Bayda Asbridge: Weaving Away The Tears

In Honour Of A Syrian Mother

Death is the ultimate separation, but not being able to attend your parent’s funeral makes it that far more difficult to grieve and deal with the loss. When an unfair bloody war is also taking place in the background and you are in far away exile, there is no option left for the psychological survival but to claim the personal story.

Bayda Asbridge is a 52 year-old Syrian-British artist who is currently resident in Worcester, Massachusetts (USA). When she left Syria in 1994, she vowed to never return. So when her mother died in Damascus at the end of 2012, she found herself alone and without the only four people in the world who could have helped share her pain and with whom to shed the tears.

Bayda has four sisters who are mostly estranged from war-torn Syria. Although they all grew up in Kuwait and used to travel back and forth to Syria, now two are based in the United Kingdom, one in Dubai, one in Syria and Bayda in the US.

Weaving Above Other Art Forms

A versatile artist, Asbridge could have turned to any one of the art mediums that she is highly skilled at for catharsis; she is an accomplished Asian painter, a sculptor and photographer. But instead, she turned to Saori weaving, a recent weaving technique from Japan, to help her with the emotionally charged project of grieving.

She said to Nahla Ink:  “I knew weaving would be the answer to help in our joint grief because it links us to our background and identity as Arab women from Syria. Our country has always been famous for its woven fabrics, looms, damask and other textiles and formed an important centre on the Silk Road route going as far back as the Middle Ages with its celebrated bazaars, crafts and artisans.

“Weaving also makes me feel privileged and honoured every time. It has tremendously helped me with sorting out many issues, especially in dealing with the past and the nostalgia for my homeland, people and language. But, most importantly, it has made the dead ends of my life form a full circle that tells me who I am and what my purpose is here on Earth.

“Ever since learning under the instructions of Mihoko Wakabayashi in Worcester from February 2012 onwards, something deep within me has triggered. On some days, I even feel like getting down on my knees to embrace the loom in love and tenderness.

“I think also about all the women who have ever spent hours in front of their looms making items for their loved ones but how sad that much of their efforts have been taken for granted.”

In Honour of Hayat Nasser

Asbridge’s mother, Hayat Nasser, was herself a seamstress. On every happy occasion, she would stitch nice dresses for the five girls to look good, pretty and presentable. She also sewed every other garment to save money while their father was moaning in the background about the noise of the sewing machine.

The piece in her honour of her mother is still in process, but already it is ten metres long and divided into five sections with different colours to represent each one of the five sisters. Nasser’s face has also been silk-printed in the centre of each section to show how she is still in the depths of their hearts.

The other four sisters are helping out by locating old family mementos and photos of childhood days and growing up. As Bayda has been away so long, she left behind most of her personal history and belongings in Syria and in Kuwait.

With Saori weaving, one starts with an idea, sets a warp and gets shuttles, bobbins and a variety of yarns ready for a special loom that has travelled all the way from Japan to help create a woven piece through a spiritual journey of weaving. The yarns can be wool, cotton, silk, natural fibres or acrylic

After that, you can add roving, felts, paper or even cellophane. Once the woven bit is finished, you have an extra option to decorate it with pebbles, shells, driftwood, beads, pods, dried plants and even tribal jewellery.

Haunting Demons From The Past

The experience of reflecting on the past has for Asbridge, brought back some bad memories and the demons she had originally escaped from twenty years ago, when she was 29 years old.

She said: “Although I felt loved by both my parents as a child, it all changed when I was a teenager and woke up to the fact that my father was an unhappy man. Effectively, all he wanted was a son to carry his name but instead ended up with five daughters. He was even called ‘Abou Yousef’ when he never had a son.

“My father finally alienated himself from us and I could no longer view him as a role model. Even when I got married young, his aspirations for me ceased and I felt let down because my first husband was abusive but he turned a blind eye because he found in him the missing son.”

Perhaps this is what made it easy for her to leave like a nomad to start a new life somewhere far away, even not knowing what would happen to her. But the situation was so bad that she was ready to take the risk.

Asbridge; “I ran away to survive because in the Middle East I felt suffocated just like my mother before me. Yes, she was strong but depressed due to the limits of her life and the restrictions of the society and the cultural expectations to have a son, when all she got was five girls.

“Even though scientifically it has been proven that the man’s sperm is what determines the sex of the child, my mother felt devalued and unappreciated by a tradition that only worships the male. She was a victim of an abusive marital relationship and a system that lets many other Arab Muslim women down.

“I am also angry with her because the five daughters were willing to take care of her if she decided to leave my father. We promised to work and support her but she was scared and stayed in an awful relationship that left her hollow and bitter and without much dignity, pride or hope.

“When the offer of a scholarship came to go to the United States, I didn’t hesitate and left immediately never wanting to go back; because I felt that I should have never been born there in the first place. Now, I am happy to belong to a Western world of openness, logical thinking, freedom of expression and relative gender equality that I don’t have to be punished for being a girl.”

“As for my father, I haven’t included him in the project even though I have a picture of him that my sisters sent me that I could incorporate. Yes, I do feel a bit guilty because he is alive and retired in Syria and I am working on improving my relationship with him especially in his old age. But I can’t dedicate this piece to any one else other than my mother and four sisters.”

Syrian Living In The West

For the past twenty years, Asbridge has built a new life. Happily married with a 15-year-old daughter, Maya, she is immersed in lots of local projects in her adopted hometown. Although her biggest passion and priority is art, she also teaches ESL part-time and works as a medical and legal interpreter as well as giving creative classes at Worcester Art Museum.

She said: ““Even being far away, I am always Syrian and I continue to live Syria every day of my life. It is just that I now have two identities, one Oriental and one Western and I like both. In my mind they don’t clash because I choose the best of both. I also tell my daughter that she must visit Syria with or without me.

“I don’t run or hide from my identity. My first language is Arabic and I use it for my translator-work into English and I still enjoy reading it and writing with it. I am also a woman; and, yes, I struggled with that for many years and felt it as a discomfort but now I have accepted it and am proud of it.

“The conflict in Syria leaves me speechless. Social injustice started the French Revolution and the perestroika in the ex-Soviet Union. Now, it is time for the Arab world to revolt in disgust at what the people in power are doing to the working man and woman and the growing gap between different social classes.”

Healing Fibres – The Future

With the early experience of marital abuse and painfully watching her mother going through so much worse for over thirty years, has given Asbridge the impetus to help others by raising awareness of the problem and using art as therapy.

She has started a local Worcester initiative called ‘Healing Fibres’, calling on students to create art work which addresses social, political, economic, environmental and gender issues in a free-style way. Participants can use weaving, knitting, sculpture or installation, as long as it includes fibres.

As part of it, she is currently and proudly displaying and exhibiting the piece in honour of her mother. She also hopes the project succeeds and lasts well into the future.

