Who Was Karimeh Abbud? Part 1

By Mary Pelletier

A quick Google search reveals an oft-repeated, neat little biography for Karimeh Abbud, complete with an image of her, stood next to a large-format camera, shutter release in hand.  Karimeh was allegedly the first female photographer in Palestine, born in 1896 to an esteemed, intellectual family who resided in Bethlehem. She also went by the title ‘Lady Photographer’, and proudly stamped the moniker on her prints. Seeing this calling card, I was hooked – how had Karimeh managed to make her mark in the old boys’ club of Holy Land photography practice?

Karimeh Abbud and her camera, Haifa, 1920s. Photo by C. Swaid (Source: Ahmad Mrowat, Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 31, p.72)

Karimeh Abbud and her camera, Haifa, 1920s. Photo by C. Swaid (Source: Ahmad Mrowat, Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 31, p.72)

The biographical information about Karimeh online was surprisingly one-dimensional. She had worked throughout Palestine, making her studio in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, specialising in photographs of women and families. Articles stated her importance with certainty, but I was curious as to the source of this information – did it come from her family? Who had declared her the ‘first’ Palestinian female photographer, or as some claimed, the first female to run a photographic business in the Middle East? What had happened to her photographs, and why weren’t they in a museum collection somewhere?

Karimeh Abbud studio stamp (Source: Ahmad Mrowat, Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 31, p.72)

Karimeh Abbud studio stamp (Source: Ahmad Mrowat, Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 31, p.72)

With funding from the PEF, I got right down to asking anyone in Bethlehem and Jerusalem with photography knowledge who would listen – where can I find Karimeh Abbud and her photographs? Articles from the Jerusalem Quarterly and online sources cited the Nazareth Archive Project and Ahmad Mrowat as being the source of the research. The Nazareth Archive Project was said to house Karimeh’s work, but phone numbers to Mrowat were disconnected, as were phone numbers I tracked down for family members who were said to have helped compile this initial information, circa 2007.

Photograph of two unknown women taken by Karimeh Abbud (Source: Issam Nassar, Jerusalem Quarterly Issue 46, p.23)

Photograph of two unknown women taken by Karimeh Abbud (Source: Issam Nassar, Jerusalem Quarterly Issue 46, p.23)

Karimeh’s name seemed to be one that everyone knew – but no one knew much about. One Palestinian photography collector let out a long sigh when I asked him what he knew of Karimeh’s work, citing that her reputation had been overblown – her studio photographs were nothing special, photographically speaking.  I disagreed – I had been attracted to Abbud’s photographs because those I had seen online seemed much more intimate than the stage-y, directed portraiture of Jerusalem photographers like Khalil Ra’ad.

Looking at photographs from Issam Nassar’s collection, reproduced here, the subjects of her photographs seem to exude a comfort, both with their partners and with the photographer herself – as though the taking of the picture is not a transaction, but instead a sort of collaborative effort. (Nassar has written further on Abbud in the larger context of Middle Eastern portraiture in the Jerusalem Quarterly, cited below).

That skeptical collector also put me in touch with Rev. Mitri Raheb, head of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, and, as it turned out, Karimeh’s unintentional biographer.

This photograph printed on carte postale has the stamp of Karimeh Abbud. It was sent with a note on the back to Um Diabis Abbud on October 30th, 1930 from Dmitri, whose last name is not legible. (Source: Issam Nassar, Jerusalem Quarterly Issue 46, p.28)

This photograph printed on carte postale has the stamp of Karimeh Abbud. It was sent with a note on the back to Um Diabis Abbud on October 30th, 1930 from Dmitri, whose last name is not legible. (Source: Issam Nassar, Jerusalem Quarterly Issue 46, p.28)

Meeting with Rev. Raheb helped to set some things straight about Karimeh’s biography – his book, a limited-print run paperback written in Arabic and with a foreword by Ahmad Mrowat, charts her life through Lutheran church records. He sets a clear picture of her life’s trajectory, her family life, the chances afforded her by her family’s status, even her marriage – many things left out of any online articles. All of the context afforded by Rev. Raheb’s publication is important, especially when considering the style of Karimeh’s subjects and her mobility.

Undated image of Abbud Family Members, taken by Karimeh Abbud. (Source: Raheb, Karimeh Abbud, p. 45)

Undated image of Abbud Family Members, taken by Karimeh Abbud. (Source: Raheb, Karimeh Abbud, p. 95)

:Undated image of Abbud Family Members, taken by Karimeh Abbud. (Source: Raheb, Karimeh Abbud, p. 44)

Undated image of Abbud Family Members, taken by Karimeh Abbud. (Source: Raheb, Karimeh Abbud, p. 94)

The images in the book had come from two Abbud family photographic albums. These two undated images, taken by Abbud herself, are reproduced on pages 94 & 95 of Raheb’s publication and demonstrate Abbud’s signature portraiture environment – the women here are comfortable with each other, but also with Abbud’s presence. It is obvious in both images that their proximity to one another demonstrate a close relationship – most likely mother and daughters, and then the two sisters, alone – but we also see that Abbud treated her familial subjects in the same way she treated her paying clients, and vice versa – there is a warm professionalism that plays out in each of these different sets of images.

