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

Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

Set in a world in which we have become a bit like zombies, not knowing how to respond to the news we hear or read about everyday. Bombarded with fake and true information, many are no longer sure of how to act in the face of others’ suffering or indeed towards the awareness that we all now live under subtle surveillance and manipulation. Instead we choose to be deaf and blind by turning to other stories that can assuage our conscience and help us deny responsibility.

It is this indifference on the global scale that ‘Curfew’ confronts the audience with. An original dance performance, it draws upon a mix of contemporary-modern moves and the traditional Palestinian Dabke. Creatively directed by Sharaf Darzaid, who is a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, it refers one to the local struggle against oppression and how dance has become a form of resistance and an empowering means of self-expression.

Nine dancers in total, who all contributed with their personal stories and ideas to the final routine, four of them came all the way from Ramallah in the West Bank to represent El-Funoun: Mohammed Altayeh, Khaled Abueram, Sharaf Darzaid and Lure Sadeq. The other five dancers, belonging to the London-based Hawiyya Dance Company, were: Jamila Boughelaf, Sylvia Ferreira, Sali Kharobi, Miriam Ozanne and Serena Spadoni.

Structured by scenes that are set in Palestine and in the universal realm, we see how brief moments of happiness and normality are interrupted or sabotaged by the loud voiceover of political news that leaves the dancers deflated, at a loss and feeling helpless. In other acts the performers also appear to be at the mercy of work production lines and hypnotised by the sound of a ringing alarm clock which forces them back into a state of submission, meekness and withdrawal.

    

Significant props include mobile phones that indicate both the lack of real human interaction in today’s busy world – as they distract, separate and isolate – and the fact that these little devices are an important tool to finding non-biased truth through social media channels. Whilst black masks come to convey that there are yet dark forces lurking in the shadows of our existence, keeping a computer-generated eye on our moves as well as secretly profiling each and every single one of us.

Amidst the confusion, the evident psychological abuse of minds and exerted physical control over bodies, the routine dramatically develops into the final scenes when the dancers consciously wake up to their predicament. It all then ends in spectacular fashion that engages directly with the audience by giving two dares that can be accepted or rejected at will.

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

Curfew came about when three members of Hawiyya were on a visit to Palestine last year and experienced first hand the demoralising ways of the occupying force – like, for example, the unnecessary interrogations at border check points. So when they met Darzaid there, who was coordinating the annual Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, they decided on a collaborative project to bring the story back to a London audience.

Boughelaf, executive producer for Curfew, explained: “When I came back from Palestine I found many people who wanted to hear my stories. But I also found many others who refused to acknowledge the facts and others asking me why I cared so much as there is injustice everywhere and you can’t do anything to change it. My response is why don’t you care?

“This is really what drove me to make this project happen and after discussing with Sharaf, as well as all the dancers from Hawiyya, we realised we were all asking ourselves the same question: are we doing enough? We may not be able to change the world’s politics, but if we manage to change even one person’s understanding of reality I feel that we have done something!”

Wanting to learn more from Darzaid, who has been an active member of El-Funoun for over seventeen years as a dancer, trainer and choreographer, I asked him firstly to expand on the choice of title ‘Curfew’ and tell me about the role of Dabke in the production.

Darzaid: “It is called Curfew for two reasons. Physically especially in Palestine, we have a certain time of curfew, when no one can move out from the houses in the West Bank. Even if we secretly want to go to the dance studio, we have to close the door after we enter, put down the blinds and keep the lights down, so that they can’t see that we are in and the music volume is low.

“We spent months under curfew and couldn’t move… the Israelis would give us a couple of hours a week to go out and bring food and go back home; and, even before or after this curfew, we are still not freely able to move from one city to another, because of the checkpoints between the cities.

“For example, I can’t go to my capital Jerusalem, I need permission to go there. Or Gaza. If I want to travel to places like here in the UK, I need to bring a lot of papers in order to prove that I am a ‘good human’, and therefore travelling between the cities and between countries, this is the physical meaning of curfew.

“Sometimes you want to take a position to resist the oppression but many times, you can’t even do this because you are forbidden. So even in your thoughts you are not free and there is a curfew. To quote Desmond Tutu, ‘if you are neutral in a situation of oppression, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor’; and, Paulo Freire said: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral…’.

“We are coming from a place where we are under occupation and this is one of the stories about what we do. We don’t’ give answers, we give a question. What do you do? Do you take action or do you maintain? Even being silent is a political position. Saying no I don’t’ care what happens, I just want to wake up and work and have money and by the end of the day I have my drink and eat and sleep, you can take this position. I say nothing. I say in this case you are maintaining.”

“(In terms of the dance) I am inspired by folklore and trying to speak in this choreography by using Dabke as an identity and not as a movement. We are doing a contemporary production and one of the pieces is about the Palestinian wedding where there is really Dabke. But the rest draws upon the energy, power and the meaning of Dabke as resistance. You can feel it throughout the production.”

I left in awe of the dancers’ energy, fluidity and expert movements led by the highly skilled choreography. I also went away with great respect for Dabke not just as a dance; but, also, as a source of cultural endurance that is being passed down Palestinian generations and being widely shared by others who wish to stand in solidarity. The big question is who will be joining in and taking their first dance step into resistance for a free Palestine.

For more on Hawiyya: https://www.facebook.com/HawiyyaDabke/

For more on El Funoun: http://www.el-funoun.org/

Photos credit: Jose Farinha: https://www.josefarinha.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Retracing A Disappearing Landscape: Exhibition Overview + Parallel Programme

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Retracing A Disappearing Landscape’ is an interdisciplinary exhibition that is currently on show at the P21 Gallery in London until 12 May. Presenting visual artworks, commissioned installations, films and recent as well as archival photography, it creatively explores people’s direct experience of and fascination with memory and personal history, and approaching the collective narratives that arise in connection to modern day Libya.

