• Don’t Shoot me, I can tell you a Joke: An attempt at reviewing Sayed Kashua’s book 'Native'

    Text: Anna-Esther Younes | Images courtesy of Saqi Books

    Jokes are always contextually situated and have the social function of sharing fantasies, realities and easing pain. They also bind people to each other, and, eclipsed in that function, can also serve to separate people from each other. Sayed Kashua is an example of all of that. Hailed as the hyphenated “Arab” humourist of Israeli society, he is a writer for Ha’aretz, whose weekly satirical columns from 2006-2014 are collected in the book Native – Dispatches from a Palestinian-Israeli Life. Kashua makes many Israelis laugh, but Palestinians don’t always necessarily always join in. What is important and controversial about his work is that he teases out a Palestinian identity for the reader that is inseparable from Israeliness. The everyday-colonialism of an Israeli citizenship is something that is indeed desperately in need of discussing, but most Palestinians are still unwilling to do so publically. For Israelis on the other hand, Kashua thinks that they relish the idea of a Palestinian engaging Jewish Israeli culture. Soberly, he explains in the book, “Everyone wanted to talk about identity, about nationality and foreignness, about detachment, self-determination. They wanted to hear about language, about humour and fears, and the future. And I drank a lot and thought about myself and this thing called a ‘Palestinian citizen of Israel’”.

    Whatever side we talk about in this conflict, if we can talk about “sides” at all, all we can say is that humour is universal, but nothing is universally funny. Especially not in Israel and Kashua teases out its limits and possibilities. For instance, the disputed term “normalisation” is unapologetically taken to another interpretative level, when he writes that he turns on the well-known Israeli “Army Radio” in his car, because all other radio stations are playing songs that are too depressing for him. He talks about Palestinian voices that write better in Hebrew than in Arabic and that include the Yiddish nu in their daily vernacular. At the same time, he almost innocently confesses that he has “never been able to distinguish between good and bad, especially in writing”. For many Palestinians outside of Israel some of the issues are still difficult pills to swallow. For many Israeli Jews it appears satisfying to hear Kashua’s accounts in the wake of a power struggle where the recognition of some arbitrarily defined Jewish identity becomes the harbinger of national and political power. For the 48-Palestinians, it might be his very chutzpah that is appealing – of using his Israeli privilege to mirror the existential tit-for-tat of everyday colonialism by telling Israeli Jews “don’t shoot me, I can tell you a joke”.  

    What is humour in Kashua’s work and to whom is it directed? It seems he is unwilling to engage that question. Kashua rather presents himself as the anti-master of humour, one who never really understands what is going on and hence stumbles into situations that seem to be very ordinary but are strikingly “novel” for him every time. Might it be that the jokes he tells are more about his own (structural) repressions than about a funny situation? Is that why so many Israelis laugh about them? Do some people take the jokes not as an effect of repression, but as an affect of his naivety? Maybe one should write less about Kashua himself and more about how Israeli Jews and Palestinians receive his humour.

    Native is built up into four parts where each of them is meant to represent a change in his writing. Usually one has to look for the political developments (including the wars) that accompany the years he is writing in. His silence on national politics seems intended and should thus be read as a political statement in his columns. Except in the last chapter, the one where he prepares to leave Israel, he talks history through personal experiences – the most political thing one could probably do in a settler-colonial state. Until then, however, Kashua deconstructs what a Palestinian, or generally speaking “the Other”, is supposed to be. Instead of writing like the “Other”, he writes like “Them”. There is a certain anxiety around the way he intends to write like those whose privilege grants them respect albeit disinterest, anonymity despite power: Thus, seemingly apolitically and “like everybody else” – aka Israeli Jews – Kashua writes about assembling a shoe-rack, getting drunk with women at Israeli clubs and bars in West Jerusalem, or obsessing over his partners un-/distracted attention, to name just a few examples. He plays with a mixture of surrealism and cynicism, adhering to a simple and successful strategy of feeding offense to those you aim to criticize: only talk about yourself, never about them. Yet, knowing full-well that his mimicry of Israeli Jewish ordinariness is bound to fail, he recurrently reminds the reader of the fantasy the privileged want to believe in: “I’m the kid who made it all the way from Tira [the Palestinian village he is from] to a black executive car. I am the one who will prove to everyone that it’s possible, really possible – you just have to believe”.

    Kashua’s humour lives from a persona he calls a defeatist, addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. He also seems to think of himself as the embodiment of the system’s joke: a foolish anti-hero, an apathetic coward, one with whom one either feels sympathy or anger, rather than empathy or disgust. His first-person narrative-style lives from notorious lying and a defeatist desire to be like “them”. Kashua is well aware that Israeli Ashkenazi culture and education has suppressed and formed him. Thus, i.e., in his usual self-ridiculing way, he opens the book with a story, which ends by him telling passers-by’s in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Safafa that “he is the only Ashkenazi in the neighbourhood”. He is well aware that the one, who wants to shine on stage, needs to be blinded by the light first.

    The way he describes the daily micro-aggressions of colonialism and racism in Israel is simply to crack a joke about its ordinariness. Sometimes his jokes appear to be a survival strategy of someone whose security depends on deception; at other times it appears that his humour is a way of dealing with the anxious energy bound up in the Self, when being a subject at the whims of colonial education and power; yet on other occasions Kashua’s humour also appears as a neurotic character flaw, a “paranoid personality disorder” as his wife attests. Another option might be to think of it as a fusion of all these possibilities, embodying the inevitable characteristics of personal coping mechanisms amidst racism: whilst trying to avoid more pain one refuses the need to investigate its sources. A good example is his unsuccessful attempt to avoid being ushered into the lane for Arabs upon entry at the Tel Aviv airport. After some embarrassing moves to hide something that was never defined by him, he gives in to defeat, gets in line with the other “Arabs” and writes about finally “lowering his head” whilst “trying to be natural” in this.

    Kashua chose to move his Palestinian family into an all-Jewish neighbourhood in West Jerusalem. He admits that his anxious integration work is built on the hope that one day his kids will have it better than him and his wife, by wanting them to be like those “white people who, when they grow old complain about the piano lessons they were forced to take.” Then, once his kids made it, he will be satisfied thinking, “They’ll complain about the violin; my daughter will complain about the piano. That’s what I call equal opportunity”. It is hard to escape his sarcasm at times. What is interesting about Kashua is that throughout the years, his identity becomes that of a Person of Colour who, for instance, sees the similarities of being an Arab in France to being an Arab in Israel. He realises that giving one’s geographical address plus an Arab family name when calling the electricity company (or the police, or an internet provider, or the ambulance, for example) actually dictates if help is on the way, or not.

    The lesson he draws is that this position in society is not unique to Palestinians, but different. But the way he writes about his occupiers and friends is nevertheless with empathy and understanding even in the face of his own subjugation. In a way, one is reminded of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa (The Metamorphosis), who after turning into an animalistic creature still maintains compassion for his family’s tendency to inquire about “what he is” and “where to put him”, banning him to his room until, as they hope, it’s all over and Gregor will vanish by himself. Seen as an abhorrent creature by the family of man, Kashua and Samsa still have compassion, as long as the Other’s defining gaze is more powerful than one’s own knowledge about what is happening to oneself. However, at the end of the book, Kashua’s compassion and palsy seem to fade more and more and his new desire to move to the USA is expressed by him proclaiming that the only difference between the two countries is that at least in the US, everybody can have a gun.

    His complete disillusionment in politics and political correctness reaches a tipping-point in the book, when the weather becomes more important than the national elections. A trope that should sound familiar in times of Trump, a failed Left, and rising fascism in Europe and India. About Israeli society Kashua attests that they “feel persecuted and threatened”, which for him fuels such structures. But apart from that analysis, there is more to Kashua’s depiction of a simple Palestinian trying to get along at the whims of a system that supersedes his own powers and understanding: political systems like the ones just mentioned depend on the characteristics he so favourably delineates in detail and with sarcastic nihilism in his stories. Hailed as exceptional, there is in fact only one thing all over Kashua’s columns, namely that he almost desperately tries to convey his ordinariness and helplessness to his readers. Interestingly, that goes mostly unnoticed in the majority of reviews or public endorsements one can read. Hence, in one story, he recounts being on stage in front of Israeli Jews whilst tragically, yet clearly, realising that “The image of a witty, funny, hurting man faded away and was replaced by a miserable wretch who constantly repeats himself as he attempts to wring laughs and sometimes also a few tears from an audience that mainly pities him.” Reading Kashua is thus also to understand that liberalism and democracy under specific conditions (i.e. colonialism) facilitate dehumanisation, even when one can laugh about the seeming normalcy of the effects of its divide-and-conquer matrix.

    In the last chapter, Nakba Day is not another day for a cynical story about another self-delusional attempt to integrate (one’s ego) into Israeli society. Instead, it becomes the day to commemorate his grandfather – who was killed in 1948 – and his late grandmother’s wisdom about the future, past, and present of human life even without speaking Hebrew. During this commemoration, he describes his (new?) revelation, that “a house is never a certainty, and that refugee-hood is a sword hanging over me”. After having ridiculed the possibility of kinship all along, and as a person who is ready “to risk [his] life on the altar of free expression” as he describes, he then goes on to finally touch the last taboo: Sumoud. Sumoud, the Palestinian idea to remain on the land by any means possible, is now called into question by Kashua’s unapologetic yearning to leave Israel. He lost hope.

