July Note: Shubbak Is In Full Swing | Rima Djahnine Is Nahla Ink Artist of the Month

Dear Readers

The Shubbak Festival kicked off last Friday 28th June with the launch of the ‘Belonging, Sideways’ exhibition at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, followed by a spectacular ‘Kahareb’ party that went on until the early hours. It brought together electronic and underground artists from MENA who are experimenting with techno, folktronic, global bass, house, trance and more.

Every day since Shubbak has taken over London venues as the comprehensive programme unfolds with more exhibitions, music, talks, performances, theatre, installation, films, workshops and commissioned projects that are all scheduled for up until the 14th July, when the festival ends.

All I can do is direct you to the website where you can see the great variety and depth of what has been so carefully organised by the Shubbak creative-executive team and the amazing artistic collaborations that have been forged to make this festival a success and best edition yet.

For more on Shubbak: https://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Nahla Ink Artist of the Month: Rima Djahnine

Referring back to the ‘Belonging, Sideways’ exhibition – curated by Toufik Douib and that I highly recommend you visit – it is where I met Rima Djahnine. Her artwork is on display alongside that of four other Algerian contemporary artists as they explore identity and location.

Looking at cultural diversity, migration and the challenges of coexistence, the show offers work from different corners of Algeria and deals with complex histories, geographies and biographies. Having connected with her, she kindly agreed to be Nahla Ink Artist of the Month.

A visual artist born in 1979 in Bejaia, Algeria, it was the 1990s that profoundly impacted on Djahnine and determined her artistic course. In 1995, one of her sisters was the victim of an assassination and three years later, both of her parents died suddenly. Following these losses and in the midst of the Algerian civil war, Djahnine went to Paris where she began university studies and devoted herself entirely to the arts.

She graduated in 2009 with a Degree in Graphic Arts at the Paris School of Visual Art, and gradually turned to new artistic practices such as photography and video. Her work explores the different facets of exile and the painful issues of being torn away and losing loved ones.

Significantly in 2013 Djahnine received a grant from the Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC) that allowed her to produce her first major artistic project – that same year she returned to live and work in Algeria. In 2016, she took part in a research residency at the MUCEM in Marseilles, wherein a project  would tackle the Algerian post-war and 1990s traumas in collaboration with Giulia Fabiano (anthropologist).

In the resulting ‘Return to Intimate Territories, What Remains’ series, the image of returning is conceived as a territory that has been constantly rocked by earthquakes as well as migration. Homecoming then charts the act of retracing memories and physical routes, where the reminiscing
of a place merges with sensorial memories.

One part of the series is also a cartography installation and film in which the captures, photos, notes and GPS tracks were collected from groups of people in search for various homes; emigrants who left before, during and after 1962 for economic reasons and the political exiles of the 1990s.

The ‘Belonging/Sideways’ exhibition is on until 14 July at Rich Mix.

For more on the exhibition: https://www.shubbak.co.uk/belonging-sideways/

For more on Djahnine: http://www.afterthefuture.care/home-lend-rima-djahnine-hazy-line.html

For more on Djahnine: http://www.imagomundiart.com/artworks/rima-djahnine-inclusive-skylight

Arab About London: MENA-Inspired Arts + Culture Events In London

As always, there is more to view, attend and join in. For the full ‘Arab About London’ listing that is regularly updated with MENA-inspired arts and culture events in our lovely capital, you can find it on Nahla Ink: https://nahlaink.com/

If you wish to be in the super know, you can also follow me on Twitter @NahlaInk or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NahlaInk/

Best wishes to all!

Nahla Al-Ageli
Freelance Journalist + Blogger
London, July 2019

Ghassan Ismail: Nahla Ink Artist June 2019

Ghassan Ismail is an Arabic calligraphy artist. Born in 1978 in Deir ez-Zor, Syria his father was a calligrapher who introduced him to the sophisticated art form.

Ismail: “He (my father) used to occupy me with a calligraphy pen and a paper to keep me from teasing my siblings.” Growing up, he developed his skills and was influenced by known calligraphers, among them Jamil Al Bayram.

He attended the Fine and Applied Arts Institute and Adham Ismail Center for Fine Arts in Damascus and participated in several exhibitions in the Arab world, among them ‘Letter & Color’ (2014) and ‘The Pioneers of the East’ (2015) organised by The Arab Cultural Club and UNESCO respectively.

Due to the Syrian conflict in 2011, Ismail left Deir El Zor and went to Beirut, Lebanon, where he is currently based and teaches short courses in calligraphy.

Ismail: “I left Syria in 2011 at the outset of the war. Two years later I was told that my house had been looted. I lost all my archives, my paintings and photo albums. I don’t know how to express myself well in words but I do in painted letters. What has been lost is lost and what remains is the desire to live and the gratitude for loved ones being safe and sound.”

In ‘The Lost and The Unlost’ series of exploded letters – as featured on Nahla Ink – Ismail expresses the destruction of homes, culture and records due to war and the inherent dramatic loss through the calligraphic letters, yet still inspires hope through new imagery, new archives and the human capacity of renewal through art.

