Ahlam Akram – BASIRA Dream

Imagine a world where all Arab women, regardless of differences in religion or socio-economic position, are united as one and become a powerful force for the good of all womankind; and, a time when all Arab women living in the Middle East are connected to those Arab women who are set up abroad, so that they can stand as one and support each other.

Just think of what they could achieve, what they could learn from one another, what would be their specific concerns and how they might choose to tackle them: for that is the BASIRA dream that belongs to the lovely and feisty Ahlam Akram, a lady of Palestinian origin that I had the pleasure to meet mid-December 2012.

BASIRA, which stand for ‘British Arabs Supporting Integration, Recognition and Awareness’ is Akram’s recent initiative to help make the above vision a reality; starting small with informal discussions to be encouraged by relevant film screenings that would bring together as many Arab and British Arab women as possible in one place.

Akram is well suited for this role. Her background is in the media and for many years writing in Arabic about human rights, female issues and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She has many times challenged Arab stigmas and prejudices with both positive and negative reactions to her personal views and beliefs.

I managed to interview her at a café just off Earl’s Court where she has been living for the past three decades, so she could tell me a bit more about this deep desire to create a change, a movement or even just a small shift to benefit the Arab woman wherever she may be placed.

The Arab Woman

Akram: “I want to challenge the many cultural and religious shackles that continue to restrict Arab women today and offer them personal empowerment. I have worked for decades as a human rights activist, but BASIRA is my biggest hope and the legacy I prefer to leave, if nothing else.

“Most important, as we come together, we need to find strong and credible Arab female voices and leaders in different fields. We must look to the challenges facing us back home and create a change in the image of the Arab woman to the outside world. And we must challenge and break cultural taboos.

“I admit that I have come to conclusions as a woman who has lived in the UK for over 30 years and where I exercise my freedom within a respectful legal framework. That is why I was not happy when the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested that we bring certain Sharia personal laws to the UK. This must be opposed by all women, for why should they go back to a time where they are viewed less valuable than the male?

“I have chosen films as the medium because they can reflect societal norms in a poetic and more provocative fashion than can be done otherwise. They relay many truths.

On Religion

“Of course, the starting point is that all religions have violated women’s rights over the centuries. But what was acceptable 1400 years ago or more is not acceptable today. It is necessary for our wellbeing to progress and advance in this world we find ourselves in.

“My concern is that in the last twenty years, the Arab world has been turning out fatwas that do not refer to our common humanity or collective moral conscience. I believe these fatwas have only undermined religion as really there should be no mediation between us individually and God.

“Some appointed scholars have actually tarnished Islam by doing this and giving it a bad name; in particular regarding women and minorities in the Arab world. For only this week, a religious scholar in Morocco openly preached against the Jews in Morocco. He was doing this in a mosque and effectively, he is preaching hatred in a sacred space.

“I believe that Muslim clerics today have an obligation to take an immediate U-turn to stop creating divisions. As Arabs and Muslims, a radical philosophy will not serve any of us in the 21st Century. Instead, we must aim to build a peaceful environment based on our equality as human beings, to guarantee the right foundation for democracy and citizenship to secure our future generations from all backgrounds and all religions.

The Arab Identity

“The wonderful writer Amin Maalouf argues that human dignity is far more relevant than strict identity. For the Arab, it is urgent that we get rid of our prejudices against others and especially towards women and minorities. We should aim for no borders between us and the rest of the world.

“I had no choice in my religion nor my place of birth but I will never deny or change my roots. Instead, I would rather capitalize on the constructive and positive aspect of my culture. In my house, I celebrate my roots. I practise this when I cook Arabic food and listen to Arabic music.

“But as a citizen of the world, I also enjoy other types of food and I enjoy congratulating others of different faiths and backgrounds. That is what I feel in my heart that my culture has taught me.

“I feel that living in the West where my rights and dignity as a woman are guaranteed and protected, has made me a better person. If I divorce, I will share my husband’s wealth and have custody of my children, or the court will take the decision where it is best for them. My husband also can never manipulate me or decide at what age to marry off my daughter.

BASIRA Vision

“The measure of BASIRA’s success will be the day when all Arab British women go out and demonstrate, to publicly condemn violations against women in the Middle East and to emphasise the universality of our rights as equal. I wish to succeed in changing the unjust and inhumane laws that violate women’s rights.

“There is also a definite intertwining between religion and culture and the Arab woman is in many cases herself unaware of the reality of her predicament. She has to abide by her father or husband’s rule and sadly, she can be invisibly crippled without her being truly aware.

“We must show the gap between universal human laws, versus religious laws and I want us all to soon go out to the streets and stand together to demand our equal rights as women, for fair access to education and protection through a secular system backed by democratic laws.

“For how can we love the man more than we love the woman? I love my husband, son, brother and father and am entitled to the same dignity. Equality between the sexes is truly the only way and democracy itself starts at home.

First Film – Hala2 La Wein

“The first film screening for BASIRA was ‘Hala2 La Wein’ that we managed to show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London December 2012. It is an incredible and thought-provoking film directed and produced by the talented Lebanese Nadine Labaki.

“Set in a simple village, where Arab Muslims and Christians were living in peace but are then swept into a wider-regional war, it is about sectarianism and the power of women to intervene to create strong behavioural shifts towards peace and away from conflict, war and aggression.

“Ultimately, as Arab women, we must dare to tell our stories, to share and talk about the issues dear to our hearts. For we deserve all the respect and so that there is no more of the ‘burning’ deep inside as we go through certain bad experiences.”

For more information on BASIRA: https://basira.org.uk/

Note: This article was first published December 2012

Fireworks The Play, Dalia Taha

‘Fireworks’, the new play by Palestinian writer Dalia Taha currently showing at the Royal Court Theatre, is set in a non-specified Palestinian city under siege and subject to Israeli air strikes, where two young families are the only residents left in a dilapidated building. Staged in a shabby worn-out flat that they both share, it is equipped with bare amenities – including old hard chairs, a cold-tiled floor and an electricity generator that doesn’t always work – and with the unusual addition of a staircase that mysteriously goes down to nowhere.

It is clear that all the other neighbours have gone to safety shelters whereas these two families, for whatever personal reasons, are the only ones who have resisted the urge to abandon their home, even with the known dangers. As the audience, one is thus confronted with this powerful living situation – which would feel more like a prison if one had to live in it – even before the characters come to life and take over with their story.

