Peter Gould

MY JOURNEY: Photograph & Stories

Below is a transcript of my presentation given at the State Library of NSW on May 26th, 2021. We held a charity exhibition of my photography in support of Australia for UNHCR.

Our campaign managed to raise over $75,000. Support here: unrefugees.org.au/petergould

"Bismillah. Asalaamu Alaikum and peace be upon all of you.

Welcome, and thank you so much. There are many inspiring and beautiful souls here in the audience tonight. I'm very grateful to each of you for taking the time to join us. I’d like to thank the entire Australia for UNHCR team for the amazing work you do, and to our gracious hosts, The State Library of NSW.

For those who know me here - you'll know that I'm usually very comfortable presenting to any kind of audience. I love to chat and share stories. I usually don't like to read from a prepared speech and prefer to talk casually.

For tonight's talk however, I've actually really struggled. I've found it hard to know what to say, and to arrive at what feels appropriate. Looking back through these photos invites complex emotions. The work before you captures both moments of breathtaking beauty, personal memories of joy and discovery. But there are also some images that are heart-breaking and difficult to navigate.

In 2003, soon after embracing Islam, I started travelling to parts of the Middle East and surrounding regions. I was in the privileged position of being a tourist with an Australian passport.

The intention was to explore the lands where Islam had first flourished, to experience the beauty and richness of its diverse history. I was a seeker, of sorts, curious about spirituality, creativity and cultures different to what I'd experienced growing up in Southern Sydney. Over those years, often with a camera by my side, I encountered many marvels, people and places that left me in a permanent state of awe and gratitude. Tonight I hope to share some glimpses with you.

Beirut, Lebanon

Here I am in 2005, Beirut, Lebanon. The mountainous outskirts of an old Ottoman village in an area called Beiteddin. I’d had some fresh sage bread and in broken Arabic conversed with this wonderful old man on his donkey. It was just a brief encounter, but countless stories were etched in his face. Now I reflect on that man and wonder what common threads there might be between our lives. Was he a businessman, a father, was he happy? Reviewing these photos after many years brings a different lens. In the background I notice the Coca Cola logo in expressive Arabic script and it makes me think of my own local corner store, where I now take my kids for ice creams in summer. Our journey in life is not measured by distance, yet travel is a great blessing that brings us perspective and appreciation for what unfolds along our own path.

Spain

A foundational part of my story began at the majestic Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Andalusia holds a special place in this journey, and it has captivated the hearts of many people for centuries.  

Walking around the gardens and grounds of the palaces, one feels a unique calm among flowing streams and delightful courtyards.It was here that I began to really understand Islamic art and architecture. Islamic art and design is experiential.

It will be pleasing to the eye, but its true beauty is felt in the heart. It doesn’t draw attention to the individual artist, designer or architect, instead it invites us to a deeper state of contemplation and remembrance of God.

In Cordoba, not so far away, we experience a forest of arches and a delightful interplay of light and shadow. Here, a prayer niche, with signature Andalusi horseshoe arch shapes, surrounded with illuminating script & etched verses that have survived centuries of change.

Morocco

Travelling south, crossing Tariq’s Mountain, known as Jabal Tariq, or Gibraltar in English, I arrived in North Africa. Morocco greets us with mesmerising walls of zileej mosaic tiling. Delightful floral Maghrebi script adorns a vibrant palette that feels to me fresh & contemporary today, centuries after their original design.

Here we explore spaces and infinite patterns that invite us to consider deeper meaning beyond form. We don’t focus on a single point but find order and collective harmony through many interwoven elements.

In Islamic art there is a parallel in how we can relate to the divine, a

non-dimensional intelligence in the universe that we all experience. As someone explained to me, we are immersed in God’s love and mercy at every moment, yet unperceptive, just as the fish who spends its entire existence swimming, but has no concept of what water is.

I spent a month in Fes, attempting to learn classical Arabic, something that I'm still trying to do. A city traditionally of great scholarship, cultural and intellectual exchange, it is home to the world’s oldest university, Qarawiyyin, founded by Fatima al-Fihri. Her vision has inspired learners and spiritual seekers from many backgrounds and faiths since the year 859.