    Kashua is now a teacher in the Jewish Culture and Society programme at the Urbana Champaign-Illinois University, 600 km from privatised Detroit and polluted Flint, and living in a militarised civil society where 310 million guns revolve in a country of 320 million people. After having believed for such a long time that humour and writing could change an oppressive nation, he is frustrated by needing to admit, that he now realises that “power only respects power”.

    This collection of Kashua’s short essays is important, not only because the humour he delivers is defined by a satirical self-account of everyday-colonialism that had lost its addressee long before it was written. Kashua’s satire is also important because the reality of Palestinians in Israel that Kashua portrays can tell us a lot about a colonial reality in the midst of an ostensible democracy. And although Kashua’s humour couldn’t save him from the realities of this world nor from disillusionment, it will be interesting to see what he will joke about in his new home – the United States of America – a new colonial state with an ostensible democracy.


    Buy Native at Saqi Books

    Dr. Anna-Esther Younes finished her PhD in Geneva and is currently based in Berlin. Her work focuses on questions of race/racialisation in Germany and Europe, psychoanalysis and race, colonialism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and anti-Muslim racism in Germany and Europe. Recently, she published the German country report in the “European Islamophobia Report” in March 2016 and organised the first interdisciplinary and international Palestinian Arts Festival in Berlin (2016).

  • On the Peripheries of Tahrir: Saeida Rouass’ Eighteen Days of Spring in Winter

    Text: Sabrien Amrov

    I do not claim to be a spokesperson of my generation. I am not a poster girl of the revolution, nor its victim. But you should read my story so you can see the big picture in all its glorious detail. After all, what is a big picture except a collection of smaller ones? And what is a grand narrative, except the stitching together of a thousand threads pulled together to make a tapestry of fantasy.

    Sophia warns us right from the start: her story is an ‘Egyptian cliché.’ A Comparative Literature student, she knows best how monotone stories of emancipation, freedom and rebellion can be. But she still insists that her story of the days leading up to and during the revolution in Egypt must be told. She is right.

    The novel Eighteen Days of Spring in Winter by Saeida Rouass is refreshing in that it provides a wider frame and deeper backdrop of what the cameras in Tahrir square failed to capture in the days of the revolution. Through the eyes of Sophia, Rouass explores how the uprising found a place in people's’ everyday lives before and during the Egyptian revolution – from the doorman of Sophia’s apartment building to the taxi drivers re-establishing a road to take people to Tahrir square. The story is a collection of reflections by the main character written in a first-person account. Sophia takes us on the journey of what went through her mind, her family’s mind, her community, and the country’s mind as people were watching a revolution unfold in urban Cairo.

    But she also offers strong insight on moments of different types of revolutions: the personal – the revolutions inside the family unit and community. The character tells a compelling narrative of human inconsistency: how minds change constantly and how there is always a battle against what your gut feeling is telling you and what your reality tells you; how moments of great resilience can generate both a great sense of rebellion but also of hopelessness; and how people struggle to define a position.

    The novel is friendly in its honesty about these inconsistencies, but, more importantly, it is forgiving of the shortcomings in the relationship between the revolution of the people and the revolution of the self. Sophia was not ready to join the fight with the nation at the start. She wasn't against it, she just didn't know where she stood. She shares doubts about deciding to join or to ignore the calls for uprising: “The guilt you feel from inaction is far greater than the guilt from action.”

    As the story progresses, Sophia begins to realise that she is not alone; that these moments of ambiguity are making the people around her rethink their view about patriotism. Sophia looks at her surroundings with a critical eye. She reveals how she began to see her family in different ways. Through her father, Sophia sees that he is also capable of sacrificing the comfort of his life in order to see a better life for others in the country. From her mother, she learns that there are daily revolutions in the life of women: as mothers, as wives, as humans. From her brother, she learns that you can never be too young to have a political position and understand that freedom is worth fighting for. From state media, she learns the relationship of and between people and the news, how we look at the news to dictate how we should feel, or understand political values that shape their mode de vie. Yes, these lessons are romantic in nature, but she doesn't care. She warned the reader at the beginning and so she dives into these descriptions with great confidence.

    You can read the innocence of the author throughout the 85-page novel, sometimes romanticising, sometimes trying to be pragmatic, and other times taking a turn at cynicism. What the character demonstrates beautifully is how for some people, the revolution was not about all or nothing. It was about them thinking through everyday matters: How to get to school? How to get electricity again?

    The spaces where these questions are tackled change throughout the story. At times, Sophia reflects in her bedroom, then at the dinner table with her parents, then with her doorman in the apartment until the reader is taken to the street of Tahrir Square. She draws an approachable picture of how moments of resistance can be so familiar yet so strange. How was it that while everyone seemed to be fixated on the square and what people who went to the square had to say, so many conversations were generating in the suburban areas of Cairo but no one bothered to capture them?

    Underneath these layers of glory, what Rouass does very well is engage in conversations regarding very difficult phenomenon in almost every society. The matter in which she writes about reputations, gossip, expectations, and of course, identity, is done simply and appealingly. The character is able to show how entire bureaucracies of control live in people’s everyday lives; from the taxi driver to the professor. Sophia takes us on an intimate journey between consent and dissent and how much of the in between there is.

    The author leaves us with an important point: five years after the making and breaking of the Egyptian revolution, Sophia shows us that those moments of awareness generated much-needed conversations at every level. With so much ink spilled over the ‘Arab Spring’ by political analysts – some suggesting its failure, others gripping on so tightly to the nostalgia of the high felt during these moments of awakening – what Rouass does is move the frame elsewhere. She reminds the reader that when those cameras stop shooting and the square no longer lives in our imaginary as viewers, there are people living just a block away from Tahrir, in urban Cairo, trying to return to life with lessons learned and new political values to preserve their dignity. That is maybe cliché but doesn't make it any less real.


    Purchase Eighteen Days of Spring in Winter on Amazon UK or Apple Books/Kobo

    Sabrien Amrov is a Palestinian-Canadian policy author based in Istanbul.

  • Strangers: the Syrian diaspora in 19th century New York

    Text: Saif Alnuweiri | Photos courtesy of Linda K. Jacobs

    Map showing location of the Syrian colony in Manhattan. Featured is the postcard from the Arab American National Museum’s original 2012-13 exhibition Little Syria, New York: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy.

    Take a walk along lower Washington Street today and you will find yourself looking up at one of the greatest concentrations of skyscrapers in the United States, one of the preeminent centres of global finance today. A century ago, it was the unlikely location of the largest community of Syrians in the ‘new world,’ as revealed in Linda K. Jacobs recent book Strangers in the West. The book chronicles the history of the community from the arrival of the first immigrants in the 1880s until the turn of the century. It reveals a young Syrian diaspora undergoing the same struggles many immigrant groups in the U.S. faced in the 19th century.

    “It was the mother colony of all Syrians in North America,” Jacobs tells me. Her grandparents were both members of the Syrian colony when it was first founded. Educated as an archaeologist, Jacobs started documenting the Syrian diaspora in New York City as a result of an oft-repeated family tale. According to this tale, which Jacobs said was always recounted bitterly by her parents, her grandfather and his two brothers had a falling out over a business they shared in the 1930s. Jacobs decided to check the veracity of the family tale. After having investigated the tale, which turned out to be a conflict over succession more than anything else, she decided to delve deeper into the community her grandparents had inhabited.

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    “It was my mission to reconstruct every Syrian in the colony between 1880-1900 so that they wouldn’t be forgotten,” she says. And she certainly did. Her book is filled with hundreds of Syrians from the colony, some appearing only once in the numerous censuses, databases, and news clippings. Others, like Nageeb Arbeely, appears throughout the book, having been one of two brothers who founded Kawkab America, one of the preeminent Arabic language newspapers that was published in New York during the early colony years. His father, Yusef Arbeely, holds the distinction of being the first recorded Syrian to immigrate to the U.S., although he first settled in Maryville, Tennessee before coming to New York City. While the lists of names and occupations can be exhaustive to read through, they reveal the depth of her three and a half years of research.

    29 April 1892 issue of Kawkab America, showing English and Arabic pages

    In the collective American memory, the struggles of assimilation feature the Italians, the Irish, and the Jews, whose history has been well documented and have been proudly elevated into the pantheon of the “immigrant nation” that America views itself as. However, the Syrian community has not been included. Jacobs says that “it’s partly our fault,” since “we don’t study our own people enough.” It could be because they assimilated so well in their new home. “They were so well assimilated that they disappeared into the fabric of New York City. We were non-threatening and Christian. They had a reputation for being expert assimilators in the countries they moved to,” she continues. The vast majority of immigrants were Christians. There were Maronites, Melkites, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants. Jacobs traced her own lineage back to the Syrian colony in lower Manhattan, where both her maternal and paternal grandparents first lived when they arrived. Her grandparents hold the distinct honour of being one of the few intersect couples of the colony. They later moved to Brooklyn, whose Syrian colony was much more affluent and well established.

    Sophie Daoud Shishim, 1895

    Midwife Malakee Nafash, 1908

    Those who left Syria left for a variety of reasons. The oppressiveness of Ottoman rule, which grew worse as the empire grew weaker, made its Christian population look towards immigration to the West. A key factor was the collapse of the silk industry in Syria in the late 19th century. “A lot of people destroyed their crops to plant mulberry trees, so when the industry collapsed they had no money to buy food and no food to eat,” Jacobs tells me. The presence of American missionaries in the Levant also helped towards that end, even if the missionaries were trying to create an educated class that would remain in the region. They had been present in the Arab region since the 1850s, when communal violence between the Druze and Christians spilled over into a brief civil war in the Mount Lebanon area. The crown jewel of their efforts in the region, the Syrian Protestant College, now the American University of Beirut, provided Syrian Christians with the language skills and cultural education to navigate immigrating to the U.S. The Syrian immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island had an easier time with immigration officials if they spoke even broken English.