Ismail: “I love to embrace new styles, and the loss of my archives has transformed into a drive to develop my artwork and embrace contemporary approaches in Arabic calligraphy.”

For more on Ghassan Ismail on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ghassan_ismail_artii/

For more information on facebooK: https://www.facebook.com/GHASSANISMAIL.ART/

Note: A big thank you to Rania Mneimneh who first put me in touch with the artist and supplied me with the relevant information. Mneimneh is an Arts curator, painter and designer based in Beirut, Lebanon. Last year she curated her debut exhibition in London at the P21 Gallery under the title ‘Tints of Resilience’.

For more on this:  https://tintsofresilience.com/

June Note: In Search of Arab London + Print Isn’t Dead! + Calligraphic Rhythms + Shubbak Festival + Tribute to Rim Banna + More!

Dear Readers

June has arrived and is set to be a very busy month for the ‘Arab About London’ arts and culture calendar.

Below are some highlights to share and other Nahla Ink news.

In Search of Arab London: A Design Conversation (6 June)

Presented by the Arab British Centre (ABC) and Barakat Trust in collaboration with the London Festival of Architecture 2019, this special event will see London designers from the Arab world and those working with the Arab world share experiences of melding ideas between the Middle East and Britain; and, also, considering what it means to develop a multifaceted design identity in a quasi-global world.

The panel of designers includes: May Fawzy (Interior Architect and Director of MF Studio); Hedayat Islam (Principle Interior Designer and Founder of Jam Space); and Randa Hanna (Architect and Founding Partner of Map Projects). They will be discussing their own experience and design influences on everything from ‘parklets’ in London to fabrics, homeware and commercial interiors.

For more information: https://www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/whatson/in-search-of-arab-london-a-design-conversation/

Print Isn’t Dead: Al Hudood Newspaper Launch (18 June)

The Al Hudood newspaper will be launching its very first printed edition. An independent hard-hitting Middle Eastern focused satirical publication run by creatives and journalists, Al Hudood has been online for six years already. The evening will see a presentation by founder Isam Uraiqat, in addition to featuring a stunning 45-minute musical performance by Jowan Safadi.

Safadi is a multi-genre musician, singer and songwriter who has become celebrated for his iconic strand of sarcastic protest songs which give his work a rare and revealing edge. Along with his band, they will be performing songs from the new album as well as his classics in a wide range of styles combined under the title ‘Free Arabic Rock’.

Bassem Youssef, the Godfather of modern age satire from Egypt, will also be in attendance, making a sharp 15 minute appearance to tickle funny bones. Youssef has become one of the most influential and poignant satirists and political commentators from the Middle East. Dubbed the Jon Stewart of the Arab world, his witty commentary and famous satirical news TV show El Bernameg has spread far beyond his home country of Egypt.

For more information: https://richmix.org.uk/events/print-isnt-dead-al-hudood-newspaper-launch/

Calligraphic Rhythms: Master Calligrapher Mouneer Al Shaarani (30 May-27 June)

Following fabulous success in Paris and Berlin, Stories Art Gallery is hosting in London ‘Calligraphic Rhythms’, a critically acclaimed exhibition showcasing the work of the Syrian master calligrapher and designer Mouneer Al Shaarani.

Living and working in Damascus, Al Shaarani started Arabic calligraphy at the tender age of ten, under the tutelage of the great Syrian calligrapher Badawi Al Dirany. After graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1977, his work has been exhibited internationally in the Middle East, Europe and the USA.

Al Shaarani is highly regarded for his original style of modernising ancient fonts and creating completely new ones, but never losing sight of the traditional form from which this ancient art-form can trace back its historical roots. His innovation in introducing worlds of wisdom from the Quran and Hadith, alongside aphorisms and proverbs relative to our contemporary modern life style, creates both a visual and intellectual joy for lovers of Arabic calligraphy.

For more information: https://www.storiesartgallery.co.uk/

Shubbak Festival 2019 (28 June-14 July)

One of the most anticipated events of every other year is the Shubbak Festival. Now in its fifth edition, Shubbak is London’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab arts and culture. Founded in 2011 by the Mayor of London, it is now an independent charity and continues to connect London audiences and communities with the best of what the Arab world has to offer through an ambitious programme of premieres and commissions of visual arts, film, music, theatre, dance, literature and debate.

For more information: https://www.shubbak.co.uk/

A Tribute to Rim Banna & Concert Celebrating Her Musical Legacy at Barbican (9 July)

MARSM shares a tribute to the late Palestinian singer Rim Banna and looks forward to the concert that will commemorate her rich musical legacy.

In a collaboration between MARSM, Shubbak Festival and Barbican, the concert on 9 July will bring four of Banna’s closest musical peers who will celebrate her life and work, as well as creating a repertoire of music composed especially for the occasion. The four musicians: Faraj Suleiman (Palestine), Tania Saleh (Lebanon), Bu Kolthoum (Syria) and Sabrine Janhani (Tunis).

For the MARSM article: https://nahlaink.com/the-trace-of-the-butterfly-a-tribute-to-rim-banna-concert-to-celebrate-her-musical-legacy-at-the-barbican/

Nahla Ink Artist of the Month: Ghassan Ismail

This month Nahla Ink features with kind permission the paintings of Syrian artist Ghassan Ismail.