We attempted a roadtrip across the Atlas Mountains. Countless villages of mudbrick, striking in their simplicity, and always with a single white minaret. The Arabic word minaret itself, I learned is derived from manarah, meaning lighthouse. In my digital life, I think to moments of clarity praying in a humble hut or under a palm tree, feeling truly connected.

In this moment, I was actually lost. I was somewhere in the famed souq labyrinth of Marrakesh. I had pulled to the side of an alleyway, given up on maps, and reached for my camera.

I took a single frame, and immediately appreciated the gift I had been given.

The man walking into the light, in traditional maghrebi jalabiya, walks the path before us. There are few clues as to whether this scene would look any different from a thousand years before. The feeling is timeless.

Turkey

Now to Turkey. In Konya, I joined spiritual seekers from around the world in visiting the resting place of Mawlana Jalaludeen Rumi.

Although written over 800 years ago Rumi’s timeless wisdoms make him the highest selling poet in the United States today.

His epic Mathnawi, a source of incredible richness and inspiration.

As Rumi says sometimes we need to "close both eyes and see with our other eye".

In Istanbul, I was embraced by a breathtaking capital of culture, creative exchange and endless discovery. In the Blue Mosque, an expanse of space and light illuminating hearts for centuries. And we meet kedi, the cats who reign as real sultans of this great city.Here we met Gli (right), the beautiful and famed guardian of the Hagia Sofia, who passed just a few months after our last visit, aged 16 years.  

Further abroad, to another great mosque, this one built primary as a tourist attraction, in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Living in Dubai for some time felt like a constant experiment between tradition and modernity. Look closely at this photograph and you’ll see it’s no classical mosque, but a Starbucks at the Ibn Battuta mall. And here, my kids enjoy a large model of the Shaykh Zayed Mosque at LEGOland.

Oman

Taking a roadtrip to Oman, we arrive in Muscat. I stood at the stunning Sultan Qaboos Masjid.

An infinity of austere arches on the outside, we venture inside and are greeted a flourish of rich ceramic calligraphy.

As a graphic designer for most of my career, Arabic script and calligraphy has fascinated me. I will share some favourite discoveries in my travels.

Bahrain

Here in Manama, Bahrain, I was struck by the expressiveness of this stained glass zoomorphic script. The infinite possibilities for words and phrases to be crafted into eloquent flowing forms and expressive statements is incredible.

At a crumbling Ottoman mosque in Lebanon, we see a classical script in ceramic and stone under a lamp at the entrance. It is quoting famous verses of the Quran describing God as Light Upon Light, "Nur Ala Nur".

Saudi Arabia

And here in brass, at the doors to the Prophet’s Mosque ﷺ in Medina, Saudi Arabia. In Medina, many seekers find a tranquil heart.

In the early hours of the morning, I took this photo among tens of thousands in remembrance of God to as far as the eyes can see.

A powerful moment was visiting Mecca for the first time. I've had the blessing of visiting on three occasions, including performing the Hajj pilgrimage, which all Muslims are encouraged to do. This photo was taken in front of the Kaaba, at the doors of the black cube-shaped structure that over a billion people face, five times a day.

The prayer punctuates the day with moments of stillness, contemplation and calm. In my hyper digital, busy modern life, I am grateful for this simple habit, as a reminder to slow down and be grateful.

It is a feeling like no other I've experienced, to be surrounded by many millions upon millions of people, who pause and pray together in absolute silence.

Time feels entirely different in Mecca. Time stops, a sanctuary away from the hustle and pressure elsewhere

On Hajj, perhaps what moved me the most, was experiencing the diversity of humanity in one place. To be among every kind of person, from every part of the world. Where there was no common tongue, we exchanged smiles and hugs, using a universal language of the heart.

I remember vividly a beautiful man with an extraordinary large black woolen hat indicating he was Tajikistan or somewhere in Central Asia. We seemed to know each other, and laughed spontaneously. He took my hat, and we swapped hats for a moment, laughed again, then bid farewell and moved on. I’ll never know his name but I won’t forget him. The Quran tells us God made people into different nations and tribes, so that we may come to know one another. Mecca feels strangely like home, a reminder to our shared humanity.

Australia

And yet home for me, is Australia. Returning now, to this great southern land, is a photo of the oldest mosque in the country. In a remote part of South Australia, I travelled and photographed for the Islamic Museum of Australia.

