Olive Jar – Directed by Elias Matar

The Olive Jar is a new play directed by the Palestinian Elias Matar who utilises the applied theatre model to work with 12 individuals of Arab origin, all currently resident in the W2 London postcode. Staged last weekend at Grand Junction, as part of the biennial Shubbak Festival, it is a brilliant example of how the socially-informed method can empower a niche community to share its real lived experience, on its own terms and turf, and gently touch the heart of its audience.

Under Matar’s sensitive yet confident instruction, informed by his strong narrative therapy background, the mix of male and female participants – eleven of whom have no prior thespian experience – conquered any debuting stage fright by beginning to open, in sequence, the neatly placed olive jars around the stage, with very few other props needed. Each glass container held a real tale of personal migration, displacement and subsequent diasporic settlement in the United Kingdom, the place each of them now calls home.

Mariam on stage, photo©EllieKurttz 

The first one to share was the energetic Mariam of Algerian descent. Over a cup of mint tea, she told us of how her blacksmith grandfather had left Algeria due to an inheritance dispute with his siblings, set within the context of the French occupation that spanned 132 years. Making reference to the complex post-colonial legacy that impacted waves of Algerian migration to Europe, it is a reminder of the historical role of Western intervention in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Next Hafiza comes forward. Named after her Palestinian grandmother who was twice widowed and made to be a refugee, due to the 1948 Nakba and declaration of the state of Israel, she reminds us of Britain’s relationship to that ongoing conflict. She is followed by Majida, a veiled older Palestinian/Lebanese woman, who relays the tale of when, heavily pregnant, she arranged to escape for her unborn child’s sake. In fact, she ended up giving birth to a boy onboard a flight headed to the United States, whom she would later lose at the tender age of 22 years.

Continuing with the others. Ali is the newly arrived Iraqi refugee, who with broken English, says his story is still too raw and difficult to recount and may be too much for others to hear. But then a lighter vibe takes over with the humorously philosophic Adam, a lost Lebanese tourist who slept on London’s park benches for weeks on end, and still remembers hearing the loud bang of the Hyde Park bombing by the IRA in July, 1982! 

Men on stage, photo©EllieKurttz 

The stage then quickly transforms into a wedding scene for Syrian bride Nasrin, whose big day was disrupted by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that impacted on her marriage and reasons for travel. Soon turning into a kitchen for Sarah, the half-English girl, the desire to recreate an Arab grandmother’s aromatic dolma finally reconnects her with long-lost Middle Eastern relatives. Then it is Amal, the humble feminist, who was deprived of rights and freedoms for being a girl – as basic as wanting to swim and ride a bicycle – and so ran away to spare her daughter the same fate.

Nasrin’s wedding, photo©EllieKurttz

The two Iraqi women in the group then contribute. Whilst Phayaphi fled because her family members were being executed by Saddam Hussein for being opponents of his brutal regime, Lana left Baghdad due to the upheavals caused by the American-led /British invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the resultant war which destabilised the country. As they put it, “war is separation” and the reason why ordinary people come to seek refuge in a foreign land, even when confronted by the challenge to start all over again, far away from all that is familiar and of comfort to them.

Lastly a word about the youngest cast member, the eloquent 7-year-old son of Lina, a Syrian woman who chose not to open her jar but stood on stage supporting the acts of all the others. Her handsome little boy assuredly took to the pulpit in the sacred St Mary Magdalene’s church, to keep an imaginary register as part of the dramatics of the play. His role, according to Matar, is to represent the people we meet on our various journeys, who support us to open our glass containers. I couldn’t help but also notice the pride in Lina’s eyes as they followed Ali, trusting she’s done the best to secure him a brighter future.

As these talented and warm, funny and intelligent, kind and generous souls aired the symbolic Olive Jar(s) to deliver the performance of their lives, I sensed the firm friendships and neighbourly bonds now forged between them, and the huge respect towards Matar. As the director tasked with steering the project, which began in October 2022 by way of weekly-held workshops, Matar has accomplished an incredible feat of applied theatre that truly honours the vibrant Arab community in the Paddington area.

