Art + Culture Blog
Jamila El-Gizuli | 3 Dec 2013
On November 26th, the Saudi religious police removed one of the country’s top-selling books from some book stores.
H W J N [pronounced Hawjan] is a science-fiction romance novel that depicts a story of a jinn [genie], Hawjan, falling in love with a human, Sawsan, and the obstacles their relationship faces.
Here is the official trailer of the novel in English.
According to the Index on Censorship, representatives from the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice “raided several bookshops selling the novel H W J N … demanding it be taken off the shelves.”
The novel’s supposed blasphemous and devil-worshiping content was the claimed reason for the removal.
According to Islam, Allah created the jinn as beings with free-will who live in a world parallel to human society. Like humans, jinn can be good, bad and ugly and although they are invisible to humans, contact between the two worlds sometimes occurs.
With this belief system in mind, HWJN’s author, Ibraheem Abbas, along with a large number of his fans, took to Twitter in a campaign to denounce the attacks against his book.
In a statement released on the social media portal, Abbas expressed his disappointment with the accusations and fabrications directed at him by “those who did not bother to read the novel.”
He argued that the novel addresses practices that are rampant in Muslim societies, including magic and sorcery, while the jinns’ realm is described in his book accord with the precepts found in Islamic scripture.
In one tweet, Abbas explained that his choice to have a Ouija board in the novel was to demonstrate that the device works because of the ideomotor effect (an automatic unconscious muscular movement evoked by thoughts rather than sensory stimulus) and that the board game choice was not meant to advocate witchcraft.
— إبراهيم عباس (@Ibraheem_Abbas) December 3, 2013
Abbas also tweeted about contacting the witchcraft division of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to present the agency with signed copies of his novel to clear up any misunderstanding surrounding it.
— إبراهيم عباس (@Ibraheem_Abbas) December 3, 2013
The Saudi religious authority has not officially banned H W J N and the novel is still available in a number of book stores across the country.
Meanwhile, Abbas, who is a co-founder of Yatakhayaloon ["they imagine" in Arabic], The League of Arabic Sci-Fiers, plans on suing those who have accused him of blasphemy for slander, libel, and defamation of character.
Joseph Podrasky | 22 Nov 2013
In May 2012 I attended a concert at the Jesuit Center “Garage” in Alexandria, Egypt. Before the show, all I had heard was that a Syrian rock band was going to perform. The band, Tanjaret Daghet, or “Pressure Pot,” made up of members Tarek Ziad Khuluki, Khaled Omran, and Dani Shukri, blew me away.
I have grown accustomed to venues with stadium seating in the Arab world that produce a somewhat more subdued concert experience [an area in great need of reform] than the rock and metal shows I grew up attending.
In this instance, though, the room was electric, a testament to Tanjaret Daghet’s talent and energy on stage. Egypt was only two weeks away from its first post-revolution presidential elections and Syria was beginning to really boil over. Perhaps these factors contributed to the audience’s excitement.
Whatever the case, after the band played their song “Taht El Daghet,” or “Under Pressure,” the crowd did not call for an encore, it flat out demanded to hear the song again. With lyrics that were deeply social, more than political, the song captured much of the frustration and anxiety that has characterized the last two and a half years.
Based in Beirut, the band is gathering more and more attention. I recently became aware that Tanjaret Daghet created a video for the song, “Taht El Daghet.”
Below is an excerpt from a Rolling Stone article about the band by Adam Grundey, found here.
It was 2009 when the trio started to play together. But it wasn’t until their escape from military service that they got completely serious. “We really thought that going to serve was like signing your death warrant,” says Omran. “All of my friends were leaving Damascus, we had to get out.”
The move to Lebanon brought the band a mental, as well as physical, distance from the situation at home, and inspired Omran to compose lyrics that carry a sense of universal frustrations – social, cultural, political and sexual – rather than those specific to Syria (a crucial factor, El Khazen stresses, in why he believes Tanjaret Daghet have the potential to grow beyond the initial hype of a ‘Syrian rock band’). It’s a shift that has clearly motivated the trio. And so far it’s succeeded in establishing them as one of Lebanon’s hottest underground acts.
Kelby Olson | 21 Nov 2013
This week, days before the two-year anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street protests, construction began on a monument in the center of Tahrir Square dedicated to the protests’ martyrs.
During the Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, which took place near Tahrir in November 2011, Egyptian security forces killed 47 protestors and wounded many others. Built by the same forces responsible for their death, the monument is intended to honor the martyrs’ sacrifice.