    New immigrants to New York, 1903

    The few photographs documenting the existence of this community, which stretched from the southern tip of Manhattan up to the Tribeca and Meatpacking districts, reveal a community visibly Arab but also well adapted to Western culture. In one photograph, some dozen young Syrian children are lined up for a group photo on the steps outside a shop, dressed in the same working class outfits that many Italians immigrants, who also immigrated in large numbers at the time, would’ve worn. Their status and their dress reflected their recent arrival to the United States.

    Yazaji’s Grocery Store, 1899

    While they were predominantly Christian, like the majority of immigrants flooding into the country from other parts of the world, they were Arabs. They spoke Arabic. Their shop signs were in Arabic. They had over 40 local newspapers which were printed in Arabic. Some lasted only a couple issues. Others, like Kawkab America and Al-Hoda, lasted decades, and became debating forums for issues all immigrants faced when they came to the U.S. “They were trying to figure out who they wanted to be in the U.S.,” says Jacobs. “There was a debate in the community about how much of their identity they should give up, how much they should sacrifice to become Americans.” The language they spoke however, often misidentified them as Turks, having come from Ottoman provinces in Syria and Palestine.

    Sign for George Forzly’s Bank at 103 Washington Street, 1897

    Most Syrians started off as peddlers, selling goods not only in Manhattan, but going to resorts in upstate New York. Jacobs’ maternal grandmother and aunt spent the summer of 1907 peddling goods along a string of watering holes as far north as Niagara Falls. Kawkab America reported a Syrian man who walked to Mexico from New York, peddling goods along the way. Jacobs said this was often liberating for Syrians used to the conservative and paternalistic communities that were a fact of life in Syria at the time. It was one of the only ways to advance upwards in society. The New York Herald even devoted a pamphlet to the progression of a Syrian immigrant from peddler to dry goods seller.

    25-27 Washington Street, 1897. A double tenement exclusively inhabited by Syrians.

    The Syrians also capitalised on a wave of orientalism sweeping the U.S. in the late 19th century. There were a few pavilions devoted to the Middle East at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. After the fair closed, many of the workers returned home, taking with them tales of their time in America, further heightening Syrian interest in the U.S. By the next major expo, the Syrian were making serious investments. At the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, the Middle East was well represented. In the fairgrounds proper, the Turkish government built its installation, the Turkish Building, and outside of it, there were numerous Arab themed attractions. There was the Algerian and Tunisian Village, the Street in Cairo, the Moorish Palace, the Persian Concession, and the Turkish Village – all built to represent the various peoples of the “Mohammedan World.”

    Postcard announcing a meeting of the Syrian Young Men’s Association of New York, 1896

    What’s most interesting about the early Syrians’ interaction with their new home is the relative lack of animosity they experienced. That is not to say that the process of assimilating into American society was completely prejudice-free, but they weren’t frequent targets of the press. “The newspapers covered the Syrian with a mix of condescension and amusement, “says Jacobs. In the book, she cited a piece published by The New York Evening Post in 1896, describing a Syrian woman as having “a dark olive skin, great black eyes with blackened eyelids, white even teeth, and fine clear-cut features.” An obviously orientalised depiction, it provided insight into the positive exoticism Americans had associated with the new Syrian arrivals.

    Various Syrian businesses in New York, 1911

    But to say the Syrians didn’t experience any hardships would be fallacious, despite the lack of animosity they experienced in comparison to Syrians trying to resettle in the West today. “The only real threat were the street fights with Irish immigrants. The Irish were working down by the docks and the Syrians were self employed, selling Holy Land goods next to them,” Jacobs tells me. “The Syrians reacted angrily but through legal means. They would call the cops, which I found remarkable.” The other major obstacle the Syrians faced was being in a country whose language they didn’t necessarily speak. That was especially an issue given the Immigration Commission’s attempts to impose English literacy tests, which were often circumvented with the help of successful members of the colony, like Kawkab America co-founder Nageeb Arbeely. Jacobs wrote that he would wait at Ellis Island for new Syrian immigrants, whom members of colony needed as a fresh supply of labour for their peddling and shop keeping operations on Washington Street.

    Nasri Fuleihan and Isabel Oussani wedding, 1925

    Jacobs’ Strangers in the West is an incredibly well detailed and thoroughly researched compendium on the first recorded Arab community in the U.S. She was able to colourfully reconstruct what it was like to be a Syrian in 19th century New York, at a time when few people imagined there were any Arabic speakers on this side of the Atlantic. And in a very important way, she added Arabs to the immigrant nation narrative that the U.S. prides itself on.


    Purchase Strangers in the West

    Saif Alnuweiri is a freelance journalist living in New York and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. Prior to that he lived in Doha, Qatar for seven years, where he studied and worked as a journalist covering local news.

  • Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature — Anthology Review

    Text: Zahra Marwan

    “There is perhaps no other literature so closely allied to the history of its people as is that of the Arabs.” Desert Songs of the Night is a compilation of Arabic literature with stories that vary drastically from region, time, and theme, and many of which are over a 1,000 years old. The compilers of this anthology, Suheil Bushrui and James M. Malarkey, have asked themselves: “how might an acquaintance with Arabic literature help the reader enter the far more nuanced heart of Arab experience and aspiration?” The first is to travel, meet people, and learn how they live their lives in the Middle East. Though, as we are readily exposed to the region with stories of violence, this path to learning and of studying the language, culture, religion, and history is often not considered. The editors have exposed another path to learning about and understanding the Arabs, and that is through their literature.

    “Poetry, novels, short stories and plays written in Arabic offer a window, as with other literate civilizations, to what many Arabs across the ages have held to be sacred, admirable, noteworthy or scandalous. Few civilizations have invested the word with as much potency and virtue as have the Arabs.” The Arabs refined the art of the written word in order to express themselves throughout the centuries. They used this expression to display their emotional, social, and personal lives. Whereas Europe is known for its well-rendered paintings, the Arab world is known for its literature. The Arabic literature presented in this book deals with subjects that challenged the status of equality between men and women through fiction, whereas some eras elated themselves with honour through poetry. A reader can travel with a youth through his sorrow of leaving his home, and encounter the significance and responsibility of reading and becoming educated which Islam had imposed. Readers who familiarise themselves with this literature will see that they share many common values and aspirations with the ancient and modern writers presented in this anthology.

    The pre-Islamic period in the sixth and early seventh centuries was often referred to as the Jahiliyya in Arabic, or “days of ignorance”, and was predominantly tribal. They embodied a heroic ideal through oral poetry. In Al-Khansa's Lament for my Brother, he confronts death, pressuring it to justify itself in not waiting longer in taking the wise. He writes “What have we done to you, death that you treat us so...I would not complain if you were just.” Many of the authors did not hinder themselves in emotional expression. They are more distinct and clear in meaning than they are subtle.

    The anthology moves within the historic timeframe, and takes us then to the Islamic period of the tenth century. With the rise of Islam, civilisations in the Middle East were urban, linked through communication lines, and formed around wealth. In the beginning, they were ruled by an orthodox caliphate for 29 years, and were overthrown by the Umayyad family in 661 AD. The Umayyad Dynasty was distinguished for its army and pushing forth of its frontiers. This remains unmasked in their literature, where they amplify science, grammar, and Qur'anic interpretations. Bushrui and Malarkey describe the Umayyad Dynasty's behaviour: “at home there was an increasing tendency to adhere to aristocratic principles; the ruling class paid only lip service to religion and had scant regard for culture. Nevertheless, a number of “sciences” prospered, especially those concerned with elucidation of the Holy Qur’an: theology, history, law and grammar.” In Abd al-Hamid al-Katib's The Art of Secretaryship he recounts the traits of a good craftsman, how to live correctly, and what principles to guide one's life by. Though, parts of it could pertain to our modern day lives:

    “[s]tudy the Arabic language, as that will give you a cultivated form of speech. Then, learn to write well, as that will be an ornament to your letters. Transmit poetry and acquaint yourselves with the rare expressions and ideas that poems contain. Acquaint yourselves also with both Arab and non-Arab political events, and with the tales of (both groups) and the biographies describing them, as that will be helpful to you in your endeavors.”

    With the uprise of free thought among the people, in 750 AD, the Shi‘ite and Persian Muslims joined forces under the leadership of the ‘Abbasids to overthrow the Umayyads. The ‘Abbasid dynasty (750- 1258 AD) was established. It flourished for almost five hundred years, and included the period known as the Golden Age of Islamic culture. The ‘Abbasid capital was based in Baghdad, and was highly linked and influenced by Persia. We see the influence that these civilisations had on one another during this dynasty, most notably in Spain, where the 'Abbasids – under Harun Al-Rashid – built their second capital in Granada.

    The anthology wraps up with chapters that move through cultural stagnation, literature in the times of colonial encounters, and the reawakening (Nahda) of the Arab world. The work of these authors deserves to be read. Several of the stories reflect the hospitality, resilience, dilemmas, and struggles of the Arabs. The authors of these texts have been driven by inspiration and the ideas of their time. As I read these stories, I slowly became convinced that knowledge of the history of the Arabs through their literature will give an accurate depiction of their culture. The Desert Songs of the Night is an excellent first step towards that knowledge.

