“One second,” Cheb Moha told me. “Can you hear that it’s raining? This is the first time it’s rained in Dubai all year.”
In the arid Emirati metropolis, where the pseudonymous 25-year-old photographer, stylist, and designer has been living on and off for a couple years, rain is a call for celebration and symbol of new life. So even though it had taken six attempts over as many weeks for me and Moha to connect — thanks to a nine-hour time difference and Dubai’s ban on VoIP services like Facetime, Viber, and Skype — when he stopped to admire the rainfall, I couldn’t be mad.
Since leaving Canada in 2014 to roam between Kuwait, Dubai, Oman and other parts of the Gulf, Moha has been making work that revolves around his keen understanding of Middle Eastern experiences of refuge, misrepresentation, and social class. His aesthetic has landed him photo gigs with acclaimed American brands like Vans and The Hundreds, as well as placements in Middle Eastern publications like Brownbook and Khaleejesque. But, as he humbly put it, all he really wants to do is nurture the region. Just like the rain.
CHEB MOHA: I was born in Iraq, then moved to Libya when I was 3, and then I moved to Calgary, Canada, when I was 12. I had this goal to move back to the Middle East subconsciously for a while. Living in North America as an immigrant, you always get that feeling of needing to rediscover your roots. I remember I would post pictures of the Dubai skyline on Facebook and caption it with “Soon.”
In 2014, I gave up everything — living comfortably with my parents in Canada, playing football at my university on a scholarship — for a one way ticket to Kuwait. I booked the flight 24 hours before I left. I didn't think it was a crazy idea. I remember telling my mom I'd just be gone for two to three weeks. I haven't been back since.
Now I’m in Dubai, living on different friends’ couches. Besides my personal photography, I mostly work on gigs that involve styling, art direction, or brand consultation. I've done everything from styling commercials to designing outfits for musicians. I shot the first cover for a magazine here on film in over 10 years. I do a lot of shit.
“That traditional ideology about what Arabs should do, what we should wear, and how we should act — it’s all changing. All this is new to everyone here.”
In the art and fashion community in the Middle East, everyone knows of each other. If you go through my Instagram, you'll see a lot of pictures of young people, who are my friends. This work is our form of expression, and it's not any of that bourgeois stuff that you hear about Dubai, or what you usually see of the Middle East. At the end of the day, I’m making sure we’re the ones who define our identity. I try not to do things that don’t feel genuine.
That traditional ideology about what Arabs should do, what we should wear, and how we should act — it's all changing. All this is new to everyone here. I remember when I first told my mom, "Yeah, mama, I'm doing photography." She was like, "What do you mean? You're taking pictures for someone and they're paying you?" It's a good time for creatives who want to express themselves, because it's still new.
You can see that regular people are more curious about street culture, fashion, music. When my friends and I go to malls, some people look at us in a funny way, or ask if we're a band. It's a very honest curiosity. Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, U.A.E., Lebanon, and Egypt are countries where it's possible to push things. People are receptive. Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya — they are warzones, and you can't really push ideas there at the moment.
“Everyone supports each other, and everyone pushes each other. We have to, because we’re the only ones responsible for the representation of this area.”
There has been a gap of complete misrepresentation here in the last 30 years. People haven’t been producing creative work because we’ve been moving to other parts of the world, because our homelands are being destroyed. But now, all these kids of migrants are returning home to the East. Everyone supports each other, and everyone pushes each other. We have to, because we're the only ones responsible for the representation of this area.
I really care about the culture here. I just want this region to be nurtured, and I want the people in it to be nurtured, too. Even if I put pictures out, or I try my best to describe it, the best way to understand is for people to come here and experience it. It's very refreshing. It's very new. It feels like you’re part of a growing community. My main focus is just presenting the beautiful new side of things, and not the controversial or exotified aspects.
Our work started to get a lot of attention from brands. Me and some friends just did a campaign for Vans, and it felt organic. We curated the space, we handpicked the people that we worked with. Everything from the music to the display setup was us. That was a special and satisfying moment, because it doesn't happen often, where a big brand gives a couple of Arab kids full creative control. I believe if things end up working out it’s because they're meant to. I've been shut down a lot of times. But without those, the good won’t feel real. You have to mix the bitter with the sweet, right?