Tasneem Alsultan – Protectors of the Mosque

Tasneem Alsultan

Protectors of the Mosque

I am a Saudi woman. Constantly being asked the same questions as: “How is it in Saudi?” “Is it true that you are slaves to men?” “But you can’t drive?” “How are you surviving in such a country?”.
Alongside many of the Saudi women, we’ve become desensitized. We repeat the same answers again and again. Always explaining that we understand that it appears to be an enigma to outsiders, we have no choice but to see it as the norm. But as the recent chaos surrounds us in the neighboring countries in the Middle East, we Saudis appreciate one thing more than ever…our safety. So as Saudis, we all become sensitive to any outsiders jab, however fair or unfair it seems.

As Saudi Arabians, we view ISIS only through television screens. Far from the reality we live in. Perhaps they live among us, created by our mindsets if not anything else, but it’s a truth we have decided to ignore as it’s very distant in space. Only a couple of months ago, ISIS members began making threats in Saudi. The first victims were 21 killed in a Shia village on a Friday noon prayer, end of May. Nothing compared to Syria or Iraq, but still the shock was great. A point to mention, that the Saudi Shia sect had been identified as Muslim, only recently during the days of King Abdullah. The nation faced its first of its kind of internal terrorist attack.

A couple of weeks later, another threat by ISIS was made to a mosque in Dammam. This too was a Shia mosque. As the previous one had been unprepared for, all the Shia mosques had asked the women to not attend the Friday prayers until further notice. What makes the scene different than any other, is that a young 25 year old Jaleel, decided to initiate and volunteer to search the prayers entering the mosque. His older brother Mohammed, younger cousin, and close friend joined him too. The four had a busy social life that included sports, video-games, and extensive traveling. No signs of a livelihood based on depression. On the contrary, Jaleel’s mother explained how her youngest son just completed his undergraduate study from the U.S. and had just gotten engaged a couple of weeks ago to a young Saudi girl that lived close by. Jaleel and his fiancee were preparing for the wedding. His older brother held several jobs that usually included volunteering for the neighborhood mosque, teaching the children Qur’an. He had 2 young sons, that he would take them to accompany him to the mosque.



Jaleel, sat playing video-games across the television screen, whilst his three brothers, sister and parents sat next to him. “Mashallah, your hands are so big Jaleel!” His sister commented. “My big hands help me catch any ball thrown at me” he told her. The next day, on a Friday morning, Jaleel and his older brother embrace their mother and ask her to pray for them, as they understand that they may not return home. The video camera at the mosque tapes a selfie taken by Jaleel and his cousin seconds before they attack the ISIS self bomber. The 4 men run towards him, with Jaleel ripping the explosive off. His big hands save more than 600 men praying in the mosque.

“I miss him more than anything. I love all my children, but I miss his humor the most. Always joking, and hugging me. He calls me everyday from the U.S. for hours. Do you know how many times he would tell me that life is great? And that he wants to make me proud…” She pauses. Jaleel’s mother, Um Tahir, sat with me for a few hours the first day I had set to meet her after viewing a YouTube video of her holding the remaining body parts of her two sons. She kept repeating: “How proud can a mother be to have not one, but two brave men?” I sat that night with my Saudi friends and we all discussed how it was unusual for any mother in Saudi to handle her sons death so positively. Naturally, we expected threats full of anger. Either way, not a calm and positive appearance in the media.

She introduced me to her two grandsons, who have been wearing their fathers cap and badge, along with whatever clothing they could find his scent in. “I don’t believe the terrorists were Sunni. They’re not muslims. They can’t be. It’s a plan you know. First they’ll attack a few Shia mosques and tomorrow they will attack Sunni mosques to spark hate between us. You wait and see” She took me to Jaleel’s bedroom, and then told me “I don’t feel sad…On the contrary, if my boys didn’t volunteer, imagine how many mothers would be weeping now?” I was in tears. I silently brushed my own, and attempted to divert the attention from my self. “I want their death to raise awareness to all the young youth. We have to unite. There was a time in Saudi when there was no Sunni and Shia resentment. But it’s easier to divide and conquer.”

