Dema One: Getting To Know The Belgian-Moroccan Street Artist & His Exploring ‘REM’

His real name is Ahmed Ahamdi but he prefers to be called Dema One, just like the signature on his artwork, be it the graffiti on a wall, a painting in a gallery or an installation piece. Recently in London, I met up with the 48 years old Belgian-Moroccan street artist where his UK solo exhibition titled ‘REM’ was on display at the P21 Gallery.

Tireless and passionate he has dedicated most of his life to the ethos of a hip hop collective known as ‘CNN 199’, a crew in existence for over 30 years that originated in and around the city of Brussels. Wherever Dema travels and whichever urban projects he undertakes, he does so in his capacity as a founding member of CNN with its strong message of empowering disadvantaged youth and vulnerable others.

One directive of the counter sub-culture is for anyone disaffected by a society, a system or other oppressive force, to go beyond the limitations imposed upon them by thinking and acting outside the box and finding ways of assertive expression without losing one’s way to negative influences. In tandem with deep inner reflection, one can tap into and harness inner strength and transform toxic environments and energies into something constructive and powerful.

Dema knows what it is like to grow up in a deprived and poor neighbourhood, where the lure of drugs, gangs and violence is everywhere; and, when, the political and economic systems have failed you. The challenge becomes how you find a way out to avoid further disadvantage, criminality, trouble with the police or dying young from an overdose or an attack, as happened to some of his contemporaries.

He relayed to me a significant period during his teenage years when Roger Nols, the Mayor of his town of Schaerbeekin in Brussels, had instigated a vendetta and public harassment campaign against the local North African community, suggesting that they leave Belgium and go back to where their parents came from. He used billboards to insult them with images of camels.

Dema: “That was my first struggle to fight against this ultra-right Mayor and the police who sided with him because we were the sons of immigrants. We tagged all the buildings in the city with our graffiti to make a statement that he is no one to us and to tell him and the police to ‘f**k off! It didn’t’ seem fair that the Moroccans were being targeted and told that we’re not wanted.”

“It began like this until I realised that I could do more than just tagging or vandalising… I could use Arabic calligraphy. So for the first time in 1991, I wrote in Arabic the word meaning ‘brothers’ in a little local square; and, when all the white people came and asked me why are you writing in Arabic, I said because it is my roots and I want to show with this calligraffiti that we can live and grow up together and make something together. I painted everywhere in town in Brussels.”

With time Dema’s work has evolved with his brush strokes and spray paint becoming bolder, more confidant and vibrant, as well as drawing upon Arabic poetry and the art of storytelling. With it too he has developed a philosophic and practical approach to belonging to two different cultures and sensibilities, exploring multiple identities and how to resolve one’s sense of inner and outer exile.

Dema: “My work is a mix of East and West culture, about tradition and modernity, graffiti and calligraphy. I try to mix Latin and Arabic letters to have my way; not just a way, but my way and to fulfil my goal. I want to transmit and educate people to communicate with each other and not be afraid to confront and exchange ideas and philosophies. It is to have a better life and a better society.”

For the past seven years, in particular, Dema has been involved with youth organisations and charities in Belgium as well as worldwide commissioned urban assignments and artistic interventions. He is highly sought after for the way he conducts his workshops and engages with marginalised children and communities, schools and inmates too. He has led projects in the United States (Washington DC), Europe (Belgium, UK), South America (Rio De Janeiro, Brazil) Africa (Morocco, Benin), and Asia (United Arab Emirates). His next trip will be to Dakar, Senegal.

One notable experience for him was working with the youngsters of the Molenbeek Saint-Jean district in Brussels, which had become a notorious town due to the fact that the perpetrators and planners of several terrorist attacks in France and Belgium had come from there; including, those behind the November 2015 Paris attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, the March 2016 Brussels Airport attack and connections to Charles Hebdo attack.

Dema: “When there was an incredible amount of negative media coverage of the Muslim community within Molenbeek, I was contacted by the Youth Service who offered me a studio in exchange for working with the youngsters in areas that were predominantly North African.

“I tried to show these boys and girls that through graffiti and art they can have a new vision of life and emancipate themselves. I tried to open their minds to say there are many ways to achieve your goals, despite what schools might teach them. I open the space and say to them ‘Don’t worry if you fall once or twice, no matter what, you can get up again and succeed.”

Thus engaging with communities at the root level, Dema’s desire is to change the way people think and therefore how they might behave. He gives useful tools and offers plain honest motivation. He said to me: “If I can save one child, I will be happy.”

Exploring ‘REM’ (Resilience, Exile, Mutation) at the P21 Gallery

Turning to the exhibition at the P21 Gallery, it brought Dema’s take on the ‘REM’ concepts of resilience, exile and mutation, with reference to both his personal cross-cultural journey as well as that of the countless others who have had to traverse the earth alone and face the unknown. Curated by Zalia Zogheib, the works included his calligraffiti on the walls, with paintings and installations.

Set up so that viewers follow the psychological stages of embarking on a major journey, the display touched upon the mental and physical aspects of travelling and the risks involved. In the front room, for example, was the installation referring to a famous poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish on the state of feeling and thinking that you don’t belong.

Cut out from a blue translucent plastic material with the words in Arabic, the quote says: “I am from there, I am from here but I am neither there nor here. I have two names which meet and part, I have two languages, I forget which of them I dream in.” This is the beginning of the existential angst that will determine whether or not you decide to leave.

Moving on to the next wall, one encountered three sets of triptychs and two paintings to reflect mainly on the idea of resilience when one is in the midst of danger; and, also, when there is a need to overcome anger or rage at injustice or unfairness. Here the issue becomes how do you go forwards without turning into further victimisation and violence; and, also, how do you address the symptoms of a lived trauma. Among these triptychs was a tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire with a dedicated poem by the Nigerian writer Ben Okri.

Offering some more insight into this wall, Zogheib, who was with us on the day of the interview, said: “These triptychs represent the mental preparation that you might go through before you start your journey. These are all the fears and why we refer to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Also, we have the idea of one’s hopes and dreams prior to departure and one’s expectations of what will happen at the end.”

Walking further along was another installation called ‘Borders’, formed by a collection of nineteen Arabic words that have been cut out of translucent pink plastic and which hang from the ceiling. Some of the words were: Escape, Survive, Die, Cross, Love, Violence, Border, Illusion, Constraints and Identity.

