NOT ALL GULF COUNTRIES FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT MICHAEL JACKSON

As I got into my first taxi in Bahrain last weekend, the taxi driver shocked me:  He was Bahraini.  He dressed and looked like someone from the UAE, but he was most definitely not Emirati.  Emiratis may live just down the Gulf from Bahrain, but they do not drive cabs.  Heck, they barely ride in cabs.  But

The Night Counter in Bahrain

The Night Counter in Bahrain

Bahrainis are taxi drivers, clerks in their own shops, gas station attendents –and they don’t hesitate to give complete strangers their take on the government.  In fact, in another cab, where I slouched in the back, zoned out after a long day of book promotion, the driver broke the silence by asking where I lived.   When I said Abu Dhabi, he sighed, “How can my criminal government give millions to Michael Jackson to live here, and then refuse to help its own people pay their electrical bill?”  He threw in some ugly adjectives about the royal family and Michael Jackson, which I’ve deleted out of respect to my childhood fiancé, the aforementioned Michael Jackson, but it made clear one thing:  Not all Gulf countries are the same, which I had always assumed, having been to more than one.  But I had never been to Bahrain.

Bahrain, like all the GCC countries, has oil, a beautiful corniche to walk along the water, and construction cranes everywhere in an ever-increasing skyline of skyscrapers.  It also provides a social life that revolves around the huge malls as elsewhere in the Gulf.  But surfaces can be deceiving. Emiratis do not curse their government in public—that is simply not okay, and quite frankly, they have very little reason to curse it.  The ruling families in the UAE have in general been very generous to their citizens.  The people certainly do not have weekly street protests, as they do in Bahrain.  I’ve never heard of a protest in Abu Dhabi of any kind, and I doubt such things would be allowed—although, again, I’m not sure what the people would have to protest, which is perhaps why, unlike Bahrain, they don’t have elections either.  Unlike the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait, Bahrain’s most reliable source of income is not oil, but rather Saudi tourists who cross the causeway every weekend to party, i.e. drink.  In Bahrain, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol do not have to be in hotels, as they do in the UAE, and residents in Bahrain live in dread of the weekend traffic jams from the street-clogging arrivals from Saudi, where no one can drink at all, at least legally.  Bahraini men where the traditional kandora and headdress and the women the abaya and shayla –but not all of them, and, as I did my book signing at mall, I marveled at the creativity the women had with the shayla, from the colors to how they wrapped it. Most of the people who came up to talk with me were Bahraini, which I don’t imagine would be the case in the UAE.  For one thing, Bahrainis make up 50% of the country’s population, where in the UAE the figure is more like 15 percent.  Perhaps because they are more present in the work force and perhaps because the entire country’s population is so small compared to its neighbors, the Bahrainis seem to mix in with the other 50% quite comfortably, and they are a very chatty nation. Government protests aside, they smile a lot, make eye contact easily, and love to just make small talk. In the UAE, people of all nationalities tends to keep to themselves. I could go on about the little differences, such as Bahrainis are proud of their art galleries and restaurants, with top-notch international cuisine*being more of a source of pride than it is in Abu Dhabi, but I’ll just end by saying there’s no denying that people in Bahrain get “island fever,” as they described it, and so they need to escape—and most likely escape will be to the UAE, particularly Dubai.  And as for Michael Jackson—in the UAE, he’s a one-of-a-kind pop icon, just as he is in the rest of the world, but in Bahrian residents both understand and are baffled by his decision to live there for several years.

*Of Bahrain’s many restaurants, the one that caught my eye was “The War Gourmet.”  I knew right away it would be Lebanese, and it was the best Levantine food I’d had outside of the Levant ever.

