described how important it was for the women to wear embroidered clothes to weddings and festive events. When I saw the embroidery I wanted to highlight its beauty. She allowed me to borrow her jacket so that I could photograph it in different lights. I wanted to see the folds of the material with the sunlight picking out the detail of the stitching.
After a couple of meetings, Ala'a offered to cook me some Palestinian bread. We met on the beach for a picnic and I also cooked something. She had her eldest son with her that day and my daughter came along to help look after him while we chatted.
It was a beautiful sunny day and we laid out our picnic of Welsh cakes and Manaqeesh and Mutabbaq za’atar bread on the sand. We had both made food from recipes passed down to us from our mothers. There is something about food that is so powerful: it is at the centre of all cultures and family gatherings. The food was a catalyst for our conversation to unfold around family, work, parenting and hopes for the future.
Despite our differences I knew from our first meeting that we would find a common ground; that we are all just human, we can share food, we can feel joy and we can feel pain but mostly we all want in our lives to feel like we belong somewhere.