    Buy a copy of Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature

    Zahra Marwan spent the majority of her life learning and growing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, yet is of Persian descent and originally from Kuwait. She studied visual arts for three years in both Paris and Lyon, and currently works on various professional illustrative projects. These days, she studies Flamenco dance along with its social and cultural implications, and tutors undergraduates at the University of New Mexico in French, Arabic, and English writing.

  • 'I Say Dust'

    Text: Wided Khadraoui | Photos: Courtesy of Darine Hotait

    Still from 'I Say Dust'

    The first shot of 'I Say Dust’ is a tea flower unfurling in a glass tumbler of hot water. The preparation process is part of the integral allure of blooming tea, and also sets the tone of the film. Flowering tea is drunk from glasses so that the action of the hot water uncurling the leaves can be observed. Every thing is up for scrutiny.

    The first shot epitomised the film’s beautiful showcase of cinematography, but the narrative and acting is equally as engaging. “What is home?” This question is the centre of the short film ’I Say Dust', written and directed by Darine Hotait. The movie explores the intersection between identity and home. The idea of readapting to a new home and defining identity – sexual in this context – is explored through the two main characters, Moun and Hal, both part of the Arab diaspora in the United States.

    In the very short time we spend with them, the difference in self-identity between Moun and Hal –  despite ethnic similarities – is critical. They’re vasty different; one relying on the idea of a geographical homeland while the other prefers to have fluid conceptual boundaries of home. The film’s leads showcase the fragile chemistry between social disconnect and psyche that is translated into their love story.

    The narrative is beautifully understated, and explores the possibilities inhibited by social conventions, introducing a certain romantic potential while providing almost no concrete explanation for the ebb and flow of the relationship. The ritual of observation initiated by the opening sequence is developed further with shots of Moun and Hal playing chess and of a poetry reading session; stressing the element of monitoring or examining something.

    Still from 'I Say Dust'

    The story is innovative in that it tackles issues that are usually overlooked in media, mainstream and otherwise, but its main weak point is that the story itself should have been developed on a deeper level. The initial attraction between Moun and Hal is palatable, but the next scene takes us to a more public forum so there was a tangible gap between the development of the romantic relationship. This rift is both a positive and a negative. The audience is allowed to formulate their own narrative, but at the same time, it would have been conducive to have a stronger story line.

    The characters are complex, the writing – interspersed with poetry – is so touching, and the shots so poignant it just seems like a damn shame it’s a short rather than a feature length film.

    Despite the momentous relationship, the last scene is the most pivotal; with Hal walking by herself in the snow through an eerily silent Brooklyn. The audience understands that the creation for self-identity continues.

    Recently, Kalimat had a chance to interview writer/director Darine Hotait about the over lap of sex and identity, the diaspora community, futuristic Beirut, and the importance of dreams in inspiring her work.

    Writer/Director Darine Hotait on set

    WK | Having watched ‘I Say Dust’, what initially struck me is that your film cracks the idea of the myth of Arab homogeneity – introducing Arab lesbians who are mitigating that space between identity through sexuality. Where did you get this idea originally?
    DH |  ’I Say Dust' highlights the topic of Identity in a diaspora context. The idea behind [the film] initially came from my interest in Arab diaspora living in the United States, as I identify myself being part of it. Living in a diaspora often entails having a split and complex identity. I had the idea of two Arab-American women in New York City (NYC), Hal and Moun, who fall in love – a rejected representation of women in the Arab culture – and challenge each other's perspective of what makes home. Now having two Arab women fall in love gave the story a twist that reinforced the theme of identity.

    If I was to present a man and a woman, the story's premise wouldn't be as strong and touching simply because this did not break the hailed boundaries. I intentionally wanted to break the homogeneity in the way the identity complex is tackled because I strongly believe that identity is as elastic and resilient as the human's mind and body can be, only if we accept 'the other' unconditionally.

    Still from 'I Say Dust'

    WK | The intersection between sexuality/love and home is universal, and while this type of love has always been part of the human narrative,  why did you choose to portray it through a homosexual lens? Was it a desire to be provocative or just simply universal?
    DH | The characters of Moun and Hal are not the typical Arab women characters that we encounter in most movies. Choosing a homosexual angle was something that the story and its theme called for. These two women were able to break the sexual boundaries of their culture. They both live outside of their homeland and they have both adopted elements outside of their culture. In 'I Say Dust' I am questioning what makes home, [and so] it was essential to highlight that home is something that can make us or break us. [This is similar to] love. Love is universal. Love can break us and it can make us. When we experience it, it becomes our identity. The homosexual lens reinforces this idea by introducing the two characters who were able to transcend many cultural boundaries including a sexual one but not the attachment to a homeland. Hal identifies herself by her home country (Palestine) while Moun identifies herself by her love.
    WK | Where do you seek inspiration for your stories?
    DH | My dreams are my main source of inspiration. I experience very vivid dreams embellished by striking visuals. I often wake up with a story stemming from my own subconscious mind. I also always come back to my personal experiences and what I have lived – when I am ready to face them of course.

    Writer/Director Darine Hotait on set

    WK | Tell us more about the process of actualising this story.
    DH | 'I Say Dust' happened naturally and intuitively. I didn't have plans to make it now as I was working on another film called 'ORB' but I just felt the urge to create something. I think I was pregnant with an idea and I needed [to give birth to it]! The storyline [had been] in [my] mind for a while. Then I decided to collaborate with my good friend Palestinian-American poet Hala Alyan by having her play the lead role of Hal (also a Palestinian American poet) and to have her perform one of her poems. This is Hala's first screen appearance. While transforming the story into a screenplay, Hala's poem blended in very nicely as it also talked about identity. It was obvious to me that no one other than Mounia Akl would play the role of Moun; the girl who works in the shop that sells chess sets and offers Hal her first lesson, which sets the whole relationship in motion. Mounia also happens to be a good friend and a very talented actress and film director.

    It was the first time I wrote a film while having the exact actors in mind. It all happened within a period of a month from conceptualising, writing, prepping and shooting. Things were coming together very nicely which made me feel like this film was meant to be made at this point. I spoke to my producer and friend Dina Emam and asked her if she would come on board and she did. Dina took the big load of pulling the production together while I was doing my job as a director.

    Still from 'I Say Dust'

    WK | I know from previous interviews, you’re also one of the few filmmakers delving into science fiction in Arabic, a genre that currently seems to be a bit brushed aside. How do you decide on what other narratives to highlight (for example: futuristic Beirut in 'ORB')?
    DH | I am very interested in the technological advancement in all fields. I follow what's happening in the science world and robotics. We are now witnessing a marking point in history. Since the human's life is exponentially guided by technology, it is evident to me as a storyteller that this factor must become part of my narratives. I think science fiction is a very genuine genre that people have completely misunderstood or has been exhausted by Hollywood. It is highly needed to reach the Arab audience, in their language, with matters that they only think can happen in the West, which for me in itself is disastrous. Why can't we see films talking about science, technology, robotics, the future, produced in the Arab world? Can't we take part in this historical advancement, not even on a movie set?

    WK | How do you avoid erasure and still stay loyal to your attempt to represent Arab characters as normative and comprehensive individuals? In the movie the subtle signs of ethnicity, the choice of make up, jewellery, etc., is never overwhelming, the main characters are first and foremost humans, who happen to be Arabs. How do you mitigate this balance to ensure your characters are never hyperboles?
    DH | Less is more, especially when it comes to making films. As you said, the main characters are above all humans. My choice of actors was based on the natural signs of ethnicity that each one of them carried. So I [did not have to] worry about their physical appearance nor their accent. I wanted to stay true to the identity of those characters that I was presenting. With 'I Say Dust,' I wanted to break some barriers with the general stereotyped portrayal of Arabs and Arab-Americans in particular. As an Arab myself, and having lived in the United States for a long time, I think it wasn't hard for me to stay loyal to the real individuals I was attempting to portray. The characters in the film appear as they do in real life, and I wasn't trying to make them more or less Arab. They were themselves in many ways. So ensuring the believability of the characters was a matter of staying authentic and eliminating clichés. I knew the characters so well and I own the story so well that it was almost impossible to fall in the hyperbole gap.

    WK | Are you worried about backlash from the Arab community?
    DH | I wouldn't say I am worried. I am aware of the rejections that the film might face in some countries and certain film festivals in the region. However, I was completely amazed when I recently learned that the film was selected to be screened at the Afghanistan International Women's Film Festival. I loved the idea that this film spoke to them and they wanted it to be seen by the community. I know that there will be backlash from those who only want to read what's apparent and not scratch the surface of the film and understand the themes behind it. The film is for them anyways. I know at some point the idea will render.

    WK | The film explores issues that are certainly relevant to most of us in society today (gay rights, transitory existence/idea of home), regardless of background. How do you find the ability to make it universal while still specific?
    DH | I sincerely believe that if you want to make art universal you must be specific and particular. It is the detail that makes people connect with someone or something. 'I Say Dust' discusses the human's need to belong whether to a place or a person or a belief or even an idea and the various point of views that form our contradictions. Having two Arab women fall in love, argue home and identity, engage in a chess battle, and express themselves through the power of the spoken word, well the story can't get more specific than that! Yet, the film is about what makes home and how love can make us and break us. So at the same time, it can't be more universal.

    Still from 'I Say Dust'

    WK | How do you plan on bringing regional conversations to an international stage?
    DH | I rarely plan anything. If what I am doing speaks to the audience then it will make it to the international stage regardless of my efforts. If you come to think about it, our regional conversations don't need an international stage. That's where they fail to do what they're supposed to do most of the time. We need to have our conversations on our own stage first. Conversations with each other.