The first of its kind internationally, it is also hosting a parallel programme of talks that adds more depth and insight into the themes that come up in the viewing of the artworks and interaction with the installations. Involving over 25 contemporary artists and professionals, both Libyan and non-Libyan, their backgrounds draw upon diverse disciplines that include: poetry, literature, history, research, photojournalism and documentary filmmaking.

Participating artists and professionals are: Najat Abeed, Mohamed Abumeis, Huda Abuzeid, Mohamed Al Kharrubi, Takwa Barnosa, Mohamed Ben Khalifa, Najwa Benshatwan, Alla Budabbus, Malak Elghwel, Elham Ferjani, Yousef Fetis, Hadia Gana, Ghazi Gheblawi, Reem Gibriel, Jihan Kikhia, Marcella Mameli-Badi, Guy Martin, Arwa Massaoudi, Khaled Mattawa, Tawfik Naas, Laila Sharif, Najla Shawket Fitouri, Barbara Spadaro and Adam Styp-Rekowski.

Beginning with the archetypical memories associated with the traditional Libyan family album, the visual elements show images and scenes from private archives that go as far back as the early 1900s. These photos hint at the social fabric of many decades past that has now undergone much felt and visible change. Whilst the second segment features a number of installations that are meant to be temporary repositories and eye-witnesses to the country’s history in different interpretive ways.

The capital city of Tripoli becomes a recurring monumental backdrop, wherein the city’s past, its signposts and architecture are intermingled with the artists’ stories and their attempt to capture and retrace the city’s disappearing and ever-changing landscape. The Ghazala installation, for example, addresses the unusual fate of the historic figurine fountain that was built by the Italian sculptor Vanetti in the 1930s and was an iconic landmark in central Tripoli for decades, before it recently vanished.

The raw history of the entirety of Libya also comes into view with reflections on its many uncomfortable episodes, including the colonial chapter, the current migrant crisis, the shifting urban landscape, the suffering under dictatorship for 42 years and the turbulent post-revolutionary period.

Looking at the known and unknown memories of Libya through the work of its citizens, both at home and abroad, the country is revealed to be a powerful force in their lives, as it is always carried in their hearts, thoughts and collective psyche and never far from their mind.

By exhibiting these artworks and hosting the parallel programme that delves deep into the Libyan artistic, cultural and intellectual terrain, it is encouraging robust discussion and reflection amongst guests and the British public.

The ‘Retracing A Disappering Landscape’ Parallel Programme

The events scheduled are below and all talks will be held at the P21 Gallery.

In Conversation: Libyan Writer Najwa Benshatwan

Date: Saturday 10 March (14:30-16:00)

Ghazi Gheblawi hosts a conversation with author Najwa Benshatwan to discuss the themes running through her highly acclaimed novel ‘The Slave Pens’. Shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the book sheds light on an ugly period of Libya’s history – when slave trade markets flourished during the Ottoman era, way before the Italian colonisation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951.

In ‘The Slave Pens’ Benshatwan brings forth the narrative of the slaves in a sensitive romantic tale that touches upon the era and taboo subjects that have not been exposed before within Libyan culture. She bravely tackles the cruel trade of human beings, coming at a time when Libya has turned into a smuggler’s paradise again with African migrants being unfairly bartered.

Benshatwan is a Libyan academic, novelist and playwright, with a doctorate from La Sapienz University in Rome. The recipient of many literary prizes, she has authored three collections of short stories and three novels, including The Slave Pens. Most recently, her short story Return Ticket was featured in Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations published by Comma Press. She is currently at St Aidan’s College, University of Durham where she has taken up the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship for the duration of three months.

Gheblawi is a Libyan physician, writer, activist and blogger based in the UK. He runs and hosts the Imtidad cultural blog and podcast that focuses on literature and arts in Britain and the Arab world. He was one of the founders and cultural editor of the newspaper Libya Alyoum (2004-2009) and involved in many start-up online media and cultural projects. He is also a council member of the Society for Libyan Studies in Britain and a trustee of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. He is the senior editor at Darf Publishers, an independent publishing house based in London.

Khaled Mattawa: Poems Moving Pictures<>Pictures Moving Poems

Date: Saturday 31 March (14:30-16:00)

Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa presents a special talk in tandem with the overall context of the interdisciplinary show: to explore people’s direct experience of and fascination with personal memory as well as the collective narratives that arise in connection to modern day Libya.

Khaled Mattawa (born 1964 in Benghazi) is a renowned Libyan poet, highly acclaimed Arab-American writer and a leading literary translator. He is the author of four collections of poetry (Tocqueville, Amorisco, Zodiac of Echoes and Ismailia Eclipse) and two volumes of literary criticism (How Long Have You Been with Us: Essays on Poetry and Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation).

Mattawa is also a co-editor of two Arab American literature anthologies and the translator of eleven volumes of modern Arabic poetry. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in major American literary reviews and anthologies.

Once commenting on how his poetry has been influenced by his emigration from Libya in 1979 to the United States, Mattawa said: “I think memory was very important to my work as a structure, that the tone of remembrance, or the position of remembering, is very important, was a way of speaking when I was in between deciding to stay and not stay, and I had decided to stay.”

The recipient of many literary awards, these include a Guggenheim fellowship, a USA Artists Award and a MacArthur fellowship. His work has also won the San Francisco Poetry Center Prize, the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize (twice), three Pushcart Prizes, final for the Pegasus Prize and a notable book recognition from the Academy of American Poets.

Mattawa is currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the premier poetry society in the United States and associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also a contributing editor for Banipal, the leading independent magazine of contemporary Arab literature translated into English.

