A Remembrance of Qatari Photographer Khalid Saif Al-Mesalam

A couple of weeks ago, I was stunned by the sudden death of Khalid Saif Al-Mesalam, known to many in the drag racing community as the Al Anabi photographer.

I first met Saif (pronounced safe), as he preferred to be called, in Qatar. But I had seen him around NHRA races in the U.S., showing up trackside to shoot the various Al Anabi cars as they made passes. Saif was an imposing looking man of some size, and since I was mostly shooting bikes, I didn’t get to know him here.

Sunset at the QRC with Saif (photo by Tim Hailey)

Then I was on his home turf at the Qatar Racing Club, where I and a bunch of American teams were in residence for three months racing the Gulf States’ best, starting in December of 2010. Photographers can be notoriously territorial, but Saif was entirely open and welcoming, offering any help he could for me and other media members to achieve our best results of covering the QRC races. He was, in fact, a big Teddy Bear.

Saif selfie with media colleague

We became friends, had dinner together in the Souk, and he would show me around Doha. A man of middle class means and living standards, Saif drove a Honda Accord and had a small office for his Red Dot Productions media company. He was the polar opposite of how the world views Qataris, including how many Qataris view themselves. Dressed in t-shirt and sweatpants, Saif didn’t display the same luxury fashion sense as the stereotypical Qatari.

One time while checking out at a convenience store, I watched as a well dressed man just cut right in front of him in line. Saif exchanged a couple of barks in Arabic with the man and resumed his spot in line. “Because I don’t dress like them, they think I’m not from here and can push me around,” Saif explained to me when we got back to his car.

Saif as a young athlete

One must have an extreme sense of privilege to feel like they could push around Saif—a former competitive weight lifter. He had a big dark beard and very dark eyes surrounded by eyeballs of intense whiteness. He resembled nothing less than Brutus from Popeye, or a silent film villain from the “mysterious Orient.” He knew this and would use it to comic advantage.

My first real interaction with him came when—while piloting a quad—Saif collided with Terry Schweigert while Terry was being pushed back to Dan Wagner’s garage at the QRC. “His name is what? Saif?” laughed Schweigert. “He’s anything BUT safe!”

Through the magic of Facebook Messenger, we kept in touch on a regular basis since 2011. He was a real photographer, and I never stopped learning from him and getting his opinions on new equipment. We also frequently talked politics and racing, and he thought I should settle down and have a family like he had recently done.

Saif at the sea somewhere, probably in Morocco or Australia.

Saif’s death was sudden, apparently happening during a World Cup match he was shooting (soccer was his bread and butter) in Doha. Because his death followed the equally sudden death of a U.S. journalist at the Cup, media worldwide breathlessly insinuated that foul play was afoot.

This insinuation would have both amused and alarmed the proud, loyal Qatari. Amused him because he was the most devoted conspiracy theorist I’d ever met. Nothing was as it seemed to Saif, and absolutely everything concealed a more mysterious truth. Alarmed because he had complete respect for the position of Qatar’s royal Al-Thani family—who were the presumed culprits in every media outrage regarding Qatar, Doha, and the World Cup. “At the end of the day,” Saif would say about the Emir’s bother Sheik Khaled—also known as KH—that funded the country’s drag racing culture, “He’s a prince, and you have to respect that.”

We photographers carry a lot of stuff around in challenging conditions.

At the end of his day, Saif most likely died from being a large man hauling around heavy equipment in a stressful, sleepless environment. It never occurred to me that I would never see him again, and I shall miss our conversations and friendship forever. He was only 43.

A man who loved his work

story by Tim Hailey, photos by Hailey (first and second) and from Saif’s Facebook page.

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