Starting a couple days before Eid, excited eleven-year-old Lubna is with her father Khalid chatting. She tells him that she’s composed a song in her head about her brother Ali, who was killed six months before. Prompted by her father to explain the difference between being shot and being martyred, she repeats what she has been told.

Lubna says: “When you get shot, you die and get put under the earth and you get eaten by worms. But when you’re martyred, it doesn’t’ hurt and you don’t’ die. All the angels come and fly you up to the sky, and then they give you wings like theirs. And God gives you a house in heaven and when you go into it you find all of your family there because God’s made a copy of them from some angels, so you don’t feel lonely while you’re waiting for them. And then when your family die they come and live with you in your house in heaven even if they haven’t been martyred.”

But this is, of course, just one of the many lies and strange fantasies that this little girl has been offered by her father, in order to help her emotionally digest the loss of her sibling and to give her some reassurance that all is well in their world. When he also denies that there are threatening bombs falling down the skies and says that the tape on the windows is a magic tape that is guaranteed to protect them, we realise just how grim the reality is outside.

Whilst with the other couple, it is more the mother Samar who is telling her son Khalil the lies even as he is showing signs of projecting aggression and violence towards her and a dead pet pigeon. To distract him, she plays Ninja turtles and Superman and makes him believe that they live on a very special planet; but, clearly, the twelve-year-old child is not convinced. And so, in this play, we see how the parents attempt to emotionally protect and shield the children in a dire situation; but, that the greater tragedy is that the adults themselves are struggling to come to terms with their predicament.

In Nahla, for example, we see the madness as she jokes about suicide and goes out onto the streets risking her life for a packet of cigarettes and candles. Whereas in the men, we sense the impotence, weakness, sadness and frustration as they both take desperate measures in the no way out situation. Khalid buys a pistol for an unknown reason and Ahmad, desiring to take revenge against the unnamed oppressor, involves himself with a risky operation that threatens and puts all of their lives in even more danger.

Eid then arrives with a twist but I won’t be telling! Because this most powerful play is a must see for everyone; and, especially, for anyone who wants to experience a creative tackling of the current issue of what is happening – and has been happening for a very long time – to Palestinian families as they are put under physical, emotional and psychological pressure all in one lump of an existential disaster.

But through the adult and child actors with their human faces, voices, cries and screams from a script based on real lives, we also gain the positive eternal and universal insight of the deep caring love of parents for their children and the innocent love of children for their parents. I truly applaud Dalia Taha and the Royal Court for staging this and hope they extend the run, for that is my only concern as tickets are selling out fast!

Directed by Richard Twyman, the cast also could not have been better allocated or better performed, with actors: Saleh Bakri (as Khalid), Nabil Elouahabi (as Ahmad), Shereen Martin (as Samar), Sirine Saba (as Nahla), George Karageorgis and Yusuf Hofri (as Khalil on alternative nights), and Eden Nathanson and Shakira Riddell-Morales (as Lubna on alternative nights). Please also note that this play forms part of the ‘International Playwrights: A Genesis Foundation Project’ with additional support from the British Council and the A M Qattan Foundaiton. It is being accompanied by a series of events, talks and reading, from 12 February-14 March, 2015 at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS.

For more information: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/fireworks-alab-nariya/

Note: This article was first published circa February 2015

Ibrahim Shebani – Behind ‘The Libyan’

Start on A Libyan Cultural Revolution

As part of a new, free and exciting expression Art movement in the new post-Revolution Libya, I got in touch with one key player who has been working hard to bring intelligent reading, writing and discussion culture to Libya.

Ibrahim Shebani, creator and Editor-in-Chief of The Libyan Magazine, speaks here about the challenges he faced to make his dream of an autonomous publication come true.

Ibrahim Shebani: “Originally, I was studying Architecture at university but dropped out two years before graduation; when the small advertising agency I had created with my brother and some friends kicked off. We became agents for some international clients including Proctor&Gamble, Nestle and Mango and it gave us some confidence. So for seven years, we did Media, Advertising, Marketing and events.

“But I also wanted to establish a simple lifestyle magazine. For three years, I tried but never got permission from the authorities, as all the media was state owned before the Revolution.

“Then February 16 came and I went to Benghazi to join the protests in the East and in four days the city was liberated. Foreign journalists immediately arrived and I volunteered to translate and fix for Jon Lee Anderson from The New Yorker magazine. I found out so much I didn’t know and got to really enjoy the research for stories, investigating and finding out the truth behind what were at times just rumor.

“I also visited the front lines on some days to translate and realized the need to introduce ourselves as locals to the many interested outsiders. Then in April, some new magazines and newspapers got published in Benghazi; and, although very simple, all of us felt so proud. The fact that I could read a newspaper not written by Gaddafi’s supporters and drink espresso in public brought tears to my eyes!

“In early May, my brother left Tripoli and also came to Benghazi. So I called my friends and presented to them the idea of a magazine. It was to be called ‘The Libyan’ to represent Libya and us to the rest of the world. The media blackout imposed on us by the regime had truly made us underestimate who we really are and what we are capable of achieving. That is why I wanted to put our country on the map and the people under the spot light.”

The first English issue covered some wonderful subjects that prior 2011, would have been an impossible feat in Libya or for Libyans full stop: Diaries of Abu-Salim Massacre, The Libyan Women Freedom Fighters, The Youth of Libya – This is How We Want It, Hip-Hop Culture for Libyans and even Tripoli Gossip Girl column!

Shebani today has the help, support and input of a 40-strong volunteer group that includes bilingual journalist, photographers and designers working from one office in Tripoli and one in Benghazi. The Libyan is now monthly in Arabic and less often in English with 40 pages each issue. Its Arabic print is 4000 and the English 2000 with much wider circulation.

The goal is to target young professionals and graduates with a wide range of interests; and the English version is to help assimilate and include returning foreigners. Shebani is after the vital and very large 18-35 years demographic group and to engage “all other dynamic and evolving Libyan men and women who are concerned about the political and social scene in their country.”

When I asked him about future plans for this wonderful brainchild: “We hope to grow bigger and stronger, reach other cities within Libya and even the world one day. But we will carry on as we began: independent, credible, unbiased and impartial to all political parties and individuals. We want to represent the voice of all Libyans, regardless of their gender, religion or ethnic background.”