The pieces form a series entitled ‘The Lost & The Unlost’ in which the artist expresses with painted letters the destruction of homes, culture and records due to war. Due to the conflict in Syria, he himself lost all of his archives, paintings and photo albums when his house was looted in 2013. He has expressed: “I don’t know how to express myself well in words but I do in painted letters. What has been lost is lost and what remains is the desire to live and the gratitude for loved ones being safe and sound.”

Born in 1978 in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, Ismail was first introduced to calligraphy by his father and growing up, he further developed his skills and was influenced by known calligraphers, among them Jamil Al Bayram. Having attended the Fine and Applied Arts Institute and Adham Ismail Center for Fine Arts in Damascus, he went on to participate in several exhibitions in the Arab world, among them Letter & Color (2014) and ‘The Pioneers of the East’ (2015) organised by The Arab Cultural Club and UNESCO respectively. In 2011 at the outset of the Syrian conflict, he left his home and is currently based in Beirut where he teaches shorts courses in calligraphy.

For more information on FB: https://www.facebook.com/GHASSANISMAIL.ART/

For more information on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ghassan_ismail_artii/

‘Arab About London’ Events Listing, Nahla Ink Twitter + Facebook Page

For the full ‘Arab About London’ listing that is regularly updated with MENA-inspired events, you can find it on Nahla Ink: https://nahlaink.com/

To be in the super know, you can also follow me on Twitter @NahlaInk or on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/NahlaInk/

Best wishes to all!

Nahla Al-Ageli
Freelance Journalist + Blogger
London, June 2019

The Trace Of The Butterfly: A Tribute To Rim Banna & Concert To Celebrate Her Musical Legacy At The Barbican

Guest Post: MARSM*

A pivotal and influential figure in the contemporary Palestinian music scene, Rim Banna’s life was tragically cut short on 24 March 2018 after a ten-year struggle with breast cancer. She left behind a rich legacy of twelve albums, combining her own compositions and the careful assembling of traditional songs, children’s lullabies and works of Palestinian poets.

Brave and courageous to the end, her last work was materialised as a tapestry of voices and music over visual materials from her x-ray scans. Now a unique commemoration concert debuts at the Barbican in London by some of her closest musical peers: Tania Saleh (Lebanon) Faraj Suleiman (Palestine), Bu Kolthoum (Syria) and Sabrine Janhani (Tunis).

Born in December 1966 and raised in Nazareth, Banna studied music in Moscow and returned to Palestine to immerse herself in the events unfolding on the ground. She became a key performer in numerous local, regional and international festivals and an adamant artist within the Palestinian struggle. She was one of the first Palestinian musicians to document children’s music and lullabies, taking them from the confines of family homes to the outside world with three albums.

She also wove the poetry of giants such as Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad and Samih El-Qasem into her songs, blending pop, poetry and traditional Arabic sounds. Significantly, Banna became a voice for peace and equality, collaborating with the likes of jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, Norwegian choir Skruk and Arabic electronica collective Checkpoint 303. Her last album ‘Voices of Resistance’ was a conceptual piece of art uniting her spirit of resistance, poetry and medical scans with Checkpoint 303’s electronic beats and Bugge Wesseltoft’s edgy piano improvisations.

The collaboration between MARSM, Shubbak Festival and the Barbican will bring together the exceptional group of musicians who were Banna’s contemporaries to pay tribute to her life and work as well as creating a repertoire of music composed by Palestinian pianist Faraj Suleiman. Suleiman is one of the most promising musicians of the Arab world, whose music is strongly influenced by Arabic and Eastern melodies and rhythms as well as Tango and Jazz traditions, incorporating their unique scales and modalities in his compositions.

Accompanying him on the night will be the stellar contemporary alternative Lebanese singer, songwriter and visual artist Tania Saleh, whose lyrics mirror the reality of the Lebanese-Arab social and political turmoil. Since her early debut in 1990, she has experimented with various genres and is always challenging herself to explore new styles. Her collaborations have been eclectic: Ziad Rahbany, Toufic Farroukh, Issam Hajali, Charbel Rouhana, Ibrahim Maalouf, Rayess Bek, Khaled Mouzannar, RZA, Nile Rodgers, Charlotte Caffey, Tarek El Nasser, Natacha Atlas and more.

Additional features come from two artists from Syria and Tunis. The infamous rapper, music producer and film director who has been revolutionizing political rap in the Middle East is Bu Kolthoum. He will be making his much anticipated London appearance. Born in Damascus to a family of Sufi background, his 2017 album Bo’Bo’ was completely produced, mixed and mastered by him. His sound can easily be distinguished amongst other Middle Eastern rappers given old-school sound accompanied by prominent bass-lines.

The group is made complete with the gentle voice of former Yüma duo Sabrine Jenhani. Originally a fine artist and painter, Jenhani graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Tunis, but discovered her passion for singing and writing, moving into jazz singing at famous clubs in Tunis. She imbibed her inspiration from her work in the Tunisian capital while exploring the underground scene. She went on to become an icon of music through her first project in the group Yüma. Jenhani today composes her own music and writes her lyrics, releasing her latest project ’ZAY’ in January 2019.

