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

Aimen Ajhani: Libyan Graffiti Artist’s Journey from the Streets of Tripoli to Copenhagen, Denmark

Originally from Misrata, Aimen Ajhani is the 25-year-old Libyan street artist who is set on chasing a big dream – to keep up the artistic political-resistance movement that began in Tripoli, Libya when he was just a teenage boy. His activity then started by creatively engaging against the repressive system which had threatened not just his freedom of expression but that of his entire generation and killing off their innocent aspirations.

Inspired by the history and philosophy of the hip-hop counter sub-culture that originated in 1970s New York, Ajhani was part of a group of about 300 youths that included five girls. They used to gather in central Tripoli streets to practise their breakdance, rap-songs and spray the walls with graffiti as a way of voicing and exorcising their fears, worries and frustrations. Their collective journey would take many twists and turns from before to during and then after the February 2011 Revolution.

I quickly felt Ajhani’s great defiant energy as he opened up to me via Skype about the personal story that started circa 2007 in Tripoli, but has landed him in Denmark, where he is currently resident. Although he is working mainly as a graffiti artist, he is still determined to keep up the struggle that has had to be adjusted to an entirely different cultural, social and political context.

Ajhani: “I started as a break-dancer before the Revolution but eventually discovered the power of Graffiti to make a political statement. I was a member of different crews – including the Bugs Bunny, the Sharks and the Ninja Crew – but at that time it was all underground and funny because we were always running away from the National Security.

“Some of us even got arrested as we were accused of bringing a poison culture to Libya. They called us different names and big words but we were just dying to practice. Even just to buy colour spray cans, there was worry we were going to write something against the system.”

Emboldened by the energy of the Revolution, Ajhani’s first official graffiti was the word ‘Libya’ painted on a wall on 1st September Street – now renamed 24th December Street – in Tripoli. This was followed by his most original signature stencil of ‘Fatima’s Hand’ that basically sticks up the middle finger at the repressive regime and the ‘Owl’ that appears to ironically state ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.’

Ajhani: “During the Revolution, it was all good as we got some positive attention and people started to accept us somehow. We even created a small organisation called ‘Art of Expression’ that took part in many art and dance events and bringing some rappers and MCs to sing. Some of this was to raise money for people who lost their loved ones. I also took part in a mural project called ‘Flame of the Capital’ that was against domestic violence.”

He at this point began to develop his graffiti by constant practice and using various techniques and styles. He fully participated in what seemed a lively hip-hop art scene in Libya when the youngsters could finally express their hopes and dreams for a better future; and, when their artwork and performances for a short time signalled a positive aspect to the revolution. They no longer had to be underground but could be publicly celebrated.

Liaising with others based both in Tripoli and Benghazi, he became known by his signature of ‘Elbohly’ that he still uses to sign off his work today. His rebellious graffiti became the colourful background wall to many music videos of Libyan rappers and dancers. He mentioned the names of several crews, DJs and MCs that included: MC Sweat, MC Squad, MC Black Tiger, Good Against Bad ‘GAB’ crew and Razor Record.

Ajhani: “They called me Elbohly which means the crazed one. It started with the graffiti because whenever I do something, you can talk to me or call me but I will never listen to you. When I am in, I am in…. “

But sadly for him and his hip-hop mates, their big hopes were soon crushed as the political situation began to escalate in a newly menacing direction. The threat this time was not the Gaddafi regime but the religious radicals – mainly the extremist group ‘Ansar Al-Sharia’ – who began to hound them, questioning what they did and branding them as unbelievers committing haram.

He said: “As Libya’s youth we just needed to express ourselves but it has become scary and risky once more. Also, I don’t want to make it look bad, but many of the youngsters have turned to drugs in desperation. The only other person I can speak for is my friend Ryan. He and I share the same dream to spread and develop the hip-hop culture. At the moment, he is based in Tunisia with the B-Boys Crew from North Africa. We are the only two hard core mother-f***ers who will finish what we started.”

Ajhani fate would also take an unexpected turn, as his graffiti work had caught the eye of a Danish organisation called ‘Turning Tables’ whose aim is to empower marginalised youth globally by encouraging expression through music and film. They invited him to take part in an ‘Images Festival’ in August 2013 in Denmark, where Ajhani was the only Libyan with a few others representing Tunisia and Egypt from North Africa.

At one point, Turning Tables had visited Benghazi and helped to produce a video clip with MC Sweat in 2011 and in January 2012 supported a ‘Rebirth Music Festival’ focusing on the liberation of creative expression in post-Gaddafi Libya when at least 2,00 people attended. They had also planned to give workshops but Ansar Al-Sharia threatened to kill them and confiscate their equipment, so they left and travelled back to Copenhagen.

Now in Denmark he no longer has to run from any authority when making his graffiti. He even expressed glee and surprise at how easy it is to ask for permission to do work in public spaces and that he gets commissioned and paid to do it! With Arabic calligraphy now being one of his style fortes, he is thriving as an artist and offering something quite unique for a European audience with what he refers to as ‘Calligraffiti’.

He said: “It is now a great chance to represent my culture in a good positive way. Whenever I do something, I like to hear what people have to say. Instead of the traditional graffiti with English lettering, I am doing something different so people can see that the Arabic and Islamic culture can be artistic and that it is not all bad as you might think.”

Presently Ajhani is involved with several street art projects that include three recent murals in Ringsted and one mural dedicated to the 18-year-old Libyan peace activist Tawfik Ben Saud who was killed this year in Libya for speaking up against extremist groups. The latter is a tribute to those who continue to fight for freedom, rights and justice in a dangerous environment.

Recently, also, he has started to experiment with painting on canvass and drawing on the Callgraffiti and using it to create and manipulate form out of the written message. One of his latest works, for example, is based on a Rumi poem. A first canvass exhibition is also on its way, whilst teaching calligraphy in schools in Denmark and looking forward to taking part in the ‘Shubbak Festival’ in London in 2015.

Lastly I asked the artist if he is likely to return to Libya and how he feels for the friends he’s had to leave behind. He said: “It is depressing but there is always hope in people. I will go back one day to do workshops for the young ones. It will also be a great chance – if after this crazy civil war – to do big murals in open places. For me, as long as I am doing something and complaining, I am happy. I want to show the world that I am not sitting doing nothing because otherwise Libyan people give up too easy.”

For more information about Turning Tables (TT): http://turningtables.org/about/​

Note: This article was first published circa September 2014

Nabil Elouahabi: British-Arab Actor Speaks on Identity and ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’

The message is urgent and impassioned when I caught up with the incredible British-Moroccan actor Nabil Elouahabi last week during a break between rehearsals. His new play ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’ opens tonight at London’s Arcola Theatre and is about an Iraqi refugee who comes to the UK seeking asylum but adopts a Mexican character in the form of Carlos Fuentes.