Prime Minister Ahmed Beblawi visited the site on Monday for a ceremony with no audience. Unsurprisingly, by Tuesday night, the monument had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
The state-sponsored monument represents the latest battle in a long contestation over the physical space of Tahrir, as well as the narrative about Egypt’s revolution.
In this narrative, the Mohamed Mahmoud Street protests are particularly important. They represent a confrontation between protestors and security forces in which the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate, choosing instead to focus on the-then upcoming parliamentary elections.
In this way, Mohamed Mahmoud demonstrates both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood’s betrayal of the revolution.
Because Mohamed Mahmoud is unique in this sense, the defamation of its memory (via a monument constructed by the military) is especially heartbreaking.
In her article for Mada Masr, Heba Afify emphasizes the central role “memory” played in the gatherings on Tuesday to honor the victims of Mohamed Mahmoud. During these commemorative protests, demonstrators shouted chants naming those killed in deadly protests under both Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, in an effort to keep the memory of their lives and the crimes of their deaths alive in the public consciousness.
Afify describes people mourning both those who fell, as well as the manipulation that has befallen surrounding events. She explains how different political forces have used the memory of Mohamed Mahmoud to further their own ends, creating a distorted picture of reality.
The monument to the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs in Tahrir Square is the latest manifestation of this political manipulation.
While monuments commemorate death, they are as much about the future as they are about the past.
In Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, a study on how social memory is shaped, Lucia Volk notes that “public memory exists to promote values rather than ‘facts.’ A memorial refers to an event in history not in a detached, analytical, backward-looking way but in a vested and forward-looking manner.”
Often times, monuments become the site of contested realities because those seeking to control the narrative of past events are ultimately attempting to shape the future by extoling particular values.
For example, the Egyptian state’s recent and rapid transformation of Rabaa Square, which included building a statue built to celebrate the armed forces protection of ‘the people,’ is an attempt to turn the memory of the August 14, 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters into a message of unity moving the nation forward.
In Tahrir, people have clearly rejected the state’s attempt to rewrite what happened on Mohamed Mahmoud. While symbolically this is a powerful victory, it is important for this momentum to be translated into actual power to bring about real change.
The rush to erect a monument to mark the revolution and the martyrs in Tahrir Square is an insult to those who gave their lives for a new Egypt. Those men and women did not sacrifice their lives simply to have their names inscribed on a hastily designed monument in the middle of a traffic circle. They died hoping for real foundational changes in Egypt and the way it is run. Egypt consists of real places where Egyptians live and work: cities, towns and villages. Drafting a new constitution as well as electing a new parliament and president are essential steps for Egypt’s transition to democracy but these alone will not transform our daily lived experiences in the spaces we occupy.
These words are even truer today. Those who were shot by government forces two years ago on Mohamed Mahmoud Street were not fighting for their names to be etched on a monument.
Their anger at fundamental, structural problems with the Egyptian government would be honored better by dismantling oppressive elements within the regime at multiple levels.
Kelby Olson | 24 Oct 2013
When I decided to keep this diary, I attempted to train my mind. I transformed it into a cassette tape, on which I recorded everything I saw, and some of what I heard. Now, I am playing back some of what that tape contains.
Am I the same person I was thirteen years ago? Yes. And no. A small yes, a large no.
Yes – because I have opened up these diaries, and this time I am truly writing them down – some of them.
And no – because I cannot write and say everything. That would require an act of revelation; and revelation requires certain terms: objectivity, and the other side. (Excerpt translated by Elisabeth Jaquette)
Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell (2008) tells the story of his imprisonment in the famous Tadmur prison in Syria from 1982 to 1994. Khalifa recounts horrific torture scenes, daily life in the prison, the interactions between prisoners, and his own isolation.
As a Christian accused of joining the Muslim Brotherhood, prison guards consider him doubly traitorous. After he declares himself an atheist, he is ostracized by the other prisoners as an apostate, and potentially as a spy from the Assad regime.
The (unfortunately) large body and long history of Arab prison literature chronicles prisoner abuse at the hands of authorities, with each story grounded in its specific geographic and temporal context. Men and women have both penned stories detailing their experiences as political prisoners. In general, this body of literature explores the theme of freedom and its deprivation, torture, and oftentimes has political undertones.