The four musicians have been working, creating and arranging for months under the lead of composer Faraj Suleiman to bring this project together and to raise awareness to the life of one of Palestine’s most prominent musical figures. Banna was always a lighthouse in the turbulent seas of political uncertainties in Palestine and still inspires generations of artists and activists to resist oppression and fight for what is close to the heart. This night calls for the attendance of every soul that stands for justice, equality and the right to live.

‘The Trace of the Butterfly’ concert takes place on 9 July at the Barbican.

For more information to book tickets: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/the-trace-of-the-butterfly-a-tribute-to-rim-banna

* MARSM UK: Since its founding, Marsm has dedicated itself to producing events that promote the rich and diverse arts and culture of the Arab world across the UK. From hosting some of the biggest names in the Middle East to emboldening burgeoning underground music scenes, it strives to support the exceptional creativity and talent of artists across the region.

Hassan Massoudy – Nahla Ink Artist May 2019

Hassan Massoudy was born in 1944 in Najef, Iraq. At the age of seventeen, he began working as an apprentice for various calligraphers in Baghdad for eight years, which formed the solid foundation for his artistic influences and ultimate practice.

In June 1969, he managed to leave his home country to go to France where he attend the Fine Arts School in Paris, wherein his artistic creations began to manifest a unique style in which the past meets the present, the Eastern merges with the Western and tradition stands in relation to modernity.

Massoudy’s work both perpetuates and celebrates the tradition of calligraphic art whilst at the same time breaking its rules. He simplifies lines, tending to purer lines, adding colours and opening on to a wider unlimited world on the canvass. He has also introduced signs, letters, words and sentences throughout his creations to better express himself on the spiritual realm.

The artist’s calligraphies do tend to carry out a rhythm and a musical structure which echoes back to the remotest of times. The emotion is strong when looking at the movement of his lines, their weight, their lightness, their transparency, the balance between black and white, the fullness and the vacuum, the concreteness and the abstractness.

What is also noted in Massoudy’s art is the skilful use of colour in his compositions, with opalescent washes, flows of emerald, monochromes of beiges enriched with deep wood tones and sandalwood fragrances. Then there is finally the profound message of the text used.

An artist who has exhibited internationally in a career that spans decades, Massoudy’s work is also held at museums worldwide as part of their public collections.

The works featured on Nahla Ink:

Quote: There is a place on Earth for everyone. Schiller (1759-1805)

Quote: What have I to prolong my absence from home? Is exile the star of my birth? Ibn Hamdis (1053-1133

Quote: When you glanced at me I understood the meaning of love. Ibn Zaydoun 11th c.

Quote: If you are different from me, brother, far from harming me, you enrich me. Antoine de Saint Exupery (1900-1944)

Quote: The world that I dream, eternal, infinite! Louise Colet (1810-1876)

Quote: – The world that I dream, eternal, infinite! Louise Colet (1810-1876

For more information about the artist:

Website: http://www.massoudy.net

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hassanmassoudy

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hassan_massoudy

Instagram: http://instagram.com/hassanmassoudy

Rawan Adwan – Nahla Ink Artist April 2019

Rawan Adwan is a visual artist, ceramicist and painter from Jordan. She has a degree in Fine Arts and has worked for the Queen Alia Foundation for Social Welfare, The Jordanian Prime Ministry, The Museum of Parliamentary Life and The Jordan Archaeological Museum.

The works of the artist that featured on Nahla Ink are inspired by the Safaitic inscriptions and rock art to be found in the basalt desert of southern and northern Jordan aka the Harrah desert.

Containing animals and hunting scenes, as well as battle and Bedouin camp scenes, they provide an insight into the emotions of the people who carved them and their concerns; such as the availability of arable grazing grounds for their livestock or mourning the discovery of another inscription by a person who has since died.

Adwan’s mission with these has been to study them in great detail since 2005 – she needed official government permission to visit and see them first hand – and preserve their memory by creating her own contemporary paintings based on the mysterious and beautiful originals. Her experience as a ceramicist also helped her to create a texture on the surface of the canvass.

She said: “I made sure that my work maintained and reflected the spirit of this rich art work, and preserved their spontaneous line and character whilst redrawing them again with a new composition. The unique texture that I have introduced, as part of the new composition, creates a distinctive atmosphere. It also breathes new life into these once forgotten ancient Safaitic inscriptions and the tribal society that created them.

“Moreover, through my recomposed artworks, I hope to attract attention to these endangered artefacts and assist in their preservation. I believe they are as significant, as African tribal art and Aboriginal art, to the human civilisation. I hope that the art critic and historian will share my conviction of their importance.”

Adwan has exhibited her artwork in Jordan (four solo shows) and internationally in Italy, the United Kingdom, Austria, California and Washington DC in America and Kuwait.

For more information about the artist: http://www.rawanadwan.co.uk/

April News: Interviewing Poet Amir Darwish + Featuring Artist Rawan Adwan

Dear Readers

Just a quick note to update you with Nahla Ink’s April news.