For more: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/khaled-mattawa

Jihan Kikhia: Searching for Kikhia

Date: Thursday 19 April (18:30-20:00)

Jihan Kikhia is the writer, director and producer of the documentary film ‘Searching for Kikhia’, which is still a work in progress. Here she shares the personal journey in creating the film that is based on the true story of her family’s struggle against political and personal pressures in the search for justice, in relation to the disappearance of her late father Mansur Rashid Kikhia.

During the nineteen-year search for the missing Mansur, Baha Omary, Jihan’s Syrian-American mother, encountered some of the most powerful and dangerous people in the world (including Qaddafi himself), whilst navigating the political agendas and conflict of interests of five countries: the United States, Syria, Libya, France, and Egypt. Forced to reckon with international secret services, tortuous mystery and a clash of cultures, she still had to nurture and protect her children.

Jihan Kikhia: “Death is expected. It is closure. It is natural. Disappearance is surreal. I want to share with the audience questions such as: What is it about disappearance that makes us so confused? So disturbed? So upset? So detached yet so hooked? At times, moving on feels like you’re cheating, or that you have also betrayed justice. You somehow feel guilty that you have been unable to obtain resolution or change the situation. There is a powerlessness that is deeply uncomfortable”.

Kikhia has a Bachelor’s degree in International and Comparative Politics from the American University of Paris and a Master’s from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where her focus was on art education, body ornamentation and healing arts.

In 2015, her body painting project and exhibition ‘Painted Stories, Spirited Bodies’ was recognized as excellent student work in NYU’s Confluence online magazine. In 2012, her article ‘Libya, My father, and I’ was published in Kalimat Magazine: Arab Thought and Culture. She is very committed to discovering and nurturing the ways in which humanitarian aid and the healing arts merge, and how the creative process can be a vehicle for freedom and empowerment.

For more: https://www.mansurkikhia.org/

Guy Martin: The Missing

Date: Tuesday 24 April (18:30-20:00)

Photojournalist Guy Martin recalls his experience of covering political and historical events in Libya. He began to document the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa circa January 2011and brought back images from Egypt, before focusing on the civil war in Libya from the east to the besieged western city of Misrata circa April 2011.

In this talk, he will discuss the photographs of the Libyan men that had adorned the walls of the courthouse in Benghazi during the spring and summer of 2011; because over the course of the Libyan revolution, the locals were found to be posting pictures of missing sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and friends in the hope that someone might recognise a face.

“The faces read like a ghoulish storybook of Libya’s recent history; a man who had not returned from a secret and brutal war with Chad in the 1970s; a man publicly executed in Benghazi in the 1980s; faces of men who disappeared after being arrested by Gaddafi’s secret police during his four decades of brutal rule.” Guy Martin

Martin’s work in Egypt and Libya formed the basis for joint exhibitions at the Spanish Cultural Centre in New York, HOST Gallery in London, the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff and the SIDE Gallery in Newcastle. He also had his first solo show ‘Shifting Sands’ at the Poly Gallery in Falmouth.

His professional photographs have appeared in the Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, D Magazine, FADER Magazine, Monocle Magazine, Huck Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, ARTWORLD, The New Statesman, The Wall Street Journal and Time. He is also member of the esteemed photographic agency Panos Pictures.

Originally from Cornwall, Martin studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport and graduated with distinction. One of his first projects -Trading over the Borderline – was a documentation of the border region between Turkey and Northern Iraq and its trade routes that won him the Guardian and Observer Hodge Award for young photographers.

In 2011 Martin became an associate lecturer in Press and Editorial Photography at the University of Falmouth, United Kingdom. He now divides his time between in Istanbul and London.

For more: http://guy-martin.co.uk/

Adam Styp-Rekowski: Walks In Tripoli

Date: Saturday 28 April (14:30-16:00)

Adam Styp-Rekowski is from a legal background and has for many years worked for the United Nations and NGO’s in the Middle East and North Africa region. Originally from Poland, he is currently in Tunisia as a country director of the NGO Democracy Reporting International that looks at constitutional reforms. Prior to that, between 2012 and 2015, he worked as a constitutional dialogue project manager at the United Nations Development Programme in Libya.

Outside of these roles, Styp-Rekowski is also an expert photographer, highly respected and admired. His images are of the cities he has visited and worked in, often capturing the locals he comes across and day-to-day street scenes. Artistic both in colour and often in black and white, his ‘Walks’ portfolio covers the places and trips that have seen him enter and pass different continents.

“Camera helps to capture walks in space but also in time. I walk in places and time and share photographs of my walks…” Adam Styp-Rekowski

Styp-Rekowski’s photography has been exhibited in Jordan, Iraq, Libya, United Kingdom, Poland and Tunisia. He will be presenting images from his ‘Walks In Tripoli’ album and discuss the stories behind them.

For more: https://www.facebook.com/WalksInTripoli/

Farrah Fray: Weaving the Fabric of Our Fate

Date: Saturday 5 May (14:30-16:00)

Young Libyan writer Farrah Fray will speak about poetry, memory and contested personal history, providing a unique expository take on the idea of documenting and mapping personal and collective journeys. Informed by her background in translation and linguistics, Fray invites the audience to view Libya as a multi-modal piece of literature which, similar to the weaving of a cloth, carries routes positioned in different angles to each other and patterns repeated over the course of time, using all pieces of thread to reach a shared destination.

A published poet (The Scent of My Skin: From Libya, London and Every World I Live In), Fray’s work navigates and explores culture, feminism, displacement and identity. She is influenced by both London and Libya as well as other travels and the people she meets. Through her poems and memoirs, she hopes to expand the understanding and representation of Middle Eastern women today.

