The Female Photographer Who Captured Palestinian Lives 100 Years Ago

In the early 20th century, Karimeh Abbud photographed the landscapes and people of her homeland. A new exhibition provides an opportunity to learn about her importance in documenting Palestinian lives

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Photographs by Karimeh Abbud: a peasant woman with a girl in Nazareth.Credit: Reproduction by Rami Shllush
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

When the photography collector Bouky Boaz, who turned 60 this year, first came across the works of Karimeh Abbud, his heart skipped a beat. “It moved me. I realized there was something extraordinary there,” he says.

Boaz has been collecting photographs from Israel and pre-state Palestine for 45 years. Curators make pilgrimages to his home in Caesarea to pore through his enormous collection, documenting the Land of Israel from the 19th to the mid-20th centuries. But for him, Abbud’s case was quite exceptional. “Things like this just don’t happen,” he says.

What made Boaz, a businessman, so enthused was Abbud’s identity: a woman, a Palestinian and a photographer, who a full century ago traveled through towns around the country and used her camera to capture the landscapes, buildings and people. “There were very few female photographers during that period,” he says. “It was not considered a suitable profession for women. We are aware of several Jewish female photographers, but Palestinian? Even now, you will not find that many Arab women going around the Levant with cameras.”

Karimeh Abbud standing next to a camera.Credit: Courtesy of Bouky Boaz

Over the years, he has built up his collection of her photographs and now possesses approximately 300 postcards featuring Abbud’s work. “ No one in the world can surpass me,” he says with pride. “I attended every auction in the world where Karimeh was being sold.”

In 2006, when Boaz felt that the time was ripe to make his unique collection public, he took an unusual step. He placed an ad in Arabic-language newspapers and asked the public for additional biographical details, information and photographs of Abbud. It was then that the snowball began to roll – and kept on rolling. “The Palestinians understood that they had a figure here who was very good for their narrative,” he says. “They made a film about her, wrote a book and named a street and city square after her.”

Photography collector Bouky Boaz.Credit: Rami Shlush

In 2016, Abbud saw a temporary spike in public interest when on what would have been her 123rd birthday, she was featured as the day’s Google Doodle – an occasion on which the search engine changes its logo to mark a holiday or anniversary. In addition, an Al Jazeera crew came to Boaz’ home to interview him, in Hebrew, about his collection of Abbud’s photographs. For a moment, he says, he felt like he was living in a New Middle East.

About 20 of Abbud’s photographs from Boaz’s collection are now on display at an exhibition, “Eastern Tours,” at the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva, that is scheduled to run until May 13, 2023. It focuses on tourists to Palestine between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, through the stories of the souvenirs they bought: postcards, photographs, slides, maps, spices, ornaments, books and dried flowers.

It was during this period that Abbud was selling postcards of selected tourism sites that she’d photographed, mainly for pilgrims who had made their way to Palestine, and in the Boaz collection one may see a variety of examples: the Casa Nova guest house in Tiberias, the Stella Maris Carmelite monastery in Haifa, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, as well as peasant women in Nazareth and camels in Kafr Kana.

Photographs by Karimeh Abbud: camels in Nazareth.Credit: Reproduction by Rami Shllush

“As a local photographer, as opposed to photographers who arrived here from outside the country, you can see what makes Abbud’s work unique,” says Sharon Laor-Sirak, the museum’s curator. “Unlike others, who depicted in their photographs a staged and fantastical dream, in Abbud’s work, you can really see a different perspective.”

This is especially evident in the photos of people barefoot, in rags. Abbud photographed a woman selling akkoub (Gundelia tournefortii, a wild green that is also used for medicinal purposes). “A Western photographer would not have captured this, because as far as they would be concerned it was nothing more than a thorny weed, but she was quite aware of what it was,” says Boaz.

Photographs by Karimeh Abbud: Casa Nova, on the shore of Lake Kinneret in Tiberias.Credit: Reproduction by Rami Shllush

Photography curator Guy Raz says another thing that makes Abbud’s work so unique “is this wandering, the fact that she was traveling through the land, as opposed to other photographers of that era, who would open a studio.” At the same time, the buds of the conflict with the Jews remain unseen in the photos.

A camera at 17

Abbud was born in Bethlehem in 1893 to Said Abbud, whose family came from south Lebanon – some sources say his given name was As’ad – and Barbara Badr. After working as a teacher and a lay preacher for several years he became a pastor in the Lutheran church. Her mother was a teacher. One of six children, she grew up in a home that was steeped in culture. For her 17th birthday, in 1913, he gave her a camera.

She signed her first photographs, taken in the Nazareth area, “Mrs. Karimeh Abbud, Nazareth.” She studied Arabic literature at the American University of Beirut, where she would also take photographs. In addition, she would photograph women and children at weddings and other ceremonies, as well as public buildings and landscapes.

Photographs by Karimeh Abbud: Stella Maris Monastery in HaifaCredit: Reproduction by Rami Shllush

Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, wrote in a biography of Abbud that she described herself in 1924 as “the only national photographer.”

In 1929 Abbud married a merchant from Marjayoun in Lebanon. She gave birth to their child, a boy named Samir – during the couple’s brief sojourn in Brazil, according to some accounts – and died in 1940, at 47. The circumstances of her death are unknown. She was buried in Bethlehem.

The curator and researcher of visual history Rona Sela described Abbud and the photographer Khalil Raad as “the pioneers of Palestinian photography.” Abbud is cited in her book, “Photography in Palestine/Eretz-Israel in the 1930s and ‘40s” (in Hebrew), published in 2000.

However, Raz says, “large-scale research about her and her work has not yet been done, and there is more about her that we don’t know than we do know. It is very possible that additional photographs of hers are yet to come to light.”

Photographs by Karimeh Abbud: a peasant woman selling akkoub in Nazareth.Credit: Reproduction by Rami Shlush

Not everyone welcomes the fact that Boaz, a Zionist Jew, is building the main collection of the Palestinian photographer’s work. In the Arab world, some have asked by what right he remains in possession of photographs taken by a woman who could easily become a national symbol for her people.

“Some Palestinians are bothered by the fact that this collection is in the possession of a Jew,” he says defensively. “It really makes them blow a fuse. But I built this narrative for them, I established an archive for them, so what do they want from me? On the day that I decide to say goodbye to this collection, it will go to the Palestinian people. I am not right-wing in my belief. But I am a Zionist, meaning that there are those who choose to boycott me.”

This article is featured in the September issue of Haaretz Magazine.

In the meantime, counterfeit copies of Abbud’s work are being distributed, along with erroneous information about her biography. Abbud’s English-language Wikipedia entry, for example, says: “Original copies of her extensive portfolio have been collected together by Ahmed Mrowat, Director of the Nazareth Archives Project. In 2006, Boki Boazz, an Israeli antiquities collector, discovered over 400 original prints of Abbud’s in a home in the Qatamon quarter of Jerusalem that had been abandoned by its owners fleeing the Israeli occupation in 1948. Mrowat has expanded his collection by purchasing the photos from Boazz, many of which are signed by the artist.”

Boaz says that after he submitted a complaint with the police the entry was edited to remove the reference to him as the seller, and the Hebrew-language entry for Abbud in fact reflects this change. Boaz says he know of numerous lies that have been spread about the matter. “I was warned that they would break into my house and steal the collection from me, but that hasn’t happened. In any event, the collection is being protected, under good conditions,” he says.

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