This corpus of prison memoirs informs Khalifa’s novel, which treats the topics of deprived freedoms and humiliation as understood aspects of his experience. But as a somewhat accidental non-political, non-religious prisoner, Khalifa explores different themes than other more-politicized novels. Moreover, Khalifa is removed from contemporary Syrian society, having been arrested at the airport returning from France after a ten absence.
As the title suggests, Khalifa’s isolation causes him to build walls around himself, both out of the forced exclusion from the other prisoners in addition to his fear of them. Over the twelve years of his incarceration, he looks out from his shell to observe and document life in the prison.
The result is a captivating, terse account of separation as Khalifa’s introspection explores existential questions. Khalifa’s story continues after his release from prison and he finds he prefers the refuge of his shell more than ever. This individualist story is what distinguishes it from the (albeit limited) prison novels I have previously read.
Joseph Podrasky | 18 Oct 2013
A few days before moving to Meknes, Morocco in May 2011, my principle concern was figuring out how to position my skateboard in my luggage.
Intuition had told me there were skaters in Morocco, but I had only recently learned how organized they were. A quick search revealed many active groups on Facebook.
I joined a few of these and received warm welcomes. Skaters form Rabat to Agadir sent me messages and offered to show me around.
Unfortunately, full time school put a damper on my plans.
When I finally had a free weekend, I was able to hook up with some kids in Fez and shred for a day.
Despite their damaged boards, they had serious skills. I was surprised they were so willing to let me join in.
They told me that since there were so few skaters in Fez, they were always looking for new people. This explained why there were so many groups on Facebook; for the young scene to develop, individuals had to connect.
And given the high price and lack of availability of boards, they needed to collaborate.
With the exception of Dubai, whose large expatriate community and access to capital helped spur skateboarding’s growth, local skaters face an uphill battle.
Skaters struggle to procure equipment, find suitable places to skate, and, like skaters everywhere, sometimes face harassment from the police and their communities.
But, their efforts to organize groups, establish businesses, and build parks exemplify the power of social entrepreneurship.
Recently, I had the chance to watch “Slipping: Skate’s Impact on Egypt,” a documentary that tells the story of Omar and Cherif Herrawi, who founded Egypt’s first and only skateshop in 2005.
The film highlights not only the obstacles the brothers faced as they attempted to build a community of skaters in Alexandria and Cairo, but also the potential for success. I highly recommend the film.
The important thing to remember is that skaters represent just one among hundreds of often invisible communities of young people struggling to carve out a place for themselves across the Middle East.
They are the ones shaping the future of the region.
Nima Shirazi | 18 Oct 2013
Tehran’s Vahdat Hall is alive with the sound of music. Literally.
A groundbreaking theater troupe in Tehran, known for recently performing the first opera in Iran in over three decades, is once again making history. The Tehran Opera Ensemble, directed by Hadi Rosat, has mounted a Persian-language adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical, The Sound of Music, the first time an Iranian version of an American musical has been performed in the Islamic Republic.
The Sound of Music, which in 1965 was made into an immensely famous Academy Award-winning film directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, tells the story of the Trapp Family Singers and their flight from Nazi-occupied Austria in the late 1930s.
After a year of preparation and rehearsal, the new version, adapted for the Iranian stage by Rosat and entitled Tears and Smiles in Persian, is currently being performed at Vahdat Hall, Tehran’s magnificent opera house, which was built in 1967 and known before the revolution as Rudaki Hall, so named for a renowned medieval Persian poet. The ensemble performed Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the same venue this past March to great acclaim. The latest production is set to be showcased during Iran’s prestigious Fajr Festival in January 2014.
The vision for the Tehran Opera Ensemble is clear. Producer Ali Mirmohammadi told Iran’s PressTV, “The opera ensemble is trying to open new path in the art of this country so that we can make use of the renowned Western works, whilst our audience is not familiar with these works, to bring works that have become nostalgic for people and are historic pieces and familiarize people with them.”
Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of the Huffington Post reports that, “despite Western sanctions, the art scene in Iran is thriving and theater festivals continue to be held every year.”
Actor Alireza Nasehi sees The Sound of Music as just the beginning of what he hopes will be a continuing trend in Iranian theater. “I think this is a new happening. The real thing is a musical going on stage for the first time,” he says. “I hope this will continue and other famous works will be acted out here.”
PressTV notes that traditional performances of the musical ”usually enjoys a complete orchestra but as this concept is still new in Iran, they started off with a smaller team.”
