From the Holot Detention Center to an Exhibition in Tel Aviv: The Story of Noureldin Musa

The asylum seeker from Darfur sees beauty in his miserable existence.

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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One of Noureldin Musa's images from the Holot dention center in the Negev. Photos by Noureldin Musa
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

In the yard outside the Holot detention facility, a number of asylum-seeker detainees line up in two orderly rows for a group photo. When one of them spots Noureldin Musa coming out of the facility, he holds out his cellphone and implores him to take their picture. The asylum seekers hold their breath, stay perfectly still and gaze at him intently.

Musa aims the cellphone camera to take the picture, but something is bothering him. He doesn’t like the shadows made by the heavy dark clouds that are quickly closing in. He has the detainees move to the other side of the yard as he seeks a less gloomy angle from which to shoot, quickly issues instructions, reassembles the group formation, trains a focused eye on them and takes 10 consecutive shots.

Over the course of a year, Musa, 39, from western Darfur in Sudan and a leader of the asylum seekers detained at Holot, has been taking pictures. On January 29, his first photography exhibition will open at the Parasite workspace in Tel Aviv. The exhibition, curated by Michal Heiman and produced by human rights activist Sigal Avivi, will open on the first anniversary of Musa’s incarceration at Holot.

We met in the entry compound to the facility, as Heiman came to visit him. Avivi also came, as she does every week, to offer assistance to the Holot detainees, and the yard outside the facility was buzzing with citizens and activists who’d come for a solidarity visit and detainees who were coming out of the facility.

“When I started taking pictures in Holot I learned that even when only weak light enters the prison cell, it still gives you the power to see a better future through it,” Musa says, switching back and forth between Hebrew and fluent English. “Before I came into Holot, I never took pictures. On the day we entered Holot we were forbidden to bring in laptops and they took away my computer, so I bought a cellphone.”

He proudly shows off his cellphone camera – a Samsung Galaxy S5. “I bought the phone so I could keep in touch with all the friends I had to say goodbye to when I suddenly received the summons to come to Holot, which completely disrupted my life. I never thought I’d use the phone’s camera. And I never dreamed that a curator on the level of Michal Heiman would discover my photographs.”

Accidental photographer

He says his first photograph happened randomly. It was done without planning and taught him about the strengths and drawbacks of the cellphone camera. “We were returning to the Holot detention facility at eight in the evening. The gates always close at 10 every night,” he recounts. “We stood in line for two or three hours just to get in and then we were scolded for being late. I pulled out my camera and took a picture of my friends who were standing in line, all bunched together. I felt that this device gave me strength and security, that the suffering we experienced was recorded. The second time, I used the camera to photograph the demonstration that we held. This act of documenting made me feel that through my photography people could find out what we were experiencing here.”

After the June 2014 protest by the asylum seekers who left Holot and headed for the Nitzana border crossing, Musa, who was one of the protest organizers, was punished: He was transferred to Saharonim prison for three months.

“The cellphone was confiscated from me for that whole time,” he says. “When I got it back and returned to Holot, I felt a great emptiness. To survive this crisis, I searched for points of light and beauty with the camera.”

Forgotten in prison

Musa takes a long look at the vast wilderness that surrounds the Holot facility, and then says: “My whole involvement with photography really began out of a desire to forget the day-to-day existence, the desire to forget that I was imprisoned. When I entered Holot a year ago I thought I’d be out of there quickly. I tried not to break. I believed that if Israel, which is a democratic country, is incarcerating my comrades and me without trial, it would investigate my asylum request and set me free. But gradually I came to realize that we’re being forgotten in prison. From Israel’s standpoint, despite the High Court ruling, we have no release date.

“I saw that I might sink into depression and fall apart, that I could end up staying in bed all day and never get up. But the camera taught me that there’s another possibility – to disconnect from the prison, not to look solely at my daily existence but to look further, to look beyond that. I chose, from this place of despair, to start to see beauty, solace, hope. I learned to replace my longings for the landscape of Darfur with love for the desert.”

A month and a half ago, Avivi sent a few of Musa’s photographs to artist and curator Heiman. “I had a powerful initial reaction when I first saw Musa’s photographs,” says Heiman. “I wrote to Avivi right away, saying that if there were more images we could make an exhibition. She sent me more images, and I started to correspond with Musa and he sent me hundreds more.”

What did you see in his photographs artistically?

“First of all, there’s his point of view, as the refugee. It’s not coming from outside, but from him, from his viewpoint. I see him as a resister, and his photography expresses that.”