The Libyan can be purchased in newsagents in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Nahla’s Post Script:

One true measure of liberty is the right to uninhibited intellectual and creative expression as well as the ability to share and exchange ideas in the public domain without fear of censure or reprisals. It is a cultivated society’s hobby to be able to address political, economic, philosophic and societal issues out in the open and debate without risk of attack or threat to one’s personal safety.

In Libya, the gruesome physical fight against the old dictatorial regime has been won and processes are under way to enshrine people’s legal rights under a new constitution and for free elections. But are the Libyans now ready to also step up and take the chance to shed some of their ultra-conservative traditions and create a cultural revolution in parallel to the political?

For Gaddafi’s Libya banned free expression and the Arts in particular suffered. The security state made it impossible for people to read or write, debate, play theatre or do anything else that seemed to threaten the status quo of what effectively became a dead cultural society unable to breath in fresh ideas. The Libyans unconsciously turned inwards and got used to being silent and uninformed on many subjects.

But already some months post-Revolution, there is hope. New magazines and newspapers are being produced, printed and distributed without political agendas in Tripoli and Benghazi. They are springing up all over the country and most are independent, though some politically funded. One can only wish them the very best in this noble quest.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2012

Karl reMarks: And Then God Created The Middle East And Said: ‘Let There Be Breaking News’

Includes: Insight from the Karl reMarks Creator

Penned by online sensation and the Karl reMarks persona, this little book had me in stitches, thinking, confused, saddened and wondering from where does the self-styled avatar get the genius inspiration. Composed of a collection of quotes and illustrations that originally appeared on Twitter beginning circa 2011, it was the arrival of the Arab Spring that got London-based architect and real name Karl Sharro satirising on the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East and North Africa region.

Exposing worrying gaps in the reportage of an admittedly volatile part of the world, the jokes and poking fun turn upside down many preconceived myths, non-true wisdom and stereotypes of the Arab world. The material reflects and brings to light, with wry and sharp humour, some of the historical complexities that are at play in the MENA region and warning against the over-simplification by pundits and commentators. But even the Arabs are not spared the satire with reMarks’s astute and directed observations.

Referring to Eastern versus Western opinions on extremism, ISIS, war, religion, geography, economics, democracy and much more, the one-liners humble the reader into accepting the preposterousness of easy equations and how fruitless much of the analysis is regarding the region’s political, cultural and social landscapes. Whichever quote or tweet you find, there are nuggets of truth in each of them. My particular favourite is this one: “We’re actually very proud of God in the Middle East. He’s the local guy who went on to acquire international fame’!

Having attended the sold-out book launch in London, below are some selected quotes from the evening, in which Sharro offers insight into his alter ego. With 135,000 followers on Twitter and an active blog – where one can find lengthier political satire – I highly recommend getting a hold of the book and a visit to the website, wherein our collective despair about the Arab world can be assuaged by the reMarks treatment.

On his motivation, Sharro said: “I never had any serious pretentions about the role I am doing. My writing and tweeting was a response to the coverage of the Middle East and about resisting certain stereotypes and narratives. But I was never trying to present a different image of the Middle East. My attitude was that I want to respond and poke fun at those people who are misrepresenting the Middle East. Ultimately my motivation was that I want people to smile and laugh.”

On the use of political satire, Sharro: “I am a part-time political satirist and everyone knows that what I do is in my lunch break. It is about appropriating certain stereotypes and to present a more progressive image. Part of it also is being comfortable enough to talk about things that you might not like about your culture.”

On Twitter and Tweeting, Sharro: “It is a fine balance between reality and satire. There is something about being on Twitter where, especially if you are tweeting a lot and you are always following the events and you are almost like naked in front of your audience. Sometimes things happen that are beyond your comprehension and I think that is when language stops cooperating with you or the medium of satire stops cooperating with you and there is nothing really that can be said.

“You can see a sense of frustration and you can see a sense of futility, but I think that is the great thing about this medium, we have such a close relationship with the events around us. And it is not like going away to shut yourself somewhere to write a book where you can create layers between yourself and the events that are happening. We are learning new ways with this medium and tweets reflect that.”

About the idea that the Middle East is prone to catastrophe, fighting and war, Sharro: “A lot of it is something that is created in the Western imagination and particularly a class of punditry when we talk about the Middle East as if it is always subject for news. But in reality it is not necessarily different to any other part of the world.”

On approaching taboo subjects, Sharro: “I was writing satire and a lot of it was dark and scathing. For example, I wrote about ISIS when they first came and one blog post was done in this style. My rule was to write it and see what people would say. Some might miss the point that I am not actually stereotyping Arabs, but I am using stereotypes and inverting them and trying to say something different. I learnt my instinct was to trust the audience and there will always be one or two people who don’t get it.”

On whether being outside the Arab world gives him more freedom to do what he does, Sharro: “I don’t’ think it is easier for the obvious reasons. Some people think I am more free here to say what I want to say and I don’t’ think that is actually true. I feel that there are more taboos here than in the Middle East and you can say more things over there.

“But what it gave me was a sense of coldness. If you are living the situation in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq, you are living that and it is your reality. Everything you say or do is an existential struggle and it all depends on it. It gave me the luxury of not having to, when I write, that I am not dealing with that reality.

“But that is when I made my decision that I can’t be a political activist or I can’t be lecturing people about what to do in Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, because I am not in that situation. I think it is completely wrong for anyone to consciously decide to go out and live in the West to then take this position that I am going to lecture people. You have removed yourself from that context and you can do what I do which is non-consequential in a way.”

On political correctness and taboos in the West, Sharro: “I think there is an intellectual construct that is definitely, from a liberal sense, quite self-censoring under the pretence that this kind of censorship is for the social good… I worry about this tendency in the West because for me confronting ideas openly is a much healthier way than retreating into mistakes, controlling speech and people practising self-censorship.”

A member of the audience also asked Sharro what he would write as a manifesto for the Middle East. His response was: “I actually wrote these manifestos back in 2011 when I was blogging, but nobody read them. So here I am, a failed political activist turned satirist because that is what worked. Essentially, if I were to hijack this event and promote a political message, it is that I have always been a big believer in autonomy and self-determination. I find them foundational ideas for how we move politics in the Middle East and I think these are important aspects to base our politics on.”