Elouahabi spoke frankly about the conflicts he’s experienced as an actor from an immigrant Arab background, the soul-searching about his identity living in the West, the frustrations of being typecast as well as giving me a sneak preview of the edgier elements of ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’ – a project he’s been instrumental in getting off the ground, from initial concept to premiere-ready production.

Elouahabi is best known for playing Tariq Larousi in ‘EastEnders’ (2003-2005) and Mr Mustapha in Channel4 TV drama ‘Top Boy’. His impressive succession of complex roles also include parts in ‘The Path to 9/11’, ‘Mad Dogs’, ‘Ali G Indahouse’, ‘Generation Kill’, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Journey to Mecca’.

I started by asking him how he defined his ethnic identity today.

Elouahabi: “The pull and push of Identity in my personal experience has been fascinating. Being first generation born in London of Moroccan parentage, I can speak Arabic in the dialect, but am not able to read or write the language. But I’ve also felt this apprehension as a slight outsider in my own community; when as a family we used to go back to Tangiers it was clear that we were Brit-Moroccans. So I started to identify as a Londoner.”

In his thespian career he has been cast as the ‘Other’ which has, on the one hand, clearly been an adventure -it has helped push his success and being offered many lucrative roles here in the UK and in the US – but what has that really felt like to be type cast?

Elouahabi: “Although I am one of the lucky few whose had a varied career and played many parts, I do find the prevailing Arab narrative in TV and film very frustrating. The documentary ‘Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People’ directed by Sut Jhally highlights this brilliantly.

“Recently, also, there was a piece in the London press regarding my frustrations about playing terrorists and I had some comments claiming I was being naïve – as obviously there are terrorists who happen to be Arab and therefore by extension Arabs would be portraying them. This is logical and one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had to date was playing the real-life terrorist Ramzi Yousef in ‘The Path to 9/11’, but what I do have an issue with is the lack of or the very small spectrum of representations available that are not the all too familiar.”

Starring Role In ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’

Eluoahabi: “As I’ve grown older, I now want things with more depth and addressing more difficult questions. I was looking around for work involving Arab men and Arab stories, but not in the traditional Western prism of either terrorist or the ‘Other’. The chance came in 2009 when I narrated the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories called ‘The Mad Men of Freedom Square’ that included ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’.

“I found them all beautiful, visceral, direct and disturbing; as they look at what happens when the human condition is disrupted and where there is violence; something common in any displaced culture. So I approached Hassan for the rights to adapt the story and commission a play to be performed here in the UK. With some challenges along the way including funding, I am now working with the incredible director Nicolas Kent and writer Rashid Razaq and we are almost ready for the opening. ”

Relishing the first night of a project he is proud to call his baby, Elouahabi will – perhaps surprisingly – address the issue of self-loathing that can many times accompany an identity crisis.

Elouahabi: “What really got me in Hassan Blasim’s original story – and to a degree in our stage version which slightly differs – is the self-loathing the character of Salim/Carlos has. I have witnessed this growing up and when mixing amongst the Arab communities, that there is a bit of a self-loathing. I must stress that it is my experience and not to generalise; but, I have heard grown Arab men comment on other Arabs in derogatory ways which you would expect from far right fascists!

“So I wanted to explore this kind of illness, where the play is not really about the politics – because we understand or claim to understand the politics – it is more about the human cost and what happens on the interpersonal level; when we look at this Iraqi refugee who comes to the UK and as we follow his experience of trying to assimilate and to put a human face to the story. I knew it was going to be a challenge but very much worth exploring.

“That is when I approached Nicolas Kent because of his many, many fantastic plays that offer a platform and voice for what I call the ‘Voiceless’. Not only has he dealt with the Nuremberg Trials, Stephen Lawrence and Guantanamo, I was fortunate to have worked with him on ‘Crossing Jerusalem’ (written by Julia Pascal) and ‘The Great Game: Afghanistan’ (2010). He agreed and we both then co-commissioned Rashid Razaq to write the play.”

As much as this production will offer a much needed insight into some of the issues of being Arab at a time of severe unrest back in the Middle East, the content is likely to inflame as many controversies here in Britain today.

Elouahabi: “I don’t want to spoil it but at the heart of the play is Salim’s yearning for his family. He has a wife and child back home but has to flee because of sectarian violence. He is propelled and forced to leave Iraq and be a refugee coming to Britain, where he tries to reinvent himself as a Mexican Carlos.

“In Lydia, he is attracted to this older, very successful and powerful lady who tries to turn him into a British gentleman; where all that is British is great and anything foreign is rubbish. Metaphorically and maybe in a cruel way, it is also about her liberal ways of treating him as the exotic Arab. But then as in many relationships, they become strange bedfellows.

“The script is very funny but the story is also tragic, approaching the split in the psyche that makes this play very Jungian. What is it that is real? And, what happens when the sense of self becomes fractured or when disorder becomes the norm? There is a lot to see, with a bit of sex in there and a bit of kinkiness too.”

Ultimately for Elouahabi, this play is about creating a better platform for Arabs and their stories. He said: ”It is all about changing the prevalent theatrical lens because we need to put on a different lens. We have as Arabs in the West many stories to tell and they are wonderful stories. What drives me is in the continual sharing because in that we immediately share our frustrations, share our aspirations and share our dreams. This is what can really bring us all together.. the human experience.”

For more information and to book tickets: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/the-nightmares-of-carlos-fuentes/

Note: This article was first published circa July 2014

Dana Awartani: Transforming Faith Into Sacred Islamic Art

In sunny Jeddah, Saudi Arabia a young Arab woman is usually tucked away in a top-floor studio at her parents’ house in a peaceful residential area. Spending over twelve hours a day with a sharp 9am start to midnight, she is focused on creating an interpretation of Islamic art that of its nature carries a heavenly dimension and astral references. In this super tidy space, she must centre herself for the precision and skill required to make her divine paintings, drawings, woodwork and ceramics.

Dana Awartani is the 27-year-old Saudi-Palestinian artist who has already attracted international recognition for her artwork, exhibited in several group shows and is represented by the prestigious Athr Gallery in Jeddah; where she is currently taking part in the ‘Language of Human Consciousness: Arts Inspired by Geometry’ exhibition and where she will also have her first solo during Ramadan 1436 AH. Aside from her immersion in this spiritual discipline, she is a modern girl in every way, with an Instagram account with over 5,700 followers to date!

Using only the most delicate of paintbrushes, rich paint colours made only from natural pigments so they don’t’ ever fade, special thick paper that is eventually burnished and mathematical instruments, she toils in a passionate quest to reclaim, revive and share in the beauty and intelligence behind a sacred Islamic Art based on the careful study of mathematics and Geometry.

Awartani: “Islamic art is firstly not made for the sake of making art. It is a sacred spiritual practice that is used as a way to worship God and for God. It teaches one sabr (patience) and respect and as an Islamic artist, my work is a form of prayer and dhikr (remembrance). I need to be 100% focused and in a good mood to be able to do it, otherwise it doesn’t’ work.”

