Hafiz – Photographs by Sabiha Çimen | Exhibition review by Sophie Wright

Hafiz, an exhibition by Turkish photographer Sabiha Çimen currently on view at Kunsthal Rotterdam, opens with a large, pastel pink door adorned with an intricate floral pattern. The motif mirrors classical religious books, like the pink Qur’an Çimen had growing up. Upon closer inspection however, we see that woven among the leaves, vines, flowers and their winding roots are the figures of girls in hijabs. Originally made as the cover for the book of the project, which won the Paris Photo-Aperture First Photobook Award last year, the design was a collaboration between the photographer, her husband and local Turkish Islamic artists.

Here, it acts as a kind of portal, the door marking the entrance into an enclosed world that usually lies beyond observation; the world of young female students that are training to become ‘hafiz’—the guardians of the Qur’an.

Installation view of “Hafiz” at Kunsthal Rotterdam © Marco De Swart

The young girls we will meet in the space beyond the door are students at a number of single-sex schools across Turkey focused on teaching the memorization of all 604 pages of the Qur’an, by heart. A tradition that stretches back to the early days of Islam, to become a hafiz is a task of great discipline and devotion—an all-encompassing one that can take between three and four years of study with students often living at the school. It is a task that Çimen knows intimately, for she was once a student at one of these schools too. Returning to her own childhood memories to work on the project, the photographer traveled to five different schools across the country over a period of four years, slowly building relationships with the girls she met to piece together an insider’s view of the rarely-seen experience of becoming a hafiz.

While the weighty responsibility that these young students bear is an important presence in the work, it is just one thread in the colorful tapestry of girlhood that is spun across the four walls of the exhibition. It is the pleasures and pains of growing up within this unique context that Çimen so beautifully touches on in her images. The Qur’an itself features once in the first image we see upon entering, a picture that shows two girls in the midst of studying. Perfectly capturing the glazed-eye gaze of concentration and boredom that alternate in waves when we are young and hard at work, it is an image that renders this monumental task into a daily activity—one that sits among the chitchatting, playing, dreaming and rebelling that occupies the girls the rest of the time.

Hatice, nine, tries to recite Quran passages by memory to her classmate. Istanbul, Turkey, 2021 © Sabiha Çimen Magnum Photos

Aged between eight and nineteen, the subjects of the arresting portraits on view are on the cusp of change, deep in the process of figuring themselves out, a process witnessed tenderly through the lens of Çimen’s Hasselblad. Favoring an analog approach over a more fly-on-the-wall one that working in digital might encourage, the resulting pictures hold a real sense of time spent together, of trust fostered and—perhaps as a consequence of this slow process—of the quiet thrill that can emerge from being seen and photographed. In one image, the event of the photoshoot enraptures everyone witnessing it. We see the blurry outline of a smiling girl, headscarf blowing in the wind, the windows of the building behind her peppered with onlookers; curious spectators enjoying the photo shoot taking place down below.

A student who left school in mid-term waits for her father to pick her up. Istanbul, Turkey, 2018 © Sabiha Çimen Magnum Photos

Girls alone, girls together: different constellations of the inhabitants living in this ecosystem spread out across the walls of the exhibition. There are the more intimate, one-on-one moments of solitude; a wide-eyed close-up of a girl, mouth framed by bright yellow flowers. Then, there are the incomparable bonds of teenage friendship; two girls entwined in a tight hug, one intensely looking into the camera. The caption below reads: “Nehir (18) embraces her soulmate.” From the sometimes-cruel ranks of the playground to the older intimidating girl gangs, a tension fizzes beneath the surface too alongside all this tenderness—images that brim with the boiling points of adolescent rebellion and the hierarchies that we fumble our way around, looking to find our place. Coming to a head in a powerful portrait of a group of older students, a cloud of deep rose-pink smoke explodes in front of this gang, eyes locked definitely with the camera.

Installation view of “Hafiz” at Kunsthal Rotterdam © Marco De Swart

Retracing buildings similar to the one that Çimen herself once called home for a brief while, the photographer also observes the pockets of freedom, individuality and imaginative worlds that the girls make for themselves within these enclosed spaces. Bulky boots and bright trainers peek out from the robes of a group of girls playing hopscotch, and pink rollerblades feature in another. The glossy fruits of girlhood pop up in the form of pineapple socks and a handful of colorful erasers, proudly presented to the camera by a pair of hands, their artificial perfection promising a moment that feels as if it might last forever. Elsewhere, real fruit in various states of decay gesture towards the passage of time.

Students playing with a color smoke bomb during a picnic. Istanbul, Turkey, 2018 © Sabiha Çimen Magnum Photos

Now and then, a sense of the confinement of the space is reinforced. One photograph shows what looks like a dining area, two tables covered in a gaudy plastic tablecloth, a small window above opening up onto a fake vista of sunflowers. In another, a girl, back to the camera, gazes at a caged bird in her friend’s room. In a series of four images, we even see an attempted escape—the one and only encounter with the outside world that lies beyond these schools. A girl rolls up to the border wall that separates here from there, her pink suitcase in tow. A man (the only one here) walks by as she watches from behind the wall, a nod to the dangers of what awaits the girls in the real world.

The exhibition culminates in a sense celebration and accomplishment: balloons in rainbow colors floating to the ceiling with the word ‘hafiz’ spelt out in glittery writing. In one of the liveliest photographs in the room, a group of students are caught mid-breath, singing farewell songs from a sparkly sheet at their graduation ceremony. Gesturing to the oral tradition itself—where this ancient text is inscribed in and embodied by the living, breathing people of today—the world of these young girls is full of motion, spirit, transition. Like an older sister, Çimen documents this journey with a watchful and loving eye, reflecting on her younger self in the process.

Editor’s note: Hafiz is on view at Kunsthal Rotterdam until the 7th of May, and you can also check out the photobook published by Red Hook Editions.

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