Yasmin El Derby, MENA-Films Curator

Bringing Arab Cinematic Greats to London with the MENA Film Hub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nahla: Do you travel for your job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nahla:  What have you learnt on this films journey? 

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

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

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

Nahla: Why London and why The Coronet?

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

Nahla: Tell me about your audience. 

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

NI: What else are you working at the moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa November 2013

Omar Reda, MD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa October 2013

Merit Ariane Stephanos: The Voice of Jaljala and Hjaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaljala project – Arab and East European Ensemble

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

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

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

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

The Hjaz – Jazz Trio Project

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa October 2010

Halim Al-Karim, Iraqi Artist

Halim Al-Karim: On Work, Women, War, Love and Politics

This interview was taken at the launch of the ‘Witness from Baghdad’ art exhibition held at the Artspace London Gallery in Knightsbridge, London on 16 January 2013. A review of the exhibition and the artworks has also been posted on Nahla Ink.

Nahla: Today’s exhibition comes at the tenth year anniversary of the Iraq War. You left in 1991, would you ever consider going back?

Al-Karim: No, not yet. But Iraq never left me. Always, it is inside of me. And I am not sure if I go back. I cannot imagine to arrive in Baghdad airport and then take a taxi and to ask the driver to take me to a hotel, because I don’t have an address there anymore. And I am not ready to go to face the lost ones.

Nahla: How do you feel about being in London?

Al-Karim: I don’t have any special feeling. I feel it’s like any other city but maybe just for the weather. Even the weather is the same.

Nahla: Looking at the range of work, what is your ultimate goal as an artist?

Al-Karim: I try to make my art for myself first, to control my beast and my monsters that exist inside me; and, through this, I try to let people control their own monster that exists inside of them too. I want to let people control their violence and show their best and to deal with each other in the human way away from violence.

Nahla: Tell me about your technique?

Al-Karim: I don’t think that technique is important for the audience to know about. But I will explain. I use different techniques, but always with a medium or large format manual camera, and I never use digital. I shoot the model sometimes with out-of- focus, I develop the negative and then I paint on the negative itself. Sometimes I also dip them in wax, let them dry and then scan.

For example, in the Schizophrenia series, I colored the negative and with the Lost Memory, I put a kind of white fabric in front of the model before I shoot with out- of-focus. Then you can see the results, the kind of shadow of the portrait.

I also use Lambda print, mounted onto aluminum so there is no air and little colour degradation. That way it is also easy to clean.

Nahla: What about the psychological element of your work?

Al-Karim: I don’t see any difference between me and society or between different societies. They all live in a schizophrenia. They follow their leaders, their governments and they elect them. At the same time, they know that these politicians have their own hidden agendas and their own deceiving policies, but they keep electing them. In this, my subjects are of universal themes.

Nahla: Tell me about the Seclusion series?

Al-Karim: This is an early work. It is called Lost Seclusion of the Soul, to represent the fear of my colleagues when they graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

Usually, they would take vacation from the army and every month, they give them seven days to go back to school. I saw the kind of fear and horror covering them. They used to be in the frontline for the war between Iraq and Iran and they told me how the sounds of bombs and bullets have affected them.

It affects them in the way they feel that they are isolated and I try to express this idea of how violence isolates people from each other.

Nahla: I heard a rumour that you have decided to stop making art. Is this true?

Al-Karim: If I ever stop dealing with women, then I will stop dealing with art. As long as I have women in my life, I will continue to make art.

Nahla: Some of your work has a very strong sexual element, can you explain?

Al-Karim: I am not sure on the idea of sexual freedom. I just present sexual pieces to express the idea of mercy, that people through sex look for mercy and how society considers women when they call them prostitutes. In fact, for me, they are not prostitutes, they are just creatures giving mercy to their clients.

Nahla: What about women? Do you think Arabic or Iraqi women are different from Western women?

Al-Karim: In general, there is no difference between women. It is just the propaganda that classifies women up until now. Even women in the West are not equal in their rights. For example, after they graduate from school or university and ask for a job, even when they get it, they are given a lesser salary than the man. This still exists in Europe.

Everywhere there is an injustice against women. It is not just Arab women. In fact, Arab women are educated and free but the war propaganda against the Middle East is focusing on this issue that women don’t have their rights. Actually, Arab women have more rights in the Middle East then women in the West.

Nahla: I love the Untitled 10, from the King’s Hareem Series. Can you tell me more about it?

Al-Karim: There are two ideas relating to this piece. The first is that I believe I am a creature or a man with nine hearts and all my life I am trying to find the goddess that can control these nine hearts and to make them tremble and shake at once. Because I believe the second I meet that woman, I will fly to my own paradise.

The second theme is about the situation all over the world affecting society and how people talk to their leaders and governments. It is to say we are full of anger at you and you have to stop your hidden agendas and deceit politics but through beauty. We are resisting this deception and policies through beauty.

Nahla: Tell me also about the Eternal Love images, which are being shown here for the first time.

Al-Karim: I will tell you about the theme behind them. I believe that eternal love exists in our lives. That is why in this series I try to visualize my lost memories through these pieces. Because when you live in hardship, usually your memory becomes full of holes and if you are aware about what is happening around you, then you start to close the holes of your memory and to collect the nice things that happen to you in life.

Note: This article was first published circa January 2013

Ahlam Akram – BASIRA Dream

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

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

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

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

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

The Arab Woman

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

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

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

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

On Religion

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

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

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

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

The Arab Identity

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

First Film – Hala2 La Wein

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published December 2012

Ibrahim Shebani – Behind ‘The Libyan’

Start on A Libyan Cultural Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nahla’s Post Script:

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa February 2012

The Bride of Amman, Fadi Zaghmout

Includes: Insight from the Jordanian Author

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

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

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

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

Conveying Real Experience Into Story Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Fiction Transforms Into Social Activism

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

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

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

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

Highlighting the LGBT Community in Amman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa December 2015

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library.

This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017. 

You can see the full Shubbak Festival programme at: www.shubbak.co.uk