When we met in London recently, I first noticed her modest feminine grace and how quiet but very determined this young woman is. She also has the inner light of knowing that her passion and purpose is to advance this rich but rather neglected and abandoned art form. I asked about her artistic journey and how she came to Islamic Art.

Awartani: “From the age of 14 I knew. During my Art GSCEs at the British International School in Jeddah, I was subconsciously drawn to a tapestry project with a patchwork of flowers, because of the patterns and colours. Later I realised that I have this special thing for geometry. My teacher at the time recognised a talent and advised my parents that I must go to Central St Martins.”

Central St Martins, London: Orientalism Project

Awartani did go to Central St Martins and completed a Foundation course and Bachelors degree. However, she said: “I felt struggling a bit and they don’t give you a lot of direction. Although it was amazing to be with very talented creative people, I didn’t’ really learn the technical skills. I was taught to think conceptually and to critique a contemporary art piece, but not so much on how to paint or draw.

“I also felt they would push me towards things that I really didn’t want to talk about as an Arab, like suppression or exile. I wasn’t fond of talking about our Arab culture in a negative way because then you just reinforce those stereotypes. I am not in exile and I don’t at all feel suppressed as an Arab woman.”

Dana’s final year project at Central St Martins was a strong indication of the future direction in Islamic Art and also in her bold challenge against any Western or other misconceptions that as Arabs or Muslims that we don’t have a unique and very rich artistic heritage to draw upon and rival all the others.

She said: “A lot of people, when they create art, they abide by Western rules. Even the popular artists, even when they take Oriental themes, they use Western forms. Why should they have to follow that? They should be more original and unique. The Arab world should make art as much as the Western world.”

Inspired by Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism and working with the Saudi charity of ‘Mansoojat’ that preserves the dying art-craft of making traditional Saudi costumes, she created a provocative installation piece representing the Arab feminine space and covered it from the inside with colourful square and rectangular patterns as those stitched onto the textiles.

The room however was also sealed off by hundreds of black strings so that from a distance, it just looks like a black wall. It is only when one enters that they discovers the loveliness inside. She said: “I wished to create a place where people are not allowed to enter. It is kind of like if you don’t understand what our culture is about, then do not enter this space! It is also a nomadic temporary piece, showing our Arab background of not ever staying in one place.”

The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts

In 2009, Awartani enrolled on a two-year Masters course at The Prince’s School in Shoreditch, London where they specialise in the Traditional Arts. It is here she found a niche and felt more content, as she learnt of Islamic Art techniques and how to apply them to painting, woodwork, ceramics, miniature painting, mosaics, parquetry and stain glass, specialising in Geometry in her second year.

Under the guidance of Paul Merchant and Simon Trethewey, she more than found her niche but fell in love with the philosophy behind it and the foundation in how the infinite shapes, proportions, structures and numbers – found in both theory and in Nature – can inform her work. It is also with the firm belief that the physical is but a reflection of the spiritual and that nothing on this Earth has been created in a random vein.

 

It was not just the Arabs who pondered on the connection between Geometry and the divine, but also the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle, for example, drew a diagram of how the four classical elements of Air, Water, Earth and Fire create balance in the world; and, that above this, was the ‘Aether’ describing the heavenly bodies of the Moon, Planets, the Sun and Stars of a circular shape and motion. Different numbers can also be used as some kind of secret code or a language.

She explained: “Every number has a meaning but none of it is set in stone either and my favourite has to be the number Eight which is so beautiful mathematically, in numerology and geometry. The mystic Ibn ‘Arabi said that the eight-point star is a representation of the eight angels that bear the throne of God on the day of judgement and seen as a re-birth on a higher level.

“The Sufis also believe in the eight qualities of Prophet-hood that one must aspire to and it seems to be the same in Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity; where one must follow an eight-fold pattern of enlightenment or when baptism is done in an Octagon. The Rock of the Dome also was built on an 8-figure base.”

Currently inspiring her work are the ‘Platonic Solids’ based on the most ancient form of three-dimensional geometry. Named after Plato who studied them, they are the five perfect shapes that fit harmoniously within a circle and that all classical elements are made from them.

She said: “I love studying these and want to incorporate them in my work, because they are an expression of the creation on Earth and everything to be found in nature. They reflect how the world is proportionately and mathematically in harmony. Already, I have done five paintings for the Dubai Art Fair on the Platonic Solids and I am hoping to do much more, including sculpture.”

The Art of Illumination

Another aspect to Awartani’s work is the meticulous art of Illumination that originally developed to adorn Arabic calligraphy and Koranic inscriptions. Although very time-consuming with strict rules that cannot be manipulated, it gives her pieces that something extra by bringing in the illusion of more light, movement and colour.

Currently, she is working towards an ‘Ijaza’ certificate – the highest form of recognition and authorisation to eventually transmit the skill – in this highly disciplined subject; where one must first put on the gold, then the background colours and only after this, can you do the outline and finally the rendering. Visiting Turkey from time to time, she is set to complete the challenge.

Awartani: “It is only once I become an expert in traditional pattern and receive my Ijaza in Illumination that I will feel qualified to experiment; but I don’t think one should be changing the forms, because then it is not really Islamic Art, it is just inspired by Islamic Art. Maybe one can simplify it or take a certain motif and use that, but I don’t’ believe in changing the design completely.”

Although there are some keen collectors and centres dotted around the world that attempt to preserve the old mosques and palaces and some of the traditional Islamic Arts, like in Turkey, Spain, Iran and Morocco – this is still not enough as during the heyday of Islamic culture and the centuries worth of output.

She said: “We need to be very careful or this beautiful art craft is going to disappear. There are not many traditional craftsmen left; and even so, everything is mass produced, manufactured and industrial. In Morocco, for example, I know they don’t use natural pigments for their glazes but synthetic, which is horrible in comparison to the natural stuff. That is just an example of how it is deteriorating.”

Islamic Architecture And Building A Mosque

Awartani’s is also fascinated by the design and aesthetics of Islamic Architecture that is reflected in the iconic buildings to be found in Turkey, Iran, India, Spain and the Arab world. She has travelled extensively and been to the Alhambra in Andalusia, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the buildings in Isfahan, Yazd and Qom, as well as the Taj Mahal. Her next stop is Morocco.

She said: “I love the Persian architecture with its blues and turquoise colours, it is extremely feminine, whereas the Turkish is more masculine. The Alhambra for me is the most beautiful as well as the Taj Mahal. Although this latter is not a mosque, there are Koranic verses inside and the vision of angels to protect the lady buried there. Based on the eight-fold, its gardens represent paradise.”