The next day, was a Friday. As the men went to the mosques, I followed them later with Um Tahir and her family to the cemetery.



The bare land had only four graves standing. Immediately I could tell it was a Shiaa graveyard. With the green and black flags decorating the site, and with the women sitting alongside their relatives all reading Qur’an. The emotional view in front of me was unusual to say the least. Sunni women in Saudi are not allowed to visit any graves. Sunni religious clerics explained that it would create an emotional disastrous scene and women in Islam are not allowed to weep. Yet the Shiaa women were encouraged by their religious clerics to vent as much as they needed. “See? Because of their death, we now have a cemetery. No need to bury my sons 2 hours away from me. I have high hopes that we can now have official schools and mosques that are built by the government for the Shiaa community in Saudi” she excitedly shared with me, sitting near her sons grave.

That week, a celebration for the family of the four martyrs was held by 200 women in the Eastern Province. It was led by a group of women who have been holding summer camps for the last 10 years mostly for the young Shiaa teenagers. As expected, it was all female. The 4 men were now titled: “The protectors of the mosque” and each mother presented a speech as she was awarded as a mother of a hero. Um Tahir told the 200 guests: “I’m a mother no more than most of you here. Yet, I had one goal when raising my family. If we love everyone around us, as much as we love ourselves, then the world will become a better place” It was the look of admiration that filled the ballroom, as each woman stood to embrace Um Tahir one after the other. There are many images that I can’t share as some of the women were either showing their hair or face, when they wouldn’t otherwise. But towards the end of the event, Um Tahir concludes by telling me: “I have allowed you in my life and shared my story with you, in hopes of you sharing with the world that this is a normal Saudi family” knowing by sharing her story, that all of us understand that she is far from the norm.




Graduating with a BA and MA in Linguistics and English Literature, Tasneem decided to have her MA thesis specific as an ethnographic study on Saudi women abroad. After teaching english at Portland State University, University College of Bahrain, and later in University of Dammam, Tasneem decided to venture into Photography. Initially shooting weddings in the Arab Gulf region, she later shot many more destination weddings abroad in Europe, Asia and south America. Whilst shooting over 120 weddings, Tasneem made sure to document real emotions. The stories of culture, traditions and of course how they met. Always connecting the similarities across regions and boarders. After shooting weddings for five years, she now uses her story telling experience to document topics she’s always been interested in: women, traditions and culture. Hoping to shed light to many voices that have been subjected by the “others”.

Related Links

Tasneem Alsultan

9 Responses to “Tasneem Alsultan – Protectors of the Mosque”

  • I just can’t stand to see an essay with no comments. I think it’s great that burn sometimes publishes these kinds of backyard images that we would never be able to see from more established European or American photographers. This work gives us a window into a world we would never see otherwise. It kind of makes a nice companion piece to Federica Valabrega’s “Daughters of the King” work.

    I don’t know what the photographer’s educational background is in photography. Regardless of where it’s at, I’d like to see her deepen her study, both of the technical aspects of camera work and the aesthetics of the greats of documentary photography, and then take what she learns to deepen the cultural insights that are already so enlightening in these photos.

  • A grim subject, photographed with love and in beauty from within. Tasneem Alsatian does not feel the rote need to make everybody look totally grim as though their lives are nothing but pain and misery, but shows us the smile of hope and persistence in the faces of survivors and loved ones left behind.

    I look forward to her future work.

  • I appreciate both of your constructive feedback.

    To be honest, the mother’s story was a very emotional one for me. I usually shoot weddings and happy events, and this one was quiet the opposite. But because of her heroic sons act, and the poetic way she spoke about them, I couldn’t see anything but positivity and beauty.

    I’m currently working on photographic short stories of Saudi women, and a contributor to the EveryDayMiddleEast. Hoping these two projects and more will exhibit the norms of the region I live in.