Dema: “This is when you set foot somewhere new and must undergo a process of transitioning. This is the most intense phase because it also means you have overcome the many hurdles to reach your destination. All the words try to convey the ‘in-between’ phase”.

In the lower space of the gallery there was another installation titled ‘REM’. This was an unusual four-sided structure made of translucent white felt material, where one finds a play of lights, shadows and reflections on the inside; and, where, also, one sees the word ‘Human’ written in four languages (Arabic, English, French and Amazigh) and then on the ground, the words ‘Resilience, Exile, Mutation.’

Dema: “When you cross the mountain, the sea or the borders, you achieve your way when you find yourself; and, that is reflected in the eyes of others and how they see you as a human, and not like an immigrant, escapee or survivor. You may be a survivor, escapee or immigrant, but the people see you with your name. It is about tolerance, resilience and sharing”.

Zogheib: “Throughout the journey and the inherent pain, the loss and loneliness, you get to a point when you realise that at the end of the journey, well I am resilient, I am adaptable, I mutate. It is a reference to how when you leave your country, even if you come back, you have changed. Whatever you do, you change. And that is all inherently human. We are human. We adapt. We are resilient.”

There were other items in the exhibition, including a video covering Dema’s trip to Benin in West Africa, and an installation titled ‘The Wisdom of Knowing Where I Come From’. This latter, in fact, offered the best image to leave with in one’s mind, as it incorporated photos of Dema’s Moroccan family (originally from Targuist and emigrated to Europe circa the 1950s and 1960s) on the one hand, and photos of his young Belgian CNN crew on the other, at the start of his journey 30 years ago. It perfectly sums up the wisdom he has acquired over that time and why he is now on a mission to impart his knowledge and skills to others.

Note: The ‘REM’ exhibition was sponsored by La Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles in Brussels, the Watan Foundation in London and other private sponsors. It took place at the P21 Gallery 2-24 August, 2019.

Note: Dema One has been to London before and held workshops and mural paintings for children and adults in collaboration with Global Street Art, the Migration Museum, the Faith & Belief Forum and King’s College London.

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

For more information about Dema One: https://demaone.org/

Dear Refugee – Book Review & Interview with Poet Amir Darwish

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

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

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

In one of the most beautiful passages, Darwish writes:

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

And ends it with this line:

Like a human I come to share the space.

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

The Poet’s Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018

Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

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

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

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

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

    

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

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

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Benshatwan: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library. This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017.

For more information about Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017

Saleem Haddad: Author Opens Up About Debut Novel ‘Guapa’

Living in a politically volatile city in the Middle East, a young Arab drag queen – who is by day a tireless human rights activist – is arrested by the police in the early hours of the morning for being at a cinema which is a cruising spot for working class men. He is subjected to intrusive questioning and cruel abuse by the insertion of an egg-like contraption into his rectum to test and gage his homosexuality.

Once released, though, he doesn’t make a fuss of what has happened to him. Rather, he continues with his work via an international NGO to expose local government human rights’ violations. He is also not afraid to keep performing his drag queen act at Guapa, the queer nightclub that is home to all outcasts. A brave and proud soul, he will never deny his alternative sexuality even in a hostile environment and putting his life at further risk.

The drag queen is, of course, Maj and he is both real and not real, just like all the other characters and the events in Saleem Haddad’s debut novel ‘Guapa’. Written in the vulnerable male voice of Rasa, who confides about his gay love pain, Haddad expertly creates imaginary figures to reflect on the competing facets of Arab society, the culture and its conservative mores. It also depicts the political, economic and religious forces at war in the MENA region today.

‘Guapa’ readers will sense many a déjà vu moment as the unnamed city in the background can just as easily be Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Tunis or Cairo, that we have all either visited, lived in or seen through our computers and TV screens. This Arab city, its inhabitants and the dynamics at large are all in our collective subconscious anyway and don’t’ need to be pinned down to one place, as Haddad rightly makes this literary choice in an engaging and timely tale.

Rasa’s emotional torment and the unrequited love which threatens his reason and sanity is the main theme that enables Haddad to firstly capture our hearts – for love is love and it doesn’t’ discriminate. But as gay relations are taboo in most Middle Eastern countries, Haddad explores the not so public but private terrain from an insider perspective, as he himself is a gay Arab male who had to keep his sexuality hidden throughout his young adulthood until one day he found the courage to come out to his family and friends.

Connecting with our intellect too ‘Guapa’ features the arguments of the great known thinkers like Edward Said and Amin Maalouf on what influences the Arab identity vis-à-vis the Western world. When Rasa finds himself at a university in America in the aftermath of 9/11, he becomes the victim of ignorant prejudice and distrust by fellow students and it makes him realise that he may never be able to fully fit in there.

From Berlin, Haddad was kind enough to answer my questions in anticipation of taking part in the Shubbak Literature talk titled ‘A New Confidence’, where he will be joined by Alexandra Chreiteh, Amahl Khouri and Alberto Fernández Carbajal to discuss recent queer writings.

Nahla: What is it really like for the LGBT communities in the Middle East? Is there more freedom in some countries and not others or would you say it is oppressive in all of them?

Haddad: “What are we talking about when we talk about ‘freedom’? Freedom from what exactly? Freedom from community? From government? From society? And what do we lose when we free ourselves from society? That sort of freedom can be very lonely and these are the sorts of dilemmas the characters in Guapa are grappling with. And what about the concept of ‘oppression’? Oppression is multi-faceted and is not as simple as victim and perpetrator. I find it more useful to look at oppression as systems and structures that are dynamic and constantly changing.

“I also believe that the binary of ‘freedom’ and ‘oppression’ is not a useful way of looking at any situation, including that of LGBT communities in the Middle East. In any case, it’s impossible to speak on behalf of millions of LGBT individuals across the Arab world. I think it’s important to recognise the diversity of experiences and how elements like social class, geography and politics play into the experiences of LGBT communities. This is certainly something I tried to do in the book.”

Nahla: Rasa is self-loathing both when he is living in the Middle East and when he is in the West. Is this unique to his character or is it a common emotional experience for people of alternative sexualities in the Middle East due to the wide spread concept of shame and sin?