For more information about Bayda Asbridge’s Art: https://www.baydasart.com/

Note: Saori Weaving

Saori weaving originates in Japan and its philosophy is rooted in Buddhist Zen practices. It is based on the idea that weaving doesn’t have to be restrictive and mathematical but that it can be free, inclusive and accommodate different abilities. The Saori loom is user-friendly, light, portable and it also can be folded and put away when not in use.

Unlike traditional weaving where one is restricted to a specific design or pattern that looks perfect and machine-made, in Saori the emphasis is on the spirit of the weaver, her or his abilities, their personal interpretations and feelings that filter through the work.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2014

UK Anti-Slavery Day: SCEME On Sex Trafficking In The Middle East

Human trafficking today is considered one of six types that manifest modern-day slavery; and, especially of sex trafficking. The other ways are bonded labour, forced labour, child slavery, early forced marriage and descent-based slavery.

On the occasion of the UK Anti-Slavery Day 18 October, also coinciding with EU Anti-Trafficking Day, I spoke with Iman Abou-Atta, Founder of the London-based charity SCEME (Social Change through Education in the Middle East) and her colleague Sarah Barnes, to highlight what is happening today in the female sex trafficking situation in the Middle East.

The official definition of human trafficking according to the UN Palermo Protocol: “The recruitment, transportation and harbouring of a person by threat, force, coercion, abduction, deception, or abuse of their vulnerability with the aim to exploit them.”

SCEME: Karamatuna Programme & Consequences of the Arab Spring

Iman Abou-Atta: “We were one of the first NGOs to ever speak in the UK about the trafficking of Arab girls in the Middle East; and, in particular, the plight of Iraqi young girls who were either being trafficked within Iraq itself or were refugees in the camps across the borders.

“The topic had brief coverage in the British newspapers before we published the Karamatuna Report in 2011, but it somehow didn’t capture as much attention as it deserved. At the time, our research team discovered that Iraqi girls as young as 10 or 12 were being taken into Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for sexual exploitation.

“Whereas today as a consequence of the Arab Spring our focus is on the women and underage girls this time being trafficked out of Syria. It is our most urgent task to complete a second phase of the Karamatuna Programme so we can gather all the facts, proof and evidence before we can act and make recommendations.”

In March this year, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Syrians either registered as refugees or waiting to be registered as refugees has now exceeded 1 million.

SCEME: “We are very concerned about Syria especially because so many of the refugees from Iraq went into Syria. So we have a huge group of vulnerable people there who were victims of trafficking or domestic slavery before the conflict in Syria broke out. So now you don’t only have the Syrians themselves who are potentially vulnerable but you have the existing refugees as well.

“Currently, we are hearing lots of stories about what is going on in the camps where the war displaced end up and in particular those based in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. In the Summer 2012, we heard of adverts being posted by men looking for Syrian brides.

“We know that some of these Syrian girls in the camps in Jordan are ending up in Saudi Arabia through the use of the unofficial and temporary Muta’a marriages that are legalised in parts of the Middle East.”

Muta’a marriage is also known as the ‘pleasure marriage’. It is a fixed and usually short-term contract where a specific duration and a monetary compensation are agreed upon in advance. It is a private and verbal exchange marriage between a man and a woman.

SCEME: “This set-up of a sham marriage can last for a couple of weeks, days or even just hours and what is worse is that after they’ve taken away and used, they are then discarded and sent back to their families in the camps and potentially pregnant.

“So you end up having an initial problem of a girl who is sold to an older man for a small amount of money possibly between US $130-250 that the family obviously needs; but then she is pregnant and the family has to deal with the maintenance of her and the child. This girl now cannot even get remarried which is another big problem in the community.

“We have even some anecdotal evidence coming from Lebanon where muta’a marriage is used as just another word for prostitution, so it is literally a two to three hour arrangement.

“The girls involved will have left the refugee camps and become vulnerable in the cities for so many different reasons; but effectively, they end up in forced prostitution. This is something we need to look into further, as at the moment it is anecdotal.”

The SCEME Report on Human Trafficking Laws and Regulations

SCEME will soon be launching their ‘Report on Human Trafficking Laws & Regulations’, which has already been prepared by their legal team and finalised in June 2013.

This looks at how different countries deal with the issue of human trafficking and related laws in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. It also considers European Union standards on trafficking, labour and domestic violence and makes a best to worst comparison analysis.

SCEME: “The aim of this Report will be to help us and other interested organisations to better understand the laws especially on trafficking and domestic slavery on an international level. In particular, we want to know how we can more effectively implement projects and to be able to campaign and lobby so that the laws can better protect women.

“It does a best practice comparison at the end and is a subtle way to lobby Middle Eastern countries so they can get a better ranking and to improve their status in other ways. This is an independent report done by our legal volunteers.

“Yes, it is hard to push the governments, but at least they can become more aware and aim to improve. Ironically, the Report had initially showed Syria as one of the higher ranking places before it fell. Now it has become one of the worst in under a year.”

Note: SCEME is a not-for-profit organisation based in London, established in 2010. SCEME has developed programmes to promote the rights and liberties of women and their children; particularly, those who are refugees or migrants in the MENA region. It also aims to support the same to become active citizens of the world through the provision of educational workshops, training and mentorship.

For more information and how you can get involved: https://www.sce-me.org/

For more information on UK Anti-Slavery Day: https://www.antislaveryday.com/

Note: This article was first publisher circa October 2013

An Existential Encounter: Photographer Marwah Almugait’s Mood Diary

According to the American existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, Existentialism is the philosophic notion of self awareness and its form of therapy explores the facts of life and how they affect the individual without  judgement or bias. It enables one to approach the issues relevant to all feeling and thinking human beings at different consciousness or awareness levels, that might otherwise be labeled morbid.

At such an intersection, one is forced to face and resolve the predicament of aloneness, mortality and impending death, suffering, the case of a frightening freedom and our entailed responsibility.

In ‘the Mood Diary’, Saudi Arabian photographer Marwah Almugait makes a brave attempt to observe and be witness to the inner subjective experience of her subject Mona as she battles the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.

One extra challenge is the location of the project in Saudi Arabia, a conservative country that doesn’t promote the exposure of difficult psychological truths as they impact on the local individual. Rather the culture would substitutes therapy terms within a religious framework that causes the personal burden to be much heavier to carry with an added stigma.

Through Almugait’s moving and powerful images, we see Mona grapple with her inner demons at home and in her day to day reality. With an afflicted mind, the pictures reflect the highs of her mania and the lows of depression, the cyclical nature of mood swings, the anguish, despair, sense of loss and grief for a life that could or couldn’t have been lived.

There are images that show the fragility and delicateness of the subject’s psychological identity within the disorder. Also, the role of the past on influencing the present and regrets are hinted at, as well as the sense of revolving realities where the manic energy and depression are played out.

Still we must not take the subject as an object in this photographic project or confine Mona to her illness. She is a living, breathing and moving human being who has affected the photographer in ways only possible within an existential encounter.