This delightfully simple mudbrick structure is likely to be from around the 1870s, remarkably still standing with the help of thoughtful locals.

Another, in Bourke, remote NSW, a corrugated tin mosque faces Mecca. This humble and charming outback shed, could hardly be more Australian.

It was made by cameleers, of Afghan and Indian descent, who help setup the lifelines of early outback Australia acting the postal service, installing telegraph lines and then the railways, for which the most famous, The Ghan is named in an honour of that vital contribution.

On that same journey, we visited rural Queensland, and I befriended this Aussie larrikin named Abdur Raheem. His outback accent and ute as natural as the kufi on his head. We spoke about country life and how locals came together to build their mosque, their Christian friends donating the timber.

I recall one of my teachers sharing an anecdote from his teacher, a West African scholar explaining that Islam is like a clear pure water, wherever it flows, reflecting the colour of the bedrock beneath it. So in outback Australia, we should expect tin mosques.

China

And in Beijing, it looks Chinese. I visited the Niejie Mosque, one of the oldest in China built in 996. In Muhammad’sﷺ lifetime, many travellers were moved by his simple but profound message, peace be upon him, and letters survive today penned to leaders of civilisations long gone.

Without the Arabic inscription, La Illaha Illa Lah, one may not guess this is a mosque. Yet it stands, distincly Chinese, visibly Muslim. Inside and above, I loved the calligraphy treatment in flowing Chinese script.

I was grateful to pray in such a historic place and move about freely. And yet now, thinking about that visit, upon my conscious is a heavy feeling. I was to learn later that only hours away, over a million Uyghur Muslims are held in camps. I do not have the words to even fathom how horrendous their daily experience must be.

Jordan

It is a similar, very difficult feeling to navigate when looking back at other travels. For while I loved the mystery of the Jordanian desert, and exploring the ancient rock city of Petra...

Jerusalem

...crossing by bus into Jerusalem was a profound experience. It was uncomfortable to be held six hours at the border, but nothing compared to the wailing of a Palestinian woman who had shared our bus ride, but was refused entry. Who am I, I thought, a stranger from a distant country to have this privilege, when so many are unable to live freely in their own lands

These photos then for me, are an amanah, a trust. If I am given the opportunity to visit, then I have a responsibility to share with others, and invite you to become a part of this story.

A quiet evening in 2006, by the Dome of the Rock, a sacred and important place for so many people on the planet. Within the mosque, still with visible bullet holes, and underneath the rock enclave within it, I prayed for peace among all of humanity.

Looking at the scenes here in recent weeks, there is a mix of anger, despair and responsibility. I accept that history is complex, but I do not accept that using military force against children is complex. It’s simply wrong.

We have an obligation not to forget our shared humanity. In one of many ancient laneways in the old city, is a small prayer room, established by none other than Saladin, Salahudin Ayyubi. In the time of the Crusades, and now through film and television, he is remembered for chivalry and restraint.

Offering the services of his medical physicians to his military rival, Richard the Lionheart leaves us with a simple example of this remembering this humanity.

Spending time at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall, I saw people just like me from around the world, visiting to offer prayers.

I didn’t see labels, I saw people. We all want peace for ourselves and our loved ones, and we must teach our children to want this for others too.

We may not be like-minded, but we can be like-hearted in our shared vision for this peace.

Syria

The last part of our journey is one of the most difficult, but please stay with me. Here are two of my most favourite photographs from Damascus. On the left is Shaa'r3a Mustaqeem - Straight Street, so old that it's actually mentioned in the bible. I love that you can see the layers of history, from ancient structures such as the temple of Jupiter, to Roman and Byzantine times, right through to Ottoman and modern times, with the souq's charming vendors. On the right, is the Grand Ummayyad Mosque, the place where the great scholar Imam Al-Ghazzali swept floors during his famous period of seclusion.

Here inside the mosque on the left it is said John the Baptist is buried, and to the right, the famous minaret from where some Muslims believe Jesus will return at the end of times.

In particular though I think about the wonderful atmosphere of the courtyard. I recall vividly families gathering, children laughing, students chatting in all corners.

It was a lively, illuminating, beautiful place. This is the Syria that I hope to return to one day, inshaAllah.  