One of her dreams is to design a mosque mixing the different Islamic traditions and to ensure there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia or other inner divisions. She said: “I hate how there is discrimination depending on which part of the Arab world you come from. We are disunited and need to unify. So I want to build a place where someone can enter and recognises that it is a mosque for everyone. It will happen but am not ready yet.”

It is time for us to part and she is returning to Jeddah to prepare for her next group show at the Athr Gallery and for the grand solo next year for which she has a few planned surprises that she wouldn’t divulge. So, I asked if she takes any breaks from the studio and what it is like to live in the conservative Saudi.

She said: “I just go up to the rooftop garden with my pet dog and muse Lady who is always with me or I take her out for a walk. Yes, the local traditions dictate that I wear the Abaya and veil to go out and be driven by a male chauffeur, but in Jeddah, I feel empowered as a woman and proud to be an Arab. I will continue to make art and Inshallah I will die with a paint brush in my hand!”

Awartani’s work has so far been exhibited in London (UK), Jeddah (Saudi), Abu Dhabi and Dubai (UAE), Venice (Italy) and Doha (Qatar). She also works with the Prince’s School’s International Outreach Programme where they train and teach the Traditiaonl Arts to schools and communities. Four of her pieces are also at the ‘Farjam Collection’ in Dubai.

Awartanis’ pieces can range from £500 to £8,000 – depending on the effort, time and cost of materials used – and be viewed via her personal website or Instagram or through the Athr Gallery. Rarely but possible, she can also take commissions.

For more on Dana Awartani: http://www.danaawartani.com/

For more on The Prince’s School of Traditional Artss: https://www.psta.org.uk/

For more on The Athr Gallery, Jeddah: https://www.athrart.com/gallery

 

Leilah Nadir, Iraqi-Canadian Author of ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’

This interview with the author Leilah Nadir took place during her recent visit to London to promote her book ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad: In Search of My Lost Family’ which has just been published in the UK.

Nahla: Since the first publication of ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’ in 2007, Syria has been affected by tragedy and it too is a part of your ancestral roots. What do you think about it?

Nadir: Syria was my place in my head up until recently, it was the country that I could always go back to, as my grandfather was Syrian and I’ve been to the town where he was from. I love Syria and visited a couple of times.

At one point, I thought there is no oil in Syria and nobody is going to invade it. But now that is not the case and so there is a big loss there, I feel a great sadness and grief about that. Even Lebanon has changed drastically because of the Syrian refugees held there.

There is a real trauma going on and so it is pretty hard to just go and gallivant around and enjoy it. I feel I have to have a better reason to go that is beyond just a visit. Maybe I can go on a project or volunteer work that would make a difference.

Nahla: How do you feel about the West not intervening in Syria, since you had very strong views about it in terms of Iraq?

Nadir: I don’t’ think we went into Iraq for any kind of humanitarian effort, it wasn’t to get rid of a dictator and it wasn’t to create a better society for Iraqis. So I am not surprised that they don’t want to go into Syria. It is probably to their benefit that there is infighting and the Middle East is once again struck by war and chaos. So I don’t think there is any real comparison.

Iraq was invaded and hopefully soon we can have answers as to why and what their true motivation was. But it was definitely not because they cared about the Iraqi people who were oppressed under Saddam for thirty years. It wasn’t a change of heart in terms of wanting to bring democracy to the region. It is my personal belief.

Nahla: The book starts on a plane journey in March 2003 with your father to visit your paternal aunties in London. How odd that you say it was the first time he ever talked about the subject of Iraq. Were you doing all the asking or did he volunteer?

Nadir: It is kind of bizarre. I think when he left Iraq as a 16 year-old young man it was all about going forwards, coming to the West and completing his education. Then he ended up meeting my English mother and finding a job, marrying and having a family.

All those things just propelled him away from his country of origin and the family house. Then, because of the wars and the sanctions, it was difficult if not impossible to communicate with them and he couldn’t see his parents anymore.

My interpretation is that there was an emotional cut off. He couldn’t even go there himself to think about it. He didn’t really have to and was busy enough and distracted by his new life. Then, when his parents died, he couldn’t’ go. What would that have really felt like? He pushed it down.’

Nahla: How did you begin writing ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’?

Nadir: I started scribbling down everything and recording conversations from the start of the war especially with my aunties who were in London. I didn’t know it would become a book at first because I was just writing commentaries in the local Canadian press; and, with one particular article published in the Globe and Mail on the day the war started, I felt it was too late.

Then I had the sense of quickly getting your treasures out of a burning building and the feeling that I have to get out as much as I can before it all goes up in flames. At the time, Saddam was still alive and the family freaked out about it and is the reason I changed all the names in the book except for myself and Farah Nosh.

Initially, I also didn’t feel Iraqi enough or that I had the right to speak for Iraqis because I didn’t know the language and I hadn’t lived there and I’ve never been to visit. Also, my family had not been persecuted by Saddam – like many others had – nor did anyone drop a bomb on the family house. It was my agent who encouraged me to take it further and assured me I had the right to tell the story.

Nahla: Why do you think you felt this urge to dig deep into your father’s roots when he never actively passed down the Arab culture?

Nadir: Someone has just written an academic article about the book and the idea of post-traumatic stress that apparently affects the children of holocaust survivors; and, so by skipping a generation. She describes it as a common thing that the next of kin of a trauma can suffer whereas the people who live it just have to get on, cope and process it.

It was fascinating because I didn’t understand why I was having this reaction that was so emotional. It wasn’t an intellectual one, but a visceral thing, bringing up strong feelings regarding the political situation and how I felt about the US, the Americans and my family. Is it because of my family? My blood? I still don’t know.

Nahla: With the new update, you reunite with Karim’s character and his family. He was your main contact in Baghdad during the war period and its aftermath. How was it to finally see each other?

Nadir: The reunion was amazing. We felt like we know each other as we talked on the phone throughout all those years. He knows me to a lesser extent because I was mostly talking about his life; but, we had a rapport and a relationship, so it was really exciting to see him.

Nahla: Were there lots of tears?

Nadir: No, no tears, but I was more incredulous because throughout what passed and happened, Toronto was the last place I thought they would end up coming to and setting up a new life. They had considered many other places, like Australia, Sweden and the US or they could have stayed stuck in Iraq.

At least now our families will get to interact; and, in a way, this is weirdly positive even if the whole experience wasn’t itself positive. We have gained something at least and there is this sense of Iraqis continuing outside of Iraq.

Nahla: Do you see any psychological damage having been done because they lived through so much?

Nadir: I think that you numb out and there is no room for your emotions as an immigrant making a new life. Karim had to bury five relatives at least and deal with the practicalities in a difficult situation. There is also a great anger there.

He first went to Syria and then managed to get out. Imagine if they had stayed in Syria? Then they would have had to face a whole new war. I think there is a sense of relief that they are alive and setting up anew; and, that must propel them to move forwards beyond the feelings of anger and regret.