There was, of course, much else that was said at the launch and food for thought. But what I came away with was respect for Sharro’s dynamism – as he successfully juggles being an architect, a political satirist, a cultural commentator, a stand-up comedian, a cartoonist, a public speaker and a contributing author to several publications! – and, the ability of his alter ego to push us into reconsidering the important relationship between reality and how we may be digesting it through different news mediums.

In some ways, reMarks magically takes away a lot of our fears, anxieties and frustrations about the world that we live in – whether we are in the MENA region or living outside it – even if this can only be done through one tweet or one blog post at a time.

You can purchase the book from Al Saqi Bookshop: http://www.alsaqibookshop.com/shopexd.asp?id=47970

You can follow the Karl reMarks website: http://www.karlremarks.com/

You can follow the Karl reMarks Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KarlreMarks

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018

Banthology: Stories From Unwanted Nations

Using resentful rhetoric to justify his executive order made early last year – to ban the entry of people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries into the United States – President Donald Trump was indicating that America needs to be protected from these ‘other’ people on the count of their religion. A religion that is a personal faith to over 1.8 billion worldwide which he simply reduces to an enemy of ‘his’ great nation, using the language of fear and dangerously manipulating the historical context.

In a creative response to what can only be described as a hysterical political measure, Comma Press, the champions of the short story form, commissioned seven writers from the original countries in Executive Order 13769 – Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – to contribute to an anthology that would be published in the UK and the US. Five of the entries were penned in the native languages and have been translated into English.

“The idea for this book was born amid the chaos of that first ban, and sought to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. As publishers, we are acutely aware of the importance of cultural exchange between communities, and have also seen first-hand the damage caused by tightened visa controls and existing travel restrictions…” Sarah Cleave, Editor.

Opening with Rania Mamoun’s ‘Bird of Paradise’, a young Sudanese woman finds herself lost, alone and bewildered at an airport. She is psychologically frozen and unable to board the scheduled flight even though her dream had always been to run away from her oppressive life in the town of Wad Madani. Standing in the queue with the ticket ready in hand, she is held back by an emotional force and paralysed at the prospect of getting onto the plane.

Showing the mental resilience required of the refugee from a dark comic perspective, author Zaher Moareen’s ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ is about a Syrian man still in transit in Paris, France with a plan to get to Sweden to seek final asylum. At the mercy of smugglers who have no care as to his survival and who can never offer a guarantee of safe passage, his story reflects on what compels one to escape one’s country of origin and the myriad justifications one has to come up with to be granted entry at some borders. We sense his unease, anxiety and panic at the prospect of an uncertain future as he is beyond the point of return.

In Iranian writer Fereshteh Molaui’s ‘Phantom Limb’, we are presented with an unusual psychic connection that occurs between loved ones when they are separated and become physically thousands of miles apart. A troubled Kurdish-Iranian male refugee in Toronto, Canada experiences a pain that has no medical explanation, except that it happens to correspond directly with an injury endured by his mother back home in Iran, an amputated right leg.

Taking a swipe at Trump is Libyan writer Najwa Benshwatwan’s ‘Return Ticket’ that pokes fun at the preposterousness of what can happen at immigration controls and the pretexts offered when one is being screened purely based on their colour, sex, race, religion or nationality. She initially creates an imaginary village named Schrodinger that has the extraordinary powers to be able to move through time and space and where people are judged purely on good deeds and acts of piety.

But one very odd thing about Schrodinger is the grave of six Americans who came to it and never left: “not out of love, but because the walls of their own nation never stopped rising, day after day, until it was cut off from the world and the world cut off from it. Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home proved fatal!”

The grandmother then narrates the endless humiliations she encounters as a woman traveller when once she tried to step outside the village in search of her husband and needing to visit some real and imagined places. In one instance, she is forced to take off all of her clothes because it is ‘a crime to feel embarrassed’, but in another, she is faced with the religious fundamentalists who tell her off for not wearing the hijab and threaten her with the punishment of hell.

Carrying us to an ancient time, Yemeni Wajdi al-Ahdal’s ‘The Slow Man’ begins at ‘The Year 100 According to the Babylonian Calendar’ and then moves us right up to the ‘400 Babylonians Era’. Highlighting confrontations and the war between the Egyptians and Babylonians, the tale alludes to how every great and mighty empire sooner or later comes to pass and is replaced by another. In the end, the narrator foresees the total annihilation of the human race as it devours itself for the sake of dominance, power and control.

Last but not least are Iraqi Anoud’s ‘Storyteller’ and Somali Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s ‘Jujube’ that are similar in many ways but written in unique styles. Told by two young females, they both speak of the lived realities of war, its consequent tragedies, the incurred losses of dear ones, the clinging on to false hope and the nightmares that continue even when one is eventually outside of the conflict zone due to the irreversible damage and the invisible scarring.

Bringing to light the incredulity that was felt by many people at Trump’s original order, this powerful anthology offers, in the fictional short story format, all of the associated states of anger, upset, sadness, frustration, and even hilarity at this new added travel stigma. In terms of international borders and the movement of people, it relays the stories of those who end up paying the heaviest price when discriminatory and unfair laws are put into practice. It also, very effectively, turns upside down the President’s Islamophobia, especially as you enter the minds of the whose who have been forced to risk the migrant journey and come to appreciate the complex dynamics that are at play, wherein their religion is in no way of an aggressive nature.

Note: This article was first published circa April 2018

I Still Hide to Smoke, Rayhana Obermeyer

Screened as part of Film Africa 2017

Set against the backdrop of the Algerian la sale guerre, ‘I Still Hide to Smoke’ is a heady cocktail mix of people and events that reflects on how the personal and the sexual can come to hold heavy political import, with the added dangerous ingredient of religion too.

As the bombs explode and the struggles between government forces and rebel Islamist groups are playing out on the streets, French-Algerian director Rayhana Obermeyer invites one to enter the private world of women, as they bathe for a day in the traditional hammam in the city of Algiers.

A very disturbing sex scene quickly assaults the senses and creates unusual suspense as to its outcome. But, before long, another helpless female enters the stage, seeking refuge for fear of her life having been caught out as an adulteress. Putting head masseuse and manager of the bathhouse Fatima in a precarious position, she wants to protect the pregnant Meriem but is not sure who to trust with the secret of her hiding.

By 11am, all the other local ladies are clamouring to get inside the building; and, as they are let in, each of them cheerily discards her outer garment or hijab and seems happy to be free in the nude or underwear, ready to start with the beauty and cleansing rituals. Falling into easy female banter as they swap and share shampoos and soaps, they begin to exchange intimate stories about their sex lives and relationships, exploring what it means to be an Algerian woman circa 1995.