One can make an analogy here with the practice of psychotherapy. It occurs between a qualified person and a client in a formal setting, just as the photographer here rises to the challenge. Its objective is to help the client come to terms with her situation by examining her choices and learning to positively change them by reflecting back with words or as in this case with pictures. The good therapist also validates the personal struggle and aids the client to move forwards with the insights gained.

Underlying existential therapy is the need to alleviate conditions and symptoms that we all share and experience to some extent or other: the sense of anxiety, panic, dread, nihilism, carrying shame and guilt, apathy, alienation, rage, resentment, addiction, violent emotions and ultimately madness. Through the process of reflection, we can get to a place where we accept the realities of death and finitude, and knowing that we have the freedom to take responsibility for our lives. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “We are our choices.”

Looking into the techniques used in existential therapy, the therapist during a formal session has to firstly create the safe setting for the client and put aside any preconceptions or dogma regarding the client’s condition. The therapist can thus interact to discover and explore the client’s subjective experience of ‘being’ and reality. Whilst the usual methods are to listen, reflect back and gently nudge the client through verbal exchange and body language, it is also possible to utilise more creative ways to achieve similar insight.

In this project it is evident that Mona was open and receptive to the artistic experiment and happy to express herself in a way that perhaps she wasn’t able to do so before alone or with others. She took a proactive role in choosing concepts for the images that the photographer took and the photographer followed, by directing the shots whilst suspending judgement and focusing on the personal client story.

Through the images and clever use of camera, lens and lighting, we are invited to enter the subject’s inner reality. We also come to realise that the photographer took an approach that was without denial, without avoidance and without distortion of her subject.

It brings to mind Rollo May, a leader in the existential therapy movement, who wrote: “I do not believe in toning down the daimonic. This gives a sense of false comfort. The real comfort can come only in the relationship of the therapist and the client or patient.”

According to May: “The encounter with the being of another person has the power to shake one profoundly and may potentially be very anxiety-provoking. It may also be joy-creating. In either case, it has the power to grasp and move one deeply.”

The therapeutic relationship thus requires the building of a sacred trust to let in a closeness, a warmth and honesty moving both participants to human and psychological awareness. In this way, the Mood Diary has been, for the photographer and muse, such a powerful exchange that will affect both of them for quite some time.

For Almugait: “This project opened my mind into the darkness and I wanted to put the light to see what is really inside. It was like having the keys to a locked room and I’ve seen the unseen. Through the photographic process, I felt like I was x-raying what was in the mind of my subject. Truly, with photojournalism, you never know where you might end up.”

To quote Yalom again: “The realization and knowledge that we influence others in ways that are positive can provide a sense of meaning in our lives. That is also why loneliness is so deadly.”

Note: This article was originally written as a foreword to a photographic exhibition by the Saudi Arabian Marwah Almugait.

Note: This article was first published circa September 2012

Are Libyans Ready for Therapy?

Very few Libyans are familiar with the talking cure. They know little about its theories and almost nothing of its practice. Perhaps they never felt the need to rely on its wisdom and have dismissed its potential benefits. In our culture, one’s emotional and mental states are seen as a part of their spiritual character. If they complain of psychological distress, it is seen as a failure in not finding peace in God or religion.

But in Libya today, in every town and city, there is plenty of walking wounded whose pain is not visible; but whose lives are blighted with personal misery and unhappiness. When you look close, there is every case of mild to severe depression, anxiety and panic, unrequited grief from loss, nightmares and flashbacks of trauma. All of these are identifiable psychological and psychiatric disorders. In truth, they don’t even need an expert to recognise the damage.

Instead of letting them suffer for longer, we can perhaps turn to therapy as a viable option to help the Libyans gain perspective. The aim of therapy is to address negative emotional and mental symptoms in an intelligent, humane and sensitive manner and resolve inner turmoil and conflict. It would indeed be a fatal error if Libya does not to explore the possibility. One would hope also that a Ministry of Health would sooner or later deal with the crisis.

Ideally it should provide the knowledge, application and access required to support patients, as therapy has been shown to improve lives with its gentle intervention. There is much good and great benefit for individuals to have private time and a safe space to speak to a trusted practitioner to help them gain closure and be able to move on.

In Libya we’ve never grasped the usefulness of such a method, but the obvious impact of the revolution on certain groups of individuals cannot be denied nor swept under the carpet.

In the aftermath of war, we have male and female rape victims, ex-prisoners, ex-rebel soldiers, young and old widowed women and many others carrying heavy burdens. Being human and vulnerable, they need collective support and non-judgement. The culture has to change its wrong attitude and prejudice towards mental health issues and discard ignorant taboos and stigmas.

One new project to help has been proposed by 40-year-old British-Libyan cognitive behavioural therapist, Taregh Shaban. With his extensive experience in the UK in psychological therapies, he now wants to take the practice of CBT to Libya. Funded by the World Medical Camp for Libya charity based in London, he will head to Misrata sometime in the New Year to train twenty psychology graduates in this model.

Shaban explained: “There is plenty of need and few of us around. There is also a serious lack of expertise and training in what is called ‘evidence-based’ psychological therapies. In Misrata, for example, there are only two psychiatrists for a population of approximately 400,000; and, the psychology graduates are only a little better informed than a layperson. I personally wouldn’t have them see people, as they can presently do more damage than good.”

With a budget of £30,000, he is waiting for the green light so he can ask for a work sabbatical from his job in Oxford and commit to the project. He will work in conjunction with the Libyan psychiatrists, Dr Ahmed Sewehli and Dr Mustafa Shuqmani, at the University of Misrata and take with him a qualified mental health nurse and two other CBT practitioners from the UK.

At the same time, Shaban is proud that the CBT pioneer of the low-intensity psychological intervention, Professor Dave Richards, has agreed to provide the teaching material and advice on the phone free of charge.

I asked Shaban to give me his full take on this project. 

Shaban said: “Based on extensive research, we know that the CBT model is very effective in treating depression and anxiety disorders. Another advantage is that it can deliver results in a relatively short time span. Primarily based on helping the patient challenge the way he thinks about himself, the world and people around him, he is allowed to replace any erroneous thoughts and beliefs with more realistic ones – leading him, hopefully, to behave in a more helpful way and ultimately to feel better.

“CBT also focuses on the here and now – as opposed to other therapies that look to the past – and includes the patient doing homework between sessions so that he can practice and develop the techniques learned in therapy. The ultimate aim of any good CBT therapist is to make himself redundant and for the patient to become his own therapist. CBT is therefore quite demanding and requires commitment.

“There are now several levels of qualification and training in CBT interventions and I believe we can train the Libyan graduates to deliver Steps I and II of the system. Within 45 days of workshops, trainees can begin the work and I envisage that each will eventually have a caseload of up to 40 patients.

‘Our goal is to teach the modules directly relevant to Libya with the view of building capacity for the future. I will stay on to supervise and make sure the trainees apply the knowledge correctly. After three months, we will evaluate the project; and, if we do well, we can then think about rolling it out to other towns and cities.