It is the foreword by Mrowat in this text that seemed curious to me, however. Where earlier articles by Mrowat stated he had acquired ‘some 400’ Abbud photographs from an Israeli photography collector, this text (published 2011) noted a legal case brought against him by the same Israeli collector. He states that the collector had no right to keep the photos, as he was not related to her in any way. This calls into question the amount of weight placed on earlier claims for the archive in his articles – who actually owned the pictures that were being written about, did the author have permission from the owner(s) to use them, and were the claims accurate? Does the Nazareth Archive Project exist outside of articles bearing its name?

There are many outstanding questions I am in the process of answering – beginning with gaining access to the ‘some 400’ photographs that were the subject of this legal case. A ‘Part 2’ will be forthcoming!

Further reading:

Mrowat, A. 2007. “Karimeh Abbud: Early Woman Photographer (1896-1955).” Jerusalem Quarterly 31: 72-78.

Nassar, I. 2011. “Early Photography in Palestine: The Legacy of Karimeh Abbud.” Jerusalem Quarterly 46: 23-31.

Raheb, M. 2011. Karimeh Abbud: Pioneer Female Phographer of Palestine. Bethlehem, Palestine: Diyar Consortium. Print. Arabic language.

Touring Palestine

By Felicity Cobbing

“You’re going where? – Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” is a common response when I tell people I am off to Palestine, taking a holiday tour to the West Bank. Of course the region isn’t known for its peace and tranquillity, especially this year, which has seen some all-too familiar scenes of violence erupting once more. But tourists and other visitors are very safe here. The region’s reputation for hospitality is deservedly legendary, and Palestine is no exception. And the country is about so much more than the ongoing conflict and the headlines this generates.

Every year, I lead an archaeological and historical tour to Palestine on behalf of Martin Randall Travel in London, and Laila Tours in Bethlehem. Together with the tour manager, who this year was the utterly fabulous Heather Millican, we introduce a collection of complete strangers to this complex and fascinating corner of the world in a way that is hopefully a lot of fun as well as thought-provoking. The itinerary takes in archaeological and religious sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and Samaria, and gives those on the tour an opportunity to see a part of the world usually only experienced by many of us in the West through dismal news reports.

The Dome of the Rock reflected in al Aksa     Mt Zion & al Aksa, Jerusalem     Russian Church of St. Mary M. Jerusalem    Samaria Olive harvest    Hisham at Hisham's Palace    Hisham's Palace, Jericho    Neolithic Tower, Tell es-Sultan, Jericho    The 'Separation Wall' Bethlehem
The Dome of the Rock reflected in al Aksa

This year, a group of ten of us arrived in Palestine in the midst of the worst trouble the region has seen for a while, and though we were always perfectly safe and enjoyed the best of Palestinian hospitality, we were all very aware of the events unfolding around us. We were accompanied as always by our local guide, Dr. Hisham Khatib, and our coach driver George. I have got to know Hisham over several tours now, and I am always glad to have him with us. He is a friend, a gentleman and a scholar, and impresses everyone with his courtesy and knowledge. George was a new friend, but I was very glad to have him negotiating our path around the roads of Palestine, avoiding the worst of the road-blocks and finding alternative routes to our destinations. We also had the benefit of several local experts, who brought their unique knowledge to our visits of their sites.

Our guide, Hisham, and his mother in their home in the Old City, Jerusalem.

Our guide, Hisham, and his mother in their home in the Old City, Jerusalem.

Shimon Gibson and Hamdan Taha introduced us to the fabulous archaeology and history of sites in Jerusalem and at Tell as-Sultan (ancient Jericho) respectively, whilst the ever-enthusiastic Silvia Krapikow showed us round the Rockefeller Museum and archives, and Rachel Lev introduced us to the wonderful archival collections of the American Colony, a gem of a collection that surprised us all. Laila Slemiah who runs the women’s cooperative in Hebron impressed us all with her courage and determination to make a life for herself, her children and to support other women and their families through her work.

Rachel Lev, America Colony archives Silvia in the Archives Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem Jerusalem Skyline Bingo Night in Beit Jalah
Rachel Lev, America Colony archives

Priest Hosni Cohen, the little brother of the High Priest and elder of the Samaritan community on Mount Gerizim very graciously introduced us to the unique perspective of the Samaritans, helped brilliantly by Ghalia Cohen and Marwa Mohammed who translated some of the more existential concepts into English. With one phone for Israel and another for Palestine, and three – yes three – passports (Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian), Priest Cohen transcends political barriers to go where he pleases, taking the teachings of Samaritan scripture with him. Organised tour holidays are not to everyone’s taste, but there is no doubt in my mind that they provide more of an opportunity to get under the skin of a country than is possible for an independent traveller, at least for a first relatively short visit. It’s also a wonderful way to make new friends, and I am sure I will be seeing quite a lot of some of those I got to know round at the PEF – something I anticipate with great pleasure!

Priest Hosni Cohen at the Samaritan Museum, Mount Gerizim.

Priest Hosni Cohen at the Samaritan Museum, Mount Gerizim.

Palestine is a part of the world of which I am very fond. I love the people, the history, the culture and the landscape: for such a tiny part of the world it packs a seriously powerful punch. It has been the theatre for some of the most important milestones of human history from the Neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago which saw the development of farming to the invention of the alphabet, and the emergence of the three great Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hopefully, when I take the tour again this time next year, the political situation will have improved, and the next group of travellers will see a region full of hope and talent getting the chance to fulfil some of its potential.