    WK | What themes do you find yourself constantly reverting back to?
    DH | I am very intrigued by human nature and sensibilities, detachment and uncertainty, perplexed conscience, guilt and virtue, resentment, brutal honesty and above all, the hidden powers of observation.

    WK | How did your film production house Cinephilia come about, and what are you trying to accomplish with it? How does it differ from others?
    DH | Cinephilia is an independent film production house dedicated to developing and producing content from and about the [Middle East and North Africa] MENA region. With Cinephilia, I am trying to present a resourceful space filled with opportunities where we do not set any boundaries for the filmmakers to create. At Cinephilia, and especially through its development labs, we give a great amount of attention on the quality of content that we develop and its resonance.

    Our priority is to make films that speak the language of the countries where they originate. We want films to reach people from within and speak to them and reflect their realities and their fantasies on the big screen.

    WK | Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
    DH | 'ORB' [is currently] in pre-production which is meant to help in the financing of my science fiction feature film 'Symphony of a Flood.' [This film] tackles similar themes in a near future Beirut. I am also in the process of writing a new feature screenplay that takes place in Togo in collaboration with producer Jessy Chalfoun. And finally I am attached as a producer on the second feature film by Egyptian director Ayten Amin (Villa 69).


    Wided Rihana Khadraoui is an Algerian-American writer and founder of art consultancy firm tazuri, which focuses on collaborating with emerging creatives across the Middle East and North Africa. She’s passionate about projects that enhance and promote MENA identities, both within the region as well as the diaspora.

  • A necessary dialogue: JAOU Tunis 2015

    Text: Aliya Say

    Do conferences matter? Especially when they are called “Visual Culture in the Age of Global Conflict”? Can we discuss art and politics in a way that is productive, non-reductive, and leads to some tangible outcomes? Who learns, benefits and evolves at a conference that calls for cultural exchange and dialogue, apart from the 200 participants involved? These questions were going through my head on the way to Tunis, where the third edition of the JAOU conference organised by the Kamel Lazaar foundation and Ibraaz was taking place. Yet a lot of these preoccupations seemed somehow obsolete once I arrived.

    When art and politics come together, the outcomes are unpredictable and sometimes even explosive, as we have been constantly and painfully reminded in the course of the past few months. In March, Tunis suffered from a gruesome terrorist attack when two gunmen stormed the Musée du Bardo, killing 22 people and leaving many injured. It is significant, if coincidental, that the conference took place in that same museum, home to an important collection of Roman mosaics and antiquities, though now sadly famous for reasons beyond the wealth of its collections. When getting into a cab on my way to the conference, I, conscious of taxi drivers’ tendency to drive around for hours not knowing where to go, decided to cautiously double-check: “You know the museum, right?” “Ben oui, the whole world knows it now!” replied the driver cheerfully. I rushed to express my sorrows. “Tout se passe,” he unhesitatingly announced in reply to my condolences.

    Visual Culture in an Age of Global Conflict symposium, opening remark: Kamel Lazaar, President, Kamel Lazaar Foundation. Photo: Hydar Dewachi.

    Choosing the Bardo Museum as the location of the conference was not an opportunistic move by the organisers, as the event was scheduled long before the tragic events in March took place. The host of the conference and editor-in-chief of Ibraaz Anthony Downey remarked that after the devastating news arrived during Dubai Art Week and the initial disarray that followed, the decision was made to double and triple the efforts of making JAOU 2015 happen despite the attack.

    Today, as ever, an inter-cultural dialogue between countries across the region and beyond remains both a challenge and a priority. Echoing Kamel Lazaar’s opening speech from the 2014 JAOU conference, Downey noted that whilst the question raised by the conference as to what is the role of culture in the time of conflict has a particular regional pertinence, this is not, strictly speaking, a regional issue, but a global one affecting all parts of the world. “Culture today is not just under challenge – it’s under attack”, he observed.

    It is this vague idea of cultural dialogue, that is usually perceived as no more than a clichéd expression of a utopian concept spelled out in politically correct articles and diplomatic speeches, that suddenly became a living and breathing matter and substance of the three days of the conference. The JAOU 2015 delegates came from as close as Dubai to as far as New York, and languages were being switched from English into French into Arabic every few minutes. With guests from London learning about day-to-day challenges of cultural production in Casablanca and participants from Beirut comparing their experience of running institutions to that in Paris, the idea of a dialogue suddenly emerged as what is happening here and now; within the conference’s programme of talks and panel discussions, as much as in the multilingual debates at coffee breaks and conversations at the dinner table. At JAOU 2015 it was dialogue – in its most plain literal meaning – that emerged as promise and hope for continued conversation and exchange in the future.

    Visual Culture in an Age of Global Conflict symposium, roundtable III, Performing Archives/Archiving Performance: Contemporary Art Practices across the Middle East, (left to right) Anthony Downey, Slavs and Tatars, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Hiwa K., Héla Ammar, Tania El Khoury. Photo: Hydar Dewachi

    While I was prepared for two days of talks on art, politics, political art, activism, and anything else that lies in between, I discovered that the conference attempted at something much broader and perhaps more significant. Staying away from the conventional rhetoric and the minefield of the subjects mentioned above, JAOU moved beyond the perceived notion of ‘the international conference’ and perhaps even tried to reinvent the idea of such an event in itself. Stepping outside the comfort zone of familiar subjects and formats, the symposium aimed at bringing in not just contemporary artists but cultural practitioners working in all fields of visual culture in Tunisia and elsewhere. ‘Thinking big’ could certainly be chosen as the motto of JAOU, and we can only salute the ambition.

    Amongst the most unforgettable moments and speakers were Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, president of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, who gave a short and extremely useful overview of how modern and contemporary artists in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] region have tackled and responded to conflict. “Art in the Arab world provides one of the most vibrant cultural reflections of politics in the world,” he announced at the start of his speech. Berlin-based Iraqi-Kurdish artist Hiwa K whose heart-gripping presentation of his latest projects – seen through the spectacles of his personal life and career changes – was perhaps the most poignant reminder of the very real brutality, conflict and violence that dominates the daily experience of hundreds of thousands of people living in the region; Payam Sharifi, the outspoken half of the Slavs and Tatars duo, whose phantasmagoric lecture/performance took the audience on a journey swirling effortlessly through time and space and evoking obscure histories, whether real or imaginative. The distances travelled within the thirty-minute performance were vast: from Russian futurists’ linguistic experiments called Zaum to the collective’s own project Beyonsense that celebrates linguistic ambiguity and misreading across cultures, histories, and geographies, from the enigmatic Rothko chapel in Houston to a mystical and largely unknown project of Majid-al-Farah, a Sufi mosque in downtown New York adorned with Dan Flavin light installations (1980), from the architecture of past histories and memories and finally to the architecture of contemporary museums and public art collections.

    Visual Culture in an Age of Global Conflict symposium, opening remark: Kamel Lazaar, President, Kamel Lazaar Foundation. Photo: Hydar Dewachi.

    One of the highlights of the conference was an engaging panel involving five artists: Tania El Khoury, Héla Ammar, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Payam Sharifi and Hiwa K who responded to the notion of performativity of an archive and explained how they utilise, re-read and re-enact oral and written archives in their work. Anthony Downey opened the discussion by stating that “an archive is not a dead space, it is a performative space,” inviting each of the artists to respond to this statement in their short presentations. Our memories are spaces of contemplation, but also of speculation, and as a result, an archive is not something related just to the past, but very much to the future, he elaborated. Nadia Kaabi-Linke for example spoke about her public art project where she interacted with immigrants living in Neukölln, a borough in Berlin, to create a public monument – or rather a public pavement – out of colourful stones all imported from the various countries and regions that the participants of the project have come from.

    How does one compromise his/her artistic pursuits with family and social conventions? Dancer Wael Maghni shared his personal journey of swapping a promising and highly-esteemed career as a football player to a rather controversial one as a dancer. Lastly, Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai, explained how the idea of a fair serving as a bridge between East and West has evolved into something much more complex and subtle. Nine years after its inauguration, Art Dubai has outgrown the confines of being merely a commercial art event, and serves as an incubator of ideas of what a cultural institution in the Gulf could represent. Arguably, JAOU could equally mature into an important ideas generator in the Maghreb with all the major thinkers and doers involved, yet without the sparkly glitz that Art Dubai is obliged to sprinkle on top.

    The conference culminated on the third day with the opening of All the World’s a Mosque, a moving exhibition curated by Lina Lazaar. The exhibition, hosted in purpose-built metal containers, featured twenty-two artists from the region, although not all twenty-two artists had their work on display for the opening. As a reminder of the difficulties and struggles discussed throughout the conference, several works had not managed to cross the borders from Egypt or overcome the challenges posed by nature and technology (for instance in the case of Adel Abidin’s video work that suffered bitterly from rain).

    All the World’s a Mosque. Image courtesy of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation.

    A rather brave title for the exhibition reveals an attempt to create a platform for open dialogue serving against fixed doctrines and formalised notions, and aimed to discuss religion in a respectful way. “We want to send a message of peace, love and tolerance”, the curator explained. The show, put together in a mere three weeks, attracted huge and surprisingly diverse crowds on the opening night. However, though the exhibition succeeded in creating a visually engaging display and an all-immersive ‘adventure castle’ experience, its critical powers appeared undermined – either by an accidental absence of several works, or by deliberate cautiousness in the light of the show’s future travels to Saudi Arabia. Yet one should acknowledge a great responsibility that Lina Lazaar has taken up in embarking on this project, as well as applaud another effort from the Lazaars’ to open up and expand a new space for reflection, dialogue and discussion.