The entangled tales reveal a harsh patriarchal societal structure that punishes them both in their homes and in the public space. Pointing at a dark reality, most have experienced some form of abuse; be it at the hands of husbands, male relatives or other misogynists. ‘Princess’ Louisa, for example, was married off at the age of 11 to her father’s friend who sexually violates her; but, in rebellion, she does have an affair with his brother, begetting the latter’s children without the knowledge of the former.

Or in the case of the liberally outspoken Nadia, she suffered an acid attack for being a political activist and reproached for wanting a divorce and taking the pill not to have children. She unwittingly finds herself face to face with Zahia, who is the widow of a self-proclaimed Emir religious fundamentalist and constantly preaching about Allah and the benefits of the veil and jihad.

Not to downplay the other moving #MeToo stories you will encounter, including that of naïve Samia, whose only wish and desire is to experience love and marriage; but, being a 29 year-old masseuse, nobody wants her, even with the promise of ‘a certificate of virginity upon delivery’.

The plot is carried forward with frequent returns by Fatima on the progress of the expectant woman sheltered upstairs whose waters are breaking fast; and, it all ends in spectacular fashion with the intrusion by the men who barge their way into the hamman seeking blood and revenge, led by Meriem’s brother. Whilst the script, that contains plenty of raw humour, provides countless gem quotes that mirror the contradictory arguments wreaking havoc on everyone.

When Zahia admonishes Nadia in one instance for not wearing the veil, she says: “We only fear god and the veil protects us from temptation… The bearded ones protect us from despots”. Nadia then replies with: “You don’t fear god. You want to be god. Behind your veils and beards, all murderers!.. I will fight against your Islamic Republic, even if I have to ally with the devil… Your Islam is not our Islam.”

One is therefore left to contemplate a frightening status of Algerian women in their cultural environment and what seems to be a direct indictment of the men in general. It begs one to consider not just the troubling dynamics between the sexes but also those between the competing interpretations of Islam. There is a danger when the faith is monopolised in the hands of the radicals, as opposed to the more modern, liberal and secular parties and individuals.

Utilising female nudity and hinting at erotic sensibilities, one doubts if this film will make it to the public screens in Algeria or other conservative Arab countries – the bathing scenes had to be shot in Greece. But laying bare the vulnerability of the naked female body in such a cinematic style – and in her choice of casting Arab actresses who all deliver fantastic performances – is perhaps Rayhana’s way of causing an artistic ripple movement towards the liberation of Arab-Muslim women and their right to be heard and protected.

Not for the faint hearted, I highly recommend ‘I Still Hide to Smoke’ to everyone, male and female, Arab or non-Arab. I do also advise, though somewhat hesitantly, that you prepare to light up and enjoy a cigarette after the show!

More information can be found here: http://www.filmafrica.org.uk/i-still-hide-to-smoke/

Note: This article was first published circa November 2017

Hurma, Ali Al-Muqri

A childhood memory urged me to pick up the novel titled ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri. I first heard the Arabic word ‘hurma’ being used when I was a young girl on a mini-pilgrimage to Mecca circa 1995. It was being shouted out by an ugly old male guard who was holding a long wooden stick in his hand to usher the women as to where they can stand and pray around the Kabaa. I didn’t know the meaning of the word; but, whatever its definition, I sensed it held negative and oppressive connotations due to the guard’s aggressive physical stance towards us.

Curious to open the book to enter the world of a so-called female protagonist, I had hoped for an enlightening read into the character, the reality and psychology behind such a woman. I also wanted an insight into the cultural beliefs and attitudes that manifest in the society she inhabits. And, for sure, I was not at all disappointed. In truth, I was so astonished by the tale that I had to read it twice just to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving my mind.

Hurma the character is not even identified by a proper legal name to distinguish her from others as an individual human being. Even when all this young girl desires is to please her father, brother, husband and culture, she ends up pleasing nobody. From the age of eight, she is given the burka to wear with only two small slits for the eyes and is ordered about by everyone. She is also forcibly made to live in the shadows of existence and moves about only as an invisible black blob. Even so, without having any autonomous personal agency, she manages to find herself in very odd and dangerous predicaments.

Starting out in Sana’a, Yemen sometime circa Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Guantanamo and the war in Chechnya, Hurma is subject to extreme religious indoctrination that she cannot but blindly follow. Her brainwashing is complete when she is a student at the Islamic Scientific Academy, where she comes to naïvely dream of becoming a female warrior to fight in jihad against ‘the heathen crusaders, the communists, the Jews in Palestine and infidels in general’.

It is during her time there that we are introduced to some of the preposterous religious arguments proposed by her Islamic lecturers and noting their general obsession with sex and how to limit and deny the female any known freedoms. With straight faces, they debate whether or not it is a sin for a woman to see dogs and chicken copulate or if it is halal for a woman to handle bananas and cucumbers! All the while, of course, they don’t question themselves as men nor do they admit to their own evident impotence and sexual perversions.

“We know that a woman remains a hurma even in death. She is mentioned by name only when this is unavoidable, because to mention her is an act of immodesty, and modesty is a part of faith. A man without faith is a man without modesty. A man who talks about his hurma has lost his modesty and therefore his faith.” (Page 80, a quote from Hurma’s Islamic professor).

Being so manipulated, Hurma is predictably married off to her brother’s friend. An extreme political-religious character, he carelessly takes her with him to the ends of the earth in his own longing for martyrdom and jihad. Making her a member of a mujahedeen cell in Yemen, eventually he uses her as a mule to carry gold, cash and explosive ingredients. Again, unwittingly, she ends up travelling through Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Iran and being exposed to the reality of holy war on the frontline.

All the while, however, we know as readers that Hurma carries a deep guilty secret and a sincere longing for something else that is rather different from the jihad that her husband offers her. But I won’t spoil that great surprise for you.

I also won’t spoil the incredible ways in which Al-Muqri reveals the deeply set contradictions of the irrational and violent ideology that not only oppresses women in the name of Islam, but also tends to lead the men to pursue goals of self-annihilation and suicidal missions. For the author is denouncing, ridiculing and exposing all the weaknesses of their arguments and turning them on their ugly head to expose the faults and sorry end results through one gullible person’s experience. It is no wonder that Al-Muqri received threats to his safety after publication of this book and had to go into hiding.