Haddad: “Rasa is a sensitive and self-aware character and in my experience sensitivity and self-awareness always bring a certain degree of self-loathing. But certainly he is battling shame, particularly around his sexuality, which he had to keep hidden from a very young age. I think gay shame is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the Arab world. I was certainly interested in exploring shame from a Middle Eastern communal context. But gay shame, sadly, remains a facet of the global LGBT community in various forms.”

Nahla: Tell me about Taymour’s character and the choice he makes to get married, deny his homosexuality and reject Rasa. Is he an archetype of something?

Haddad: “Taymour represents a certain type of fear that drives citizens to conform. It’s the same type of fear that propels Arab parents to make sure their sons study medicine or engineering and the fear that drives them to push their daughters into marrying into the ‘right’ kind of family.

“It’s the fear that drives citizens to support someone like Egypt’s President Sisi, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or any of the sectarian militias-cum-political-parties in Lebanon. Taymour is a representation of that sort of fear, the fear that compels people to social and political conformity. I wanted to sympathise with this conformity, I wanted to understand it, and understand why someone like Rasa might gravitate towards it.”

Nahla: The background city in Guapa experiences uprisings and a civil war situation. How were you involved in the movements circa 2011 in the Middle East?

Haddad: “I was in Beirut when the uprisings began in Tunisia and in London when the Egyptian uprising began—which is when coverage was the highest. Once the protests started in Yemen, a country I spent a lot of time working in, I tried to use my knowledge of the country to lobby British politicians and policymakers to support the uprisings. And as they progressed, I began to work with an NGO that worked with youth and women activists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But in many cases I found myself stuck in an odd position, as both an outsider and an insider. In many ways, it was a good position from which to write this sort of novel.”

Nahla: Do you see yourself as an LGBT activist? What are the challenges facing the LGBT rights movement in the MENA region?

Haddad: “I don’t see myself as an LGBT activist, though I recognise that having published the novel I am a voice for the community. Still, it is not a title I am comfortable with. In the end, I am a writer and if I am seen as a representative of anything, I will only disappoint. There are many brave LGBT activists and allies of the LGBT community who are working tirelessly through the region that are doing fantastic work, much more than anything I have ever done – they are too many to name.

“But I have heard from the LGBT community in the region that the novel has struck a chord with many of them, and so I’m proud for the novel to be part of a growing queer Arab culture.”

Nahla: In the novel, Rasa entertains the fantasy of escape with his lover to a Western country where he thinks their sexuality won’t be a problem. And, in your own life, you live in the UK with your partner. But what is it really like for the gay Arab person who is unable to make such an escape and is bombarded by religious and cultural forces that negate his homosexuality?

Haddad: “Is my sexuality not an issue in the UK? The only time I have been called a faggot and threatened with violence was in London, just fifteen metres from my house in Hackney. Though certainly, the situation for LGBT communities in the West is much better than in the Arab world. And from my own experience, growing up as a sensitive and slightly effeminate young boy in Kuwait and Jordan, I faced some relentless bullying and violence at the hands of other boys who sought to punish me for not fulfilling social ideals of masculinity.

“But I think we should try to avoid simplistic binaries that assume the West equals freedom and the Arab world equals violence and death. As for how to tackle homophobia in the Arab world, I would caution any sweeping statements about homophobia in the Arab world being driven purely by religion. I think homophobia in the Arab world is best understood by examining the unique cocktail of authoritarianism, ignorance, and misogyny – which affects all people in the region in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees. Thus, in tackling homophobia, I think we need to tackle all three of these elements.”

Nahla: I was very intrigued by the character of the mother who runs away from her son and husband without an explanation as to why. Can you tell me what inspired her personality and which archetype does she represent?

Haddad; “The mother character was probably the hardest character to write. I suppose because in many ways she represents a certain sensitivity and radical truth that I myself had to hide from society at a very young age. I learned the hard way that to be a man in the Arab world, one must not show sensitivity, and to be a citizen in the Arab world, one must shy away from the pursuit of truth at any cost. So in many ways, the fate of Rasa’s mother is reflective of how the characters – not just Teta, but Rasa and his father as well – chose to deal with their sensitivity and their fear of facing truth.”

Nahla: One last question. Who inspired the character of Maj?

Haddad: “Many friends inspired the character of Maj; but, fundamentally, I suppose Maj was inspired by the kind of person I aspire to be.”

——-

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017 in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival

For more information on the Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Barakah Meets Barakah: The Young Saudi Trio Behind the Film Speak to Nahla Ink

Like the mysterious woman hidden under a fine silk abaya, Saudi Arabia is the country cloaked in expensive outer wear but that doesn’t give away too much. Although we can smell the fragrance of her woody-scented oud, we can never quite imagine the beauty that might be beneath. With the exception of Mecca and Medina that reveal the religious pilgrim trail, the rest of Saudi seems to exist in a parallel universe that the rest of us are unable to fathom.

The lack of a visual reference point has also added to the problem. In terms of world cinema, only one film production originating in Saudi has ever made it to the big wide international screen in the past few years. ‘Wadjda’ (2012) by Haifaa Al Mansour was the first feature film shot entirely in the Kingdom and the first ever made by a female Saudi director. Now the good news is that we have a new movie made in Saudi and created by a young terrific trio that opens up the country in a new and a very much up-to-date kind of way.

Directed by the 33-year-old Mahmoud Sabbagh, ‘Barakah Meets Barakah’ is the romantic story between a rich pretty Saudi girl named Bibi – who is an Instagram video blogger and local star – and the young frustrated government employee, Barakah, who falls in love with her. The tale sees the hilarious difficulties they encounter in trying to have a proper date in a city where public space is under constant surveillance and where the moral police are on the look out for any suspicious behaviour lest it goes against the strict religious dictates.

Played by Fatima Al-Banawi and Hisham Fageeh and set in Jeddah, we gain an insight into the lives of both the very rich Saudis who live in gilded mansions with easy access to designer labels and international travel and the less well-off who are a bit more restricted. But even with her online fame and wealth, Bibi can only post images and videos on Instagram that don’t fully reveal her gorgeous face or her sexy figure. There is also the use of pixelated images in the film as a reminder of that which must be self-censored to avoid the wrath of the ever-watchful government.

           

‘Barakah Meets Barakah’ is a film that also deals with how the young generation of Saudis are responding to the new communication technologies and the use of online social media platforms. It explores how the virtual space is spilling over into their local reality and perhaps opening the way for a social revolution to be led by the millennials. With light humour, Sabbagh has directed something vey special, touching and timely that dares to challenge our perceptions of exactly what could be under that fine silk abaya.