As for the daughter Reeta, once in a while she has expressed things when asked to write in school about the war; and, she has come out very strongly and been quite emotional about it. She definitely, as you saw in the book, did not want to leave Iraq at any point.’

Nahla: How did your father respond to the book?

Nadir: He liked it and wanted to help. As a businessman, he wasn’t super rightwing but right of centre in his political views, whereas my sisters and I were very lefty.

Although he felt the West had done him well and that he’d been successful and didn’t have a problem with capitalism, when he saw the propaganda build up to the war, he saw the lies that were being told.

Quite frankly, both sides of the political spectrum were using false arguments to go on this false war. He just couldn’t stand it and things shifted for him politically; and, at that point, he was behind the idea of showing the other side, the Iraqi point of view because it wasn’t’ anywhere to be found.’

Nahla: Are you still in touch with Farah Nosh, the award-winning Iraqi-Canadian photo journalist and best friend who went into Iraq to photograph the war and its immediate aftermath?

Nadir: Farah is now back in Vancouver with her husband and two children that has slowed her down a bit in terms of work. We still do have a dream of going to Iraq together and especially Baghdad. Maybe if something changes this might happen and I would love to do another project with her.

Nahla: With your experience of going back to your roots and meeting with your relatives, do you feel more Iraqi?

Nadir: Yes, definitely I feel like a legitimate Iraqi now and it kind of puts a label on a feeling that I have had probably my whole life that I am not just Canadian or just British. I am different and maybe the way I interpret things about myself are because of my Arab roots that are a part of me.

I have also read plenty more books about Iraq and I know much more about the Arab music and culture, things that I didn’t really grow up with. Yes, my father used to cook Arab food and perhaps that was a silent connection that was going on all the time that I had internalized.

Nahla: You now have two children of your own, a six-year-old boy and a three-year-old daughter. What will you tell them about Iraq?

They already know their grandfather is from Baghdad and they can find it on a map. Part of the motivation when I wrote the book was to create some kind of record for the family; because, I had that sense when the war started in 2003 that things were not going to get better and that probably we would never be able to go back to that family home. In fact, since 2010, it has been sold and there is no longer even that connection.

Nahla: You have mentioned that you would like to improve your Arabic. How is that going?

Nadir: To speak fluent Arabic is a lifelong dream but I haven’t improved much because my son was born one month after the book came out in Canada and my daughter was born three years later. I did take private Arabic classes with a professor to get that process going but unfortunately it just wasn’t possible to keep it up.

Nahla: What are you working on now?

Nadir: I am working on a novel set in Baghdad and London in the 1920s during the British Occupation. It is a historical novel that has some real characters, like Gertrude Bell the archeologist, as well as fictional characters.

Note: This article was first published circa March 2014

Faisal Samra: On Construction, Destruction and Reconstruction (C.D.R.)

The cool, airy and sophisticated space of the Ayyam Gallery, London opened its doors last week for the launch of the Saudi artist Faisal Samra’s first solo UK exhibition on the subject of ‘Construction, Destruction and Reconstruction’ (C.D.R.) that is on show until 29 March, 2014.

Displayed against the walls are provocative looking objects mixed with digital images and performance videos that include: a broken chair, a damaged clay sculpture, a plastic bag with fragments from the same sculpture, long tubes with small colourful pencils inserted in them, two big eyes gazing and across one wall are the portrait images of a woman undergoing a struggle with cancer.

One day ahead of the exhibition, I met with Samra to probe the ‘C.D.R.’ theme. Nervous to interview the artist with three solid decades worth of creative output and acclaimed for his signature blend of the conceptual, visual and contemporary, I can confess that I went away seduced and mesmerised.

Seduced and mesmerised not just by the aesthetics of the artwork, but also by Samra’s measured way of viewing and contemplating the world around him; and, how brave and courageous he is to put these ideas and thoughts into what are truly memorable and iconic shapes, bodies and digital forms.

Nahla: How did the C.D.R. project start and develop?

Samra: The C.D.R. project went through a lot of development and changes until what you see here, where everything is showing for the very first time ever. Although I exhibited before with Edge of Arabia, Edge of Arabia Come Together and at the British Museum with ‘Word Into Art’ (curated by Venetia Porter in 2006), I consider this the first serious show for me in London.

In C.D.R, I wanted to combine different mediums in one project and I started with drawing, followed by sculpture, video and then the digital image. There are also two dimensions. One is the purely artistic one to address the essential act of creation and the other aspect is more of a sociological or geo-political dimension.

The latter is to say that the Middle East has been under a destruction and reconstruction ever since after the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the region when the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Western Super Powers.

There is also a further human aspect to the work. With all of my projects, they are in the first place conceptual and visual, but on top of that I always play around with emotions and reconstructing a lot of elements that come up, like love, hate and other feelings.

Nahla: ‘Liberating the Idol’ is a display of four items that seem to follow the fate of a clay figure covered with the letter ‘I’, as well as having a small mirror attached to it so that it can look at itself. Then one sees a process of destruction with the fragments of the broken sculpture put in a plastic bag. Can you explain the reasoning behind this?

Samra: ‘Liberating the Idol’ started earlier than the other pieces in 2010 whilst in Paris before all the Middle East uprisings. Using four disciplines, I wanted to address the subject of the dictator and the process by which he is deposed. It is about the character of the tyrant and his narcissism as well as the inevitable end he will face.

No matter how big or powerful he may be at one time, in the end every dictator – that we can look at throughout history and different places – will break his own neck and be put away in a plastic bag. In a way, that is the end for all of us.

The Idol also refers to the subject of the Super Ego in Freudian terms and the dictator archetype in all of us. But unlike in Hinduism and Buddhism that argue for the Ego has to be fully erased, I think we all do need a bit of Ego to carry on but just to be aware that it isn’t inflated.

Nahla: The ‘Zeina’ piece is a series of intimate portraits of your wife during her struggle with cancer, undergoing chemotherapy and after her treatment. What was it like to have her as a subject?

Samra: Zeina’s journey with cancer was exactly at the heart of my project and she wanted to share the experience. It is about disease and how it can come to destroy us, but if we have the sense of fighting back and surviving, we can be reconstructed and transformed.

Resistance is also a vital act of life and the Zeina artwork is both personal and global or universal; because, unfortunately nowadays, breast cancer for women is like the flu. So my aim was to approach this visually and artistically and make the connection of how the physical body itself also has to go through a C.D.R.

Nahla: What about the ‘Green Eye’ and the ‘Blue Eye’?

Samra: The ‘Green Eye’ and the ‘Blue Eye’ basically refer to the split personality and the schizophrenia of the West in its look and approach to the Middle East and the double standards. The West has to have another look at the region. And, it was after the Eyes that ‘The Chair’ came.

Nahla: Chairs represent the seat or seats of power. Does ‘The Chair’ carry a political message?