    Thank you I again,

  • Given the lack of comments, I cannot help but wonder how many Burn readers recognize what a unique and special presentation of photos this is. Perhaps, as was I, some were a little puzzled when the essay first appeared as a very loose edit of 36 images, many repetitive, that seemed to run 180 degrees counter to the Burn philosophy, didn’t know what to say and so said nothing.

    But that edit has been tightened up and we now have before us a unique, well-shot, informative essay shot by a Saudi woman from within Saudi Arabia. She takes a subject that most western photojournalists, were they to have the unlikely opportunity, would likely present in the most grim manner they could muster, making everyone within look as though they lived lives of total misery, never smiling, never laughing, never feeling hope, never showing the sparkle in the eye and the unity within… just grim, grim, grim…

    Tasneem Alsultan has made clear the grim circumstance behind the essay, but, from her viewpoint as a Saudi woman, has shown us another layer seldom seen or even hinted at in the west.

    (the text below has been translated from greek to english through GOOGLE TRANSLATOR, so bare with me)

    I HAVE BAD NEWS!!! VERY VERY BAD NEWS.. Please sit down before you read this .
    ( I’m NOT GONNA REVEAL MY SOURCES for SAFETY REASONS-their safety , of course )..
    Now READ
    27000 μετανάστες μέσα σε μια βδομάδα…και η απογραφή γινόταν σιγά σιγά …μέχρι που η υπηρεσιακή κυβέρνηση έστειλε μια ομάδα οργανωμένη και σε 2 μέρες πήραν χαρτιά 9000 άτομα και έφυγαν…δεν θέλουν να μείνουν στο νησί θέλουν να πάνε Ευρώπη….η εκμετάλλευση φρικτή…. από τους Τούρκους πρωτίστως αλλά και από κάποιους Έλληνες….5 ευρώ η μισή ώρα φόρτισης κινητού….το χειρότερο σφαγιάστηκαν 18000 Σύρια ΠΑΙΔΙΑ στην Τουρκία για να πάρουν τα όργανα τους για μεταμόσχευση στην Δύση…ΑΙΣΧΟΣ…!!!
    αυτό που ζήσαμε και ζούμε στη Μυτιλήνη είναι ο αποκρουστικός απόηχος του πολέμου…17000 να κοιμούνται παντού σε μια πόλη 20000…δεν περιγράφεται…

  • Now READ THIS:
    27000 immigrants arrived/SMUGGLED this week alone (in the greek island of LASBOS )…immigration services ineffective & slow… until the government EVENTUALLY sent a team organized mainly from NGO’S and they transferred in LAST two days ONLY the ones with refugee papers (9000 people and took them to Athens concentration camps/welcoming cdenters} … They(refugees) do not want to stay on the island nor in Athens ..they want want to go to richer countries , north Europe ….the exploitation is horrible …. from Turkish authorities and smugglers primarily but ALSO by some Greeks …. over here in MITILYNH THEY CHARGE the refugees 5 euros for half hour mobile charging ( 5 euros to charge their phones) ….
    the worst PART IS THAT THEY (smugglers/government IN TURKEY )massacred 18,000 Syrian children – number is still growing terribly in Turkey …..to get /STEAL their organs TO SELL them as transplants in the West … WHAT A SHAME…. … !!!
    what we already experienced , and live in daily basis is out of control….and we live in city of Mytilene capital of the ISLAND OF LESBOS is repulsive echoing of MIDDLE EAST WAR… … 17000 souls sleeping anywhere in the little town over here… they try to srvive INHUMANE CONDITIONS… all that in a little town consisted of less than 20000 greeks …

  • An excellent essay, I thought, portraying a world most people do not ever see. Congratulation on your publication here at Burn, Ms. Alsultan.

  • CongratulationS. I must learn to proofread

  • congratulations to this young photographer. I like very much the insight and intimacy of this project particularly it is so rare that it is shown and exposed….She was made to speak these stories…

    of course mine quibbles about repetition (with time, this will be learned: editing, sequencing, how to find the right image in a series of specific/exact moments)…

    but i like that this is brandnew at a time when it we need more insight and more stories of this nature, told from inside and with intimacy…

    congratulations for being featured


Comments are currently closed.