Firstly, a big thank you to British-Syrian poet Amir Darwish whom I interviewed last week about his latest poetry collection ‘Dear Refugee’. He patiently allowed me to ask him lots of questions that delve into his refugee story and how he arrived in the UK hanging underneath a lorry on a cross-channel ferry from France in 2003.

You can read the full review and interview article here: https://nahlaink.com/dear-refugee-review-interview-with-poet-amir-darwish/

Secondly, another big thank you to my artist of the month, the British-Jordanian Rawan Adwan. Her featured work on Nahla Ink has been inspired by the Safaitic inscriptions and rock art to be found in the basalt desert of southern and norther Jordan aka Harrah desert.

For more information about Rawan Adwan’s artwork: http://www.rawanadwan.co.uk

Thirdly, for those who haven’t already seen the new design, in order to find the listing of MENA-inspired arts and culture events in London, you just need to scroll down the home page to find them all under the ‘Arab About London’ heading.

There you will be able to see the latest of exhibitions, music, art, comedy, theatre and much more beside that I update on a regular basis: https://nahlaink.com/

Lastly, if you have an event that you would like to add to my listing, please do get in touch.

Best wishes to all!

Nahla Al-Ageli
Freelance Journalist + Blogger
London, April 2019

Dear Refugee – Book Review & Interview with Poet Amir Darwish

‘Dear Refugee’ is the latest poetry collection from British-Syrian writer Amir Darwish. Addressed to both refugees and other readers, many of the 35 poems reference the exodus of the millions who have had to leave their homes in search of safety, shelter and peace elsewhere. They offer an insight into the mind of a man who had to make a dangerous journey himself and knows how it feels to have to rebuild a life in a place that is initially foreign to him.

In ‘I am an immigrant and I love life’, ‘We want to live’ and ‘Where I come from’, Darwish confronts us with the simple truth that a refugee – who endures much pain, distress, sadness, agony and loss along the way – still wants to live, love and prosper. Whatever darkness he may have witnessed or trauma he has faced, he not only hopes for survival and basic things; but, also, he wants to achieve a Jungian type individuation through work, education, art, creativity and relationships.

Powerful in the imagery of what one leaves behind and what one might find in a new home, the poems reflect on how a person feels about the dramatic transition that is humanly required of him and how he toils to recuperate and integrate into a new society and environment. The book also encourages a debate on how asylum seekers are negatively conveyed in public discourse in the West and demonised in the popular imagination.

In one of the most beautiful passages, Darwish writes:

From the earth I come 
From the heart of Africa 
From the kidneys of Asia 
From India with its spices I come 
From a deep Amazonian forest 
From a Tibetan meadow I come 
From an ivory land 
From far away

And ends it with this line:

Like a human I come to share the space.

The rest of the poems are directly about love and its many guises. With a focus on romantic love, however, one gets the impression from the author that such a love doesn’t discriminate and is not thus relative to one’s immigration or passport status. Love touches everyone and no matter past hurts, it is what always comes to save the day.

The Poet’s Journey

Darwish’s personal refugee story began in 1997 when he had to escape from Syria as an 18-year-old because the police got hold of information that he had written a poem about Kurdistan that was considered to be a political threat to the regime. Darwish, who is of Kurdish descent, had been betrayed by his brother’s friend who had relayed the contents of the poem to the authorities. He knew that detention and punishment would be his fate if he were to stay in Aleppo.

Quickly before the security services had a chance to take him, his mother sold pieces of her gold to get him a passport and obtain a visa to go to the United Arab Emirate. It was all done in a matter of a week and he had to also pay a bribe at the airport in Syria so that his name would be removed from the system for a few hours until he flew out of the country.

At first the young aspiring poet thought he could read and write freely in Dubai without the pressures of back home. However by 2003, it had dawned on him that the UAE is a controlled society itself, without full freedom of expression and therefore not safe enough for him to stay. So the plan was to make another run for it, this time to Europe and the UK. (In terms of his fears about Dubai, only recently in 2018, British academic Matthew Hedges was convicted of being a spy and sentenced to life imprisonment, to later be pardoned).

Darwish finally arrived in the UK hanging underneath a lorry on a ferry from France to Tees Port in the North East of England. He claimed asylum on the spot and told the Home Office the story about the poem and harassment by the Syrian police. They collected him from the ship and placed him in a refuge in Teessdie, Middlesbrough where he lived from 2003 to 2015, by which time he had gained citizenship in 2009.

Since then, Darwish has immersed himself in higher education, writing and joining in the London spoken-word and poetry circles. He is an active member of Exiled Writers Ink (EWI) which is a charity that brings together writers from repressive regimes and war-torn situations, providing a space for them to be heard. In particular, EWI gives voice to refugees, migrants and exiles and advocates human rights through literature.

Darwish is also the author of an earlier poetry collection titled ‘Don’t’ Forget the Couscous’ and the first part of an autobiography called ‘From Aleppo Without Love’. The latter is a raw and honest account of a very difficult and painful childhood in Syria that offers more insight into his story and how he came to be the sensitive poet that he truly is.

The Interview

Nahla: As this book is about the refugee experience, how did it feel for you to go through the process of claiming asylum and eventually getting UK citizenship?