    All the World’s a Mosque. Image courtesy of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation.

    Perhaps it would be appropriate to make a full circle here and come back to an image presented by Sultan Al-Qassemi at the very start of the conference: a piece by a French-Tunisian street artist El Seed painted on a minaret of the Jara Mosque in the southern Tunisian city of Gabes in 2012. Sultan called it a beautiful message of tolerance from Tunisia to the rest of the world. “Art should bring people together”, he noted, and it is in articulation of this simple yet profound aspiration where JAOU 2015 has arguably most succeeded.

    Aliya Say is a London-based writer, art critic and photographer. She is particularly passionate about Contemporary Art from the MENA region and History of Collecting. Aliya did her MA in Art History and Art Business at l'IESA/University of Warwick, and is currently busy developing study programme "Encounters with Islamic Art" organised by l'IESA in partnership with Leighton House Museum. She has published articles in Contemporary Practices, The Daily Telegraph (RBTH supplement), and Vastari, and has contributed entries to a number of exhibition catalogues. Aliya's first e-book Art, New Media and Politics: Contemporary Egyptian Art amidst Political Crisis is out in June 2015.

  • Meanwhile, back at the Yellow House: On conflict and the im/possibility of a memorial in Lebanon

    Text: Muriel Kahwagi | Photos: Courtesy of Peter Matar and Youssef Haidar

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    When my father drove me to beit Barakat to meet Youssef Haidar, the maître d’oeuvre of Beit Beirut, I asked him, rather naively, if he knew anything about the history of the building. The uninformed reader will regret to learn that naively = inanely + rhetorically; my manic yammering about the Barakat building for weeks on end had exasperated my poor father, a man of great generosity of spirit, whose singular forbearance is seldom tested. “The tramway used to pass by here,” he said matter-of-factly. “It used to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Beirut.”

    The Barakat building as it stands today is formidable, pits and pockmarks notwithstanding (I hesitate to employ the word “beautiful,” both for ethical and aesthetic reasons). A friend of mine recently likened its rutty exterior to Swiss cheese, “so thoroughly interpenetrated with holes that you wonder how it holds together.” I’d seen pictures of it before making my way to Sodeco, in the central district of Beirut, to interview Haidar that day, and knew more or less what to expect. Bullet holes; graffiti; bunkers; Fox News’s favourite Middle East-centric compound adjective, “war-torn,” comes to mind. Haidar – dressed as though ready for a safari journey, complete with khaki pants, thick-rimmed sunglasses and a fishing hat – greets me at the site’s main entrance. “So, this is it,” he says. “This is Beit Beirut.”

    Beit Barakat a.k.a the Yellow House a.k.a. Beit Beirut is a four-story, trapezoidal building at the intersection of Damascus Road and Independence Street. It survived Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, and, miraculously, its ensuing and exceptionally unruly reconstruction plan. Were it not for the valiant campaigning of Mona El Hallak, a Beirut-based architect and preservation activist, beit Barakat would have been sentenced for demolition in the late 1990s. It is thanks to her indefatigable efforts that today, this iconic building is being converted into Beit Beirut, a museum of the memory of the city of Beirut.

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    Conceived and built in separate stages by two architects, beit Barakat is made up of two identical structures that are joined together by a series of shops along the street level, and a common bridge on each floor, the latter forming the narrow end of the trapezoid. Nicolas and Victoria Barakat, whose surname lends the building its eponymous moniker, commissioned Youssef Aftimos – the mastermind behind some of Beirut’s most prominent buildings, including the Grand Serail’s Hamadiyyeh clock – to design the building for them in 1924. Initially two stories high, it was fashioned from sandstone, giving the façade its signature yellowish hue (whence the epithet the Yellow House).

    “What makes this building architecturally unique is the spatial configuration of every room within its eight apartments,” explains Haidar. Whereas most buildings of that period only gave one or two rooms in the house a proper street view, “each of [these rooms] looks out to the street, and connects its occupants to the city. It was probably the first time in the history of Beirut that a building achieved this level of transparency.”

    "If my love for Gilbert is a crime, let history witness I am a dangerous criminal," signed by 'Tarzan.' This graffiti allegedly refers to two gay snipers (Gilbert and 'Tarzan') who were presumably in love. While Tarzan was based in beit Barakat, it is uncertain if Gilbert was also. Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    In 1936, the Barakat family decided to add two more floors to the building. “Why build two floors, then build two more several years later?” I ask Haidar. “It’s simple,” he says. “Money – or lack thereof.” Due to Aftimos’s engagement in other projects at the time, Fouad Kozah, a then-burgeoning architect, was contracted to build the next two stories. Fascinated by the 1930s’ modish resurgence of concrete, he incorporated the building material into the newly added floors and details. “If you look closely,” says Haidar, “you can see a subtle difference in the architectural elements between the first two floors, on the one hand, and the third and fourth floors, on the other.” This discrepancy, explains Haidar, is not merely indicative of the stylistic differences between the two architects’ individual work, but of a wider transition in the architectural trends of the 1930s as a result of the introduction of concrete to the market.

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    Then the Lebanese civil war happened. (Bang. Pow. Kaboom.) It was 1975. Beit Barakat, perched astride the Green Line that separated East and West Beirut, was eventually vacated, only to be occupied by snipers who used the building as both a bunker and a shield. “Whose side were they fighting on?” I ask Haidar. “They were Christian militias,” he answers, “but I always tell people that it doesn’t matter. It was war. Everyone was fighting everyone else. Across the street from where we’re standing was another building with fighters who belonged to another sect and another party, and they were shooting people too. Anyone with a gun is equally culpable.”

    Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar

    We walk past puddles of mud, shelled walls, and dangling wires, and reach the first floor, where the damage that the building sustained during the civil war – and the years since – becomes more palpable. Though myriads of bullet holes have pecked at the walls and gnawed away the pillars, the building’s erstwhile charm is not completely gone: some of the Art Deco marble tiles and the ceiling’s hand-painted Art Nouveau patterns are still relatively intact, if timeworn. “From the very beginning, our goal has been to preserve this building – to keep it exactly as the snipers had left it – not to fix it,” says Haidar.

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    “A building is like a human being,” he adds. “You have to tend to it. If there are missing parts, you add prostheses. But if there are scars, you keep them. Scars are important because they remind you of the past. You have to remember the past so you can forgive – and ultimately forget – the atrocities of the war.”

    He shows me one of rooms that was converted into a bunker; fashioned from sandbags, it’s punctuated with gun slits through which the fighters aimed and shot their weapons. Elsewhere, concrete shafts and high walls were erected to bolster and protect the snipers’ newly forged fighting base. But nothing was as crucial to the functioning of this “killing machine,” explains Haidar, as the building’s spatial disposition itself, which granted its new occupants with a full-blown 360°-view of the neighbourhood, and gave them total control over that chunk of the demarcation line.

    But did their efforts actually work? “Absolutely,” says Haidar. “And they managed to kill many, many people from this very building.”

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    The eternal question of the life combative (to employ a Joyceanism) cropped up. Can sanity and empathy, especially in the midst of warfare, exist in a gunman? Beit Barakat’s pockmarked walls alone do not and cannot answer that question, but some of the graffiti that the fighters left behind bears witness to that turbulent time, and what it drove them – and much of the population – to. Spray-painted across the length of one corridor is the word al-jaheem, Arabic for ‘hell.’ “And that’s exactly what war is,” Haidar interjects. “It’s hell.” Another message written by ‘Begin,’ a sniper whose nom de guerre references Israel’s then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, seemingly reads: “I want to speak the truth: my soul flew away in a minute.” Time and weather-beaten, however, the same graffiti’s faintly morphed letters can also be understood to read: “I want to speak the truth: my soul has become impure.”

    Graffiti signed by 'Begin' with a double entendre "I want to speak the truth: My soul flew away in a minute" or "I want to speak the truth: My soul has become impure." Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar

    “It’s very emotionally draining to be in this building, surrounded by all of this,” says Haidar. “But it’s important for people to see it and be exposed to it, and to really reflect on what it means to be at war. We’re not that different from beit Barakat – we all still bear the scars of war.”

    “Will Beit Beirut focus on the memory of the war?” I ask him. “It will tackle the war,” he says, “but it will not focus on it entirely. Beit Beirut will be a museum for the city of Beirut, a beit for all Beirut. The war takes up a fraction of this city’s history, but not all of it. People often forget this.”

    Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

    Only the first floor of the museum, Haidar tells me, will be dedicated to the memory of the war. Visitors will be able to see where the snipers were based, and explore the architecture they built in order to transform the building into a machinegun. The first permanent exhibition on this level will showcase the personal belongings of Dr. Najib Chemali, the dentist who used to live on that floor – these include photographs, newspapers, cinema brochures, visiting cards, and clothes, among other things. (Apropos: El Hallak, whom I met up with a week after interviewing Haidar, is the one who collected most of these items over a decade ago. We had a wonderful conversation about Beit Beirut, which I shall report on in a follow-up article, and in which she endearingly and unselfconsciously stated: “I have two children: Yazan, and beit Barakat.”)

    Al Kannas (Sniper). Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar

    The second floor will be dedicated to the urban history Beirut, from the 19th century to the present day. What did Beirut’s architecture look like? What was Beiruti society like? What did day-to-day life look like? This is where people will gain insight into the history of Beirut at large. The third and most luminous floor, on the other hand, will be devoted entirely to temporary exhibitions.