Some of the scenes will actually have you laugh in utter and absolute disbelief and do be prepared for the liberal use of sexually explicit content throughout the story. Just to mention one of the most memorable scenes, we find Hurma alone in a room in Saudi Arabia and watching an Islamic television programme, where the show is debating a notorious fatwa that was issued by an Egyptian Sheik who had belonged to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. This was a true event where the fatwa was publicly brought to light; although, eventually, it was rejected and thrown out.

The Sheik had ruled that if a woman must, for some unavoidable reason, spend time in the presence of a man who is neither her husband nor a close relative – which is of course prohibited by Sharia – then it’s possible for her to suckle this man, thereby creating a kinship bond between them and making it permissible for them to mix! There is a whole passage following this in which the details of how to manage such a fatwa are discussed and the reader is left in hysterics.

I won’t say much else about the plot’s development nor will I elaborate on the other highly colourful personalities in the tale whose personal journeys closely intersect with Hurma’s but that are also so very different. I highly recommend this book as it addresses the inherently insane psychology that masquerades as religious dogma; and, also, because it artistically explores the controlled belief system that ultimately negatively impacts on both of the sexes.

Al-Muqri not only plays on the irony of what the word ‘hurma’ means in Arabic – it means ‘sanctity’ – and how that has come into use, misuse and abuse; he, also, fully delves into the crazy world where such logic is imposed and showing us all the inevitable disturbing consequences. He is also leading us as observers to consider our individual and collective responsibility when it comes mainly to the treatment of women.

If you are, like me, ready to read with an open mind, then by the end you will be dying for Al-Muqri’s other works to be translated into English.

You can purchase ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hurma-Ali-al-Muqri/dp/1850772770

‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ The Play, Hassan Abdulrazzak

Better late than never. I finally managed to attend and was truly blown away by Hassan Abdulrazzak’s latest play ‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ that was showing at the Arcola Theatre last week. Although the London run has finished, I have been informed that the production will soon be touring York, Bradford, Liverpool, Cumbria and Oldham from 29 June until 22 July, 2016.

Very punchy and dark in its fantastic humour, Abdulrazzak’s script raises many of the sore global political issues facing our time. Being a distinguished award-winning playwright, this time he effortlessly engages the audience with the very different stories of four male characters living in various parts of the world, but whom are all connected by an interesting philosophic thread.

All performed by the same versatile thespian, Asif Khan, he effortlessly takes on the role of a Palestinian actor with a strong Arabic accent, to becoming the introverted Pakistani amateur author, to emulating a British Bradford born gangster-type adolescent; and, finally, turning into a Jewish New Yorker. There is truly no mistaking which individual he is in the four-parts, so adept were the character transformations.

One of the most memorable scenes is in ‘Love in the Time of Barriers’, when the actor from Ramallah decides to have a sexual experience with an English girl against the Separation Wall even under the spotlight of the Israeli guards. Inspired by a true story told to Abdulrazzak, it highlights the resilience of the Palestinians in the face of oppression and their right to love even whilst being held hostage. He says to her: “This is a moment where we can make a stand. Defy them. Show them that no matter what walls they build, what towers they erect, they can’t stop us form living.”

Another important scene is in ‘The Apple’ segment, when the young yob from Bradford talks about the seduction of being a jihadi and joining ISIS. It reveals how simple, uninformed and misguided his logic in wanting to join the violent group. He says: “What’s in Bradford? Why stay? Zero hour contracts. No, thanks. Loading shelves in the Ikea. No way, bro. Why waste my life here when I could be spreading Islam with an iPhone and a tank? I want the hot desert air in my face. I want to wave the black flag from the top of the tank, I want my choice of jihadi brides, you know what I am saying? I want the cool black uniform. I love that uniform.”

In a third tale titled ‘The Landing Strip’, we also meet the Jewish American named Issac. He starts out as nervous and anxious to be asking his girlfriend to fulfill just one of his sexual fantasies to spice up their intimate life. However, her unexpected response forces him to question and challenge his father’s Zionist politics and being a member of the AIPAC aka America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.

Last but by no means least – and, in fact, my favourite monologue as it made me laugh so much! – was the odd story of the shy British-Pakistani aspiring novelist Sajid. His undesired fate is to be is taken into police custody and be kept in a UK prison for terrorism-related charges because of having developed a frightening book plot. It was so totally harmless in his eyes but which didn’t seem so innocent to them. His tragic predicament, mixed with his self-deprecating personality, leads to very funny moments indeed.

One common theme that I could pick out was perhaps how our private lives are inextricably linked to the big public concerns of our age and the festering issues in our collective consciousness. I felt a hint towards this urgent need for people to take their responsibility as world citizens more seriously and to utilise their wills more strategically; so that we do not fall into the trap of relying on the shallow or false arguments fed to us via the mainstream media or any propaganda literature when it comes to politics.

More specifically, the four are all plausible examples of how an individual can get unwittingly embroiled in the unavoidable issues of ISIS, anti-terror laws in the UK or the unjust Israeli occupation of Palestine. Whether we are in the East or the West, there is a suggestion that we must all be fully awake to current affairs and to educate ourselves in the history in order to not repeat similar mistakes. For example, the big reference to the Holocaust is measured against the injustices currently being committed by the Israeli state.

I do highly recommend this play and especially if it continues to be performed by its wonderful star Asif Khan and directed by Rosamunde Hutt. I do also hope that it goes on an international tour soon as it is so timely and has so much to offer its audience: making them chuckle but also seriously think and possibly even cry. It is a very strong theatrical piece and definitely one worth seeing if you get the chance.

‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ was first commissioned and produced by AIK productions. Its world premiere was at the Arcola Theatre, London as part of the Shubbak Festival in July 2015. This current UK national tour is co-produced by AIK Productions and Turtle Key Arts.

Note: This article was first published circa July 2016

Under the Copper Covers, Sherine Ben Halim Jafar

How Middle Eastern Food Became Jafar’s Most Powerful Healer

The personal story that precedes the recipes in Sherine Ben Halim Jafar’s new culinary book – ‘Under the Copper Covers’ – is so highly moving and inspirational that I would advise immediate purchase. Offering a beautifully compiled printed edition – with valuable historical and family-related photo-illustrations – this author draws upon strong memories for each dish mentioned and every recipe lovingly included. Jafar takes the reader on a wonderful gastronomic journey that will urge you to get into the kitchen as soon as possible and start cooking or baking.