Darwish: The feeling was inexplicable. I thought I was born anew, with a new identity, new persona, new me. I value that gesture from the British government and I am grateful to them. If I am to show them gratitude it would be through my education as I continue to thrive forward.

Nahla: How did you first adjust to life in the UK?

Darwish: My settlement was paved with difficulties. I overcame these with determination and hard work on my language skills, relationships and education. I worked at the beginning in a car wash where I had to wear two or three gloves in winter to keep my hands warm and got paid only £10 a day where it was not even enough for a good filling meal. Slowly I started to make friends and discovered Middlesbrough College where I went to improve my English.

As my language skills got better, I started working as an interpreter; and, by 2011, when I felt my English was just good enough to study my dream degree, I enrolled at Teesside University and graduated in 2014 with BA degree in History. Since then I also completed an MA in International Relations (Middle East) from Durham University.

Nahla: Would you say there is negativity in the mainstream towards refugees?

Darwish: Unfortunately, yes, there is negativity towards refugees and immigrants in general regardless of their background. That negativity has always been there in Europe, yesterday it was the Jews, today it is the immigrants, before that the Irish and so on and so forth. Having said that, I think the refugee and immigrant communities do have a responsibility to make an effort to integrate, not assimilate but integrate as in making friends with the locals, eating different food and engaging in the political process of the country. Integration is a two way process and not one way only.

Nahla: From your autobiography I know you come from a big family of 12 siblings. What has happened to your brothers, sisters and mother since the conflict began?

Darwish: All of my siblings have left Syria. They are in Turkey, Germany, UAE, Canada, Belgium, America and me in England. They all sought refuge in these countries and slowly they are settling. I am in touch with some of them, mainly my sisters who are mentioned in the autobiography.

My mother however passed away a few months ago in Turkey. Although she always wanted to die in her homeland, that was not possible due to the war. The latter has dispersed all the siblings and the impact of it was huge in terms of uprooting their life completely and having to rebuild elsewhere.

Nahla: When did you realise you wanted to be e a poet and what inspires you?

Darwish: I first came across Arabic poetry when I was fifteen. I read a book of Mahmoud Darwish and never stopped reading ever since. The other poet I discovered was Nizar Qabbani.

My first attempt to write was when I was sixteen when I penned the poem about Kurdistan. Eager as a young man to share it, I read it to my brother’s friend who then told on me. That was my only attempt to write poetry in Arabic and it ended up in me leaving Syria. It was however my first inspiration as I started questioning why the Kurds do not have a land.

Today is a different story as I write in English and get my inspiration from humanity and the messages that can touch everyone. Love, peace and humanity inspire me most these days.

Nahla: What do you wish for readers to take with them after reading this book?

Darwish: My hope is to open the reader’s eyes to the fact that refugees and immigrants are capable of having a universal message to deliver to the world; and, also, to show a different image to the one often painted in the media. With me being Syrian, it is important that the reader knows that my country can produce literature that touches on love and affection as opposed to the violence often seen on the TV screens.

Refugees are humans first and refugees second. They have multiple identities and not one single one under the term ‘refugee’. They are husbands, wives, workers, professionals, of different ethnicities and religions.

Nahla: Finally the future. What are your current ambitions?

Darwish: I am currently working on the second part of my autobiography, ‘The Days of Aleppo’ and hoping to publish it in 2020. Thereafter I am preparing a poetry collection with the main theme being Love.

Nahla Ink Celebrates 10 Years With A New Logo + Website Design

Dear Readers

Nahla Ink celebrates ten years of being online; and, to mark the special milestone, I have treated myself to a new Nahla Ink logo and website design. It took time to find the right person to do the job but in the end I am happy with the results.

As before, my articles are listed under the categories of interviews, reviews, features and journal entries, where you will still find my latest write ups. Always inspired by the local MENA-inspired arts and culture scene in London or at times reaching out to the region, I am always spoilt for choice what to cover for my readers.

I am also keeping the Nahla Ink ‘Artist of the Month’ visual feature, where I share the work of an individual Arab artist every month to highlight the amazing and incredible talent out there and how to find out more. This month you will see the Egyptian artist Rasha Amin’s work. For more about her, I guide you to visit: https://www.rashaamin.com/

One big exciting change however is a switch from the old ‘My Curious Inbox’ events listing to the new section called ‘Arab About London’, where you will still be able to find what is happening across the capital that is connected to the world of the Arab diaspora. From the exhibitions to the music, theatre, talks, comedy, book clubs and much more beside, there is always something suited to everyone’s taste.

Lastly, if you wish to get in touch, please send me an email via my contact page. I am also currently open to publishing guest posts, so if you would like to see your article on my website, do send me a pitch or draft and I will get back to you.

I leave you now to explore the new Nahla Ink!

Best wishes to all!

Nahla Al-Ageli
Freelance Journalist + Blogger

London, March 2019

Rana Haddad: Author of ‘The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor’ Shares Thoughts On Astronomy, Fortune-Telling, Love, Politics, Goddesses And An Arab Shakespeare!