You see, behind all of these photos, the best part was meeting incredible people, in the streets, shops, taxis, cafes, restaurants, hotels and mosques. The fatteh and leymon cordial was so good at Laila’s cafe, that I had to take a photo of it.

In these travels were thousands of little interactions that left me moved and touched by the famous hospitality and generosity of the Arab world. Countless friendly smiles, happy conversations and genuine connection. Anyone who has spent time in old medinas of the Middle East knows this special feeling. While I generally avoided taking photos of people, behind every single photo in this collection, are memories of people, wonderful people. And so, looking back at certain photos from Syria is particularly hard.

Thinking about the faces of people that I'd met in historic Palymra, city of the fearsome Queen Zenobia who took on the mighty Roman empire in the year 260.The city was largely destroyed in 2013, in a conflict that is now unbelievably in its tenth year.

Here you see a minaret that stood for over 1000 years in Aleppo, surviving crusades, world wars, but it is no longer, having been completely destroyed in 2013.

I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to visit just a few years earlier, to pray within its walls like so many others centuries before. The peaceful courtyards back then, now shattered and shelled.

In Saida Zainab, on the outskirts of Damascus, this stunning mosque was shelled.

In Maalula, where the locals still spoke and perform church services in Aramaaic, the language spoken by Jesus. I wonder how they have fared.

Yet, we are people of hope.

The Quran tells us, in Surah Al'Imraan, 139,

"Do not lose heart, nor fall into despair".

Tonight is a chance for us to reflect on some of the beauty that I found in these places, and think forward, optimistically to what will be in the future.

To gather not in mourning, but be beacons of hope, and support an organisation that is helping lead that effort.

Let me share two last brief stories. In Damascus one will find themselves in Souq al-hamidiyah, and cannot miss the legendary cafe called Bakdash.

It serves a delicious dessert that has nourished generations with its signature type of ice-cream. It was a happy place to visit, and I remember being in conversation with a lovely family there using broken Arabic. I don't think they had met someone from Australia before. Being a designer by profession, my eye caught the wonderful classic typographic detail engraved into the spoons they used to serve. I wondered if I could buy one as a keepsake and asked the shopkeeper. He simply motioned like this - to put it in my pocket and take it with a smile. Here is that spoon (I hold up the spoon, audience gasps). I often wonder where that man is now, and how his family has fared.

On my final day in Damascus, I purchased this hand-written Quran. I had been trying to find one for some time and then surrendered to the feeling that it wasn't meant to be.

Shortly after, as I bid farewell to the Ummayad Mosque for the last time, I noticed a little bookshop in the narrow souq that I must have walked past a dozen times in that same week. It was tiny but filled with treasures and wonders.

In my limited Arabic, I spoke with the friendly book dealer. It bore the date 19 Rajab, 1269 AH, indicating it was completed on April 28th, 1853. Perhaps he detected how much I was moved by seeing it, knowing that I would cherish it. I feel very grateful that we agreed on a price and since then my wife & I have been the custodian of this majestic manuscript.

I do not consider myself it's owner however, for it is an amanah (trust) to hold on to for a future generation. Most importantly I feel that we benefit from its timeless wisdom & guidance.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to conclude on with the opening chapter of the Quran, Al Fatihah using a translation from Shaykh Mohammed Mendes.

I exist and seek help and blessing through the all encompassing name of God
the unconditionally gracious and loving redeemer
all praise and thanks belong to God
nurturer of the worlds of higher consciousness
sovereign ruler of the day of rewardyou alone do we serve
you alone do we ask for helpguide us along the straight road
the road of those whom you have blessed
those upon whom there is no wraththose who have not gone astray

Tonight in this small gathering, we have our chance, however small it might seem, as far away as we might feel, to help make a difference and contribute to this bright future. In particular, we have a responsibility to help those who have fled the conflict.

When I attended the global Refugee Zakat Fund launch in Dubai in early 2020, I was so impressed at the UNHCR team, their leadership, and the sheer scale at which the organisation is working to help refugees.

Returning to Australia, that feeling was amplified. I've come to know the local team here, lead by Naomi, and worked with Saman, Elizabeth, Leigh and others, who are building upon tremendous global efforts over many years to support refugees.I hope you will enjoy the photography, and thank you again for your support and kindness.

Thank you."

© Peter Gould. All Rights Reserved.