For Hafiz, Sabiha Çimen‘s spent a handful of years photographing young women and girls at a hifz school in Istanbul. For many viewers it may be eye opening, it may humanize or familiarize; for me, it’s all fairly normal: school uniforms are terribly common, and women, young or old, wearing hijab and modest clothing just is. Hafiz was Charcoal Book Club‘s photobook of the month for December, 2021.
For those who are unaware, حافظ (“hafiz”) means “guardian” and refers to people who memorize the Quran, often at a school for such guardians, a “hifz” school. “Al Hafiz” is one of the names of Allah: God is The Guardian, The Protector. Hifz programs may be residential, full time, or part time, ran by or through mosques (masajid), by businesses, or by individuals. The masjid next to my house has a full time private school attached to it, which offers a hifz program; my brother in law Saad spent some years in a madrasa in Bangladesh and memorized the Quran as part of the curriculum there. In some parts of the world, such schools may be the only formal education that young people, especially girls, receive.
None of that is strictly necessary to understand Çimen’s book, of course. Background, though, can be helpful, and maybe you also get an idea why Hafiz seems so wonderfully normal to me.
Basically, it’s a book of pictures of girls doing whatever they do at school, mostly outside of active Quran study. In looking through it, I was reminded of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, which I had no business even looking at, really, much less actually reviewing (so I didn’t). This book is wildly different, really… I think… I’m not entirely sure why.
I wrote a couple of paragraphs comparing Çimen’s book and process to Kurland’s, but it’s not worth going into (right now, anyway). I had misgivings about Kurland’s book mostly because of her process, her method of recruiting models, and I have no such issue with Çimen.
Çimen spent three years at a full time hifz school in the 1980s with her twin sister, and later went back to the same school (and other, similar ones) to photograph, to relive, to explore and interrogate her memories. And her pictures depict what you might expect pictures made at a girl’s hifz school to depict: young women hang around, play hopscotch, mill about, go on field trips to a fair and ride what looks to be a Wacky Worm in something like the three monkeys pose (sorta), and they pose, smiling, scowling, or mostly staring blankly back at the camera as people tend to do in art photos, as we all know. Anyway.
The hopscotch picture, in particular, reminds me of my nieces, Sarah and Sarinah, who attend(ed) the local Islamic School. The boys and girls have uniforms, and it’s all very dark navy abaya’s and light blue hijabs for the girls.* The only real differentiator is their shoes: it’s all young faces framed by a light blue cloud of fabric, floating on a near-black void with some sort of footgear poking out the bottom. Sarah graduated some time ago, and is now in nursing school, but she almost always wore low-top Chuck’s, which I also wore on occasion as a younger person. In the hopscotch picture, the girls watching or waiting for their turn wear sneakers—one has on some late twenty-teens Air Jordans that I always, and still, find incredibly ugly; the other wears a brand I can’t identify—and the hopping girl hops around in a pair of what appear to be 8-eye Doc’s, which I also tromped around in, and may even have hopscotched in, if I happened to pass a hopscotch court.
Most of the book is pictures of that type. It’s all rather simple. There are a few interior shots, a few exterior shots, and an interesting sequence where it seems the girls maybe sacrificed a cow (perhaps for Eid al Adha): an environmental portrait of young woman with no hijab opens to reveal part of a cow or goat’s head next to a head-and-shoulders portrait of the same girl; the next page is also a gatefold with the same girl with her eyes closed next to a bloody rock; close the second gatefold and the girl is back where she started, now wearing a hijab. It reads like a sort of coming of age story. There are a few other gatefolds that function similarly and I won’t ruin it for you. Throughout there’s no real artifice, not even much makeup… it’s just girls at a hifz school. Maybe Çimen gave a bit of direction: maybe she asked the girls to play around on the hopscotch court; maybe she asked the girl to doff (or don) her jijab before or after the sacrifice. It all seems to be much more from-life than, say, Kurland’s afternoon-television film stills. I’ll probably show Hafiz to my nieces. My wife is actually interested in it somewhat and commented on how fancy it looks. I don’t hide my photobooks at all, but also don’t really show them off, and normally none of my family members show even the slightest interest,** so it’s really lovely to have a book that some of them might at least see themselves in.
I quite like Hafiz on many levels, not least of which is that it has some relationship to me and my family. Viewers without this understanding and appreciation of various other worldwide cultural and religious practices might take more from it; I suspect Çimen made the book more for the uninitiated than she did for middle-aged white American reverts, or Bengali muslims. In any case, the photographs are solid and the book works, though the design—meant to mimic the binding on some Qurans I think—make it a bit hard to flip through without a table. This would largely ruin pretty much any other book, but it makes sense with this one.
Copies appear to be available through Magnum, and it appears that Hafiz is undergoing a second printing that you may be able to obtain direct from Red Hook editions. For more about Çimen, she became a Magnum Nominee in 2020 and there are a few articles and an interview with her on the Magnum site that gives some good background and insight into the process. And Çimen is on Instagram, of course, but doesn’t seem to have a website, at least not one that I can find easily. (In fact, Çimen spoke about this in Episode 135 of the A Small Voice podcast, which, at time of writing, I haven’t listened to yet.) If you google around a bit, there are loads of interviews and brief articles, mostly about the Hafiz project, and she’s shot for the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere… She seems to be on a nice run! I wish her well and look forward to stumbling across more of her work.
*One young woman had some interest in photography and I talked to her a few times, showed her dad and her a few books—Paul Graham, Robert Frank—and later gave her a lens that I didn’t use. I saw her with a group of friends one afternoon and she said “Hello!” but for the life of me I didn’t recognize her, or, rather, she looked just like all the other girls, and my nieces, in that dark abaya and light hijab, and it was only later, halfway down the block, that I realized who it was. All these years later, I still regret not really acknowledging her properly.
** My brother-in-law likes to look at Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, which pretty much lives on the coffee table. It reminds him of his childhood, somehow… it looks like the America he saw on TV and in movies back in Bangladesh, I think.