Rolling the dolma, photo©EllieKurttz 

By devising the simple yet truthful script for his aspiring actors, for most of whom English is not the mother tongue, it allowed them to proudly and publicly perform in an adopted second language, with only brief Arabic segments. It actually felt like they wanted the audience to see them in light of their ‘Britishness’ and not their ‘otherness’. Indeed one can only imagine the troubled emotions when any of us comes across the continuingly unfair coverage that dehumanises those currently attempting to cross the seas, individuals risking everything for safety and survival.

So I truly enjoyed every element, including the live music by harpist Georgie Pope and percussionist Nuno Brito, as well as the Arabic lyrics and poetry composed and sung by the Palestinian Ruba Shamshoum. Her graceful voice gave the Olive Jar an added spectacular ingredient and the magical atmosphere. As a grassroots performance based on the real pains, desires, struggles, horrors, loves and dreams of its stars, this was a rare treat, so delicately and skillfully put together.

For more on Shubbak Festival, the UK’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab arts and culture: https://www.shubbak.co.uk/

For more on Grand Junction, the venue for arts, culture and community based at St Mary Magdalen’s Church: https://grandjunction.org.uk/

This Nahla Ink article was first published circa July 2023 

Calligraphies of the Desert: Hassan Massoudy

Prefaced by his wife Isabelle Massoudy, ‘Calligraphies of the Desert’ is the latest collection of the master Iraqi calligrapher’s work as he turns his focus to the desert, published by Saqi Books. Here we find his signature art form as he ponders: the wonders of the sand dunes and their shifting nature, the reflective elements of the moon light shining down, the vision of the night stars, the feeling of space and the sound of silence, the movement of a camel, the Bedouin’s knowledge of his terrain, or the colour green as it portrays a welcome oasis for the thirsty traveller.

Leafing through this beautifully illustrated book, one is seduced into a thoughtful meditation –  brief or long depends on the time you are prepared to give it – signalled by the artist’s calligraphic interpretation of the desert as a real place and as an imaginary one too. Inspired by the Massoudy couple’s world travels to different desert lands over a number of decades and their collating of texts, poetry and literature about the phenomenon of desert, you get the sense of figurative movement with the words that he paints, as each individual letter comes to hold much power and meaning.

The Desert

With a user friendly layout, the pages on the right side are used to display the artist’s larger works in colour, in which Massoudy’s expert touch utilises the motifs and shapes reminiscent of the desert, with his recognisable majestic strokes in warm yellows, reds, orange, dusky pink and some browns too. These pieces take on poems, proverbs and short mystical compositions written in the Arabic language, be they originally from the Middle East or having been translated. From Al-Mutanabbi and Rumi, to Kahlil Gibran, and writers from the West, including Goethe, Baudelaire, and Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

Whilst set on the opposite pages are smaller illustrations done in black and white that tackle one word concepts or singular ideas, such as the artists’ take on: liberty, beauty, splendour, water, light, the void, the camel, the well, water, light, the wind, among others. Again, each word becomes a cause for contemplation and feast for the eyes, the mind, the heart and soul.

Light Upon Light 

Still yet the book includes Isabelle’s contribution of the longer texts taken from European travellers who have visited the Arab deserts that she had taken years to put together in personal notebooks. In the preface she mentions how, by the time they had visited the dunes of Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, that: “I carried my little notebooks with me. The desire seized me to reread them in the solitude of the desert, in the very place where they had been conceived, as if to pay homage to those who had crossed it and suffered there, where some had died, yet where none had remained unmoved by it.”

Man’s residence is the horizon. Arabic saying

A prolific artist who has been based in Paris, France for many years, Massoudy is most highly regarded, respected and renowned in the art world by significant art curators, critics, collectors and among other calligraphers throughout Europe and the MENA region. His works have been exhibited internationally and belong to many permanent collections at art houses, museums and institutions, including the British Museum.

Born in 1944 in Najaf, Iraq – a holy city well connected to the origins and development of Islamic calligraphy that is manifest in its architectural and religious fabric – he showed an early talent for the Arabic calligraphy and was pushed by an uncle and a school teacher to learn more, encouraging him to participate in local exhibitions. So that in 1961 he moved to Baghdad where he apprenticed under several calligraphers to study the classic techniques and styles for eight years.