At the highly anticipated book launch held at the Holland Park Daunt bookshop, author Rana Haddad read out a few paragraphs from her debut novel ‘The Unexpected Objects of Dunya Noor’. The humorous passages got the informal gathering in fits of laughter; and, soon after, we were treated to the beautiful voice of Lina Shahen, whose Arabic songs transported us to an enchanting world of music originating from the Levant and a tune about people being neighbours with the moon.

With that Fairuz song in mind and Haddad’s fun, light-hearted and playful spirit in storytelling, I relished the book in no time. In it we follow the tale of Dunya Noor, a young half-Syrian half-English heroine, with green eyes and unruly curly hair, whose wild nature takes on the status quo of the culture she is born into circa the 1980s. She is a young lady who is no way minded or afraid by rules, be they set by parents, school, religion, neighbours or even if dictated down by a cruel military regime.

Growing up in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia with her mother Patricia and successful heart-surgeon father Dr Joseph Noor, she first confuses them at the age of eight when she acquires an old Kodak camera that becomes her most prized treasure and constant companion. Then they are worried when she is seen walking hand in hand with the ‘wrong’ sort of boy in her naïve quest to find out what true love is and understand its nuances. Real trouble however occurs when she refuses to attend a political demonstration with school and indicates to her teacher that she is against the Baath Party.

Quickly to protect her from punishment and public humiliation, she is exiled and sent to her maternal grandparents in England, where she completes her education and also fatefully meets Hilal Shihab. The son of Muslim tailors from Aleppo, he is himself obsessed- not with a camera but with a telescope, notebooks and fountain pens – and eager to explore the mysteries of the moon, the stars and all that lies beyond in the universe. They fall for each other and are blissfully happy in London, until a letter arrives that leads to both of them returning to Syria circa 1994.

It is truly at this point of the novel that the plot thickens and is kick-started by the mysterious disappearance of Hilal and Dunya’s brave determination to find him. Her search in Aleppo leads to many unusual twists, turns and surprises, as we meet newer characters who transform the tale into something much more multi-layered, complex and dramatic. The author succeeds in creating suspense that lasts right up until the end, where although most of the issues are resolved, a key one is left open to our imagination.

Haddad does an incredible job of putting forward deep dimensional personalities who are neither perfect nor complete, but who are human, subject to fault and error as well as redemption. This book is also a meditation on the nature of true love, on the varying degrees and shades of freedom available to us, on the power of creative expression; and, on how poetry, music and song can enrich lives.

Just like a serenade tenderly composed, the novel honours Syria’s beautiful cities and its diverse inhabitants, as we are led to visit its hidden gems and discover its cultural landscape and social fabric during a particular period in the country’s evolving history. I highly recommend it but just with a warning to prepare for the highly unexpected!

The Interview

Nahla Ink: The book is full of references to astronomical phenomenon. Are you a keen astronomer? Do you believe there is a connection between what is in the skies and what happens on the Earth and impacting on people’s lives?

Haddad: “I’m not into astronomy in a technical or scientific sense but I find it imaginatively beautiful. As a child I had a plan to become an astronomer, or an astronaut, but I quickly gave that idea up when I realised it would require me to study physics when I was more interested in the Arts.

“We do live on a planet that travels through space and it is easy for us to forget how small we are because of our ego-centric and self important ways, so I think we should always be aware of the stars and the vastness of the universe to help us put things in perspective.

“Also, I think that there are patterns in the universe, which we don’t understand and which we have always sought to understand and looking at the movement of the stars is one way humans have to do that. I have no idea whether stars have an impact on us directly but I think they mirror the way we are with one another. We orbit each other, we influence each other, we mirror each other and we can have enlightening or destructive effects on each other, we circle each other, we lose each other, etc.

Nahla Ink: There are references to fortune telling and astrology that become relevant to the plot. Is there any reason why you utilised this to carry the story forward?

Haddad: “The fortune telling is just a kind of metaphor for fear and how fear can lead people to losing trust in their own gut instincts and hearts, and how when this happens we can become victims of manipulative or random external forces, including distorted and manipulative versions of religion, politics and social norms which are based more on control rather than love, fear rather than freedom.

“But Suad and Said, characters in the novel, were vulnerable to such fear because they had in turn been ostracised by their communities for choosing their love for each other over obedience to irrational rules and norms. Another way of putting it, is that I think people can lose their souls when they follow the advice and instructions of others, rather than following their own desires and intuitions. This is why totalitarian government and fundamentalist religions and even the media and advertising can have such destructive effects.”

Nahla Ink: Dunya’s camera is not just her best fried but an obsessive comfort blanket that she takes with her everywhere. Is there a reason why she can’t filter reality unless she views it through the lens?

Haddad: “I see her camera as just a way of describing her consciousness, her need and insistence and willingness to look at the world squarely in the eyes, and properly, and to understand it on her terms – as much as possible, like a scientist who doesn’t take things at face value, but needs to find proof. So she is not one easy to brainwash and that is why she is a thorn in the side of her parents and society, but also a gift to them, if only they would listen and learn.