“Because of the lack of time and sponsors, while we would needed an orchestra of at least 90 musicians, I’ve arranged this piece for a piano and a string quintet,” says Bardia Kiaras, the theater troupe’s musical director and conductor. “The group has good singers and I’m pleased that this is happening in our dear country.”
The ensemble’s producers are scrambling to add more dates in the upcoming weeks, as tickets are already sold out for all currently scheduled performances. Who knew Iranian audiences would be so smitten with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? (Actually, their fondness for cream colored ponies, crisp apple strudels, doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles is more surprising.)
Below is a PressTV report on the production by Pedram Khodadadi, along with more photos of the performance:
Kelby Olson | 17 Oct 2013
London’s Nour Festival of Arts is well underway, showcasing a variety of cultural production from the Middle East throughout October and November. An exciting conglomeration of contemporary art, the festival features exhibitions, talks, screenings, and performances at numerous venues.
For the complete schedule of events, please see the Nour Festival calendar. The number of events is overwhelming, so some recommended upcoming events, admittedly food and literature focused, are highlighted below.
In celebration of the launch of the paperback version of The Iraqi Cookbook, Lamees Ibrahim will prepare a feast of selected dishes from the book.
October 24 – Short Stories from the Arab World
Three short stories from three different countries, each translated and recently published in Banipal will be shared, accompanied by Moroccan refreshments. This event will include the stories Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats by Mahmoud Shukair, Black Kohl…White Heart by Mona al- Shammari, and Ali the Red by Luay Hamza Abbas.
November 2 – 10 – 4th London Iranian Film Festival
The only showcase of exclusively Iranian film in the country, the London Iranian Film Festival presents over twenty films from both recognized and emerging talent.
November 7 – An Evening With Sami Tamimi: Dishes from Jerusalem
Sami Tamimi is the Head Chef at Notting Hill’s Ottolenghi and will prepare a variety of dishes from Jerusalem.
November 12 – Banipal 48 – Writing Marrakech Book Launch
The most recent Banipal issue seeks to take readers beyond tourist impressions of the Red City through a focus on writing and recipes from Marrakech, including poets and writers Yassin Adnan, Saad Sarhan, Abu-Youssef Taha, Rajae Benchemsi, Mohamed Nedali, Karima Nadir, the renowned Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, and many others.
November 16 – Style Cities: Beirut
This seminar explores Beirut during its ‘Golden Age’ as a world destination in the 50s and 60s. Speakers include Professor George Arbid from the American University of Beirut, writers Viviane Ghanem and Asma Freiha, and journalist Carole Corm.
November 19 & 20 – Evenings with Mariam al-Abdalla and Aisha Al-Tamimi: Dishes from Qatar
Another sure-to-be-delicious food event, these two nights feature Qatari dishes from renowned culinary sisters Mariam al-Abdalla and Aisha Al-Tamimi.
November 20 &27 – Kurdish Film Season
As part of the Mosaic Room’s ongoing film program, they will screen two films selected from this year’s London Kurdish Film Festival. (The film titles to be screened are yet to be announced)
November 21 – The Lady from Tel Aviv
Recently translated into English by Professor and translator Elliot Colla, The Lady from Tel Aviv is “a novel that, in its complexity, intricacy and ambiguity, avoids the dogma of ready-made ideology.” (IPAF) Author Raba’i al-Madhoun and Colla will be present for a bilingual discussion of the book.
Kelby Olson | 10 Oct 2013
Mashrou’ Leila’s much anticipated third album, Rassuk (They made you dance) comes two years after the release of their second album, Al Hal Romansi. Rassuk has received well-deserved praise for its innovation, lyrical imagery, and melodic strength.
As part of a movement to change the current music industry’s mass manufacturing, the band called on fans to financially support Rassuk, which was produced with help from funds raised by the Lebanese crowd-funding platform Zoomal. Thus, Mashrou’ Leila was free to work without constraints of a record company.
The group also focuses more on collective consciousness in the new album, which features songs addressing broader social themes in addition to personal topics.
The standout track “Lil Watan” (“For the homeland”) is particularly captivating musically, and features political lyrics satirizing nationalism and conformity: “when you dare to ask about the deteriorating situation/ they silence you with slogans about conspiracies.” The music video, with its font and composition, harkens back to the nationalist productions of the sixties.
The eponymous, upbeat track “Rassuk” complements “Lil Watan” with is references to the imposed metaphorical dance. Immediately following “Rassuk” is “Wa Neuid,” which is an encourages hope and perseverance with lyrics such as “if we can bear winter, destiny will bring spring.”