Very much honoured, I met with the fresh-faced trio at the BFI London Film Festival and had five minutes to interview each of them to get their thoughts on the film. Already, ‘Barakah Meets Barakah’ has been screened at the Berlinale for its world premiere, the Toronto International Film Festival and in Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Brazil and now London. They are also in the process of submitting it for ‘Best Foreign Language’ film at the Oscars!

Nahla With Director Mahmoud Sabbagh

Nahla: What is it like for youngsters in Saudi today? Is the culture more open than what it used to be?

Sabbagh: “I would say it is very challenging to live in Saudi as a young person. We are the millennial generation and we have less privileges economically, socially and politically. We are kind of the voiceless generation and the generation that actually came after the oil boom. It is tougher for us to create our own opportunities.

“That being said and addressed, I think also that it is interesting times to be in Saudi because it is evolving at a very phenomenal pace. The big change is happening in the undercurrents with the internet and social media sweeping the country. There is a big phenomena of usage. Because we don’t’ have a very open public space, the kids use social media and the internet as an alternative.

“So they meet there, they interact and they are exposed to different narratives and different realities and they create their own stuff… This is very well reflected in the Youtube scene, maybe one of the most vibrant and prolific Youtube content is coming from Saudi Arabia in the Arab world. There is the comedy and the music, for example, and I think this is going to evolve into something more meaningful and into real cinema”

Nahla: The online world is uncensored, but is there still a need for self-censorship when it comes to Saudi?

Sabbagh: “You feel it and you cannot articulate it. I come from a journalism background, so I tend to know what are the red lines, what should we push or shouldn’t push at the moment. There are social constraints and there are political constraints. But I would say that Saudi also fairly enjoys a very critical culture, in the press, through social media and in Youtube content. There is a lot of social commentary and also very brave political commentary allowing for interaction.

“We also have a new leadership, a de facto deputy crown prince who is only 31 years old, who speaks our language and speaks our tone, who is addressing the problems we have as youth. His name is Mohammed Bin Salman. He was very vocal about how the government should change and he is participating in this critical culture, so this is a positive thing.”

Nahla: Why use humour?

Sabbagh: “I use humour as a tactic because it opens to a broader audience and it is universal. Although the film has lots of comedic lines, in the undercurrents, you can see the disarray and the discontent. I use humour because we should face our own challenges by mocking them and making fun of them. Not to appease to the West or Western values or Eastern values, but for us to distort the power paradigm through humour.”

Nahla: What is your next project?

Sabbagh: “I will still do films from Saudi and real stories from Saudi because we are among the least told about societies in the world. We should make films from home and I understand the need. I will continue to do the same with a small budget, small crew but tackle very open and honest stories.”

Nahla With Actress Fatima Al Banawi

Nahla: How is social media changing the lives of young Saudis?

Al Banawi: “It has created something like a virtual public space for people to meet up. It is interesting that at the end of the night, you can open Twitter and feel you are not alone. Your thoughts are mutual and you feel one another. There is a sort of dialogue happening. Even if it started in the virtual world, it has definitely had an extension to our actual realities.

“One of the most important things you would do however is to make the social media an extension of your reality and not the opposite way. You need a lot of concentration and a lot of time management and work, for it in your own reality to do something worthy of sharing on social media. So the focus doesn’t become sharing, the focus becomes on producing and working on something tangible and real and heartfelt.”

Nahla: Tell me about social segregation between the sexes in Saudi?

Al Banawi: “No, you are told by people that are not us. That is why the film is so highly important. We have been brought up watching films and literature being written about us but not by us and rarely would I watch something on the big screen and feel or identify with it as true or real.

“Not to say that our film is to be generalised upon a thirty million population; but, of course, it is a true, raw, real and heartfelt depiction of Saudi people, of a group of Saudi people of a certain population in Saudi. So we are Saudis and this film is Saudi and it makes a difference because it is coming from the region and not to the region about it.”

Nahla: How long have you known Mahmoud and Hisham? What was it like to work with them?

Al Banawi: “I’ve known Mahmoud as an old family friend since ten years and Hisham for about six years, when he moved back from the United States. It was these conversations about our generation and the art that brought us together and I was familiar with both of their works. I also believed in the project knowing there will be a social element to the film. So when I pursued this, it was more from my side a social contribution to this dialogue between people and between cultures of different backgrounds and traditions.”

Nahla: Can you also tell me more about the humour in the film?

Al Banawi: “Mahmoud wanted to write a film about public space which is what the film talks about. But of course it is hard to tackle public space in a film format, otherwise it will be more like a documentary. So Hisham has a very nice witty kind of humour character and I feel like his energy was nicely brought into this film, in the sense that you would see him and you would laugh at certain facial expressions for example.

“Also the other characters in the film master this natural humour. One of the nice things about this film is that it is local, so that a lot of the locals would watch it and laugh at certain humour that maybe the international audience would not laugh at. The international audience might laugh at a different part of the film, while the locals would feel otherwise.”

Nahla: What about young romance in Saudi?

Al Banawi: “These things have changed. As Hisham mentioned, he met his wife online on Twitter and they are happily married now. This kind of gives you a glimpse of how social media has an extension outside of the screen and directly applied in our own realities, which is very important for me.

“When social media first started, I was careful and I didn’t want to feel that I had a reality that was only inside a screen. It was very important for me and very responsible of me that I wanted to make the extension and to work on the extension and not what is happening inside the screen.”

Nahla With Actor Hisham Fageeh

Nahla: Tell me, is there a sign of social change taking place in Saudi?

Fageeh: “Change is inevitable and I think that is what you will see in the movie. Sometimes change can be for the progress of specific people or sometimes it is a regression for specific people. It all depends, but change is imminent and it is always happening. Whether you call that progress is based on your value system that is subjective and fluid. It is definitely different from 1994 and it will be different in another ten years.”

Nahla: What are your views about social media and the impact it is having on young Saudis?

Fageeh: “I have made a career out of social media! I met my wife on social media. I was living in New York and she was living in the Eastern Province and we started following each other because we liked each other’s tweets. We met up and then we dated when I got back to Saudi Arabia. She was tweeting about Kendrick Lamar lyrics, and the things that we both identified with. As Fatima says, it creates a track record or a breadcrumb trail relating to different societies and different niche groups.”