“Mainly, we will deal with individuals exhibiting trauma-type symptoms, having depression and a whole host of anxiety disorders. We will also help some to deal with grief and others suffering from the effects of negative intra-familial and social relationships and adjustment to tragic life events.

“These latter types of cases are not strictly speaking within the training brief we have set ourselves, but I suspect we will do some sort of training in supportive-counselling skills towards the end of the project.

“Importantly, we want access to our services through initial consultations at the poly-clinics and general hospitals in Misrata – so that we can perhaps mediate some of the stigma attached to visiting specialist mental health establishments.

“For the rebel freedom fighters, of course, we face a tougher task. We are concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder and rehabilitation. Under usual circumstances, professional soldiers are trained and gradually exposed to the stress, anxiety and fear associated with live combat. Most professional soldiers also get a month out somewhere calm to decompress. This is done to reduce arousal levels and for them to re-acclimatise to a civilian lifestyle.

“Our fighters have had no such preparation and no subsequent period for readjustment. Some will still be on a high from the adrenaline rushes they experienced during the fighting and will need time in a safe rehabilitation environment; where they can have structured activity programmes, group therapy and offered skills training to prepare them to return back to normal life.

“Rape victims are another group who will need specialised help. One cannot begin to imagine the level of distress and awful feelings of self-guilt and shame- though unfounded – these very unfortunate people must be enduring. We need to reach them and work with them in a discrete and trusted environment.

“From my professional experience, I believe we should take advantage of these evidence-based therapy and counselling models offered in the West. CBT has proved to be very effective for common emotional difficulties in randomised controlled trials and is now recommended as the treatment of choice by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK.

“Yes, such models will need adaptation in a new cultural context, such as Libya, but they are a very useful starting point. My hope really is to offer these culturally sensitive psychological therapies to every Libyan who needs them, and to build capacity and resources in the country itself. I don’t know if this is too wild a dream but I sometimes think we have to aim for the absurd in order to reach the possible.”

One wishes Shaban every success, with the hope that those in most dire need get the treatment they deserve.

Note: This article was first published in The Libyan Magazine circa February 2012

Libya On The Couch

She was once young, beautiful and talk of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern promise. But after four decades of enduring abuse, Libya has become ugly, unhappy and miserable old woman. She can’t even recognise herself in the mirror and is unable, try as she might, to recall any happy memories. 

Under her dangerous captor, he broke her down and now she cannot deal with the simple day-to-day tasks. When she compares herself to others, she is deeply jealous and resentful, as they have built proud kingdoms and taken care of their children and lands. With fear, trepidation and her heart pounding in her chest, she’s decided to speak her peace before looming death and confide her regrets.

In therapy, honesty and disclosure are musts and one need not hold back. She is ready to revisit the terrible memories and go far back. As she sits on the client couch uncomfortable and nervous, the figure behind the desk has his pen ready to write it all down. He starts: “What brings you here today Libya?”

Not sure where to begin, Libya sighs and puts a hand over her face and mouth. She says: “It is a horrible story and I am ashamed. I’ve been feeling down and struggling for years. I always cry without reason and I shout in my head. It is my children that I’m most concerned about.

“Even with the will, energy and drive to live honestly, but they have been brainwashed and led to corruption, deception and lies to get ahead. I am, as you know, ill with terminal cancer; and, I’ve had to sell my jeweller and all my possessions to pay for treatment abroad in a last ditch attem;pt to repair the damage of the past. Who would have thought I would have no choice but to beg for strangers’ help?

“It is the small things also that embarrass me and I’ve yet to admit it, I’ve been complicit by my silence as the default mode. I have neglected myself and abandoned my health. My beautiful terrain should not have taken the brunt of the assaults. My beaches, my mountains and my oasis surrounded by desert land! Of course, those informed and wise know and intuit the truth of my story and feel sad for me. I find this tough to accept.

“As a mother, I am well aware of all the bad stuff that has been going on. Some of it is my fault, but most of it is not. I admit to a number of my own flesh and blood have been seduced by evil and identified with the jailor from the start.

“He gives them money, cars and houses so they do his bidding, no matter the cruelty of his requests. How they came to be mine and groomed to worship and idolise him I don’t know. I must take into account if I’m to ever to get closure and make sense.

“I don’t like to say it, but yes, I have been the victim of both mental and physical abuse, and that it became normal so I kept quiet. I found ways to deny and pretend nothing was wrong; and, forced as I was, I did things. I was forced to see events nobody should ever have to see or to witness.”

Analyst: “Okay, Libya, if it helps, how far back can you recall?”

“I guess the mistreatment began in 1976. He hung and executed anyone who dared to protest and voice dissent. The same would happen on the anniversary for years to remind us the certain fate if we didn’t accept his power and ability to kill us too.

“Fear! We were so scared and captive in our own land and homes. We could not even pray at the mosques as the dawn raids were the worst for many of us. At school, also, the young were beaten and their curious minds shut. What followed, in the 1980s, well. Am sure you’ve heard of the ‘stray dogs’ assassination campaign? Even abroad, his tentacles reached very far.

“Paranoia! God, I suspected everyone an informant, even my relatives and neighbours. I checked my every word and filtered everything I said, so as not to make complaint and or forbid I say something about the ideological stance of the government. I couldn’t swear, except in my frustrated nightmares, as I would wake up in a cold sweat.

“Not to mention the economic strife and the stupid dinars. When products arrived, we couldn’t afford but the necessities. Everyone drove miles for years for clean water, promised as we were with an artificial river! With travel, visas were impossible to get to get out. We became isolated from the rest of the world.

“How ironic that the world saw my captor as a strong and eccentric rebel who dared to challenge the international status quo. He claimed that greed and power were the enemy. Hmm, he is still telling these lies, when he has been hoarding the oil riches in private investment accounts. For what? Sick, perverse and terror ends. He thought there was a price tag on everybody’s head.”

But then, with a gulp, she says: “But maybe this time is different. Maybe today, for those of us who truly love our country and have our roots on its soil, something might shift. We can no longer refuse to forget or let things go.

“We have nowhere else to stay and we don’t want anywhere else. The death of many loved ones has been the heavy price to pay, but what has gone on for too long must end. He’s turned us against each other and shooting to kill the armed and the unarmed. For no other goal but to keep onto a power seat made useless and ineffective by himself.

“What has he ever done for the Libyans? Nothing! Go and see for yourself. Go and visit the hospitals, the schools, the infrastructure that are not fit for any purpose. Go and see the filth and the garage that never gets collected. Go see the polluted sea and the dirty beaches. All that potential gone to waste.

“With this revolution, at least I can scream and shout and open up to talk to tell my tale. But most importantly, I need to heal my broken heart. The world is close enough to hear my cries and I must run with this chance to turn the tables and claim my captor’s monstrous head!”