Samra: The West pre-mediated the destruction and reconstruction of the whole Middle East, with the first fragmentation happening after the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that created borders and boundaries. Before that, there were none throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Now, we are living in the era of the second destruction; and, we are far from being in the reconstruction. It is still the fragmentation of the fragmentation that we see vey clearly and that started after 9/11.

Again, the pre-meditated project started much before that, but the execution of the project was with 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003; when all of a sudden, we began hearing about a new Middle East. So we’re now witnessing the second fragmentation.

Nahla: Do you envisage a reconstruction to take place in the Middle East?

Samra: We don’t yet know and ironically I call it a Frankenstein. It is scary and what we see is confirming it. In Iraq, for example, the reality today is that the Kurds, Shia and Sunni are divided. So we have to build up the awareness amongst the MENA people, so that we don’t have to fall for anything given to us.

Unfortunately in Iraq, it has now been thirteen years and still they are in a mess. It is up to us and we don’t have to wait. It is up to the people of the Middle East, to create and be aware of this and to hammer the subject all the time, not just a question of mentioning it once in a while.

Nahla; Do you believe in a conspiracy theory?

Samra: No, I don’t’ believe in conspiracy and I don’t blame anybody. I am just going back to the history and studying it and saying my observations about it. But I do believe in projects and especially the projects the West have always had regarding the Middle East, which is in many ways the centre of the world, of civilisations and energies.

The Chair is saying there are premeditated ideas to destruct what is existing of power and reconstruct it again. The West however will only change when we insist for them to change. So we need to start with ourselves from the inside before the exterior will follow.

Now, we have a lot of tools to use and especially with social media. But we have to be careful not to be emotional or be open to manipulation, like what has occurred with the Arab uprisings. Yes, it was nice and romantic but we didn’t know how to carry on and become victim to manipulation by others, which they will use in some way or other.

There are a lot of people who use whatever to turn it to their benefit. Effectively, it is all a business. Everything going on is a business and it is sad to say this, but there is no emotion in the real world. Whatever makes money, gives reasons for people to do it. I do it because I can, simple as that.

Nahla:  What about the ‘Pencils’?

Samra: The ‘Pencils’ is a metaphor for public opinion and how it can be cut into pieces. It is about the systematic ways of dividing popular opinion and reconstructing it in different countries, times and places. This is a concept I am still working on and will expand into a future project about the globe and the idea of fragmentation.

Nahla: I am curious as to the numbers, measurements and the calculations that appear in a lot of your work?

Samra: The calculations relate to the structure and the mental side of things and how the mind always understands numbers. For C.D.R, I imagined the before and after destruction and knowing that with reconstruction, you always lose something from the size by either shrinking or getting bigger.

When you put numbers, you talk directly to the mind and engage it in a way not possible without the figures. If, for example, you only see the colour red, you might respond with feelings and emotions, but not with the mind. So there is the ‘internal necessity’ of an artwork in the Wassily Kandinsky sense.

Even in painting, the artist cannot finish a piece if he does not put this X or touch somewhere to make the visual balance. But if he takes it off, the whole thing will fall down, but it doesn’t have any other explanation.

Nahla: As an artist, where are you in relation to the C.D.R. cycle?

Samra: The C.D.R. cycle is continuous until the day we die. We are destroyed, but then we will be reconstructed into something else, including the reconstruction of the human body after death. It also applies to the cosmos and the Divine, that have gone through the cycle many times since the beginning of time and it goes on.

I think that to know how to live or be alive, you have to go through these three acts. And thank God for that! Imagine if something has been done or constructed and then it stays like that forever. It will only be monotone.

I have been through a lot of C.D.R. cycles and my pattern is every five years that something major happens. It is an organic process too because from within the womb of each work, there is another work born until it comes to the end.

In my work, I have also approached a number of disciplines. From my school days in Paris, I went through the classical traditional academic art subjects, from drawing, perspective to painting, history of art and civilisations and chose drawing for my graduation project.

Also, I work by themes which is more of a European concept. It doesn’t have to be that way, but I prefer it. I also say that the medium is something dictated by the theme and not the other way round. So I choose the best medium to execute a project, whatever it is.

Nahla: Lastly, what are the challenges of being a Saudi artist and fact that your work was once censored there?

Samra; I’m so involved in my work and carrying on with it that I don’t think about being censored. I just do it and if in any place, not just in Saudi, they censor my work, it just means they are not ready until the time comes. In Saudi, twenty years ago I couldn’t show my work.

Today, there is a big opening in Saudi for creativity especially among the younger generations. Due to the internet, social media and advancing technology, we have all the tools we need and it is happening fast. In fact, it is like a hurricane; but, of course, what is real and what is fake – that is a job of time that will filter it out.

More information on Faisal Samra and the Ayyam Gallery: http://www.ayyamgallery.com/artists/faisal-samra/bio

Image: Faisal Samra Portrait Image ©​SusanneHakuba

Note: This article was first published circa March 2014

Yasmin El Derby, MENA-Films Curator

Bringing Arab Cinematic Greats to London with the MENA Film Hub

All for the love of Arab films and London cinema, cinema, cinema! If in the past three years you have attended an Arab film or an Arab film festival in London, chances are the half-Egyptian half-English Yasmin El Derby was somehow involved in curating it, or working hard behind the scenes to bringing it to London’s Arab diaspora audience and others fascinated by world cinema.

As a freelance film curator, 28-year-old Yasmin El Derby is most passionate about the study, discovery and exploration of the very best of classic and contemporary Arab films coming out of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and to share her treasure findings with others.

Having already co-founded and directed two London MENA Film Festivals in 2011 and 2012, as well as taking part in the film aspects of the Nour and Shubbak Arab Art Festivals, her latest project is the MENA Film Hub.

Launched in October 2013 with the British Moroccan actor Nabil Elouahabi, the MENA Film Hub aims to bring regular monthly screenings of Arab films to Notting Hill’s The Coronet Cinema and always showing on a Saturday lunch-time. They also aim to include post-screening discussions or Q+A’s with the directors where possible.

Having kicked off in October with Amin Matalqa’s ‘Captain Abu Raed’, the Hub’s next screening will be this weekend of the film ‘ASMAA’ directed by the Egyptian Amr Salama. Truly not to be missed, it deals with the highly sensitive issue of a woman living with HIV in contemporary Egypt based on a real extraordinary story.

Below Nahla Ink interviewed Yasmin El Derby to get a deeper insight into the practicalities of her work, as well as discussing the current MENA-films scene and MENA Film Hub.

Nahla): Tell me about the practicalities of your job and what goes on behind the scenes before any film screening?

El Derby: Most people think organising a film screening is simply about choosing a film and a venue, and off you go! But each screening consists of a lot more preparation and things differ depending on whether the screening is part of a festival programme or a one off screening. If part of a festival programme, I will first announce an open call for submissions and divide them into categories depending on genre and length.