‘Barakah Meets Barakah’ was screened twice as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2016.

The team hope that it will continue to travel the world and perhaps even win that Oscar gong!

For more on the BFI LFF: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff

Charlotte Desorgher: Choreographer Who Is Elevating Middle Eastern Belly Dance to a New Theatrical Potential

As a professional dance choreographer one of the greater milestones is to be able to create a genius enough production that is worthy of being staged at Sadler’s Wells. Recognised as one of the world’s top venues dedicated to international dance, only the very best of ballet, flamenco, hip-hop, jazz, Latin and other forms is allowed on its London platform with a standard that requires no less than artistic perfection. So it was that when I met Charlotte Desorgher, she had just realised this very big aspiration.

Modest, energetic and friendly in person with a twinkle in her eye, she relayed to me the start of her passionate love affair with belly dance and the Middle East as well as revealing the great efforts and time it has taken her to finally get to this stage to be able to see her latest production ‘Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights’ being performed for two nights at Sadler’s Wells.

‘Scheherazade’ is Desorgher’s brave experimental take on belly dance based on the vision and desire to elevate the exotic feminine dance form to a higher theatrical level that has hitherto not been achieved in the UK. She said: “My dream for a long time has been to tell the wider world about belly dance and I want to take it out particularly to the Western world and the wide general public in the same way that Michael Flatley did with Irish dancing in Riverdance. He made it spectacular and people saw Irish dancing in a new way.”

Desorgher’s credentials today can be matched by very few other dance experts in the UK and possibly far beyond. Since her first synchronistic exposure to belly dance in 1981, when the then 22-year-old Charlotte visited an Arab nightclub in Grosvenor Square and saw a belly dancer, she was determined to learn the technique, immerse herself in its history, development and culture as well as to teach it to as many women as possible for them also to be able to enjoy and share in the fun of it.

She said: “The club I visited in 1981 was a completely magical place called ‘The Empress’. There were long tables and all nationalities of Arab men and women as well as a stage and orchestra. It was the beginning of the oil boom and the Arabs, especially from the Gulf, had a lot of money. There too they would bring lots of singers and dancers and I saw some famous Egyptian performers there. It was very heady for me and I loved seeing the way Arabs get completely into the music.”

At the time, Desorgher had always dreamed of being a ballerina and had trained in ballet from the age of five, but by the age of fifteen it was clear that she was never going to have a tiny English ballerina body. As she says: “I grew hips!” So she decided to go into dance teaching instead and followed the classic European route. At the Froebel Institute of Roehampton University, she learned about contemporary dance and theory as well as the Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham techniques. But it was this new and rather strange dance that had captured her heart and imagination.

Desorgher: “When I first saw a belly dancer, it was an epiphany because I thought that this is a dance for a woman with hips and it is a dance where you can get in touch with that sensual womanliness. You can have hips, a bit of belly and boobs. I just thought this is totally for me! So then I taught myself belly dance because there was nobody teaching it back in those days.”

Fast forward thirty-five years with a little time out, Desorgher is the authority to go to for all things belly dance. Over time, she has not only trained herself but thousands of others at the professional, semi-professional and beginners levels. She is the Founder-Director of ‘Hipsinc’, the largest belly dance school in the UK with branches throughout the country since 2007, and the Founder-Artistic Director of ‘Company of Dream’s which is behind the production of ‘Scheherazade’.

The Origins of Belly Dance and Its Heyday

Although nobody knows the exact origins of belly dance, it has been associated with both the goddess myth and birth celebrations. According to Desorgher, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was part of birthing rituals. Like the Lamaze technique that helps to make childbirth pain free, a lot of the exercises are the exact same movements used in belly dance. For example, rocking the pelvis helps to release contractions and belly rolls help to get rid of cramps.

It is also agreed that belly dance originated somewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with the most likely locations being either Egypt or Turkey. There is also the probability that the Moors took it along North Africa and up to Spain as some say that Flamenco is the daughter of belly dance. Traditionally, also, belly dance was done by women with each other at home and didn’t have any overt sexual connotations.

Desorgher explained: “If you consider that the dance comes from the Muslim world, of course men and women are separate and women dance for each other. There is a suggestion that what happened was that circa WWII, when the British soldiers heard about the women doing this exotic dance, they wanted to see it and some women needed the money. So they started to perform for the British and the French soldiers and it started to get associated with the sex industry.“

One can say that belly dance had its heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s, when in Cairo particularly and through Egyptian cinema some terrific female belly dancers gained an artistic appreciation for their work as actresses who added an incredible dimension to the films and were almost revered. These included Samia Gamal, who had a longstanding romantic relationship with the famous Syrian composer Farid Al Atrash, Tahia Carioca and Suheir Zaki. More recently, Fifi Abdou and Dina Talaat are recognised as talented belly dancers.

Over time, however, belly dance has become more sexualised. I asked Desorgher what her views are about this. She said: “It is true that the costumes are now skimpier and there is lots of breast enhancement as well, so it is kind of more overtly sexual. But, for me, as a trained musician, one of the great things is the way that when you are belly dancing, what we are trying to show the audience is what is happening in the music that is unique to belly dance.

”For example, when the flute plays, we use our hands to show what the flute instrument is doing. Also with the kanun, we shimmy our shoulders. It is all about describing what is happening in the orchestra in a way that you don’t see in any other dance form… this attempt to show the detail of the music and all the little isolations. It is sexy yes but it is also to present the rhythm of the tabla.”

Turning Belly Dance Into A Dramatic Performance Piece

Desorger admits that there are some limitations in imagining belly dance being performed on the big stage and felt the need to incorporate other types of dance movements to make it more dynamic. Another problem for her was that the standards for belly dance on the international level were nowhere as high as those of say professional salsa, ballet, contemporary and jazz.

She said: “I started to think that although belly dance is a wonderful thing as an experiential dance form and also for the women who come to my classes to learn, performance dance is very different. Also when I once talked to the Editor of ‘Dancing Times’ and wanted him to do a feature on my work with my team, he said he would never cover it because the standards are not high enough. I was upset but realised he was right.