THE NIGHT COUNTER’S MIDDLE EAST TOUR BEGINS

Six weeks after finishing the initial U.S. tour, The Night Counter and I are going to do a little tour of the Middle East.  Started out easy last night at the

The Night Counter at the Virgin Store in Abu Dhabi

The Night Counter at the Virgin Store in Abu Dhabi

American Women’s Network in Abu Dhabi, where, thanks to my friend Annette, many of the women had already read it and were fans.  Next is Bahrain, where I don’t know anyone.  I’ll wrap it  up in mid-December in Abu Dhabi with New York University’s international conference on the Arabian Nights.  Here’s a rundown:

Monday, October 19, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.
American Women’s Network (guest speaker)
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Saturday, October 24, 2009
Seef Mall at 10 am, City Centre at 5 pm
Jashansmal’s
Manama, Bahrain

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 7 p.m.
Diwan Bookstore
159, 26th July Street, Zamalak
Cairo, Egypt

Saturday, November 7 -10, 2009
Arab-US Association for Communication Educators Conference
Cairo, Egypt
Presentation of paper with Dr. Gaelle Picherit-Duthler: “Tramps, Terrorists, and Teases: The Changing Image of American and Arab Women in Hollywood Films.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 7 p.m.
Virgin Store
Doha, Qatar

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Librarie Antoine
Hamra Branch
Beirut, Lebanon

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
American Community School
Opening of New Library, 3 p.m.
Workshop, 2 p.m.

November 11 to 20, 2009
Sharjah International Book Fair
Sharjah, UAE

December 12-14, 2009
Arab and Muslim Literature in English Conference
University of Nizwa
Nizwa, Oman

Tuesday December 15, 2009 at 6:30 p.m.
New York University’s “Writers in Conversation with The Arabian Nights With Alia Yunis, Elias Khoury, Gamal Elgihitany, Githa Hariharan, and Amira El-Zein”
Intercontinental Hotel
Abu Dhabi, UAE

The Middle East Film Festival: And the Winners Are…

The closing night of the Middle East Film festival was the hot ticket of the week, for both goats and people.  The festival did a good job of building the hype Middle East Film Festivalall week, with rumors running all week that George Clooney would come for the evening, which included the first screening outside of North America of The Men Who Stare At Goats.  But he didn’t come.  In fact, none of the big stars of the film did, so the festival settled for the supporting cast, four very confused goats.  But before the goats took to the stage, the festival awards were given out by Hollywoodites flown out just to give them out, including Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, and Eva Menendez.  It was indeed a fun ride of serious and quirky films, and I shall probably go into film withdrawal now.  Here’s are some of the winners who took home the Black Pearl Award.  The jury was led by Abbas Kirostami (Black pearls were Abu Dhabi’s gold before oil)

Best Narrative Film (non-Middle East)  Hipsters (Russia)
Best Middle East Narrative Film  The Time that Remains (see my review on Oct. 14)
Best Documentary (non-Middle East) The Frontier Ghandi (Canada, Pakistan, India)
Best First Feature, Last Ride (Australia)
Best Middle East Documentary, Being Here, Tunisia
Best Actresses, Alicia Laguna & Sonia Couoh, Northless (Mexico)
Best Actor, Hamed Behdad, No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran)
Audience Favorite Film: No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran)

THE MIDDLE EAST FILM FESTIVAL AND EGYPTIAN SCANDAL

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story caused quite a scandal in Egypt when it was released this summer, and given that it stars Egypt’s most popular actress, Mona

Middle East Film Festival

Middle East Film Festival

Zaki, it’s no surprise that its first Arab screening outside of Egypt was packed.  Egypt was apparently scandalized by the overt sexuality and consequent violence on screen.  Of course, I wanted to see it too, as I have spent so much time with Scheherazade in the last few years.  In Abu Dhabi last night, the director, Yusri Nasrallah, boasted that he was so proud of making a film that showed women as heroes over the men that try to control them, that he was making one of the few Arab films that didn’t relegate women to the roles of accommodating wife, mother, sister, or whore.  The audience went wild with applause, and I was left baffled.  The film revolves on Hebba (Mona Zaki), a talk show hostess whose husband asks her to lay off on the politics on her show so that she doesn’t hurt his chances with a top government editorial post (Mubarak’s government is so comfortable as an acknowledged corrupt tyrant that it doesn’t even bother to have censors deny it anymore) and so she begins to profile women who have been done mightily wrong by a man.  The editing is a little sophomoric and the post-fight make up defies logic but the stories are interesting—but could the women really be any more naïve and desperate then they are in this film, whether it is the shop girl or the well-established doctor from a wealthy family?  True, at some point, all women can admit to having been dumb and/or blind, but that doesn’t usually lead to insanity or murder, as it does in this film.  This is a man’s movie, reeking of benevolence towards women and their helplessness.  The director lamented the loss of powerful women on the Egyptian screen since its golden age, and it is still lamentable.