    “Going through the entire museum is a journey, and it’s not just a historical one,” explains Haidar. “You start off in hell, and from that jaheem, you finally reach this lighter, uncluttered space [the third floor], closer to the sky, where things start to clear up. As you go from one floor to the next, you’re also purging your soul, in a way.”


    Beit Beirut is set to open in 2016. It will also house two auditoriums, four basements dedicated to archives, a state-of-the-art research library, and an urban planning observatory, in addition to a shop and a restaurant. For more information, visit

    Muriel Kahwagi is a Beirut-based writer. Her work has appeared in Monocle, Rusted Radishes, and F/I/M2/P. Together with James Brillantes, she founded Jizz&Jazz, a fictional music- and podcast-producing duo that parodies normative paradigms of conflict resolution in the Middle East. Currently, she is the head of communications at the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum. 2

  • Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk: A Review

    “I was more like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of the stalk and plant it without roots in any piece of ground. Before long the stalk sprouts new roots and starts to grow again in the new ground, with no past, no memory.”

    Text: Rima Alsammarae

    Issues relating to identity are more common now than ever, as globalisation has enabled goods and individuals to traverse the borders of countries around the world both legally and illegally. With the influx of Indian, Sub-Saharan and Filipino migration to Arab countries for the sake of improving their economic conditions, younger generations are being born in lands that are wholly different from their ancestors’, leading many to question not only where they come from, but who they are and where they’re going.

    The Bamboo Stalk by Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi is one such story that deals with a young man’s journey across the world to learn about where he comes from and what his family name means in its original context. The protagonist, Jose Mendoza, is a young man whose mother is Filipina and father is Kuwaiti. The structure of the novel is divided into separate parts with the first half detailing Jose’s life in the Philippines, while the second focuses on his move to Kuwait. Throughout the novel, Jose struggles to find his place in society – an internal conflict that manifests in his understanding of daily experiences. From the many names he’s given to choosing between religions to the encounters he has with family and peers, Jose’s story is one that starts out personal and grows to include a village.

    Narrated from the first-person perspective, The Bamboo Stalk invites the reader into Jose’s story with an opening line that immediately alludes to his identity struggle: “My name is Jose. In the Philippines it’s pronounced the English way, with an h sound at the start. In Arabic, rather like in Spanish, it begins with a kh sound. In Portuguese, though it’s written the same way, it opens with a j, as in Joseph. All these versions are completely different from my name here in Kuwait, where I’m known as Isa.”

    Jose’s existence is also one of a controversy, especially in the Arab world were racism is rampant and gossip is more destructive than war. Josephine, Jose’s mother, a former maid of a well-known family in Kuwait, fell in love with Isa Rashid al-Tarouf, the family’s son. After Jose’s father and mother married in secret, Josephine became pregnant. Upon hearing of her son’s actions, Ghanima, Rashid’s mother, banished him and Josephine from the al-Tarouf household, not only because of her own racially-fuelled stupor, but also to protect Rashid’s sisters from becoming social pariahs in the small country of Kuwait. After Jose was born, Rashid abandoned his young family out of weakness and Josephine returned to the Philippines with Jose.

    While Jose was born in Kuwait, his first 17 years were spent in the Philippines. It was there that very few people he encountered seem to notice anything different about Jose, other than occasionally calling him ‘The Arab’. Otherwise, he walked among the streets as one of them, but with the belief that one day his father would summon him back to Kuwait, as was Rashid’s promise to Josephine.

    While the reader picks up on the many elements of Jose’s attachment to the Philippines, such as his family as well as his love for the land’s natural environment, the character’s bond with his mother’s country seems incomplete. Throughout the first half, much of Jose’s mind is set on his potential return to his father and the idea that within him is a Kuwaiti citizen waiting to be nurtured.

    The story picks up slowly and the first half is, arguably, slightly dull with the chapters that centre on Jose’s time in the Philippines lacking in emotional depth. The character seems to be a bit self-pitying and helpless against his cruel grandfather and the poverty his family lives in. The protagonist’s maternal grandfather, Mendoza, is a painfully unpleasant old man, but Jose’s encounters with him are brief although recurring.

    While the initial setting wasn’t gripping enough for me, Alsanousi’s character development of the supporting characters is spot on and thoroughly descriptive. One can perfectly imagine an aged and withered Mendoza hurling insults and demands at the rest of his family, as well as his state of deterioration. Jose’s cousin Merla is also well developed, as she gradually grows into an unstable, insecure teenage girl whose abandonment issues take hold of her personal life choices.

    The second half of the book is where the story picks up, and social and political norms common in Arab countries are challenged by Jose’s slow and sometimes painful assimilation of Kuwaiti culture. Alsanousi’s ability to bring small details of the normal day-to-day is strong and well-founded. At many points throughout The Bamboo Stalk, Alsanousi describes the state of racism in Kuwait, as well as its stronghold on the population’s social conscience.

    During a conversation between Jose and Khawla, his half-sister from his father’s latter marriage, Jose asks about the tribal hierarchy of Kuwait’s social and racial classes. When he notes that tribes in the Philippines are known for growing rice, Khawla retorts that tribes in Kuwait are known for eating rice.

    Their conversation is followed up by Jose’s internal dialogue: “I don’t claim that such things don’t exist in the Philippines, but people there are busy with more important things. Some people may look on others with contempt but it happens on a limited scale, and it’s not as important as Khawla suggested it is in Kuwait. In Kuwait, my sister explains, some people boast that their ancestors built a wall around the old city, although all that’s left of the wall is two gates, and others boast about events that took place many years ago around a red fort somewhere in Kuwait. Both groups claim they love their country, Khawla said, and both deny the existence of the other group. It was like watching a match between two teams. Large crowds of supporters, with me in the middle of them, on neither side.”

    Throughout his time in Kuwait, Jose not only learns of the cultural and religious traditions of Kuwait, but he interacts with a range of characters that populate the country – the good, the bad and the ugly. From his humanitarian aunt whose beliefs are hollow to his half-sister’s loyalty and hospitality, Jose’s relationship with his father’s family is sometimes stunted while at other times warm. Alsanousi’s exploration of Jose’s relationships in Kuwait are real and well-illustrated. They maintain the bonds and well as the gaps that individuals face in reality when trying to connect with others.

    Homosexuality, racism, Bedouin status, stubborn prejudices, migrant workers and poverty are all themes that the author addresses throughout Jose’s story. It’s a novel that should be read by Arabs specifically, as it provides an open approach to terrible issues that deeply plague Arab societies. While the reading level is simple and on par with young-adult literature, the story is emotional and develops a reality for people and issues that have been ignored for far too long.


    The Bamboo Stalk will be released on 23 April 2015 in the UK and MENA. For more information or to pre-order your copy visit Bloomsbury's website.

    Rima Alsammarae is an Arab-American expat living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She has written and edited for a number of Middle East publications that focus on art, design and architecture. Her work experience spans across the Arab region from Lebanon to the UAE. She is currently developing a work of fiction that details Arab-American identity.

  • Not leaving my imagination to wander: a review of Eyes of a Thief

    Text: Ruba Asfahani

    In celebration of their tenth anniversary, the opening film of the London Palestinian Film Festival was the 2015 Oscar contender for Palestine Eyes of a Thief (Eyun el Haramieh). Written and directed by Palestinian director Najwa Najjar (Pomegranates and Myrrh), the West Bank set thriller stars the Egyptian television star Khaled Abol Naga, Algerian singer Souad Massi, and hidden away in the café is Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani.

    Abol Naga, who has seen fame and critical success with One-Zero (Wahad-Sifr) and Heliopolis, was brought over to Palestine for a quick four-week shoot, after waiting two additional weeks for his visa. As the lead character Tareq, Abol Naga has a captivating aura on screen and although there are points in the film in which you want to slap his character for not “fighting the system”, Abol Naga has proved once again his skill in portraying yet another character stuck in a bind.

    In Eyes of a Thief, Tareq has just emerged from a ten year spell in an Israeli prison. Moving backwards and forwards between 2002 and 2012, we find out that he was shot by an Israeli soldier after trying to get back into his village (Sebastia) - which was under fire and surrounded - to find his wife and baby. Very quickly, we figure out that he was shot, looked after by a priest and some nuns, and his wife Houda is dead and his baby daughter Nur was taken away to an orphanage. There’s a moment of confusion for us and Tareq when he’s trying to figure out why his sister-in-law Salwa is being so curt with him and not giving him answers to his questions. Why is she not giving him more information? How did his wife die? And why on earth was his baby taken away?

    All becomes clear, and far too quickly. After following a few leads, Tareq heads to the city of Nablus and lo and behold, he finds his daughter Nur in the first place he sits down in to have a coffee. After securing a job with the town’s very own Godfather (Adel), Tareq soon discovers two major details – Adel is a crook and Adel’s fiancée slash Tareq’s housemate slash love interest - adopted his daughter who is now called Malak.

    The first half hour of Eyes of a Thief I found quite captivating; flitting between 2002 and 2012, the story uncovers what really happened, but my problem came when all the “thrilling” parts of this thriller were revealed so early on. It then became an issue of waiting to see it unfold quite slowly. That being said, Eyes of a Thief is not a bad film. Abol Naga was brilliant at playing a sensitive brute and the young actress Malak Ermileh playing his daughter Malak was absolutely spectacular. Her ballsy attitude and potty mouth made her one of the most entertaining characters in the film.