“If you think about the dancers on say ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, there is always a wow with real explosive energy and excitement, whereas belly dance is a bit more internalised and softer. To make it bigger and to achieve the dream of taking belly dance out to the wider world, I had to, for example, bring guys in as I do also have a thing for lifts. If you think about ‘Strictly’, everybody loves the lifts and romantic duets! I have also added a bit of ballet and jazz.”

To raise the standards, Desorgher invited some of the very best belly dancers in London, including one male dancer to join her in the quest to create something spectacular. Since 2012, they have been working together and when an Arts Council grant came, they knew there was no going back. Pulling things from other dance forms has enabled them to create a theatrical production that promises to excite, entertain and fascinate everyone.

Desorgher said: “When you come to see our show, you will see the belly dance but there is other stuff in there. I wouldn’t call it a fusion but a blend. I like to think that I am taking belly dance beyond rather than just sticking other stuff into it. We did the pilot in May this year and it sold out for one night and people went mad for it!”

‘Scheherazade’ includes fifteen female and two male dancers and they come from many different countries, including Russia, Poland, Barbados, France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. One of them is also a fire artist and illusionist who will bring fire on the stage and snakes too. Together, they will be reinterpreting the ancient tale of the woman who had to seduce a king with her tales in order for him not to kill her. It is as we know a story filled with drama, conflict, cruelty but also with love and a happy ending.

For Desorgher, however, there is just that one extra hope for the production. She said: “One of the things I would love is to bring in people from the Middle Eastern community in London to come and attend. I can’t say I am trying to overcome the negative stereotypes of people from the Middle East by that story but I want to see people together in the theatre and rubbing shoulders.”

I personally cannot wait to attend ‘Scheherazade’ and I hope that the tireless Desorgher achieves her next big ambition, which is to roll it out to other UK cities and potentially to Europe and the Middle East itself where the dance has been practised for centuries and still forms an integral part of many celebrations.

For more information on the Company of Dreams: http://companyofdreams.net/

Note: This article was first published circa September 2016

Hannah Khalil: Palestinian-Irish Playwright on ‘Scenes from 68 Years’

I had the privilege to meet up with the Palestinian-Irish playwright Hannah Khalil this week in London a day before the opening of her latest production ‘Scenes from 68 Years’. A project that has been in development for over five years, it went through several stages to secure all the necessary funding and for the script to be artistically developed to a tee. It is being produced by Sandpit Arts.

Here she tells me more about the inspiration behind her latest theatrical creation, her hopes for the play, the choice of cast, intended audience and the use of that signature black humour in tackling the very complex story of Palestine and its people.

Whether you are one of Khalil’s avid followers – who frequently attend her plays or listen in to her productions on BBC Radio 4 – or new to her work, this will be a must attend for Londoners. It promises to be the freshest, liveliest and most dynamic theatrical treatment to date that looks sharply yet lovingly into the lives of Palestinians whose historical journey has seen them live under and survive a brutal occupation over the passage of 68 years.

For the award-winning Khalil, ‘Scenes from 68 Years’ is her fourth major play being put on a big London stage, following the earlier works of ‘Leaving Home’ (at King’s Head Theatre), ‘The Unofficial Guide’ (at Battersea Arts Centre) and ‘Plan D’ (at Tristan Bates Theatre). This latest production will also be the second project to be directed by Chris White, who is not just the playwright’s artistic partner but also her husband of eight years.

One unusual element for the audience is that one of the cast members will be performing every night via Skype from a base in Nazareth. The Palestinian Maisa Abd Elhad will be making an online debut as she interacts with the other six also highly esteemed actors. Tackling the challenge of completing 30-plus scenes and 50-plus characters in 100 minutes, the other cast members are: Yasen Atour, Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, Janine Harouni, Pinar Ogun, Mateo Oxley and Peter Polycarpou.

Nahla: Can you give me an example of one of the scenes, your inspiration and the artistic approach you have taken in creating the play.

Khalil: “For all the scenes, I wanted to set up a scenario where the audience think they know the version of the Arab world and Palestine that is being portrayed; but that, by the end of each scene, their expectations have been undercut. That is what I am trying to do. Also, bar none, these scenes are based on real stories that have been given to me by somebody or based on research and or anecdotal evidence.

“One example scene is of a little girl who is all covered up in bandages and she calls on her father for help because she is feeling uncomfortable. So the audience presume that she has been in some kind of a horrible accident or something to do with the war. But the end of the scene, you realise that actually her father is a doctor who in 1948 was helping resistance fighters learn first aid and that the girl was being used as a test dummy.

“The writing of the scenes was in fact very quick and easy but the devil of the play is getting those scenes that are seemingly unlinked into a framework and order that gives a dramatic satisfaction, without having one character whose journey you are following through. It is about getting a form whereby you have a moment of climax where you need to have it and a moment of pathos where you need to have it also.”

Nahla: Can you tell me more about the characters in the play?

Khalil: “Only two characters are named in the script. One is Rula and the other one is Nadia. Otherwise, everyone is called as ‘man’, ‘soldier’, ‘friendly soldier’, ‘woman’, ‘daughter’, ‘mother’. They are all non-specific, because the idea is to give a sense of what it is like to live under occupation and not just necessarily for the Palestinians but also for the Israelis as well, although they don’t’ get as much of a look in.

“There are in fact two family scenes which are set up in counterpoint to one another. In one there is a table in an Israeli household with a teenage girl and her parents and in the second a Palestinian household with two teenage boys and their mother. They were written as a pair of scenes and I hope they resonate for the audience, to see the similarities between them and especially regarding the wants and needs of young people.”

Nahla: Being half-Palestinian, do you feel an artistic responsibility to tackle the subject of Palestine?

Khalil: “In my twenties when I first started writing plays, I avoided writing about Palestine like the plague because I was very scared of it. Everyone still asks me about the situation in Palestine and almost wanting me to be a spokesperson. But I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge. I felt very uncomfortable about it.

“But later on I met Chris White, the man who is now my husband, who gently encouraged me to explore it by offering books, seminars and other things. So suddenly I did loads and loads of work and research and was fascinated to learn the history of Palestine and now I feel really equipped to write about it.

“It is possible that some Palestinians might watch this play and think that here is an opportunity to bang the drum for Palestine and that I am not doing it hard enough. But my argument will always be that I am not actually writing for people who know what is going on. I am writing for a middle class English person who goes to the theatre and is terrified and doesn’t’ want to engage with Palestine because it is too much.