Sherine Ben Halim Jafar candidly explores two things: her private experience of living in exile as an Arab in the West and the unexpected triumph of food to cure much of the associated heart-pains and the psychological hurts of displacement. Coming from a very high profile political Libyan family – her father Mustafa Ben Halim was a Prime Minister under King Idris’s reign – she tells of how her once carefree and privileged childhood was suddenly interrupted in September 1969 on the occasion of Gaddafi’s coup and overthrow of the monarchy.

“The only place where I was to find solace was within the walls of the kitchen, with the comfort of my mother’s cooking and familiar smells: caramelized onions, fragrant cumin and rose water. It didn’t matter what ingredients she was using, which cuisine, culture or style – comfort was Mum and her food. My sense of belonging was measured by her cooking. Whatever Mum cooked was who we were, what we were and where we belonged.” P. 29, Under the Copper Covers

Just for having been a part of the monarchical framework, her father became an assassination target and the Ben Halim family were unable to go home and disabled from returning to Libya. Although they were granted Saudi Arabian citizenship and offered international diplomatic protection, the fear of attack became a constant threatening shadow. Due to the uncertainty of where their life was heading and worry for her father’s safety, little five-year old Sherine developed severe anxiety and depressive symptoms that unfortunately went untreated for many years.

In time however the family settled in London, where Sherine – the youngest of six siblings – studied at an International school and completed a bachelor’s in English Literature followed by a master’s at King’s College. Being the sensitive soul, she continued grappling with the troubling issues of a lost identity and the family’s cultural heritage now gone missing. It seemed very pertinent for her to address these. In the book, she says: “The skin could not, and would not, fit; the Arab inside conflicted with the West outside.”

Luckily she found out that there was a way of comfort available and that would be to connect with other exiled Middle Eastern youngsters who were able to understand and shared her condition; and, in doing so, she also discovered the great power of food as a method of sharing her soul’s desire for belonging and to make herself and others happy. It would also lead to the forming of strong friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Now aged 51 and settled in Dubai, as well as being married with four children, Jafar has lived in so many different countries and been exposed to so many fascinating cuisines that hail not just from Libya; but, also, from Palestine (her mother’s country of origin), Iraq (her husband’s country of origin), Syria (her maternal grandmother’s country of origin), Iran (many of her friends are Persian), the Emirates (where she has been residing in Dubai for over twenty years), Saudi Arabia as well as England (she loves traditional fish and chips as well as steak and kidney pie) and Europe (Italy and France in particular).

The Food: Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran

In the cooking sections of the book, Jafar shares the magic of what happens in her kitchen. She has selected six countries to include some of the national signature dishes and desserts. With the help of her female friends and family members, her goal was to nail down the authenticity of each sweet or savoury item and offer the best of tried and tested recipes. It is truly a showcase of some appetising menus and ideas for hosting extraordinary feasts.

From Palestine, she offers her mother’s family flue remedy of chicken noodle soup, molokhiyeh (mallow stew), sfiha (authentic Palestinian meat pastries), msakhan (a feast of chicken sumac onion and bread), kidra (rice and meat cooked in clay) and plenty more main meals. If you have also ever tasted and wondered on how to recreate the heavenly Palestinian katayef (pancakes), tamriyyeh (semolina in phyllo) or the halawet al smeed (semolina in syrup), then you need to buy this book.

In terms of Lebanon and Syria, we are introduced to the recipes of Zahiya (who is Jafar’s friend Dana’s cook) and Rania from Damascus. Here you will find the perfect way of making the tasty Lebanese sayyadiyeh (fish with rice), the kibbeh bil siniyeh (double-layered cracked wheat with meat) and the Syrian horrak usbao (hot fingers), mhammara (crushed walnuts and red pepper dip), fatet makdous (stuffed eggplants in yogurt). For dessert, you have the Levantine basboosa (semolina cake) and goulash (phyllo stuffed with cheese).

From Iraq and Iran, we also get an insight into their eating habits, with the dolma (stuffed onions) to die for, the kubbat hamod shalgham (classic Iraqi dish), the kabab tawa (thin lamb burgers) and the Iranian’s ability to create a hundred different types of rice polow presentations, including with beans, cherries, nuts, barberries, fish and vegetables.

It is the Libyan food section however that I believe will be the most appreciated, as it is almost impossible to find a Libyan restaurant anywhere outside of the country and as Libyans tend to be very nervous about giving out their family kitchen secrets. So, thankfully, Jafar has given us clear direct instructions on how to make the shorba hassa and shorba hamra (traditional soups), mbattan (stuffed potatoes), shakshooka (eggs in spicy red sauce with dried meat), couscouy (how the Libyans do their couscous) and the spicy macaroni mbakbaka. Just in case you are a newlywed to a Libyan man, you’ll now be able to impress that difficult mother-in-law!

‘Under the Copper Covers’ is published by Rimal Publications.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2016

The Bride of Amman, Fadi Zaghmout

Includes: Insight from the Jordanian Author

It was still early days for blogging in 2006 but the then 28-year-old Jordanian Fadi Zaghmout decided to experiment with the new world of online publication and with that also the possibility of freely sharing ideas without censorship. At first not revealing his true identity, Zaghmout’s goal was to explore what it meant for him to be an ‘Arab’ beyond stereotypes and also what it would entail for him to be the self-designated ‘Observer’ of his society and culture.

‘The Arab Observer’ blog was thus born on 7 March, 20006, when the first post titled ‘Driving Home’ was written in English, which made it slightly more accessible to the liberal-leaning youth of Zaghmout’s hometown of West Amman, Jordan; and, by extension, other Arabs of a similar educational, economic and social background placed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and also outside of it.

His musings developed organically into an anthropological examining of the norms and behaviours of the 20s-to-30s age group and finding out their individual and common struggles. He said: “At the beginning I wasn’t sure how people would perceive the content I wanted to publish; but, a few months down the line, I wanted more readers for my blog, so I started promoting it amongst my friends and then building relations with other bloggers and attending bloggers meetings and becoming more visible.

“I also realised that when addressing the particular issues of body rights and sexual freedoms in Jordan, that the magazines and newspapers published in English were always better articulated than those in the Arabic. I thought this content needs to be in our language; and, thus, I chose to post in Arabic and found out that I can actually express myself even better!”