Man, know when to fall silent and listen to the song of this place. Who may say that light and shadow do not speak? Touareg proverb

But Massoudy had also wanted to explore fine art too and in 1969 moved to Paris where he studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It seems however that after five years there, he felt disheartened and didn’t know which direction to take. After some soul searching, he decided to somehow go back to his first love of Arabic calligraphy and sought out the renowned living masters then, namely Hamid al-Amadi in Istanbul and others in Cairo.

From an extract published in ‘Signs of Our Times: From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti’ by Rose Issa, Juliet Cestar and Venetia Porter, Massoudy once provided this personal statement, relaying: “By the 1980s, I abandoned oil and canvas in favour of ink and paper. I decided to work on abstract compositions based on the shapes of Arabic letters. Words have the capacity to impose shapes I hadn’t considered, through their meaning. This is how Arabic poetry became more appropriate in the course of my artistic practice. I approach the work of poets with the hope that their metaphors will enrich my visual artwork’.

And the rest, as they say, is history, as Massoudy went on to develop his personal style using the means of the classical Arabic calligraphy to visually paint the spiritual verse that inspires him; be it of a Sufi source, philosophic texts, old proverbs, or anything of a transcendental and almost four-dimensional nature. His pieces are a reverence for the word and respect for the sanctity of the alphabet.

The dunes are changed by the wind, but the desert is always the desert. Arabic wisdom

He is considered today by some as the greatest living calligrapher, with a huge popularity and following. Much loved, admired and appreciated from the critics to the experts, the collectors and the younger Arab generations who have been influenced by his genius.

Rosa Issa, a prominent Middle Eastern arts curator who has worked with him, said to Nahla Ink: “For almost 50 years, Hassan Massoudy has been painting the wise sayings of poets from the East and West in his beautiful calligraphical brushes, emphasising on the poetry that is common to all, and should apply to all humanity.

“Words hung in our living rooms, to remind us of the beauty of our culture, aesthetically and philosophically. He also grabbed very early in his career the importance of publishing and making his work and its beauty available to all, and hence inspire young artists. Today despite his Parkinson fight, he continues to embellish the art of calligraphy with word sayings and wisdom that he continues to share.”

Hassan Massoudy: Artist in his studio

Moreover, Hassan has helped usher in the movement taking the ancient Arabic calligraphy into the contemporary and modern art world, raising and elevating it to entry into exhibitions in international art galleries, museums and onto the streets of Europe and the MENA region, especially with the new strand of the art form called calligraffiti.

So holding, touching and reading this new collection of Massoudy’s work – the third published by Saqi – becomes an invitation to take that minute to sit still and consider secrets of the world, nature and existence. It is to open oneself to receive the artist’s gift of wanting to spread a message of peace, joy and harmony with his intense devotional labour. From this collection looking at the desert, to his other works that have addressed love and verdant gardens; it is not to be skimmed over but savoured one Massoudy creation at a time!

And ending with my favourite piece: The Oasis

In Tabelbala people have nothing, but they want for nothing. That is what an oasis is. Michel Tournier (1924-2016)

Note: The original colour works are on paper of two sizes 75x55cm or 65×50 cm. They are based on pigments and binders and the artist has used different tools: a flat brush or a piece of cardboard or a calamus (cut reed). The black works are on light paper and in smaller sizes. The majority of these calligraphies are available for sale.

Images used in this article are with kind permission from the artist and Saqi Books.

To buy the book: https://saqibooks.com/books/saqi/calligraphies-of-the-desert/

To learn more about the artist: https://massoudy.pagesperso-orange.fr/english.htm

Note: This Nahla Ink article was first published circa October 2020


Sudan Retold: An Art Book About the History and Future of Sudan

Guest Review: Salma Ahmad Caller

In the summer of 2018 I began a journey to explore my dual identity as an Egyptian-British woman through the investigation of old postcards of supposed Egyptian women shown through the distortions of the colonial lens. This led to an artistic project to subvert the Orientalist fantasies inherent in these images still circulating today.