“But, of course, there is so much to it and you may be afraid to go there because you feel you have to spend too much time and effort to make sense of the situation and understand it, so let’s ignore it. But what I really hope this play does for such an audience member is to make them laugh. I have tried to make this a funny play so that anyone watching, please laugh!”

Nahla: Are the scenes chronological and do you refer to any particular historical passage?

Khalil: “The scenes are not chronological and I consciously don’t refer to things like BDS but the Nakba is referred to. Every scene has a date at the top of it but this was done more for the director and the actors so they understand the time and place of that scene, whether it is pre-second intifada or post and what has happened around it.

“But for the audience, I don’t want them to be afraid for not knowing those details. Actually, the point I am making is whether it is 1949 or whether 2015, the situation for the Palestinians is the same. They are still in the same position and nothing has changed or hasn’t changed enough! So the dates are just to help the audience locate the scenes, as there are so many different places and we can’t be too specific.”

Nahla: Can you tell me more about the use of humour in the script? Does humour defuse the difficulty and complexity of the subject?

Khalil: “I don’t’ set out trying to be funny but I do set out to find the truth. I think because I am half-Palestinian and half-Irish, they are both backgrounds that find humour from bleakness. I am really inspired by Samuel Beckett and that whole Beckettian way of existence and being that is sadly reminiscent of the Palestinian condition; that of being in stasis but having to remain good humoured and having that dreaded hope that keeps you going.

“Theatre is also different from documentaries, hard news or even feature films, in that theatre is for metaphor, it is for symbolism, it is for the live experience and the immediacy of that live experience… and that is why I am so excited for having Maisa in Palestine.

“What I am hoping that will do is to make people think: ‘Hold on a minute, are we sat here watching a play and it is all pretend; but, that actually, this is a play about Palestine and there is someone who is actually there now, whose life is affected by all the things that are being described in this play?’”

Nahla: What about the cast, rehearsals and preparations for the big day? And what is it like to work with director Chris White?

Khalil: “Part of the reason why I started writing plays about Palestine was not just to explore it for myself but also to try and write great roles for Arab actors or actors of colour, because there are just not those parts for them or not good ones. How many times am I hearing my friends who are Arab say: ‘Yes, I have my hijab on for an audition for a crying mother.’ It is really reductive. So I want to write great and interesting parts and unusual parts, which are all in this play. Of the cast, four are Arab actors (Maisa, Taghrid, Yasen and Janine) and Peter who is Cypriot, Mateo who is English and Pinar who is Turkish.

“What is also so humbling and gratifying is that when I last went to the set, I started to cry and got really emotional, partly because they were all doing such a great job. But it wasn’t just about the cast but the whole production team, including the production manager, stage manager, sound designer, our PR and producer. They all believe in the play and are working hard to try to bring it to life. It also means that I have gone to buy waterproof mascara, cause I’ll be needing it!

“Chris is the one who has always encouraged me to explore my Palestinian roots and he has read every single thing I have ever written. He knows me very well obviously and understands my family and background. So, it is okay for me not to be in the rehearsal room, because when I go and see a run, I feel that, yes, of course, it is exactly how I imagined it would be because he knows.”

Nahla: What are your hopes for this play?

Khalil: “Of course I want an Arab audience to come and watch the play and like it. But what I really would love is if someone to come up to me and say: ‘That is totally not what I thought this play would be. It has made me think that I quite like to know more about Palestine and about Palestinian people, because I don’t think they are what I thought.’ If a couple of people go out of the play with that in their head, then hallelujah, I’ve done a good job!

“I would love it if the play has further life because there is a lot you can do with it depending on budget and location. You can have it with a minimum of six actors with little set or with 30 actors on the main stage of the Olivier with loads of money and different sets for every scene. So it would be exciting to think that other people might be inspired to do it their way.

“But for me, success looks like, wow, it is going to be on tomorrow! That it is finally happening! We have an amazing cast and an amazing crew and I just feel completely blessed and privileged for them to be doing my work.”

Scenes from 68 Years is on at The Arcola Theatre from 6-30 April, 2016.

For more information on Sandpit Arts: http://www.sandpitproductions.com/​

Note: This article was first published circa April 2016

Mohammed Joha: Palestinian-Gazan Artist On ‘Joha – The Journey’ Exhibition

I first met with the 37-year-old Palestinian artist Mohammed Joha a couple of days in advance of the launch of his latest solo show at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch. He was with Aser El Saqqa, the curator of the exhibition, as they were taking care of the last touches to the artworks before the final presentation to a London audience.

The two men, both from Gaza, have been in collaboration for quite some time, as El Saqqa has also organised two previous shows for Joha in the United Kingdom. The last one, held in Durham in 2014, was under the theme of ‘Traces and Revelation’s, where Joha’s work was alongside that of another Gazan artist and friend Hazem Harb. So I spent an hour with the two men, as Joha talked me through the paintings and El Saqqa expressed his hopes for the exhibition.

Partly retrospective and partly current, ‘Joha – the Journey’ includes the paintings from three very important series created by the artist. From the recent and on-going ‘Lost Tracks’ Series to the ‘IN x OUT’ and the ‘Sound Barrier’ Series, some pieces are seven years old whilst others have never been seen before.

One can easily decipher the significant developments in the themes and research undertaken by Joha through the past few years. From depicting the local situation in Gaza – that will always be his bedrock inspiration – he is now also dealing with the wider issue of what is happening to the Middle East and North Africa region on the dire political, social and economic fronts.

Since the failure of the so-called Arab Spring – and he has a lot to say about this! – it has now become the Arab predicament in general that is reflected in his art and swaying his imagination. Sadly, today, we have all become collectively witness to the greater horrors that impact not just Palestine, but Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Syria.

Joha: “Today I can only deal with the greater theme of freedom. As an artist I just want to be able to move and fly anywhere and show my work wherever I need to without difficulties. I don’t like the bureaucracy of borders and this is the freedom I seek, to be able to fly like a dove and cross borders without being stopped or blocked.”

With his trademark surrealist expression, Joha with acrylic on canvas is forever bold, colourful and powerful with his interesting choice of symbols. Our hearts are immediately taken with the souls and the objects in his paintings as well as the hidden tales behind them. Even if viewed without knowledge of the historical background, the works hold a universal appeal and offer a narrative significance that urges one to ask questions.