Conveying Real Experience Into Story Form

Soon Zaghmout’s artistic energy flowed into how best to convey what he was encountering in real life and the incredible stories that were showing up and pointing towards a very high emotional cost being endured by the Arab youngsters. Even doing their best to conform to a social, cultural and religious model that neither allowed for the expression of autonomous body rights nor accepted the concept of alternative sexual orientation, many of them continued to suffer in silence.

Realising the best way would be to put it in story form, he created the first of the fictional characters that would become altogether the five subjects in his first book, ‘The Bride of Amman’. Through them, he has indeed been able to bravely and courageously approach many of the taboo subjects that are not easy to talk about within modern or current Arabic public discourse.

Highly controversial when it was published in Arabic in 2012, the novel has recently been wonderfully translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp in order to extend its readership potential and go global. Just this past month of November, 2015 Zaghmout and Kemp undertook their successful United Kingdom launch tour where I was fortunate to meet them in London and get a signed copy.

In terms of now having the book in both languages, Zaghmout said: “I wrote the book in Arabic to address a Jordanian audience in specific and an Arabic audience in general. I wanted it to be a shout, a wake up call and a book that calls things as they are; and, hopefully, to help others going though such hard times as of the characters in the book.

“Whereas for the English translation, meant to bring in a foreign audience, it should be a reminder of the importance of feminism since many Westerners take gender equality issues for granted, unaware of how easy it is to slip down the patriarchy path.”

What ‘The Bride of Amman’ offers is an artistic voice – that sounds almost sweet, naïve and innocent in some of its passages – to the major dilemma faced by many Arab youth across the MENA world. It is the question of how – and whether or not it is even possible – to begin to criticise from within the strict rules imposed when it comes to the forming of any type of adult relationship. It does seem also that those who suffer the most are invariably the girls rather than the boys, but still including the latter.

Even though the tale is firmly set in the internet age with easy access to the knowledge and experience of different ways of social constructs, the pressure to obey the only one acceptable option of a relationship – that of the heterosexual marriage between two people of the exact same religion – is real and with it also the threat of social ostracism should one dare to push the boundaries or to challenge the status quo.

Through the lives of Hayat, Ali, Leila, Salma and Rana, we witness the heavy burdens of shame, fear, guilt, paranoia and stigma that are forced upon them and that lead to the compromise of their significant life decisions and all for the dire sake of fitting in. Grappling with how to circumvent the impossible ideals of a rigid patriarchy that is obsessed with the concepts of family honour, the imperative of virginity before marriage and even as to the religious confusion when it comes to different sexual orientations, it can seem that there is no happy way out.

How Fiction Transforms Into Social Activism

Sadly there are some tragic outcomes of a suicide and also of one of the girls who doesn’t get any justice whatsoever for being sexually abused by a close male relative. Zaghmout explained: “These are very important questions. The suicide scene is meant to shock the reader and raise discussion outside the book. Hayat and Layla’s ending were also meant to portray real stories that show the extent of injustice that some women endure because of cultural and social factors.”

Genuinely akin to a feminist piece of literature, the book reveals the stark inequalities towards the female gender, the lowly expectations regarding their future – where success is measured by when they become a wife or a mother – and the obvious lack of sexual freedom or ‘body rights’. But Zaghmout goes further and opens the lid onto a subject which is even more controversial, that of the unfair discrimination against and the misunderstandings towards homosexuality in the Arab world and the broader subject of LGBT rights.

Zaghmout, who now considers himself a ‘social activist’ and can boast around 370,000 Twitter followers, said: “I have been addressing these issues mainly through my writings. I believe that we are in severe need for liberal voices in the Arab world that are not afraid of talking about body and sexual rights. These voices have been marginalised and suppressed for a long time and we need more and more people to speak up so that social change can take place.”

He offers ideas that might lead to reform: “I think it is about education in schools, through literature and media. There is currently no sex education in Arab schools and people still don’t understand the difference between gender as a social construct and sex as biologically defined. There is ignorance of gender identity, sexual orientation, gender expression and sexual practices. What we have now is a rigid two templates that we want to fit all men and women in.”

Highlighting the LGBT Community in Amman

I had to ask Zaghmout about Ali, the gay character in the ‘The Bride of Amman’, who feels very confused and troubled about his innate desire for men; and, also, if he could tell me a bit about the situation for the LGBT community in Amman. He said: “There is a growing LGBT community in Jordan and many young members are becoming more courageous about coming out to their parents and friends, yet it is still dangerous to be publicly out.

“There are no laws that protect the community from any potential abuse or discrimination that is gender based. In a way the community is more mature now than years before as they are more confident and accepting of their own sexuality; but, on the other hand, there are many people who live in denial and who reject their sexuality and are still struggling to come to terms with it.

“It is usually those who don’t follow the expected gender expression in public who are subjected to rejection, such as the effeminate gay men or masculine lesbian women or members of the transsexual community. Risk can vary from potential beating and harassment in the street, to family abuse and in rare cases killings.”

As to whether or not Zaghmout himself has received any serious threats or reproach for being so outspoken, he said: “I always got negative comments on the blog and sometimes direct personal attacks, but my strategy was to not respond in kind. There was always some other reader who would step up and defend me.

“With the book, I have received so much support since its release and I have been interviewed by many different magazines and appeared on TV stations to talk about it. The only bad experience was within a local book club in Jordan, where the discussion got very heated and people became aggressive in their approach. I think the book provoked them, but that is understandable”.

This leaves one big question up for debate: Now that we can and have talked about the issues, how long and what more will it take to see a real shift in the popular Arab attitudes towards women’s rights in particular; but, also, towards the rights of everyone else to experience their sexuality without any more cultural, religious or socially imposed punishment or stigma? And what would be the necessary next step to begin such a transformation?

Zaghmout is optimistic: “There is a movement of young feminist activists that is growing all over the Arab world. It started a few years ago and needs time to mature. We still need more feminist voices in the media, in literature, and in politics. Social change doesn’t happen overnight, but we can perhaps witness its fruits in less than a decade’s time.”

You can purchase ‘The Bride of Amman’ by Fadi Zaghmout in both Arabic and English as an e-book or paperback at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/

‘The Arab Observer’ blog is still active and you can read it at: https://thearabobserver.wordpress.com/

Note: This article was first published circa December 2015