I didn’t expect that Sudan would be one of the places I would most need to understand, until I began to realise that many of the postcards in my collection from Egypt feature black women or women labelled as ‘Sudanese’. My recent encounter with ‘Sudan Retold: An Art Book About the History and Future of Sudan’ gave me a profound opportunity to understand more about the complexity and beauty of Sudanese culture and history.

Published in three languages, Arabic, English and German, it consists of 31 chapters each contributed by different Sudanese artists, writers, illustrators, designers, photographers and a chef. It is superbly edited and put together by Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann and Khalid Wad Albaih.

From the moment I started leafing through it, I found myself walking through an archway into the past, into the ancient port city of Suakin. This mysterious experience was created whilst looking at an image by Reem Khalafallah. An imaginary ghostly soul of a slave, or a djinn imprisoned long ago by King Solomon speaks to us from the gloom of the ruins of a spectacular and fascinating past. It could easily have been the lost voices of later humans, Greek seamen, Portuguese ‘explorers’, West Africans, Venetians, Ottomans, or the English or Egyptian voices of colonising soldiers.

Reem Khalafallah Artwork

The ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’ abound in her unsettling work as shadowy shapes and presences. We find ourselves looking beyond intricate mashrabiyya and dark towering walls on either side into a space inhabited by a few crows in the mist, a space of lost understanding and complex power struggles in Sudan that continue today. I say lost but not really lost, pushed into the margins of history as told by a series of colonisers and intruders.

It would seem that the djinn have been causing trouble in Suakin since at least the 15th century. This idea of creating mischief and difficulty as a tactic against intruders is an important one that appeals to me personally, and is an indirect method of resistance that women and ‘others’ often need to employ against their oppressors.

In her book ‘Civilising Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan’, Janice Boddy quotes a character from a colonial novel about Sudan as saying: “You are fortunate enough not to know Suakin, Miss Eustace, particularly in May. No white woman can live in that town. It has a sodden intolerable heat peculiar to itself”. One wonders if perhaps the djinn made Suakin intolerable as a form of resistance.

Boddy’s book is one of several exploring the colonial presence in Sudan and the Zar ritual that have informed my own understanding of identity in radical ways. The Zar can be considered as a women’s alternative embodied archive of memories and histories of colonisation, an archive that refuses to be pinned down or ‘civilised’ by conservatives and colonials.

The rituals of the Zar are enactments of the experience and trauma of being colonised by hierarchies of dominating intruders, and they are the ongoing negotiations with those presences as spirits within using ritual, ceremony, ecstatic dance, drumming, incense and song. They are not exorcisms but ways of accommodating violent intrusions, and a way of bringing layers of histories into living presence and creating a living archive that runs contrary to the mainstream.

Sudan Retold felt to me like the Zar, a substantial volume that brings lived experiential histories into being and into active presence. It has the effect of bringing the mischief and disruption of the djinn into any easy categorisation or labelling of Sudan.

Another significant aspect of the work in this book is that it draws upon creative imagination and mythology. The killing of ‘Chinese Gordon’ by Malaz Abdallah Osman and Mawadda Kamil is a series of silent and shockingly visceral yet detached graphic art illustrations of the stages of his death. The use of art, literature and storytelling as a form of dramatic enactment designed to recreate General Gordon as a powerful mythical Christ like figure was a colonial tool used by Imperial powers. They knew only too well the potency of imagination to retell history and control the emotions and actions of others.

Osman and Kamil take this colonial mechanism of the Gordon cult and use it for new and radical means; it is as if they were both empathising with Gordon and at the same time destroying the colonial Gordon cult that facilitated future atrocities of ‘revenge’ in Sudan by Kitchener and others.

The everyday world where facts are valued above all else fails to understand the transformative role of myths, fables and the imagination and their power to reincarnate lost histories and carry cross-generational memory into the present. The images of Suakin and the stunning work of Enas Satir and Hussam Hilali for their chapter ‘The Golden Kingdom’ (inspired by the town Berenice Panchrysos meaning Berenice the all-golden, an ancient town near the gold mines of Jebel Allaqi), are very potent metaphors for the rediscovery of erased or ignored landscapes of identity and knowledge.