Analyst: “Libya, am afraid your minutes are up. Should we pencil in next week same time?”

AWAN Returns: Niche Festival Strengthening Arab Female Creatives in London, in Style and Now!

Awarded pioneers in ‘stirring the arts, breaking down borders and telling unheard stories’ in connection with the Arab world in London, Arts Canteen is also hosts the annual ‘Arab Women Artists Now’ (AWAN) festival. Organised and directed in collaboration with partners, it is now in its fourth edition and will run throughout March, to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Bringing forward the diverse talent, achievements and industrious work of Arab female creatives, AWAN offers not only the chance to attend and enjoy the artistic programme, but it also enables direct networking opportunities – through workshops and the ‘Connect’ programme – whereby established and emerging arts professionals can engage with each other and help guide new hopefuls who may wish to break into the field.

Proving highly popular for its intimate niche outside of the mainstream IWD women events in the UK and abroad – for example, the ‘WOW’ festival at the Southbank Centre – last year’s AWAN attracted an audience reach of 26,000 in London and beyond, both in reality and virtually online.

In terms of what AWAN aims to provide for its visitors, founder of Arts Canteen, Aser El Saqqa, said to Nahla Ink: “AWAN will raise awareness, attract attendance from and create conversations among large numbers of different types of people. In effect, we enable and market positive new ideas about Arab identity at the grassroots, across a broad social spectrum.

“In addition, AWAN community cherishes its ability to strengthen cultural pride and positive self-identity among Arab diasporas in Europe as well as spread a message of Arab talent, harmony and creativity to non-Arab audiences.”

This year the schedule runs from 1-25 March and will host over twenty separate events under the categories of music, comedy, film, visual arts, performance and the informative and practical workshops. Each of these will take place in one of these venues: Rich Mix (Shoreditch), the Royal Albert Hall, Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, Chatham House, the Arab British Centre or the Book Club.

For the fantastic line up and plan your AWAN visit: https://www.awan.org.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

The BFI London Film Festival 2017 – The MENA-Inspired Choices

The BFI London Films Festival (BFI LFF) returns for its 61st edition and set to screen a selection totalling 242 feature films and 128 shorts, made by both established and emerging directorial talent from across the globe. Over twelve days from 4-15 October, London will host a celebration of cinematic output that illustrates the richness of international filmmaking and bringing together a stellar line up of cast and crew. 

As the UK’s leading film festival, the BFI LFF offers the UK public and film industry professionals the chance to be the first to view new films sourced from over 55 countries, alongside a wide events programme where audiences can engage with the world’s most inspiring creative-cinematic talent. This year, the festival will host 28 World Premieres, 9 International Premieres and 34 European Premieres.

As with each year, the online and printed programme classifies films by strands under which they can be found.  These important strands are: Galas, Official Competition, Experimenta, Create, Thrill, Dare, Laugh, Debate, Cult, Love, Journey, Treasures and Family. It is under these strands you have to locate any film of interest and the only way of booking your ticket.

Programmed by MENA-region advisors Elhum Shakerifar and Ali Jaafar, this year’s festival includes at least ten features that are connected to the following countries: Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia, UAE (production) and Qatar (production).

Relating to these films, Shakerifar said to Nahla Ink: “The selection process lasts over months, as we try to bring a dynamic mix of the region’s most exciting new titles to a London audience. This year at LFF, there is definitely something for everyone and the MENA region is represented by a broad array of talent as diverse as the region itself. It is a selection strong in emotions: from the sly humour and absurd realities of ‘Lebanon Factory’ and the charming father and son road trip of discovery of ‘Wajib’ (Annemarie Jacir), to the interwoven stories of a conflicted modern day Casablanca in ‘Razzia’ (Nabil Ayouch) and the taut social drama of ‘The Journey’ (Mohamed Al Daradji). For the dreamers and the cerebral, ‘Le Fort des Fous’ (Narimane Mari) will give a lot to think about, for those wanting to see systemic change, ‘Beauty and The Dogs’ (Kaouther Ben Hania) packs a punch.”

WAJIB

Production: Palestine

Director : Annemarie Jacir

Genre: Official Competition Strand

Showing: Monday 9 October 2017, 6pm Embankment Garden Cinema

Showing; Wednesday 11 October 2017, 2.15pm Embankment Garden Cinema

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

RAZZIA

Production: France

Director: Nabil Ayouch

Genre: Debate Strand

Showing: Thursday 5 October 2017, 8.45pm Cine Lumiere

Showing: Friday 06 October 2017, 6.10pm BFI Southbank NFT2

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

LOOKING FOR OUM KULTHUM

Production: Germany-Austria-Italy-Lebanon-Qatar

Director: Shirin Neshat

Genre: Special Presentations Strand

Showing: Saturday 7 October 2017, 6.20pm BFI Southbank NFT1

Showing: Sunday 8 October 2017, 3.30pm Rich Mix Cinema

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

LEBANON FACTORY

Production: Lebanon-France

Directors: Ahmad Ghossein, Lucie La Chimia, Shirin AbuShaqra, Manuel Maria Perrone, Una Gunjak, Rami Kodeih, Mounia Akl, Neto Villalobos

Genre: Journey Strand

Showing: Saturday 7 October 2017, 3.15pm ICA Cinema Screen 1

Showing: Sunday 08 October 2017, 1pm at Cine Lumiere

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

LE FORT DES FOUS

Production: France-Greece-Germany-Qatar

Director: Narimane Mari

Genre: Experimenta Strand

Showing: Sunday 08 October 2017, 5.45pm BFI Southbank NFT3

Showing: Wednesday 11 October 2017, 6.10pm BFI Southbank, Studio

Link : https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT

Production: Sweden-Denmark-Germany

Director: Tarik Saleh

Genre: Thrill Strand

Showing; Wednesday 11 October 2017, 6:30pm Vue Leicester Sq, Screen 5

Showing: Thursday 12 October 2017, 6:10pm Cine Lumiere

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

THE JOURNEY

Production: UK-Iraq-France-Qatar-Netherlands

Director: Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji

Genre: Journey Strand

Showing: Wednesday 11 October 2017, 8:45pm Curzon Soho Cinema

Showing: Thursday 12 October 2017, 6.30pm Rich Mix Cinema

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

OUROBOROS

Production: France-Palestine-Belgium-Qatar

Director: Basma Alsharif

Genre: Experimenta Strand

Showing: Friday 13 October 2017, 6:30pm BFI Southbank, NFT3

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

SHEIKH JACKSON

Production: Egypt

Director: Amr Salama

Genre: Journey Strand

Showing: Thursday 05 October 2017, 9pm Curzon Soho Cinema

Showing: Saturday 07 October 2017, 12.15pm Curzon Mayfair Cinema

Showing: Thursday 12 October 2017, 3:15pm Vue Leicester Square

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

 

BEAUTY AND THE DOGS

Production: Tunisia-France-Norway-Lebanon-Qatar-Sweden-Switzerland

Director: Kaouther Ben Hania

Genre: Debate Strand

Showing: Wednesday 04 October 2017, 8:45pm ICA Cinema

Showing: Thursday 05 October 2017, 2:45pm Vue Leicester Square

Showing: Friday 06 October 2017, 1pm BFI Southbank, NFT2

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loa…

Note: This article was first published circa October 2017

BFI London Film Festival 2016: Films From The MENA Region

The BFI London Film Festival celebrates an impressive 60 years this year. Launching this week Britain’s leading film festival takes place over 12 days and will bring 249 feature films and 145 shorts, including features and documentaries, live action and animated works. With 74 countries participating, there will be 39 world, twelve international, 49 European and eight world restoration premieres. Up for grabs also are the prestigious LFF Best Film Award, the Grierson Award for Documentary, the Sutherland Award for First Feature and the Short Film Award.

