Wojouh: Omar El-Imady
One of the greatest assets of Greater Tripoli is its very own people. Whether in Tripoli or abroad, Greater Tripolitans have continued to excel and innovate. As a result, Tripolicy has decided to launch a series called Project Wojouh to shed light on some notable figures and rising stars.
Samples of Omar El-Imady's Work
Omar El-Imady is a film executive producer who has a unique passion for drone photography. Born and raised in Tripoli, Omar would end up moving to many places around the world, including Mali and Ghana. His professional photographs and videos during the Lebanese Revolution, especially in Tripoli, won him world-wide fame, being featured in the Associated Press, CNN, NPR, BBC, SKY, MTV, and countless other outlets. For a glimpse of Omar's masterful photographs and videos, click here.
Omar spoke with Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak about his photography and videography work and the role of visual artists in enhancing the image of Tripoli, Lebanon.
Raafat Yamak: Thank you so much, Omar, for being with Tripolicy today. I'm extremely eager to learn more about you and your very exciting line of work!
Omar El-Imady: I'm equally excited to be with you and Tripolicy! Looking forward to the questions!
RY: Thank you. I wanted to begin that I very much admire the posts you have on your Instagram. There is a depth to your pictures and videos that, I think, sets you apart. That depth can only come with personal experiences. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you grew to make Tripoli the center point for your photography and videography career?
OE: I appreciate that. Well, I was born in Tripoli, Lebanon and went to school there. At the age of 12, I moved to Bamako, Mali. It was a difficult time for me in Mali as I struggled to make friends. As you can imagine, it was a different environment. After Mali, I moved to Ghana for about a year and then went back to Lebanon to continue my schooling and graduated from Balamand University with an Architecture degree. I kept a connection with Ghana and would travel their intermittently as I had a lot of family there. What's interesting was that my travels around the world increased my connection with my hometown, Tripoli. Ultimately, this connection would morph into a passion and would eventually permeate into my line of work.
RY: It always amazes me how sometimes you only end up valuing something when you leave it.
OE: Absolutely, and to be honest with you, I owe most of the publicity I have received for my work from Tripoli.
RY: Oh yeah? Can you expand more on that, please?
OE: Well, initially, what drove me to do work in Tripoli was my strong desire to portray an image of Tripoli not witnessed by the Lebanese, regional, and global media. The camera is a powerful tool that helped me tremendously shine light on Tripoli. Imagine, there are people in Lebanon, tiny Lebanon, who have never visited Lebanon's second largest city. Lebanon, a country that you can literally drive from its North to its South in a day! Imagine that this is the same Tripoli with the second most Mamluki artefacts in the whole region after Cairo! You realize that many non-Tripolitan Lebanese have no idea about Tripoli, and as a matter of fact, have a negative impression.
RY: Why do you think this is the case?
OE: The cycles of violence witnessed between the Tripolitan neighborhoods of Jabal Muhsin and Bab El Tebbeneh dominated any story about Tripoli. The media created exaggerated stories of extremism. Imagine that someone in Beirut even asked me if we have WiFi in Tripoli.
RY: Genuine question. Do you think this person was feigning ignorance or actually ignorant?
OE: No, no. He was legitimately an ignorant person. You have no idea. They think Tripoli is a village located on the margins of the "real Lebanon". This is why, to go back to your question, the Lebanese Revolution offered me the opportunity to shed light on Tripoli and actually have local, regional, and global media pay attention to the Tripolitan narrative and embed its story within the Lebanese fabric.
RY: This is very true. It was reassuring to see big name international media brands in Tripoli showing the peaceful protests and noteworthy demands being made from Nour Roundabout.
OE: Most definitely. And truly, during that glorious time, my deep feelings were driving my finger to take historic shots of Tripoli during an extraordinary time in Lebanon's history. I would take random shots of the crowd in Nour Roundabout amidst the revolutionary fervor, which had tens of thousands of protesters, and upload to social media. Eventually, the first global outlet that reached out to me was CNN. They used my pictures and videos to highlight Tripoli's growing role and its title as the "Revolution's Bride". It was a profound and exciting moment for me. My message was being spread on one of the largest media outlets and before I knew it, other major media outlets reached out like the BBC, SKY, among many others.
RY: You know, all this positive media publicity talk we are having reminds me of MTV's Alain Dargham. He was one of the few mainstream Lebanese media personalities who familiarized himself with Tripoli's internal dynamics, especially the local activist circles.