The fictional worlds the artists create through image and text are living landscapes that we walk through and understand through the experience created. Satir and Hilali create a sensual legend about Berenice as an ‘African Beauty’ with dark hair and eyes the colour of gold. She lived in the dry scorching lands between today’s Sudan and Egypt, where the Black Pharaohs created their kingdom and sanctuary. It was there the Blue Djinn fell in love with her and wanted to hide her and the kingdom of gold from civilisation and its greed. So he created a mirage in the heat that hid her and the whole kingdom, thus erasing them from the history books.

This seemingly simply tale is a mythology that reveals deeper truths about colonisation and resistance, working as a disruptive mode that evades the written history books of the colonisers. What we today call Sudan is too multifarious, of many voices and bodies, to be constrained and contained by any conventional telling.

The ‘Creation Story of the Nuer’ by Malaz Sami, on morality and immorality of humans, mysteriously hints at another ‘forgotten’ mythology, of the Nuer of South Sudan, the second largest ‘ethnic’ group as Google might say in that expected semi-ethnographic disembodied and ‘fact’ telling way. But Google, of course, fails to understand that mythologies are profound and complex dwelling places for the embodied knowledge of land and place. They are not just ‘stories’.

‘The City of Faras in the Christian Era’ is a poetic and mesmerising series of works by artist Dar Al Naim Mubarak that give the beautiful lost city another chance through the conduit of the imagination, her voice speaking from the future, and based on the stories of her father. We are told that a flood hid the city from the eyes of the future. This is a recurring theme, that what has been lost has actually been hidden and protected, by djinn, mirages and floods, and can be found again unsullied and alive within the people of Sudan.

Dar Al Naim Mubarak Artwork

The moving beauty of the everyday, often neglected and ignored, is also very much alive in Sudan Retold. In a chapter just called ‘Women’ Enas Ismail and Yasir Abuagla reveal sumptuous and moving photographs of older women from southern and western Sudan. Each woman is carrying her lived life and experience with dignity and grace, the folds and textures of clothing shimmering or falling softly around her strength and enduring determination.

Omer Eltigani, a chef from Khartoum, writes about ‘Aisha the Fadadia’. She is the breadwinner and the caretaker. Aisha makes merissa, one of the oldest beers in the world. She fights against government clampdowns on alcohol and the snubs of other women looking down on her. He brings to life the smell of the fermenting dough balls, the food she cooks for her patrons, the buzz and liveliness of her being and her resistance to conservatism.

It has been so hard to only pick a few examples as each chapter is a member of a ‘body’ and there are so many fine and important drawings and works of art here. This book is a tribute to the editors’ efforts to create something beautiful and radical that transcends so-called historical facts and empty representations. It brings into living bodily presence the multiplicity of Sudan, its past, present and future, through the voices, bodies, memories and imagination of the contributors. I will be revisiting these pages long into the future.

The Contributing Artists

‘Sudan Retold: An Art Book About the History and Future of Sudan’ is published by Hirnkost Verlag, and sponsored-coordinated by the Goethe-Institut Sudan (ISBN: 978-3-945398-90-6).

Salma Ahmad Caller is a British-Egyptian artist whose practice involves creating an imagery of the narratives of body that have shaped her own body and identity across profound cultural divides. It is an investigation of the painful and contradictory mythologies surrounding the female body, processes of exoticisation, and the legacy of colonialism as a cross-generational transmission of ideas, traumas, bodies and misconceptions. Her work is informed by a Masters in Art History and Theory, having studied medicine, and teaching cross-cultural perspectives at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

For more: https://www.salmaahmadcaller.com/

Read Salma Caller’s other article on Nahla Ink: https://www.nahlaink.com/making-the-postcard-womens-imaginarium/

Dear Refugee – Book Review & Interview with Poet Amir Darwish

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

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

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

In one of the most beautiful passages, Darwish writes:

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

And ends it with this line:

Like a human I come to share the space.

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

The Poet’s Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018

Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

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

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

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

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


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

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

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fireworks The Play, Dalia Taha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa February 2015

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

Includes: Insight from the Karl reMarks Creator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018