Most recently, she is working on a collaborative series with different artists for Khabar Keslan, confronting Libya’s fragmented history and identity. Khabar Keslan is an online review featuring art and critique from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

For more: https://www.farrahfray.com

Barbara Spadaro: Una Casa Normale

Date: Thursday 10 May (18:30-20:00)

Italian academic-historian Barbara Spadaro will deliver a talk that moves between Ottoman mansions, terrace houses and modernist flats of Tripoli, Rome and London, retracing trajectories and acts of transmission of Libyan Jewish heritage. Featuring a series of interviews and objects from family archives, Spadaro will share a strand of her research on the geographies and languages of memory of Libya.

A lecturer in Italian history at the University of Liverpool, Spadaro’s research explores media and the languages of memory in the 21st century, with a focus on Libya, Tunisia and Italy. She has been a ‘Society of Libyan Studies-British School at Rome’ fellow and visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS University of London.

Her first monograph Una colonia Italiana: Incontri, memorie e rappresentazioni tra Italia e Libia is a study of the memories and social practices of Italian colonial families from Tripoli and Benghazi. Her most recent publication, co-edited with Katrina Yeaw, was included in the Special Issue of the Journal of North African Studies that looked into gender and transnational histories of Libya.

For more: http://translatingcultures.org.uk

Adam Benkato: Unexpected Voices (Tracing the Libyan Past in Sound)

Date: Saturday 12 May (14:30-16:00)

Libyan-American scholar and writer Adam Benkato will be exploring some very unexpected voices from the Libyan past, preserved in a recently discovered archive of vinyl LPs recorded in Libya in the 1940s. He will consider how these may contribute to Libyan memory and heritage and how they parallel the ways in which we as individuals recollect the past and the disappearing signposts.

“We view the past through images or text. Though these may be intimate and may stimulate memories, conversations, and emotions, they are also two-dimensional and are removed from the people who made them or are in them. But when we have the opportunity to hear voices, we have access to a different kind of past—one we hear directly rather than recreate for ourselves.” Adam Benkato

Benkato was raised in Houston, Texas and has lived in Benghazi and London and is now based in Berlin. His research engages with Libyan language, literature and history and addressing themes of heritage, diaspora, and post-coloniality. The curator of The Silphium Gatherer, it is a blog focused on scholarship of Libya in the arts, histories, ethnography, linguistics, literature, music, and urban studies.

For more: https://silphiumgatherer.com/

‘Retracing A Disappearing Landscape’ is generously supported and funded by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), DARF Publishers, British Council and private individuals.

​For more information on the P21 Gallery: http://p21.gallery/

For more information on Najlaa El-Ageli (Noon Arts Projects): https://www.noonartsprojects.com

Above Image: The Ghazala by Alla Budabbus

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

SAFAR 2016: Film Festival Solely Dedicated to Contemporary Arab Cinema

If you love independent films with the power to take you on a visual tour of faraway places, then a cinematic festival that carefully selects its titles to represent the best of what is coming out of a particular region is a must see. More of a reason also when that region, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, is experiencing unprecedented turbulence that has been laid out for the world to see and when the dearth of good news has meant a lack of an adequate reflection of what really is going on in the Arab world.

It has been a privilege to preview six of the nine films that will be screened as part of the SAFAR 2016 Film Festival. Now in its third edition and hosted biennially by the Arab British Centre in partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Arts, SAFAR offers everyone – Arab and non-Arab alike – the chance to see some excellent contemporary MENA films recently produced despite the some logistical obstacles faced.

Curated by writer, independent film and visual arts curator Rasha Salti, she has selected a range of productions from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Kuwait and Syria. Each offers an artistic take on some real and others imagined tales, inspired by true or fictionalised events and played by actors deserving of Oscars. The themes tackled in the selection range from love to war, music, history, religion, politics, philosophy and homosexuality, with the open invite to enter both private lives as well as to learn of public concerns.

Insight From Curator Rasha Salti

I asked Salti to describe the challenges faced by directors and production teams who are working from inside the volatile region. She said: “Filmmakers working in the Arab world face very different kinds of challenges, the ‘volatile’ political context is part of them, but I would not say it is the most inhibitive or problematic. The most serious challenges pertain to the structure of the so-called industry, its near total absence in some cases (in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Algeria) or its fledgling state in other cases (in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia).

“In spite of the absence of an industry in the conventional sense, there are professionals, a notable number of which are very talented and very skilled. The films included in this programme are all low-budget and independent productions, also made in spite of the absence of a structure. They are also auteur, art-house films… The most urgent challenge for art-house cinema is exhibition or distribution locally, regionally and internationally. The more serious challenges that are a consequence of the socio-political contexts are censorship and self-censorship.”

I also wanted to know if she had employed a selection criterion in choosing the films. Salti replied: “In the past five or more years, I have observed a change in Arab cinema, not only are filmmakers more resolute in forging their own voice, but also they are fearless about challenging taboos and exploring different cinematic genres, risking a confrontation with authorities but also provoking the more conservative audiences.

“The Safar Film Festival includes two subjective non-fiction films (‘House without Doors’ and ‘This Little Father Obsession’), an absurdist comedy (‘Love, Theft and Other Entanglements’), two psychological dramas (‘Borders of Heaven’ and ‘Before the Summer Crowds’), two socio-political dramas (‘As I Open My Eyes’ and ‘Let Them Come’), a raucous satire (‘Starve your Dog’) and the work of Monira Al-Qadiri, an amazing video artist, that straddles the realms of film and contemporary art and film.”

The SAFAR Parallel Programme

Alongside the screenings at the ICA, there will be an additional programme of Q+As with the directors, actors and scriptwriters featured in the films. Significantly, these events have been made possible due to the success of the ABC’s recent crowd-funding campaign that has enabled them to bring everyone together as well as the the possibly of extending SAFAR to other regional UK cities.