Once the films start coming in the really fun part starts. I get to watch every single one from beginning to end and my job is to categorise them again depending on their strength and if the festival has a theme, how well it fits that theme. I draw up a shortlist of films for the festival director to view and then with him or her, we make another shortlist before we inform the filmmakers if their film has been successful.

Then the technical part. I have to get a ‘clean’ version of the films in the highest possible quality that might be via a Blu-ray disc or an online web-transfer (submissions will usually be sent watermarked or in a low quality). I then may need to convert the film files and include logos of the festival and sponsors that all depends on where the film is going to be screened and which equipment will be used. The discs or files are then tested at the venue.

If the screening is part of a monthly series or a one off, the process differs in that there may not be an open call for submissions, but relevant licences and agreements need to be in place. In the instance of a one off, the director or the distribution company involved may ask for a fee which could be anything from £100-£1,000 for one screening.

Relevant agreements and permissions also need to be given and signed for all the films and then the technical side of things happens the same as if for a festival. Once all of this is sorted out, the marketing and promotion take place; but, again, this differs depending on the venue being used. Some venues will assist with advertising but most cinemas will not if the agreement is for a private hire.

Nahla: How do you approach the directors and find films to sample?

El Derby: Generally via my networks through mutual contacts or referrals. Often directors or representatives from distribution companies will contact me, so now I have a sizeable library of films from which to select depending on the event and what suits.

I am basically a film nerd and there’s nothing I like more than watching films, so I keep my eyes and ears open all the time. I also constantly read film reviews for new material and search out old films. I often get films sent to me from people who have heard about an open call for submissions or who have heard that I am a film curator. I do also keep track of what’s happening at film schools and often get to see final year graduation projects that are often great.

Nahla: Do you travel for your job?

El Derby: Two of my biggest loves in life are films and travelling, so if given an opportunity to travel to a film festival I feel like I’m living the dream!

Nahla: How would you describe the current film scene in the MENA region?

El Derby: Exciting, brilliant and forward thinking! There are so many fabulous films coming out of the region and I hope I can continue to bring them to audiences in London.

Nahla: What platforms are available for Arab filmmakers in and outside the MENA region?

El Derby: There are a huge number of film festivals that happen in the Arab world today that are just as big as festivals such as Cannes and the London Film Festival. There has also been a marked increase in interest in films from MENA in the Western world and we have seen quite a few festivals and events pop up.

The Nour Festival, for example, which is sponsored by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, now takes place in London every October-November and is a great showcase for films and art from the Arab world. There is also the bi-annual Shubbak Festival and all the regular film festivals like that of the BFI, that seem to be taking much more of an interest in films from and about the Arab world.

Nahla: Is there a criterion for the films you select for the MENA Film Hub?

El Derby: There is no specific criterion except that the films be from or about the MENA region or made by a filmmaker of the Arab diaspora. We are now focused on feature films rather than documentaries but we will be expanding in the near future and holding more screenings at more venues to give us the scope to screen other genres.

Nahla:  What have you learnt on this films journey? 

El Derby: As previously mentioned, I am obsessed with film in general but one of the reasons I started to focus on films from the MENA region is due to my own cultural heritage, with my father being Egyptian and my mother English.

Growing up I didn’t see many Egyptian films as I didn’t speak or understand Arabic; but, as I got older, I realised there was this huge part of me that felt missing. Yes, I went to Egypt a lot as a child but never felt as though I completely fit in, mainly due to not being able to communicate with anyone, especially family members.

So I started learning Arabic as an adult and watching films helped, not only in terms of language and habits but I came to feel a strong connection with the region and my roots and heritage. On an intellectual level, I have learnt more about different ways of telling stories through film. For example, often due to censorship in the Middle East, certain issues can only be hinted at in a subtle way rather than being explicitly shown or spoken about between characters. It shows how ultimately the imagination is king and storytelling can survive with any form of censorship.

Nahla: Why London and why The Coronet?

El Derby: London is my home and I love it! And I have been a huge fan and dedicated customer of the Coronet for as long as I can remember and so has Nabil, so it made sense for us to go with this beautiful venue. The Coronet is also very accessible even if you don’t live in West London, it is less than a minute walk from Notting Hill Gate underground station, and the surrounding area is full of shops, cafés and restaurants. So people can make a day of it whenever they come to one of our lunchtime screenings.

Nahla: Tell me about your audience. 

El Derby: Anyone and everyone with an interest in the region or in cinema or just wants to come and see a brilliant film they wouldn’t usually get to see!

NI: What else are you working at the moment?

El Derby: As well as the MENA Film Hub and freelance curating for festivals and events, I am acting as a UK representative to get distribution rights for certain films from the MENA region. I hope to take part in ensuring that films from the Arab world become a normal occurrence in cinema programming in the UK and not that we just see them during special occasions.

Also, currently and along with a brilliant creative and good friend Houda Armanouss, I’m working on a documentary focused on the concept of identity and what it means to different people. Away from the film-curating world for a millisecond, I am also writing a children’s book with my very good friend and owner of the dance-company United Grooves, Tania Diggory, but don’t want to say too much at this stage since we are at the early stages.

Nahla: Tell me more about ASMAA and why you want to show this film?

El Derby: This film is an absolute must see that has been written and directed by the immensely talented Egyptian director Amr Salama in 2011. Based on true events, it focuses on the strength and determination of an HIV positive woman living in contemporary Egypt; and, how she attempts to keep her medical status a secret until an opportunity comes for her to make a television appearance.

ASMAA is not only cinematically beautiful but it boldly raises and talks about such an important issue seldom discussed in the Arab world. It demonstrates not only the skill and beauty of cinema itself but also it will show a UK audience a different viewpoint and perspective from the Arab world.

At the MENA Film Hub, we are not in the game of perpetuating stereotypes and want to show something different to our audience and to always keep pushing the boundaries.

To find out more about the MENA Film Hub: https://www.facebook.com/MenaFilmHub

Note: This article was first published circa November 2013

Omar Reda, MD

The 40-year-old Libyan-American Psychiatrist Omar Reda, MD is a man on a very difficult mission. He faces many hurdles before his dream of a psychologically and emotionally healthy and stable Libya becomes a reality.

Reda, who has dedicated almost all of his professional time to giving mental health support to the Libyans since the beginning of the February 2011 Revolution, is however surprisingly optimistic. Here, for Nahla Ink, he answered questions about his new book ‘Journey of Hope’, which he is currently promoting across five Libyan cities and towns.

Nahla: In the book, you speak of the wounded healer. Has writing the book given you catharsis and closure?

Reda: Catharsis yes. I used writing as my way of coping by way of academic detachment. Closure no, because the country will never be the same especially for the families and loved ones of the deceased. It seems like the Gaddafi mentality and old rules still dictate the country.

Nahla: You mention the need for remembrance and rituals. What would you propose the Libyans do to remember the sacrifices of the Revolution?