“I kind of want Dunya to be about how elders should also sometimes listen to their children, not only the other way around. And how children and young people can have a purer untainted way of seeing the world, which adults must re-member and restore in themselves, rather than trying their hardest to de-form the children’s souls and break them and force them to toe the line. I know I am being idealistic like Dunya when I say this, but I believe it strongly. Also, I think it’s the only way for societies to develop and evolve.”

Nahla Ink: Dunya’s character is feisty, stubborn and she doesn’t yield to the societal norms of the Assad dictatorship and the patriarchal system surrounding her. Do you think someone like Dunya would have got away with the public disobedience she committed in real life?

Haddad: “I think she would’ve if she was from the right sort of family and also if she was publicly punished and apologised and never repeated the offense again. This incident in the book is based on something I have witnessed, so I know that something like this can happen without the child being disappeared, though she was certainly lucky.”

Nahla Ink: Another key female character in the book is just as feisty and stubborn and even more daring than Dunya. Can you tell me more about what inspired Suha?

Haddad: “It is strange because Suha literally came out of nowhere, but after I wrote her, I realised she is many many Arab women and maybe a part of me is also like her. She is feminine power in its essential form – she is art, music, sensuality and love. Maybe she is a kind of Aphrodite. A force that was once very strong and very elemental in our part of the world, as well as Greece and Rome, and without which the world would be very dull and boring and without glamour or beauty or even meaning.

“So she must never be obscured or hidden, and she must always be visible and never bought or sold. She must be celebrated and accepted and loved and integrated. That is the symbolic aspect of Suha. But Suha the character is the same, if she is rejected and denied, everyone in the book related to her, will be lacking something essential in themselves and in their lives.”

Nahla Ink: Can you expand on the nature of the love that the characters are all trying to figure out? Is it foolish? Is it real? Is it ephemeral? Is it tragic?

Haddad: “I don’t think it is a foolish love, but this sort of love is complex and leads to self-knowledge. It’s not a love that can fit neatly into society or helps tribes cement themselves and procreate. It is love for the sake of love, and I think it is very important.”

Nahla Ink: Dunya’s father seems pro-Assad and represents the corrupt elite yet he somehow redeems himself. How would you describe Dr Joseph Noor?

Haddad: “The father is simply someone who wants to be socially successful and in a country like Syria, one has to co-operate with the established order, like in any other country, let’s face it. If and when the Assads are gone, there will be another established order and people like him will have to find a way to be on the right side of it. This is the way of the world whether we like it or not.

“Perhaps one can call Joseph ‘a conformist,’ whereas his daughter is a ‘non-conformist’. A conformist always wants to win the carrot offered by Power, whereas the non-conformist does not worry about the stick, as long as they can have their inner freedom. They are risk-takers and more exploratory characters. They like the new, not the old, they like to create rather than to put all their energies into conserving things as they are ‘conservatives’ or hark back to a bygone age and trying to mimic it.”

Nahla Ink: The book has many of the elements usually found in Shakespearian comedy: the struggle of young lovers to overcome problems as a result of the interference of their elders; an element of separation and reunification; mistaken identities involving disguise; family tensions usually resolved in the end; complex, interwoven plot-lines; and, finally, the frequent use of puns and other styles of comedy. Would you agree?

Haddad: “I have been told about the Shakespearean elements and none of them were conscious or intended. But I loved Shakespearean comedy as a student and perhaps it has seeped in. But, also, I have a theory that Syria is very Shakespearean. Joseph Noor would even argue that Shakespeare is an Arab and that his real name was Sheikh Isber!”

Nahla Ink: How was the process in writing the book and how long did it take you to put idea to final published novel?

Haddad: “It took me many years and I had long breaks due to health problems and also working in Media. So I had to take time off and go into a different frame of mind. The world of this book is the world I feel more comfortable in, rather than working in Media, so it became harder and harder to want to do the latter especially as the war in Syria wore on, and the media narrative became more distorted, dangerous and riddled with misinformation.”

Nahla Ink: Lastly, what influences your style of writing and what kind of literature do you particularly enjoy reading? Has the latter impacted on the former?

Haddad: “I love poetry and fiction that is both fun but deep, I’m more interested in the music of words and their meaning rather than in plot for the sake of plot. So, for example, I would never be able to read a thriller, but I could read a verse of poetry over and over again for days.

“I did also write poetry in my early twenties and much of it was published but I didn’t pursue publication too much as I knew I wanted to write novels, but I was too airy-fairy when young to be able to write a novel, so it took me a while to grow up and be able to write over a longer canvass than a poem.

“Some of the first novels in English I read were by Virginia Woolf and also Salman Rushdie, I loved Coleridge, Khalil Gibran, Nizar Kabbani, Iris Murdoch, Milan Kundera, Antoine Saint Exubry, Roal Dahl, and, of course, Sheikh Isber!”

Biographical Note: Rana Haddadis half Dutch-Armenian (mother) and half-Syrian (father). She grew up in Latakia in Syria, moved to the UK as a teenager, and read English Literature at Cambridge University. She has since worked as a journalist for the BBC, Channel 4, and other broadcasters, and has also published poetry. ‘The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor’ is her first novel, published by Hoopoefiction, an imprint of AUC Press.

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018

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