Nadia El-Sebai, Executive Director at the ABC, said: “As the news and the media continues to depict the region through protest politics and conflict, Salti’s selection for SAFAR enables us to look beyond the headlines and provide a more meaningful insight into the emergent trends and social issues affecting communities across the Arab world. The fact that people from around the world came together to support this vision, is testament to the festival’s significance to audiences in the UK at this time.”

Nahla Ink on SAFAR Films

As I Open My Eyes (Tunisia-France, 2015)

Screening at the ICA: 17 September, 2016 at 6pm

Beautifully directed by Leyla Bouzi as a first feature film, it carries a wonderful soundtrack with songs composed by the Iraqi musicologist Khyam Allami. Set sometime before the Jasmine Revolution, young and carefree Farah (played by Baya Medhaffar) is passionate and excited to be singing with her grungy band and wants to hang out with the bohemian crowd to pursue an innocent dream of becoming a rock star.

Naïve, Farah doesn’t see how her fearless and reckless attitude can put her life in danger. In a country where an oppressive government keeps tabs on everyone, events turn for the worse when her boyfriend writes the lyrics to a politically inspired tune. In peril, Farah embodies the contradictions between the needs and desires of a certain youth who are yearning to live and be free versus a culture that wants to stifle their right to self-expression.

With the popular Tunisian singer Ghalia Ben Ali performing in the strong role of the mother, she brings a sweet and tender dimension to the tale. For good reasons, this film was a winner at the Venice International Film Festival (2015) and the Dubai International Film Festival (2015). I highly recommend viewing!

Before the Summer Crowds (Egypt, 2015)

Screening at the ICA: 14 September, 2016 at 8.30pm

Directed by the late Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Khan, this will be a UK premiere to be screened on the opening night of the festival as a tribute to Khan’s legacy and cinematic achievements over the years. ‘Before the Summer Crowds’ is a colourful fiction that exposes Egypt’s troublesome socio-economic dynamics and reveals the clear difference between the haves and have-nots with a seductive female lead.

Unhappy and frustrated with her life, rich and pretty Hala (played by Hana Sheha) wants to get away from her daily life and plans an intimate holiday with a secret lover. Hiring out a chalet at the Blue Beach resort not far from Alexandria before the high season, she doesn’t factor in the unwelcome interest nor the intrusive curiosity from her neighbour as well as the resort’s handy boy.

Obsessed, Dr Yehia (played by Maged El Kedwany) unashamedly snoops on her with his binoculars and flirts with her at every chance to the chagrin of his wife, whilst the resort caretaker Goma (played by Ahmed Dawood) gets a perverse pleasure from following her around and touching her intimate garments that she has put outside to dry in the sun. Her big plan for private time with her amour seriously backfires.

Khan sheds light on the injustices in an Egypt where the rich and the poor live in physical proximity but reside on two different planets. It is a world where the elite are outwardly spoilt, demanding and corrupt but always beyond reproach as their positions of power and money will get them out of any trouble or even scandal. It makes for an interesting viewing.

Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (Palestine, 2015)

Screening at the ICA: 15 September, 2016 at 6.15pm

Shot in dramatic black and white and directed by the Palestinian Muayad Alaya, this is an unexpected Palestinian story that is an amazing psychological thriller, drama and fairytale all rolled into one. Set in Jerusalem sometime circa the Oslo Accords, we follow Mousa (played by Sami Metwasi) who is a desperate car thief with a precarious plan to get out of the country and escape to Europe.

When he thinks he’s struck gold by stealing a valuable car – to sell its parts to fund his trip to Italy – too late he finds out that there is an Israeli soldier (played by Riyad Sliman) in the trunk who is part of a huge political exchange plot between a Palestinian militia group and the Israeli government.

When all the other characters are seriously concerned with the explosive politics and the high emotions of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Mousa’s only concern is to put the money together to be able to leave as well as to help solve the love triangle that he is also a key part in.

Describing his film, Alayan has said: “Love, Theft and Other Entanglements is a universal story of an anti-hero and his journey towards redemption. The lead character Mousa is neither the Palestinian national ideal typically found in many Palestinian films nor the pure victim of the occupation who is otherwise a perfect manifestation of good…

“Whilst the setting of the film is Palestine, the goal is to tell a universal story about human beings and how they act under circumstances that are heavy to bear. Do we act morally under pressure or is morality a luxury when so much is at stake? Are we able to connect with others or not? Do we trust or mistrust? Do we act responsibly or selfishly? And, ultimately, how do we redeem ourselves from our own mistakes and actions?”

This one for me is another must see! Produced by the PalCine collective of filmmakers based in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area, its goal is to make organic cinema by and about Palestinians as a community. This film was first screened in the Panorama section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival.

This Little Father Obsession (Lebanon, 2015)

Screening at the ICA: 18 September, 2016 at 4pm

This is a warm-hearted family documentary drama that utilises auto-fiction film techniques with great humour. Captured over two years, Selim Mourad presents an intimate insight into his life as a young gay Lebanese male and his relationship dynamics with his parents, with an emphasis on the ‘obsession’ with his father. When the family have to leave their old house for redevelopment and must move elsewhere temporary, Selim is worried about the future.

Without siblings, he knows he cannot provide a grandchild and is concerned with what that would mean for the Mourad surname. So son goads father on a quest to explore their family tree and en route to various appointments, they engage in many philosophic conversations that openly discuss his homosexuality and contemplate whether there is perhaps a 70-year curse on them for past karmic mistakes. When eventually Selim’s earnest search discovers missing relatives, he has to confront his father.

Improvising with unusual props and getting his parents and friends to do all sorts of crazy impromptu scenes for his big documentary, Mourad employs actors and actresses in the background who surreally run around the ‘set’ as if they are real characters in a film; or, perhaps, it was his aim to creatively blend and blur the boundaries between reality and fiction. If you wish to laugh or to philosophise about family, this is the one film to book for!