The screenings can be viewed across fourteen London cinemas, including: the BFI Southbank, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), the RItzy Cinema, the Curzon Cinemas, the Vue West End, the Embankment Garden Cinema and others. Part of the festival will also feature a stellar line-up of directors, cast and crew who are expected to take part in career interviews, screen talks, Q+As and Industry talks for those interested to learn more from behind the scenes.

Relevant to the MENA region, there are at least 20 titles that I picked out, with works from: Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Tunisia, Qatar, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan. To help you easily navigate the BFI LFF website, I have listed below the film titles with names of directors, the country of production and the genre-category by which they are registered. I do advise early booking as many of these screenings include world premieres and sell out fast.

Barakah Meets Barakah

Director: Mahmoud Sabbagh

Production: Saudi Arabia (2016)

Genre: Laugh

Showing: Thu 6 October, 6.30pm at Curzon Soho

Showing: Sat 8 October, 8.30pm at Ciné Lumière

​Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Farouk, Besieged Like Me (Mouhassaron Mithli)

Director: Hala Alabdalla

Production: Syria-France (2016)

Genre: Debate

Showing: Fri 7 October, 6.15pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

Showing: Sat 8 October, 3pm at Ciné Lumière

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

In the Last Days of the City (Akher Ayam El Medina)

Director: Tamer El Said

Production: Egypt-Germany-UK (2016)

Genre: Debate

Showing: Sun 9, October, 8.45pm at Picturehouse Central

Showing: Tue 11 October, 3.30pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

​Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Hedi (Inhebbek Hedi)

Director: Mohamed Ben Attia

Production: Tunisia-Belgium-France-Qatar-UAE (2016)

Genre: First Feature Competition

Showing: Tue 11 October, 9pm at ICA

Showing: Wed 12 October, 1.15pm at BFI Southbank NFT3

Showing: Sat 15 October, 3.45pm at Ciné Lumière

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Mimosas

Director: Oliver Laxe

Production: Qatar-Morocco-Spain-France (2016)

Genre: Journey

Showing: Thu 6 October, 9pm at BFI Southbank NFT3

Showing: Fri 7 October, 1pm at ICA

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Tickling Giants

Director: Sara Taksler

Production: Egypt-UK-US (2016)

Genre: Laugh

Showing: Wed 12 October, 6pm at VUE West End Screen 7

Showing: Sat 15 October, 6.15pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

LInk: ​Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Tramontane

Director: Vatche Boulghourjian

Production: Lebanon-France (2016)

Genre: Journey

Showing: Sun 9 October, 1pm at Ritzy Cinema

Showing: Wed 12 October, 6.30pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Clash (Eshtebak)

Director: Mohamed Diab

Production: Egypt (2016)

Genre: Official Competition

Showing: Wed 12 October, 8.45pm at Embankment Garden Cinema

Showing; Thu 13 October, 2.30pm at Embankment Garden Cinema

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

A Day for Women (Yom Lel Setat)

Director: Kamla Abouzekri

Production: Egypt (2016)

Genre: Debate

Showing; Thu 6 October, 8.45pm at Picturehouse Central

Showing: Fri 7 October, 1pm at BFI Southbank NFT3

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Adieu Bonaparte

Director: Youssef Chahine

Production: Egypt-France (1984)

Genre: Debate

Showing; Fri 7 October, 8.45pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

The Worthy

Director: Ali F Mostfa

Production: UAE (2016)

Genre: Dare

Showing; Sat 8 October, 6pm at VUE West End Screen 7

Showing: Sun 9 October, 6.15pm at ICA

Showing: Sat 15 October, 9pm at Curzon Mayfair

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Layla M

Director: Mijke de Jong

Production: Jordan-Netherlands-Belgium-Germany (2016)

Genre: Official Competition

Showing: Tue 11 October, 6pm at Embankment Garden Cinema

Showing: Thu 13 October, 12noon at Embankment Garden Cinema

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Divines

Director: Houda Benyamina

Production: Qatar-France (2016)

Genre: First Feature Competition

Showing: Thu 6 October, 6.15pm at Haymarket Cinema

Showing: Fri 7 October, 3.30pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

Showing: Tue 11 October, 6.30pm at Ritzy Cinema

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

The War Show

Directors: Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon

Production: Syria-Finland-Denmark (2016)

Genre: Documentary Competition

Showing: Thu 13 October, 6pm at VUE West End Screen 7

Showing: Sat 15 October, 12.45noon at Curzon Mayfair

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo

Director: Issa Touma

Production: Syria-Netherlands (2015)

Genre: Debate

Showing: Sun 9 October, 3.45pm at ICA

Showing: Mon 10 October, 6pm at BFI Southbank NFT3

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Battalion To My Heart (2016): Algeria-US-Western Sahara

Director: Elmi Imanishi

Genre: Debate

Showing: Sun 9 October, 3.45pm at ICA

Showing; 10 October, 6pm at NFT3

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Letters from Baghdad

Directors: Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeya Oelbaum

Production: UK-US (2016)

Genre: Journey

Showing: Sun 9 October, 3.30pm at Haymarket Cinema

Showing: Mon 10 October, 8.45pm at BFI Southbank NFT2

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Moderation

Director: Anja Kirschner

Production: Egypt- Greece-Italy-UK (2016)

Genre: Experimenta

Showing: Sat 15, October, 8.15pm at BFI Southbank NFT3

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain

Director: Larissa Sansour

Production: Qatar-UK-Denmark

Genre: Experimenta

Showing: Fri 7 October, 6.30pm at BFI Southbank NFT3

​Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Ruins of Palmyra and Baalbeck

Director: Jack Cardiff

Production: (1938)

Genre: Dare

Showing: Sun 9 October, 12.30noon at BFI Southbank NFT2

Link: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::lo…

Note: This article was first published circa October 2016

East End Film Festival 2016: UK Premieres of MENA Films

Launching this June month, the East End Film Festival (EEFF) will be bringing an incredibly rich, wide and diverse programme of UK premiering films created by independent local and international directors. Dedicated to first and second time filmmakers, the EEFF mission is to discover, support and exhibit pioneering works; and, to introduce viewers to innovative and challenging cinematic experiences. It will take place at arts venues in the heart of London’s East End.