Reda: I met with hundreds of families of the martyrs and talked to friends who fought with them in the front lines. Everyone has the same answer, that the best thing to remember the sacrifices of our heroes is to accomplish the mission they started, to build Libya and start with building the human being and raising moral standards.

Nahla: What do you think are the psychological consequences of Gaddafi’s rule?

Reda: Moral corruption, depression and despair, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addiction, anger, grief, blood and revenge lust. Libyan society remains severely divided. The only way to bridge those differences is through community programs that succeeded in other countries like Bosnia, Rwanda and South Africa for example.

Nahla: Are you collaborating at all with the Libyan Ministry of Health? What is the current position of the Libyan government in relation to Libya’s mental health?

Reda: I tried to collaborate with every Ministry of Health since the Revolution, that is three in total. Unfortunately, projects and initiatives submitted by Libyans seem to end up in the trash.

Nahla: How far have the efforts to provide psychological support come to in Libya today? Are there any current programmes you know about and that you are personally involved with?

Reda: It is a struggle. The most impactful project happening as we speak is the World Health Organisation (WHO) Diplomas. One is for the non-psychiatric MDs to recognize and treat common psychiatric problems in order to fill the gaps and staff shortages, one is for the psychologists, one for nurses and one for social workers. I believe one will start soon also for recreational and vocational specialists. I am the head supervising MD on one of the WHO Diplomas and a Supervision Facilitator on another.

Nahla: You write quite extensively about the children and the need to help them to heal. Who is now looking after the orphans of the revolution?

Reda: The ministry for martyrs and the missing is responsible, but many local NGOs are doing wonderful work with them as well. It seems in Libya that non-official projects have more impact and better received. Maybe they are more sincere and less agenda-oriented than the government’s different parties.

Nahla: You also refer to drugs and addiction. How prevalent is this problem for the youth of Libya? What is the solution?

Reda: Four monsters are haunting Libya right now: moral crisis, the weapons and security issue, traffic and speed accidents and drug addiction. The problem is extremely prevalent and urgently needs to be addressed. Whilst there are many good projects on paper, they are faced with the same obstacles, mainly lack of support. For the youth, we need to keep them busy and support psychosocial, vocational and leisure projects.

Nahla: Can you tell me more about the Libya Al-Shefa Healing Project you mention in the book and how people can get involved?

Reda: Libya Al-Shefa is an initiative that started in June 2011 with the support of local NGOs to address seven projects under one name. These are psycho-education, raising standards of local professionals, support circles for fighters, support circles for families of fighters and the missing, a hotline, an art and play therapy for children, and a reconciliation project.

It has reached some of its goals but it needs the government’s moral and financial support to succeed. People can join Al-Shefa through Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/323504854337123/

Nahla: You say you would like to write a book about every Libyan martyr. Have you started to do this?

Reda: I am working on it and it will be a huge task because we still do not know the exact figures. The deceased on both sides of the conflict are anywhere from 5,500 (the government’s official figure) and 30,000 (the likely number per those in the frontlines).

Nahla: Lastly, what are your hopes for the future of Libya?

Reda: If the government does not take the current major problems we are facing seriously and especially of weapons, drugs and violence, then the situation will only get worse. But if the government changes its attitude and provides support to its citizen and professionals, things will go in the right direction and Libya may even become a role-model in every standard including mental health care.

Note: This article was first published circa October 2013

Merit Ariane Stephanos: The Voice of Jaljala and Hjaz

Sometimes it is about the musical compositions, the harmonies and the lyrics. But then it can also be about the pure distinctive voice of someone, like that of Merit Ariane Stephanos, that once it opens itself to an audience, captures the imagination, the heart and longing of the listener as she performs on stage and takes us on a spiritual journey. 

Pretty and petite, with henna dyed hair that she keeps short and sweet, we meet at Warwick Avenue. Quickly, she falls into tune and says: “My mother, who is from Germany, used to sing to me while breast-feeding, as she believed it would develop my pitch. By the age of eleven months, I knew by heart twenty folk songs.”

I am intrigued to find out how she came to be the voice and face for the Jaljala and the Hjaz musical projects.

Merit studied at a music gymnasium in Germany and followed with a Music Degree at Edinburgh University, where she played the violin, the piano and developed her singing repertoire.

She said: “I was always searching for a music to suit me. The critical year was during my time at Mostar, Bosnia, where I discovered Sevdah, the traditional Bosnian folk music. Though originally, I was there to work with disadvantaged and war-traumatised children at the Pavarotti Music Centre, I found myself immersed in a melting pot of musical genres, from Eastern European harmonies, to Turkish, Greek and even Swiss influences.

“Sevdah gave me the inspiration to experiment by mixing and re-arranging different vocal traditions and create a unique sound with my music collaborators. Having also a Coptic Egyptian father, the Arabic was always there for me to add to the rest and with which to explore.”

Jaljala project – Arab and East European Ensemble

For the Jaljala project, Merit works with the Lebanese song expert, vocalist and Oud player Abdul-Salam Kheir, Balkan music specialist and violinist Meg Hamilton and Syrian percussion virtuoso Haytham Al Souba’i. Together, they cover a musical knowledge and influences from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Merit: “As Jaljala, we draw upon the rhythms and lyrics of some of the greatest Arab legendary figures of the Middle East. From Oum Kalsoum, to Sayyed Darwish, Asmahan and Fayruz, to also dipping into Iraqi and Egyptian folk-song traditions. We strive to offer a rich sound by blending the modes, rhythms and harmonies with a lively and earthy delivery. We also like to create our own new and fresh interpretations.

“Of course, we also want to promote Arabic music and bring it to a Western audience, so we can all celebrate its wealth, depth and all the wonderful things it has to offer. We hope to bring down some of the prejudices and the barriers between us.”

Jaljla’s next performance at the Green Note in Camden Town, London will see them perform a special re-arrangement of La Vie en Rose with Fi Youm Wa Layla.

The Hjaz – Jazz Trio Project

With Hjaz, Merit works with Alcyona Mick, who is a Jazz pianist and Stuart Hall, a multi-instrumentalist. They want to bring and blend Western Jazz with Middle Eastern songs. She says: “This is a more radical project. We take Arabic music to a different level, as we mix and constantly improvise during our performances, with me singing in Arabic or sometimes Sephardic Spanish. We create our own versions of the classical Mwhashshat and write our own compositions inspired by this repertoire.”

For the future, Merit wants to write more music and lyrics. She says: “I would love to collaborate with more musicians and continue having a dialogue with others across all the different influences that I have personally to choose from, including some spiritual, sacred and religious music.”

She will also keep teaching at the Royal College of Music and work with primary and secondary schools, as well as the Helen Bamber Foundation, a charity supporting victims of human rights abuses.

For more information or to purchase cd’s: http://www.meritariane.com/

Note: This article was first published circa October 2010