Heiman says the opposition that Musa expresses in his photography is not aggressive, violent or angry. It’s a type of resistance that, amid all the bleakness of his existence, seeks out the beautiful light. That looks for the solace and beauty to be found in man and in nature.

“He photographs whatever he finds in the landscape – desert, ruins, paths and fissures in which there is light. He does very interesting things,” she explains. “The act of coming back to the same place several times, searching for the light in certain points of time again and again, trying to capture the light and waiting for hours in a certain place so the shade of light will be just what he’s after. I noticed that he does something that’s unusual around here, that is actually quite wonderful: He photographs his friends from afar so that they come out very, very small. This made me think quite strongly of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich – in his landscape paintings you find a lone human figure, very small in size.”

Heiman decided to call the exhibition “Waiting.” “Musa has been waiting for a year now to be released from the Holot detention facility,” she explains. “But he’s also waiting for places of encounter and places of light.”

The exhibition will feature 25 of Musa’s photographic works in varying sizes. It is being funded by the Emile Zola Chair for Human Rights, the Israel Winnicott Center and private donors. All sales proceeds will go entirely to Musa.

“I never dreamed I would have a photography exhibition. All I wanted to do was study construction engineering at the university in Sudan,” he says with pain in his voice. “I pictured myself devoting all my thoughts to building design and construction. I have the soul of someone who wants to build.”

Academic dreams

He enrolled in university when he was 21. “The government in Sudan decided that all the students would join the civil war in South Sudan,” he says. “The government in Sudan justified the fighting and killing by saying it was right to kill Christians since they belonged to a different religion. I opposed the war and didn’t want to take part in it. I’m not against any community or any religion. I saw no point in killing people of another religion. We’re all part of the African culture.”

His refusal to go to war spelled the end of his academic dreams. “The government began persecuting opponents of the war,” he says. “The people were told that anyone who opposes the war opposes the government. That’s a totally different thing. I didn’t see myself as an opponent of the government, but there was an evil wind about. I had to give up on getting a higher education and worked for two years in a sugar processing plant. Then I was told I could only keep on working there if I bring a document that proves I was in the army. I explained that I was against the fighting and they fired me.”

His natural leadership skills and ability to get people to follow him worried the Sudan government. He fled to Libya when he was 23 and found shelter there for nine years. At first he worked in odd jobs in agriculture and as a security guard. He saved up his money until he was able to move to Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi. There he opened a shop selling clothing and shoes and made a decent living.

“I was doing pretty well,” he admits. “I kept hoping that the war would end and I could go home to Darfur. There was a time when it seemed that the war was about to end, but then it suddenly started up again. It’s hard to even call it a war. The massacre had begun. Militiamen were burning villages, raping women and girls and brutally murdering entire families. I was head of the refugees’ committee in Libya. We raised money and sent it to people in Sudan.”

When Libya signed a peace agreement with Sudan, he was forced to flee for his life once again. He made his way to Egypt, and then a few days later crossed the border into Israel. “I thought that since Israel has no connection with the Arab states they wouldn’t tell me to go back to a country that would kill me,” he says with a faint smile.

When he arrived in Israel, he was incarcerated for a month at Ketziot prison and then released to Tel Aviv. “But two months later, because of the policy of the Population and Immigration Authority, I didn’t have a visa to stay in Tel Aviv, so I moved to Arad. At first I worked as a dishwasher at one of the Dead Sea hotels. A chef I worked with liked my diligence and decided to help me advance. He got me into the cooking and baking work and I became a pastry chef. That was my profession for the last six years until the summons to Holot cut everything off.”

When he talks about photography, his eyes light up. “I’d like to come to my exhibition with 50 of my fellow asylum seekers from Holot, who have been my family during this last year. Sigal Avivi, the producer of the exhibition, is trying to obtain a 24-hour exit permit so that we can attend the opening. I hope it will happen,” he says excitedly.

“I want the people who come to the exhibition to see, through my photographs, another image of the asylum seekers. Unfortunately, there’s been a demonization of the asylum seekers and we’ve gotten a bad public image – that we’re criminals, that we came to steal the Israeli women, or that we’re migrant laborers who’ve come to take Israeli jobs.

“I want people to look at my photographs and see our yearning for beauty, our need for a moment of beauty in this world. To see the power to dream and to hope and believe that the reality can be beautiful, even at the toughest moments when you are imprisoned.”