Celebrating over fifteen years, this not-for-profit film and multimedia festival is recognised as one of the UK’s leading and finest. Over ten days, it is expected to attract an audience of over 20,000 and its feat this year will be to screen altogether 36 British feature titles and 50 internationals. Alongside these, the EEFF will also host its highly prized awards system for films (for Best Feature EEFF, Best Documentary Feature, Best UK Short Film, Short Film Audience Award, Accession Award and Rising Star Award) as well as engaging its visitors with opening and closing galas, industry master-classes, free pop-ups, parties and immersive live events.

Relevant to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the Arabic speaking world, there will be at least five very important UK film premieres to look our for, one important segment of the ‘Roots’ strand and attention towards the ‘Day of Refuge’, which will be addressing one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time. Skimming through the whole of the festival’s events, the EEFF is testimony to London’s continually powerful position and dynamic ability to provide a creative international platform that celebrates and exchanges the contributions of both local and global artists.

Andrew Simpson, Head of Programming, said: “The EEFF is delighted to present the boldest, bravest and most exciting new cinema from the Middle East. Taking in the Arab Spring, the invasion of Iraq, and the power of rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop in vibrant, politicised youth culture, this selection is a million miles from representations generally seen the media, as well as being potent, vibrant cinema from important new voices.”

Below are the MENA-related screenings and events with the EEFF blurbs provided.

As I Open My Eyes (Tunisia)

Tunisia in the months leading up to the Jasmine Revolution provides the backdrop to a tale of rebellious youth and rock n’ roll. Eighteen-year-old Farah is being pressured to become a doctor by her family, but what she really wants is to sing in her band, get drunk with her friends and experience the dramas of life in Tunis’ underground music scene. Described as the best fictional film yet made about the Arab Spring, Leyla Bouzid’s debut is a humane portrait of the counterculture in a conservative society, with incredible songs and serious heart.

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-2016/17328/as-i-open-my-eyes

Mariam (Saudi Arabia)

Saudi Arabian journalist Faiza Ambah’s debut film is a poignant insight into the issues facing a young Muslim woman growing up in a Western country. It’s 2004 in France and a new law has recently been passed banning religious symbols in schools, including the hijab. For Mariam, a young teenager who has recently begun wearing the veil after returning from pilgrimage in Mecca with her grandmother, this means an agonising and unfair choice between continuing her studies and retaining an important part of her religious identity. Pressure from her father to conform to French law and attention from a young boy who admires her determination complicates this situation further. Will she continue to resist external pressures and in so doing put her education at risk, or find a way to please authority whilst staying true to herself?

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-2016/17510/mariam

Exploiting It (UK Documentary)

In this thought-provoking documentary by first-time filmmaker Jade Jackman, several different British-Muslim women share their recent experiences of being negatively portrayed or stereotyped by the western media. Through these women’s perspectives we see an unexpected form of oppression that contradicts and challenges the misinformed view that these women are in fact oppressed by their faith. Furthermore, this short film offers an insight into how governmental legislation, such as Prevent and the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, is seeping into different areas of life and institutionalising racist stereotypes.

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-2016/17510/mariam

The Curve (Jordan)

Taciturn mystery man Radi likes his life just the way it is. Keeping himself to himself, a woman jumping into the back of his old VW camper van is the last thing he wants. But when she asks for his help, old feelings of human warmth and caring begin to stir. It’s the start of a meandering, touching road trip involving a cast of colourful characters, a Palestinian refugee, and the staggering vistas of Jordan, in this involving and human debut from debut writer-director Rifqi Assaf.

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-2016/17375/curve-the

Homeland

Iraq Year Zero (Iraq): A vital, totemic achievement in documentary filmmaking, Homeland is the ultimate cinematic account of the American invasion of Iraq. Abbas Fahdel films his family and friends, both before and after the 2003 invasion, the result a devastating, patient portrait of a community broken by reckless military intervention, in two parts. Before the Fall documents a people living under the expectation of war, with After the Battle laying bare the consequences of war for ordinary people, with visceral, personal and utterly devastating consequences.

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-2016/17453/homeland-iraq-year-zero

The Catastrophe Club (Palestine-US)

In collaboration with the Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Palestinian-American performance poet and writer Remi Kanazi will present his latest collection of poetry titled ‘Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up From Brooklyn to Palestine’. Based in New York City, his political commentary has been featured by news outlets throughout the world. His poetry has taken him across the US, Canada, Europe and the Middle East.

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/events-2016/17825/catastrophe-club-remi-kanazi

Day of Refuge

The EEFF is dedicating a whole day to the monumental issue of the plight of refugees (from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) that has been dominating the news headlines and public debate. In partnership with the Refugee Council, the University of East London (UEL) and Refugee Week, this will be a chance to examine and discuss the crisis, look into the response of developed nations to the genuine human need and the responsibility of filmmakers in how they address the refugee experience on film. Divided into sections, the day will include documentary film screenings, a panel discussion, a spoken word event and an art exhibition.

Tickets: www.eastendfilmfestival.com/day-of-refuge

For more information on the EE FF2016: http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com/

Note: This article was first published circa June 2016

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016: MENA Highlights

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRW FF) has arrived in London for a latest edition and will be hosting altogether sixteen thought-provoking and eye-opening documentary films and dramas. As always the festival tackles the difficult subjects behind the international news headlines and offers a closer and better examination of the human rights issues that are pertinent to the stories impacting on all of us across the globe.

Running from 9-18 March, the big themes featured in this year’s HRW FF include: the global migration and refugee crisis, looking at artists as agitators, censorship and press freedom, radical ideologies as well as the rights of women, children and LGBT communities. In much of the gathered material, credit and attention are also due to the journalists and other individuals who are not just in front of, but also behind, the cameras, as some of them take big security risks in order to be able to bring the tales.

Another element of the festival is that screenings are accompanied by director talks, question and answer sessions and are open for audience interaction. They also take place across London venues, including the Barbican, Curzon Soho, the Ritzy Brixton and Picturehouse Central. As this year also happens to celebrate the twentieth anniversary, a Special Programme series has been added, bringing four extra events that combine visual media with an in-depth study of filmmaking and human rights which will be led by experts at HRW and independent others.

Below is a selection of the films and events that pertain to the MENA world. I do, however, highly recommend that you spend some time on the official website to see the films that resonate with everybody’s human rights concerns and shed light on some of the dark passages in our collective experience.

The Crossing: First Hand Account Documentary

This has to be my top choice of documentary to view at the festival. It is the true story – documented and evidenced first hand by personal cameras – of a group of Syrian friends and acquaintances who are forced to make a dangerous sea journey from Alexandra, Egypt to get to Italy where they all hope to seek asylum and face an unknown future.