    One of the more disappointing elements of the film however was singer Souad Massi. There is no denying the quality and beauty of her voice and Massi composed and recorded three new songs for this film, but as one of the lead characters, Lila, she was stiff. In fact, this was a common issue throughout the film, and it rendered me incapable of connecting with any of the characters as they seemed too far removed from the supposedly dangerous and thrilling situation they were living in. Even after Adel was exposed for the crook that he is, there was an emptiness surrounding the circumstances that didn’t quite succeed in making me feel anything.

    Eyes of a Thief is inspired by and based loosely on the 2002 Wadi al-Haramiya sniper attack when 22 year old Tha’ir Hamad acquired a World War II rifle and shot and killed seven Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians. Hamad is now serving eleven life sentences for the eleven he killed. In the film, the elements taken from this real-life story are the shooting of the soldiers of which Tareq is guilty, and although we all know that from quite early on, the ‘sleepy’ town he’s moved to are slow to pick up on it. The question is, should we really care? I found this side story actually one of the most interesting parts of the film and yet it was hardly developed, being washed over and pushed to the side in comparison to the Adel vs. Tareq narrative.

    Furthermore, given that family is possibly the most important element of Arab culture, my pure Lebanese heart found it difficult to accept that this man, who for ten years was locked away, didn’t let anything get in his way of searching for his daughter, but when he found her, barely made a peep about it. The relationship that develops between Tareq and Malak is incredibly touching and some beautiful moments were captured on film, but I was left with a sense of “Would my own father have done that?”. It is not unacceptable for a man to not overtly show his emotions but Abol Naga’s Tareq is not one of those people, from the outset of the film you can see how important his family is to him and the risks and challenges he faces to find the truth about them. So why when he finally finds his beautiful baby girl all grown up, does he take a step back and not tell the truth? I felt like I had missed something here.
    And where was all the gossiping? It’s not a secret that everyone loves a good chinwag in the Arab world – so why was it only Adel who questioned who Tareq was? Tareq has shown up unannounced, he’s a good looking guy, a handy water engineer who looks after the kids and minds his own business. Shouldn’t someone have asked where on earth he came from?

    Despite the fact that Eyes of a Thief left me with one too many unanswered questions, it does deserve to be seen, maybe even more than once. It’s a beautifully shot film with a great soundtrack. The acting, for the most part, is great and there’s no doubt in my mind how talented the director Najwa Najjar and her team are. But for my tastes, the film lacked reality and depth that would really have made it one of this year’s best. With Palestinian filmmaking at its peak and the quality of work improving year in and year out, it’s high time we see less of the rolling hills of Palestine, and more deep, meaningful and realistic characters.

    Ruba Asfahani has spent six years specialising in Contemporary Arab art and culture. Having worked in Sotheby's, Artspace London and the Arab British Centre, in January she will be embarking on a new career at Modern Art Oxford. More of her freelance work can be found at

  • Between Places: An interview with filmmaker Anna Fahr

    Text: Shoag Al-Adsani | Photos courtesy of © Sepasi Films

    Director Anna Fahr’s latest short film, Transit Game, is about an encounter between two generations of refugees who meet at a crossroads in the mountains of Lebanon. The work is perceptive, shying away from making any political statements, and yet remains a compelling portrayal of the plight of many Syrian and Palestinian refugees who come to Lebanon.

    Fahr, an Iranian-American-Canadian, is currently based in Beirut. Having received an MA in Film & Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, she remarks that “the Middle East has been a central focus of my academic and creative work for quite a while.” With influences ranging from De Sica and other Italian Neo-Realists to Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (who she wrote her thesis on) and other Iranian filmmakers of the Iranian New Wave, Anna admits that in her work she is a “realist through-and-through.”

    On Iranian cinema, Anna states: “Iran has long been isolated from the region and from the global community… it’s really cinema that has managed to give voice to the Iranian people, throughout years of sanctions and isolation.” With roots in the Iranian film tradition and a focus on the Middle East, she claims that “it’s nice to work in both areas.” I spoke with Anna briefly about what it's like to work in both Arab and Iranian cinema, and her experiences making Transit Game.

    SA | I thought I would start with asking about the title of the film, which to me evokes the idea of liminality, of an unsettled system – could you elaborate on the title?
    AF | The idea of being in transit is a central theme in the film, which is represented through both the Palestinian kids (Saad [played by Sajed Amer] and Nada [played by Sanaa Amer]) and the Syrian refugee (Mohammad [played by Jalal Altawil]). The game on the other hand can be interpreted in different ways: on the one hand, there's the game that Saad and Nada play to pass the time while peddling newspapers, and on the other there is the larger geopolitical game being played by countries/governments that support various wars and conflicts in the region and that as a result perpetuate the cycle of exile that is experienced by refugees who must flee these conflicts.

    SA | So games are structures and the characters of your film play various roles within that structure...
    AF | Yes!

    SA | I'm really interested in how you represented that feeling of transition, specifically regarding the film's backdrop - as in you could've looked at the refugee crisis in Lebanon by going into an actual camp/refugee sector, but instead, your film is set in the mountains, and the kids are in a crossroads of sorts which adds to the idea of transition, of making choices, and also of ambiguous space. What were your personal reasons for choosing such a space?
    AF | I'm glad you asked [about this]! The location was a very important aspect of the film, which actually changed in various phases of the writing process. Originally, I had imagined the film to be set closer to the Mediterranean coast, and then I thought about changing it to the city, where you would normally see street kids peddling for money. I finally settled on a remote road in a location that would resemble Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. I love the landscape in this part of the country – for me being in a valley nestled between the mountains symbolises the idea of being between places.

    SA | It's a really beautiful area!
    AF | Many refugees actually end up in that area.

    SA | It's so spacious and still.
    AF | The road that we shot on had a fork in it, and an actual informal settlement where refugees were living. [So] the fork served as the perfect metaphor to situate the two kids and the settlement added an element of realism, which we see at the end when Mohammad drives past it as he's listening to the car radio. The location itself wasn't in the Bekaa Valley but closer to Amioun in northern Lebanon. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare to film on that road, but I got so attached to it I decided that we couldn't film anywhere else, and instead condensed the entire shoot into three days just to be able to use that location!

    SA | That's a short amount of time!
    AF | Yes and we were chasing daylight since the entire film takes place during the day and [on top of that] we had child actors which meant we needed to make sure there were ample breaks, etc.

    SA | Of course! Those kids were so good as well.
    AF | They were wonderful!

    SA | This actually leads me into my next question! I know that using childrens' narratives is something very typical of post-revolutionary Iranian film and it's something that I've always found fascinating. Using a child's point of view seems almost exclusive to Iranian cinema as it's rare that I see it in other films. I was wondering what your reasons were behind on adapting that point of view in an Arab setting? Although I realise that with Transit Game the perspective does shift towards the end.
    AF | This was also a very deliberate choice. I'm a big fan of Iranian cinema, I am very much inspired by the aesthetics of Iranian New Wave, [and] I'm Iranian! I also shot a feature documentary in Iran [back] in 2004. [There are] many Iranian filmmakers [who] manage to tell very powerful stories by using allegory and metaphor. Censorship is an issue that Iranian filmmakers face and some have opted to tell stories through the eyes of children in order to present a social critique while abiding by the censorship codes that the government imposes. At the same time these films are very humanistic and somehow universal, and that's what I found interesting about the approach.

    SA | It's also interesting when you consider where a child's perspective would be coming from, what priorities they might have, how their value system and even their comprehension of reality differentiate from that of an adult...
    AF | Definitely.

    SA | In your film it's as if Saad and Nada are the ones leading Mohammed and the ones who are educating him.
    AF | Yes, they represent the first wave of refugees that came to Lebanon [after 1948], even though they are the descendants of those refugees, they are still part of that generation. Mohammad on the other hand represents the new generation of refugees coming from Syria. So in some way Saad and Nada represent Mohammad's future as a refugee in Lebanon.

    SA | It's crazy to think of Lebanon's role as a refugee home for so many displaced peoples of the Arab world.
    AF | It's really incredible – the sheer number of people that have come here over the last few years. It's roughly a 50 per cent increase in the country's population, which is causing an enormous strain on Lebanon.

    SA | Which is something you highlighted in the film. Depicting refugees in and of Arab countries is always problematic – how did you approach the topic? I know there's a history of representing Afghan refugees in Iranian cinema – perhaps that I was a sort of tie in?
    AF | For me, I wanted to show them as regular people. Saad and Nada are two average kids who like to have fun and play games like all kids do. They happen to be refugees. Mohammad is a father and a husband. It was important for me to present the characters as real people that were relatable to anyone, which is always a bit of a challenge.

    SA | That definitely came across, I appreciated that about the film. What are your thoughts on film as a medium for displaced peoples to get their messages across?
    AF | I see film as a medium that has the power to transgress cultural and political divides. It has a way of reaching people on an emotional level that regular news reports and media coverage of the refugee crisis (or other humanitarian issues for that matter) don't always do. As a filmmaker who has lived both in the Middle East and in North America, I feel I have the unique opportunity to tell stories to audiences of both regions and to communicate ideas in a way that can reach people emotionally. That's one of the driving forces behind my work as a filmmaker.

    SA | Agreed, and that's very much appreciated!
    AF | Thank you!


    Transit Game will screen on Sunday 30 November at 20.30 as part of the 2014 London Palestine Film Festival Shorts Programme. For more details, visit:

    Shoag Al-Adsani recently graduated with a degree in English literature and is looking to master in development studies next year.