OE: Hah! Alain and I are very good friends! As a matter of fact, at one point, he was staying as a guest at my house. We met at a festival and began networking since that linkup. Ever since then, we have kept communication. When Alain came to Tripoli, I recall him mentioning to me that he has originally had a negative experience in Tripoli. During the early days of the Revolution, there were some riots and tire burning episodes. Alain got caught in one of these episodes and was slightly injured. So, I started introducing him to many local Tripolitan activists and as the protests grew in size, my good friend, Alain, began to also see, like many Lebanese, the true and authentic face of Tripoli. As you know from his posts, he would grow to love Tripoli, and Tripoli would grow to love Alain.
RY: That's really great however, it astounds me that even mainstream Lebanese media outlets are not familiar with players on the ground in Tripoli when it comes to local politics and activism. The fact that there is a precedent where reporters give up on objectively covering Tripoli due to episodes of violence, which let us be honest, happens all over the country, is depressing.
OE: Completely agree. The issue is that while Lebanese media outlets are doing their reports, you may have a random person from the street basically hijack the report being generated, present himself as an analyst of Tripoli, when in reality, this person is not qualified or have the credentials. This is why image is everything, and that's what drives my work.
RY: Well, it is truly evident with the quality of your work. Have you ever thought about doing a promotional video for Tripoli on a scale that could encourage tourism to the city?
OE: Oh absolutely. The issue is that there is no one in the country who will fund you. I organized a massive team to conduct the very idea you just mentioned. Multiple backers began pulling out, the Beirut Port bombings happened, COVID-19 cases spiked, among other issues that forced me to shelve the project.
RY: Is that the reason why you are now in Ghana?
OE: I left Lebanon because I was beginning to feel constrained. I needed more room for professional growth. However, my main production office is still based out of Tripoli and I am in daily communication with our employees. I have the intention of going back to Tripoli as soon as I see the situation improve. For now, my videos and pictures are still being shared by some of the largest Lebanese Instagram pages like "Lebanon" and even "Live Love Beirut". So, I'm still in the game.
RY: You know, a couple of months ago, I wrote an open letter to the Lebanese Tourism Ministry about their blatant disregard for Tripoli in their promotional videos. It is systematic and pretty obvious to any neutral observer. Since the Tourism Ministry does collaborations with third party film producers, have you thought about reaching out to them to do a video about Tripoli?
OE: You know, I had this idea in mind, especially when the Tourism Ministry released a tourism promotional video that had multiple Lebanese personalities featured and included all these towns and villages but did not mention Tripoli.
RY: Sorry to cut you off, but it is exactly that video that motivated me to write my open letter for Tripolicy.
OE: Yes, many Tripolitans were rightfully disappointed. I tried reaching out to the Tourism Minster but was not successful. Also, the Beirut Port bombings happened and to be honest, there was no way I could go ahead with such a project after such a horrendous incident had just happened. It would be in poor taste.
RY: No doubt about that.
OE: But even if the Beirut Port bombings didn't happen, I am almost certain that the Tourism Ministry would not be interested. Why would they? They have neglected Tripoli for decades and went out of their way to isolate it. But let me tell you something, the primary blame falls on Tripolitan notables and politicians. You have many powerful Tripolitan figures who could pressure the government to do the changes we are discussing in this interview. However, they are colluding with the very same forces we are up against to keep Tripoli in the dark and ultimately in keeping the city impoverished. It is much easier to politically manipulate a population that has rampant poverty and unemployment.
RY: This is the unfortunate reality and this reality makes your work ever more crucial. You have obviously achieved great success and I'm certain you will achieve more down the line. Do you have any advice for entry level photographers and videographers in Tripoli?
OE: There's much to say about this. In my opinion, this field is being infiltrated with novices with no professional background. Anyone can buy a camera, make a Facebook page, and start uploading pictures. The best way to have quality control in this field is to have something similar to a syndicate or a club that will protect the rights of producers and establish standards for members to follow. Educational credentials are a must, in my opinion, as well, because it will create a cultured approach to capturing the many facets of Tripoli. I'm not saying that people who don't have these credentials lack talent. All I'm calling for is a mechanism similar to any other vocation. Oh, and if you're looking for money, then this field is not right for you [ laughs ].
RY: Hah! Humanities and art are fields that aren't high income generators but are so important to maintaining and building upon any civilization's culture. I wish more people in the Middle East, especially, would appreciate these fields. I want to thank you for your time, Omar. It has been truly a pleasure speaking with you and once again, we are happy to have you on Tripolicy.
OE: Thank you for having me! Tripolicy is doing great work and I'm looking forward to future collaborations.
About the Author:
R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Houston, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others.