We meet the musician Nabil, the journalist Angela, the IT professional Rami, Alia, the pharmacist Afaf and also her son Mustafa who have all gathered in Cairo, Egypt but find that their visas have all run out and are no longer able to reside nor work there. With the threat of deportation hanging over their heads, they have no other choice but to make the suicidal journey to reach the European shores and pay the hefty sum of €6,000 each for the smugglers.

Following the horrid experience of being at sea for seven days and the miracle that they have survived, their struggles don’t end but just begin, when they are rescued by an oil tanker that delivers them to the Red Cross in Genoa. For each one of them, there is the further cross to bear in the uncertainty of seeking refugee status and also in the facing of life in a state of both physical and psychological exile, being far away from home and all that is familiar.

Showing: 15 March, 2016 at the Ritzy Brixton

Showing: 16 March, 2016 at the Picturehouse Central

Both screening will be followed by a Q+A with the filmmaker George Kurian and HRW directors.

For more information: https://ff.hrw.org/film/crossing?city=London

The Trials of Spring Shorts: Women In Revolutionary Times

These four short documentaries put together are my second pick. Each film looks at the role of Arab women during the revolutionary events that took off circa 2011 and in the aftermath, specifically in the cases of four countries: Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The leading female characters, with feisty bravery and determination, all risked their safety, security and lives because they believed in the active political struggle for freedom and gender emancipation.

In ‘The Brides of Peace’ from Syria, we see the group of young women who went out onto the streets wearing white wedding dresses underneath black abayas to creatively demonstrate against the regime. By taking off the latter in public to reveal their bridal regalia, they end up facing serious consequences and a heavy punishment for their actions by the Assad regime.

In ‘Wake Up Benghazi’ we hear from the family and friends of the late Libyan Salwa Bugaighis, who was a strong human rights lawyer and activist who played a big role during and after the February Revolution in 2011. She also dared to call for the democratic participation of the masses for a new government and was vocal against all forms of terrorism, violence and religious radical elements. She ended up paying the heaviest price possible and was assassinated in cold blood in her hometown of Benghazi.

The third segment is ‘When Is the Time?’ with the focus on the women of Yemen who also demonstrated and led the marches in 2011 and asking for a change to the authoritarian rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. With the narrative spoken by the feminist Belquis Al Lahabi, she tells of how these same women were later forced out by the men and were publicly beaten. Not much has changed for the women in Yemen in the past five years, a country that remains the poorest in the MENA region and with the highest rates of illiteracy and lack of economic resources.

The last short documentary is ‘Our Oath’ that brings the experience of the female medical practitioner in Bahrain who was detained for two months and subjected to torture for treating anti-government protestors. Dr Nada Dhaif couldn’t stand back and not help in the emergencies before her during the very short-lived rebellion. The experience inspired her to create an organisation to help others who are suffering from trauma and offering useful therapeutic methods.

Showing: 11 March, 2016 at the Barbican

The screening will be followed by a discussion with director Gini Reticker, producer Beth Levison and MENA Researcher at HRW Rothna Begum.

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/trials-spring-shorts?city=London

At Home In The World: A Close Look at Refugee Children

Highlighting the impact of the migration and refugee crisis on the children caught up in a sad situation, Andreas Koefoed’s film is a close observation of the young people, as they attend the Red Cross school in Lynge, Denmark; whilst their parents await the outcomes of their asylum seeking claims. At any one time, there are 120 students who are learning Danish and preparing for either the transference to a normal school (if the succeed in getting residency) or the possibility of being deported back to where they came from.

Originating from Syria, Chechnya, Albania and Afghanistan, the psychological impact on the children is evident, with the stresses of their parents’ predicament showing up in their unusual behaviour and in the nightmares where some of them replay the violence of war that they have witnessed or in just recalling the terrible journeys they have had to undertake in order to reach a safety haven. This is my third pick and the last one I had the opportunity to watch in advance of the festival screening.

Showing: 11 March, 2016 at the Curzon Soho

Showing: 12 March, 2016 at the Picturehouse Central

Both screenings will be followed by a discussion with filmmakers Andreas Koefoed and Duco Tellegen and Children’s Rights Division Researcher at HRW Elin Martinez.

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/home-world?city=London

The Idol – A Biopic on Palestinian Pop Star

Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad directs a biographical film about the true rags to riches story of the young Mohammad Assaf. Originally a wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Assaf went on to win the very popular TV talent show ‘Arab Idol’ in 2013.

Inspiring millions with his talent and the story of acquiring fame in difficult circumstances, the director imagines the childhood origins of the star and the experience that changed his life forever. Starring Tawfeek Barhom, the film was partially filmed on location in Gaza, the first feature film to be shot there in decades.

Showing: 13 March, 2016 at the Barbican

Showing: 17 March, 2016 at the Picturehouse Central

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/idol?city=London

If the Dead Could Speak: Special HRW Programme

In August 2013, a military defector with the code name ‘Caesar’ smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria that landed at the HRW offices via the Syrian National Movement, a Syrian anti-government political group. Nine months of research revealed some of the human stories behind the photos, which included images of at least 6,786 people who died in government custody.

This culminated in a HRW report and video in December 2015 that laid out the evidence regarding the authenticity of the photographs, identified several victims and highlighted key causes of death. In this special programme, the HRW video will be featured with an in-depth conversation with Nadim Houry, who is the Deputy Director of the MENA Division at HRW. It will look into the investigative techniques used to assemble the report, the decision-making process around publishing the material, the exposure it garnered and its impact to date.

Event: 15 March, 2016 at the Curzon Soho

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/if-dead-could-speak?city=London

A Right to the Image: Special HRW Programme

By examining different bodies of film and photographic work, this panel discussion looks into the notion of ‘a right to the image’ that can protect the dignity of subjects, as well as the integrity of the journalists, filmmakers, photographers and the researchers who work in certain situations. It shows the political and ethical choices being made when victims of wars and mass violations are depicted in the media and how they are represented sometimes as bodies and not as individuals. The panel will include Charif Kiwan, who is the Co-Founder of the Syrian Abounaddara Collective, Giles Duley (filmmaker, journalist and photographer) and Kim Longinotto (filmmaker).

Event: 16 March, 2016 at the Barbican

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/right-image?city=London

Desperate Journey: Special HRW Programme

This event considers the unfolding migrants situation in multiple countries where HRW researchers – that include photographers and videographers – capture the conditions on the ground and conveying the individual stories behind the crisis. With more 800,000 asylum seekers arriving in Europe by sea last year, 84% were from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, or Iraq—all countries that are going through conflict, widespread violence and insecurity or which have highly repressive governments.

The HRW Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert and photographer Zalmaï will be sharing their insights and images, and discuss how governments can effectively respond to the refugee crisis in line with their legal responsibilities and stated values.

Event: 17 March, 2016 at the Curzon Soho

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/desperate-journey?city=London

For more information of HRW FF: https://ff.hrw.org/london

Note: This article was first published circa March 2016

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