For example, one would want to know in the ‘IN x Out’ pieces why there are people running off with furniture and carrying cabinets over their heads? Why also in the ‘Sound Barrier’ works, do we see upside down flowers, odd umbrellas and what does the bird mean? How come there is a shark flying in the air rather than swimming in the sea as one would expect it to? And, finally, when we view the boats with people drowning, we want answers as to how, whom and why.

Below Joha offers some insight into his personal story and creative intellect as well as hinting towards his ultimate desire and mission – to be an effective artistic ambassador for his people, the Gazans and the Palestinians. Joha’s goal is for the art to evoke strong enough feelings to encourage discussion on the international level and help translate into positive action.

I would urge everyone to visit the exhibition because more than just holding and depicting the Palestinians’ suffering, it serves as a reminder of the human strength, resilience and willpower to continue to fight for one’s rights no matter how long one has been oppressed. Joha himself is the expression of the indomitable Gazan spirit that will keep in its efforts to achieve freedom and obtain justice; and, I would trust him to be my diplomatic representative.

The ‘Sound Barrier’ Series – The Sharks, Flowers + Imaginary Umbrellas

The ‘Sound Barrier’ series explores the experience of the sieges on Gaza. Joha, who was born, brought up and lived there until 2006, has more than first-hand experience of the matter, telling me also of his memories of being active in the various intifadas as well as having been put in an Israeli prison for nine months. Another awful recent development in 2014 saw his home quarters of Shuja’iyya being demolished and obliterated from Google Earth. These pieces are part of nine paintings and made circa 2009-2010.

Joha: “This series is about the Palestinian story. When the Israelis started to bomb us by the nightmare of the F16 and tanks, it was genocide. Every five minutes, there would be a bomb. During 2005-2006, everyday they were killing people and destroying our houses. I called this project the ‘Sound Barrier’ because I remember how the Israelis would deliberately drop bombs that failed to explode but that created a noise and a dull impact, just to make us scared.

“In these works, I imagine and depict the F16 as a surreal shark shape in the sky and not as a fish that you would normally expect to see it in the waters of a clear blue sea. Under siege, it felt like our lives were being in a zoo that was far away from other lives and other worlds and other nations. I imagine this life and how, as you see, the flowers are upside-down.

“But then there is the umbrella shape that symbolises for me the only means of protection we had, physically and psychologically. And then the pigeon, which I painted just as a bird, that is about the possible freedom. I was working on this painting late at night on 31 December, 2008 and completed it early on 1 January, 2009 when I was in Norway seeking asylum.”

The ‘Lost Tracks’ Series – The Migrants Situation Work In Progress

   

Never seen before this exhibition and forming the start of Joh’a current ‘Lost Tracks’ project, these reflect on the present day migrants’ situation and the suicidal attempts to reach Europe. We see people drowning and boats sinking but with a strong shade of orange colour as the background. Joha is aiming to complete this series by the end of 2016 with eleven oil paintings altogether and each will be sized 180x130cm.

Joha: “This is a series in progress and engaged with the concept of the so-called Arab Spring – which to me is more like the Arab Autumn – as it has only given rise to disasters. So many young Arab men are just trying to escape from a hard situation by coming to Europe via boats.

“From Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunis and Palestine, they are all fleeing from wars and think they will find a better life, but many of them drown in the Aegean Sea or the Mediterranean. Their dreams, their lives and their hopes are over and ending. I have used the boat shape in different sizes and colours because the boats to me are as human beings that come from many locations and backgrounds.

“The bright choice of the orange however does give a visual hope. In all of my work, even when I talk about the occupation and other dramatic stories, I give a bright colour for optimism and it is also a good way of opening up a dialogue.

“As Arabs who live in Europe, we also have to be more open about the culture surrounding us and learn from this environment. I think it is important to be free in our minds first so that we can see with wide-open eyes and exchange opinions with others. My role as an artist is to be open and create the exchange of ideas and dialogue, because we are dealing with global issues, especially at this time of conflict.

“When I originally approached the subject of the ‘Jasmine and Bread Revolution’ in 2012, and showed it at the Courtyard Gallery in Dubai, when the Arab Spring had just erupted in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and later Syria, as an artist and as a human being, I thought maybe these revolutions could free the Arabs from dictatorships. But what we have now seen is total mass destruction and we have as Arabs lost a lot. There are no flowers blooming, just lots of bleeding.”

The ‘IN x OUT’ Series – The Invasion of Home Privacy

Made circa 2013-2014, these paintings explore another Palestinian theme and consider the physical and psychological impact of the Israeli invasions on home privacy. It is about the reality that five minutes before bombing, the Palestinian would receive a phone call to tell him to leave his house, because his home will be targeted. But, then, in such a situation, what can you really take with you and where do you go.

Joha: “For the Palestinians, the house is like our identity and we feel the house like a human being – it is not just a building made of stones. But then imagine that you live somewhere all of your childhood and within a minute you cannot find it. So here I depict the houses in a particular way with the scattered furniture items with beds and cabinets flying everywhere. In #3 I have also used a collage to show in a photo image the devastation of a woman’s house just over her head.

“This IN x OUT series actually started before the Gaza war, when I listened to the news of what is also happening in the West Bank, in Jerusalem and Ramallah and Bethlehem. The Israelis did the same. They would push out the Palestinians from their houses and say that they bought the buildings one hundred years ago. So what are we left with? Our privacy is no longer.”

+ Statement from Curator Aser El Saqqa, Director of Arts Canteen

El Saqqa has worked with Joha for many years, going back to when Joha was an arts student in Gaza. El Saqqa: “As a curator, I want to make Joha’s voice heard on this very important platform in East London and to highlight the stories through his personal experiences and reflecting the hope and the colours in a surreal way on his own canvases.

“What we are trying to do here is to bring some of these interesting stories to the grassroots communities. I do also feel that there is much more to be done in terms of contemporary Palestinian art and to bring some of it to art lovers and art collectors the world over. This exhibition is a rare chance to see Joha’s work whilst on display.”

For more information about Arts Canteen: https://artscanteen.com/

For more information about the artist Mohammed Joha: http://www.mohammedjoha.com/

Note: All images above are subject to copyright. Arts Canteen approval must be granted prior to reproduction. Images with kind permission: Lost Tracks #2, Lost Tracks #3, Mohammed Joha the Artist.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2016