Borders of Heaven (Tunisia-UAE, 2015)

Screening at the ICA: 17 September, 2016 at 4pm

Directed by Fares Naanaa, this poignant family drama will make you cry and sing. Sarah (played by Anissa Daoud) and Samy (played by Lotfi Abdel) are a young Tunisian couple in their thirties who have to endure the greatest loss possible, that of their young child. The stressful event of little Yasmine’s death comes to challenge their marriage and manifests more than just some of the already underlying cracks in their relationship.

Played powerfully by Daoud and Abdel, the pain of the couple’s predicament leads each on a different path. Whilst Sarah who is a teacher tries to find solace in work, prayer and taking part in a singing group, Samy who is an architect blames himself and is unable to turn to his wife for comfort, choosing instead to lose himself in alcohol.

With immense suspense throughout this love story, the viewer is drawn into Naanaa’s expert handling of the psychology of grief and its many complex layers of human emotion. It also beautifully portrays the possibilities for closure and when there are reasons for hope to live once again. Another must see, this film premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival (2015), where Abdel won the ‘Muhr Feature’ award for best actor.

Starve Your Dog (Morocco, 2015)

Screening at the ICA: 18 September, 2016 at 6pm

Part of a trilogy with a ‘Dog’ theme directed by the Moroccan Hicham Lasri, this film cleverly deploys an imaginary journalistic scoop that revisits the real ‘Years of Lead’ in Morocco. The film reflects on the country’s current socio-political and economic scene and one is made visually aware of the frustrations of the millions who are still illiterate, poor, desperate and afraid.

Set in Casablanca, an incredible interview is just about to take place and be nationally broadcast. Pretending that the real but dead ex-Minister of Interior Driss Basri (played by Jirari Ben Aissa) is still alive circa 2012 and ready to confess for his political crimes, a desperate female journalist quickly puts together a production team to capture the historical moment. But things don’t’ work out as planned when their sound system and video equipment fail to capture Basri’s dramatic performance.

For the Moroccans, Basri was the notorious right-hand man working for King Hassan II who had complete control of the police, security and intelligence services in the time between 1979-1999. He was therefore complicit in many of the horrors that took place then, from killings to ‘disappearances’ of dissidents as well as the torture and imprisonment of many who opposed the regime.

As a Libyan observer, I was conscious of the irrational political rhetoric spewed by Basri to justify his past evil acts and Lasri’s referencing via archival political material is a very powerful reminder of the fear and paranoia associated with that time. In a frightening sense, also, the metaphor of the ‘dog’ wasn’t lost on me. Gaddafi used that term to insult the people he was planning to execute or assassinate; and, ironically, he was referred to as the ‘mad dog’ himself by others.

For the full SAFAR 2016 programme, details of the Q+As as well as a promotional code when booking: https://www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/projects/safar-film-festival-series/safar-2016/full-programme-listing/

Note: This article was first published circa September 2016

Textural Threads: A Collective Show Redefining The Female Space And Emerging Art From MENA

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition forms an integral part of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2016. The AWAN is an annual event in March that celebrates Arab female artists in London, by offering them the platform to increase the visibility of their artwork and exposing their talent to newer audiences. The AWAN is organised by Arts Canteen.

United by what can only be described as the fearless feminine spirit, Textual Threads brings five strong emerging artists who will inspire, challenge and make you marvel at the different creative ways each has chosen to approach the topics impacting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, whilst offering internal transformations. With a womanly abandon in the use and choice of different textures and methods, what is pertinent to the Arab is revealed, with a great cross-section of origins coming from Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and one artist who is half-Algerian and half-Bulgarian.

From Dima Nashawi’s elegant illustrations that tell the personal tale of being a Syrian living in London, to the use of bold brush strokes of Arabic script on newsworthy photography by the young Libyan Takwa Barnosa, to the captivating digital prints on soft silk material by the Algerian Hania Zaazoua, these artists are reclaiming the imaginative terrain. They all show how art can be the cathartic measure that keeps one sane amidst the crazy dramas playing outside on the streets of a blighted region; or, as in some case, by looking psychologically within for answers.

The five artists striving to advance a peace, hope and love agenda, as well as celebrating womanhood itself and defying simple categorisations of what it means to be an artist from MENA are: Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria), Dima Nashawi (Syria), Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia), Hania Zaazoua (Algeria) and Takwa Barnosa (Libya).

Takwa Barnosa (Libya)

The young 18-year-old Takwa Barnosa is a Libyan artists who is still studying for her bachelor’s in Fine Arts at the University of Tripoli, but whose artwork has already caused a positive stir. Talented and inventive, she fuses Arabic calligraphy with different forms of mixed media. Utilising powerful newsworthy photographs that range in subject but concerning Libya, she writes over them with word messages to challenge the content of the story told within.

Barnosa doesn’t shy away from the difficult existential passage in which the Libyans find themselves, directly addressing the current status of political chaos, anarchy and general disorder. For example, one of her images hints at the burning petrol and the human costs entangled with its production. She also brings to the attention the unfortunate displacement of the Tawerghas in Libya as well as the drowning of migrants who are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Her choice of word and vivid colours is always substantial and engaging, be it splashed on the digital image or painted on her canvas in various sizes. From the themes of death, to war and peace, dream and fear that apply universally, to the more specific issues relevant to Libya, where she comments on recent events and leaving them open to one’s own judgement. Her ‘Lost’ piece brings to attention the troublingly recent destruction of the Italian artefacts in Tripoli, with the Gazelle statue that was demolished by the attempts to deny colonial history.

Barnosa has given a statement to Nahla Ink: “Most of my works discuss the situation in the community that I live in. I have seen many acts and events happening and that are still taking place, especially in the past two years in Libya. I have tried to show the parts that I have experienced and felt through my artworks.”

Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria)

Meryem Meg is the 25-year-old Algerian-Bulgarian artist with a multi-disciplinary background and a specialty in graphic design. Keen on the themes of fertility, birth and the cycles within nature, she draws upon North African and amazigh marks and symbols in her work. Creating optical illusions and movement through the lines, colours and geometric shapes, Meg’s aim is to impact on the mind and create a mystical experience for the viewer, as well as to empower women through her visual affirmations.

In some of her work, Meg also challenges the Orientalist lens looking at the North African female and providing an alternative that is much deeper and far more complex. Utilising the local motifs that are used within textiles, tattoos and ceramics, she demonstrates the systems of knowledge and the ways in which the indigenous communities have structured themselves and told their stories over the eons.

She has provided a statement: “The works are a reflection of my Afro-European heritage where I am also making the contrast with a more contemporary visual influence including urban cultures. Exploring geometry, I use a gestural approach allowing what is typically rigid in structure to flow organically. The desired effect is to captivate and stimulate a sense of self-contemplation akin to a spiritual experience, created to interact with one another synergistically.”

Meg offers four pieces for the ‘Textural Threads’ collective show, two of which belong to a black and white series made with water-based paint on paper and the other two which have been created with acrylic, aerosol and rose water on paper. Using the ancient symbols with diamond, triangular and circular shapes, she builds a rhythmic feel with other lines as she explores fertility and life celebration with the joyful colours to uplift the spirit.

Dima Nashawi (Syria)

The Syrian Dima Nashawi is an artist who strongly believes that art goes hand in hand with social activism and is a powerful means for peace building and engaging with human rights. Although her art illustrations are very delicate, feminine, beautiful and intricate, they actually carry a very powerful message regarding Syria and the longing for return to her hometown of Damascus. Using smooth and curved lines in her illustrations, she attempts to simplify real stories and bring them closer to the audience.

Nashawi’s life and work journeys have so far seen her travel from Syria to Jordan, Lebanon and now London, where she is studying Art and Cultural Management at King’s college. With a bachelor’s in Sociology, she has also studied Fine Arts and worked as an illustrator-animator for magazines and children’s websites as well as undertaking social work with the UNHCR to help refugees.

For this exhibition, she presents the incredible illustration fairy-tale titled ‘The Mystery of Names in Raindrops’ and other pieces. The former is an imaginary tale about a little girl Lana and her mother, as they enter a world in which a witch lives in a forest and oddly collects raindrops in a jar that are brought to her by deer in return for lashes she makes out of spider web.

Although initially the witch seems an evil character who weaves curtains from girls’ braids, Lana later discovers that she is kind as she also makes carpets and blankets from the silk of cocoon and camel’s hair. Significantly, it is in the names written on the raindrops that we find the real stories of Syrians who have been struggling against the regime or other radical elements, with some detained and others who have lost their lives due to the current war situation.

In six other illustrations, Nashawi brings her whimsical creatures: a man who asks a young girl about the meaning of the name Dima, an image of two lovers and the images titled ‘Waiting’, ‘Damascus In My Head’, ‘On My Way My Lonely Planet’ as well as the ‘Tribute to Reyhaneh Jabbari’.

Nashawi: “My work deals with the moments of complex emotions that I have felt through personal interactions with my daily surroundings. My art is a revolt against injustice and to support social and political activism and movements. I am expressing an opinion, advocating and telling different stories to break stereotypes and mainstream media’s narratives. The current power of art is in delivering messages about Syria that the world is not paying attention to.”

Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia)

The British-Saudi Arabian Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail belongs to a number of different worlds that have formed the woman she has become today. With a master’s in Photography and the use of digital processes, she looks into identity, the negotiation of personal space as well as in dealing with the interactions between the contrasting collective cultural memories and how these may pose problems for the individual.

Having been raised partly in Saudi Arabia and now living as a Muslim female in the UK, she ventures into the questioning of oneself and her potential as an artist. She weaves this ‘otherness’ into her practice and looks into the subject of self in an ever-changing global society. She is the Co-founder of Variant Space, an online art collective for Muslim female artists.

Al Lail here offers images that form her ‘Hidden Colours’ series as well as two images from the ‘Rooftop’ project. In the first series, she explained: ‘This charts my personal identity that is defined by my mix of cultural backgrounds, with a Saudi father and an Indian mother as well as growing up in Britain. It explores my attempts to accustom myself to three cultural identities, whilst imposed ideas of where I belong or how I should be cluttered my self-perception.

“The colours reveal the hidden emotional journey attached to the hybridity of the cultures I grew up with. The images were taken using a photo-booth in order to interrupt the space which is used to define identity and produces a conforming, standardised image, which I manipulated. The same image is then changed gradually in reference to the way my identity is constantly in flux. The colours act as a force or barrier to conceal and reveal the self.”

In terms of the ‘Rooftop’ project, Al Lail said: ‘Identity and space are intimately connected; space delineates the scope for identity. This is particularly the case in the context of Saudi Arabia – space necessitates the very ground for a coherent identity. I use the rooftop – open space – as a metaphor for progressive, liberated and open-ended possibility. By placing a young girl – symbolising innocence – in such a space, I am trying to describe how identity flourishes best when there are no barriers and no ceilings.”

Hania Zaazoua (Algeria)

Hania Zaazoua is the 39-year-old Algerian designer, visual artist and stylist. She is a graduate of Fine Arts and woks as the Design Director at Bergson & Jung in Algiers. She has also established her own interior design brand called ‘Brokk Art’ in 2012.

Zaazoua draws her inspiration from personal wanderings, be they real or virtual and creates work that flirts with a trivial dream world and explores an alternative version of the society that she lives in. Enjoying the use of paradoxes, she looks at the complex relationship between the cultures of the East And West.