The album has also been described as a “circus of darkness,” which aptly captures the mood of the somber tracks including the prologue, “Ala Babu,” “Bishuf,” “Ma Tetrikni Haik,” and the elegiac “Bahr.”
Rounding out the album are the existential “Taxi” (“your journey has no meaning, like everything”) and “Skaander Maalouf,” a song about seduction and desire.
The 11 tracks of Rassuk make for an emotional, exciting listen as Mashrou’ Leila continues pushing the boundaries of modern Arabic music, both in their music and their production.
Their international tour is coming to a close, but if you’re in Barcelona, you can catch their last show tonight at Apolo.
Kelby Olson | 7 Oct 2013
The latest video from media collective Mosireen is a short film, which serves as a backdrop to a poem titled “Prayer of Fear” by Mahmoud Ezzat. Ezzat’s poem is an emotive response to the current divisive state of Egyptian society.
The video has English subtitles, and the translated text of the poem can be found below:
Prayer of Fear
Deliver us from the evil
Spare us this trial.
The battle, this time
The battle is murky
Strain after strain,
And on our side, the General.
The battle is terrifying.
We stood like corpses
Watching the massacre
The blood on our chests.
Are we winning?
In line for slaughter?
Is the question shameful?
Or is silence worse?
Should we scavenge the spoils
Or count the corpses?
Did we open the way?
Or is the path destroyed?
Did the martyrs find justice?
Or do they weep in pain?
Glory to the sniper?
Or the one whose brain is shattered?
Shall we build a wall to pride
Or a fountain of blood?
Lead to the gardens?
Be a gate to justice?
Lead us from the crisis
When monsters howled.
And sunk their teeth into each other.
Suddenly we felt the smell of blood
In our voice
And the fangs in our face.
And it us, who are the monsters.
Spare us this trial
And the great anthem
And the marching band
Echoed by the masses
The roaring cheer of the crowd
Silencing the cries of fear.
Whoever refuses to cheer
Out of place.
Save us from unity
The ranks are broken
But they grow savage.
Deliver us from the vision
Clear with the clarity of mountains
Between blindness and sight.
They are delusions
Deliver us from them unruined;
Shoulders on feet.
Deliver us from them pure;
No blood on our hands.
Deliver us from them a thousand
Or a hundred.
Who in the unending killing
Forgets the question of war
And asks the question of the meek
And says I’m afraid
Not of defeat
But of a victory
Whose path is strewn with corpses
All the way to the palace.
We do not enter
We do not protect its owners
We continue the siege
Our names illegible
We write the names of the martyrs
On its door.
Lead us out naked
As we entered
No ministers or courtiers
Lead us out new
As we were when we took the streets
A lot of kids walking
Not scared of anyone.
Deliver us now.
Spare us this trial.
The battle is terrifying.
Spare us this trial.
The battle is terrifying.
Kelby Olson | 3 Oct 2013
In his essay on the Jesuit-run Baghdad College, “The American Age,” Anthony Shadid reflected on a time when America’s role in the region had not yet become the bellicose imperialism we are now familiar with. He writes, with sadness, about the reality of two civilizations which have torn each other apart, albeit unequally.
His tale of cultural power and deterioration resonate strongly today, over ten years after American’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The same themes and tensions present in Shadid’s essay are addressed in new ways as part of the ongoing project Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.
On Tuesday night at New York’s Poets House, poets and scholars engaged with the legacy of Baghdad’s historic bookselling street, accompanying an exhibition of artists’ broadsides. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, as described by founder Beau Beausoleil, is a coalition of artists joined together to celebrate what Al-Mutanabbi street represents and to honor the street’s tradition of free expression and exchange.
The 2007 bombing of the famed Baghdad street compelled Beausoleil to begin working with other writers, poets, and artists to arrange an ongoing series of publications, exhibitions, and panel discussions on the broader topic of cultural destruction.
Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here is an attempt to counter the intentional destruction of cultural centers anywhere in the world, which panelist Ammiel Alcalay described as contemporary and historical domicide, urbacide, and memoricide.
Although it involves artists from across the globe, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here is an initiative started in the United States with the intention to keep Iraq in the American public consciousness.
Besides the numerous events and workshops held throughout the summer, an anthology of works has been published, with new ventures into dance, film, theater, and printmaking coming up in the near future.
The project’s sustainability comes from both the timelessness of celebrating cultural exchange as well as the enduring importance of evaluating cultural hegemony.