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Volume 28, Number 2March/April 1977

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Khalil's Arabia

Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

Few photographers covered the Middle East more thororoughly than Khalil Abou el-Nasr. Born in Palestine in 1930, he ranged through most of the Arab world for 20 years, recording on film its people and its deserts, its flowers and wildlife—and, in recent years, its swiftly changing urban and industrial centers. But his first love, photographically, was Saudi Arabia.

Khalil fiist went to Saudi Arabia in 1950 as a young machinist. But later, under the tutelage of Burnett H. Moody, now Aramco's chief photographer, he began to show the aptitude for photography that would later blossom when, in 1957, he moved to Lebanon, became a full-time free-lance photographer and set up a darkroom.

In that darkroom—a ludicrous cubicle tucked behind a stairwell off Beirut's busy Hamra Street—Khalil ingeniously combined his Dhahran training with his machinist's skills to bring off, time and again, technically challenging feats of reproduction and enlargement and, later, advanced experiments in color printing—all with equipment that was often old and sometimes primitive.

The darkroom, however, was more than a place of business. It was also, Khalil being Khalil, an informal social club where neighbors, businessmen from Hamra, friends and colleagues could gather. And where Khalil could hold court. Lounging at ease in a beach chair—perfect for his afternoon siesta—he would sip coffee, delivered through a window by a smiling coffee boy, and talk endlessly about his favorite subjects: photography, politics, gardening, cooking and, yes, girls. In those days in Beirut, life had a special flavor.

During this period Khalil had also begun to move into the world of photojournalism, first as a photographer and reporter for Aramco publications, later for magazines and newspapers in Beirut and abroad. Then, in 1963, he began to contribute regularly to Aramco World Magazine and in spirit, if not in fact, joined the staff. Altogether Khalil, as this small sampling suggests, illustrated 40 articles for Aramco World . 10 of them cover stories.

In providing that coverage he zigzagged across the Middle East. Sometimes it would mean trudging through sand to a Bedouin encampment. Sometimes it would mean positioning lights in urban museums or climbing the walls of ancient castles. And once, on the famous Orient Express, it meant crossing Europe. But wherever he was, Khalil, a warm, simple, outgoing man, inevitably enlarged his network of friends until eventually there were few countries where he could not expect an enthusiastic welcome.

They were not always easy assignments. In those days border formalities were long and tedious and officials were often stern. But he always got what he was after. Once, for example, while driving from Lebanon to the Gulf, a rugged desert track poked a hole in his gas tank and, simultaneously, punctured his last spare tire. Khalil, however, plugged the gas tank with a paste of soap and sand—so effectively that he was able to drive another 2,000 miles—and sealed the tire by pushing sheets of plastic into the puncture with a matchstick. He had to replace the plastic—and pump up the tire—every 10 miles. But he completed his assignment.

The days when such ingenuity was needed for desert travel are gone now, of course. But so, sadly, is Khalil. This spring in Beirut, after a long illness, Khalil died, leaving his wife, Awatif, four children, brothers, numerous cousins and countless friends throughout the Middle East. In addition, he left a loyal corps of writers, photographers and editors who admired his work and will miss it—but who, more importantly, will miss his engaging warmth, his contagious enthusiasm, his refreshing cheerfulness and, above all, his friendship.

—The Editors

This article appeared on pages 10-11 of the March/April 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1977 images.