Using digitally manipulated images that she presents on soft silk material – that is stretched onto circular embroidery frames – her work deconstructs and recomposes popular or historical cultural icons and manipulates the tales being told.

In the ‘Young Ladies of Icosium’, we see a vision of the timeless Algerian women, renowned for storytelling and wisdom. As leading characters, they all present both an interface and an interference between East and West. Set in an undetermined time and space, they allude to the themes of decolonisation and self-empowerment and also refer to Picasso’s ‘Young Ladies of Avignon’.

In ‘Wonder Lalla’, the artist creates an Algerian version of the warrior-princess super heroine. Whether contemporary or ancient, she is a multi-generational role model. The use of the title ‘Lalla’ is of Berber origin that signifies a mark of distinction for the woman. The other works presented in ‘Textural Threads’ are: ‘Discretion Zone’, ‘Mahmoud & Tassadite’ and ‘Daydreaming’.

Zaazoua has provided a statement as well for Nahla Ink: “In a world where reality is fantasy… that specific prism, different and sometimes close, I propose an alternative world that is dreamlike and almost falsely naïve. I use clichés picked up from the media, literature material and films that have references to the West; but, being from the East, I create the reactive heroines, some who are real and others fictional.”

The ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition will be on display from 2-19 March, 2016 at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch, London.

For more information on Arts Canteen and the AWAN Festival: https://artscanteen.com/

For more on Najlaa El-Ageli: https://www.noonartsprojects.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2016

Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI): The Pop-Up Mosque About To Go Virtual!

Welcome to the pop-up mosque. The one where prayer is often led by women. And where vegan food is served at special events.

Just like any other mosque this Ramadan, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) will gather its congregation for Friday prayers, sermons, Islamic recitations and some organised Iftars. But unlike the others, two things will stand out. One is that their venue is not permanent but rather a ‘pop-up’ dependent on donations; and, second, if you do attend, be prepared for a little shock as they do things differently from the traditional sense and you might not understand what they are getting at.

The IMI is a small but slowly growing group of like-minded liberal Muslims whose aim is to create a new type of Islamic community, where the strict religious rules don’t apply; and, where the practice – rather than the theory – of anyone being able to attend their prayers, sermons, recitations and discussions feeling free of orthodox expectations can be realised.

For the IMI, it doesn’t matter from which religious or non-religious sect you belong, you are welcome in this mosque. You might even be invited to their readings of poetry, art exhibitions or picnics and BBQs that offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options! The only rule is that participants and attendees are respectful of each other, not abusive nor violent in active or passive ways.

As they have not been able yet to raise enough money for a fixed carbon-neutral building – as they would like it to be! – they have so far functioned ad hoc and managed to meet in venues across London, Oxford, Manchester and Bristol; in a range of places like community and arts centres, restaurants, outdoor spaces, the Muslim Institute and even holding an inter-faith concert in a church in Waterloo and prayers in a Buddhist Centre.

But great controversy also surrounds their choices and behaviour. For example, prayers and sermons are often led by women and there is no compulsion to even take part or cover the head with a hijab. Women and men stand mixed together in prayer lines and sometimes their Friday discussions might seem a little too philosophical. Some of the past topics included ‘Hijab and Mosques’, ‘Mental Health and Jinn Possession’ or ‘Jokes! Humour in the Hadiths.’

In their defence, the IMI explained: “Part of our understanding of inclusivity in Islam is the theme of non-compulsion in religion. During prayers, not everybody wants to participate or in the same way. We feel that this inter-community aspect is particularly important as differences among sects are too often used to justify violence around the world. Additionally, we have had a number of ex-Muslims and non-religious people attend who in some cases haven’t prayed in years. With our non-compulsion principle, they have returned to their faith and begun to re-engage with Islam.”

Set up two years ago by two women, the first goal was to create a space where women can feel more at ease than they do in central mosques; but, later on, they developed the idea and opened their doors to anyone from any diverse Islamic background or minority who might feel awkward or not well catered to in the usual sense.

Co-Founder Tamsila Tuaqir​ said:”In our two holiest of mosques in the Muslim world at the Kaaba in Mecca and the Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, there is no physical division between men and women and women do not stand behind men but side-by-side. We aim to emulate this highest example. There is established tradition of this from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and plenty of scholarship that discusses the permissibility of this, for example, Abdul An-Naim.”

The overall remit of the IMI also connects them with other groups, like Islamic social justice movements, as they tackle other modern issues, like the environment, arts, mental health and the liberation of Palestine.

IMI members come from many backgrounds, including: Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Quranist, Salafi, Braelvi, Islamic Feminist, Secular, Conservative and Reverts. Whilst their ethnic composition reflects British diversity with: Arab, Malaysian, Central European, South Asian, East African and Persian. The community is now international with contact groups in Malaysia, Kashmir and Switzerland.

With the world now so much closer and easily connected, the IMII’s next ambition is of the digital kind. Already, they hold Skype-Koranic discussion circles and reading groups led by a Sheik that have proved friendly, popular and accessible by engaging more people across time-zones.

The IMI said: “Dependent on the technology available and costs, we are developing the theory and investigating the practicalities of a virtual-interactive space where people can enter the mosque from any location from anywhere around the world and take part in prayers, sermons and discussions. We’re talking about more than just a video call but a 4-Dimensional physical experience that includes audio, visual and also eventually olfactory.”

The IMI is very serious about accessibility and they adapt any location for wheelchair users, as well as conducting the call to prayer in British Sign Language. They are presently developing their mission statement into a picture document for people whose first language is not English or those with learning difficulties to be able to understand their ethos.

The IMI is a voluntary organisation entirely dependent on donations and the work of its volunteers. They are currently recruiting for a volunteer fundraiser, accountant and graphic designer to work a few hours a week.

For more information: www.inclusivemosqueinitiative.org.

Note: This article was first published circa July 2014

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