MIDDLE EAST FILM FESTIVAL AND WOMEN GONE MAD

I’m reluctant to refer to Raja Amari’s film, “Buried Secrets,” as Tunisian film after the verbal brow beating she took from several Tunisians in the audience.

Middle East Film Festival

Middle East Film Festival

The film is about three woman living secretly in an old, abandoned family home, hiding from the world—and particularly the men in it–for years.  Their isolation is disturbed by the arrival of a happy young couple, a distant relative of theirs before their universe fell apart.  At first comic and then creepy and then plain tragic, this film deals with sexual repression, incest, consequent insanity.  Not pleasant topics.  And certainly not topics exclusive to Tunisia.  However, several Tunisians present were quite vocal in saying that they didn’t approve of the filmmaker showing her country in such an ugly right.  Amari was clearly upset by this, saying she had not made a film about Tunisia.  But they kept on, saying that she had an obligation to represent her country positively.  Now if this film had been done by an American, most Americans would have accused him of casting a negative light on problems in the U.S.  For example, Precious is playing here, and that is no beauty shot of the U.S., but no one is blaming the filmmaker.  That’s because the U.S. produces hundreds of films every year that see the light of day. But in smaller, poorer countries, with very small to non-existent film industries, filmmakers find themselves being celebrated by the press as “the Tunisian film” or “the Peruvian film,” and in that way are denied their freedom of expression as much as any government could deny them, as it is too much responsibility for a filmmaker to be the national film publicist for her country.

VARIETY’S TOP DIRECTOR IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Yesterday, Variety named Palestinian Elia Suleiman this year’s top filmmaker in the Middle East, which coincided with the screening last night in Abu Dhabi of his award-winning film The Time That Remains, his eccentric look at his late father’s life after Palestine was turned into Israel and continuing on with his own life today. Suleiman is what I would describe as an absurdist, and his films, this one being no exception, manage to find the humor amidst the tragedy of the Palestinians—and within that humor, to highlight the societal consequences of occupation that go beyond bombs and bullets, including petty and violent crime, the collapse of families, and perhaps most distressing, the growing drug abuse, all set against the God given beauty of Palestine/Israel. There is some great acting in this film, too, including the pivotal role of the elderly mother, played by Suleiman’s own mother, who died before the film’s completion, and the elderly neighbor with the foul mouthed language that Arabs in the Gulf never use, and perhaps was the reason he got such big laughs, like when kids hear the word “boob.”   The audience here in Abu Dhabi was probably 50-50 Western and Arab, and the film got quite an enthusiastic reception from the Western audience, whereas the Palestinians I talked with were more subdued.  I sat next to my friend from Nazareth, where Suleiman shot the film, and he said that the dark humor was exactly Nazareth but he wondered what others understood of the film.  People in Abu Dhabi are pretty worldly, so they probably did get a lot of it.  Sometimes I worry about people who don’t know the history of the area seeing films like this and thinking, “Well, it’s not so bad.”  Then again seeing that world through a lens that perhaps may not focus on the inhumane horrors of situation but rather its absurdities is a valid entry into a reality that many outside of it might not know anything about otherwise.  And then as Suleiman told the audience yesterday, this isn’t the film on Palestine.  It’s his film about his father.

The Middle East Film Festival

The Middle East Film Festival

The Middle East Film Festival and Egypt’s Heliopolis

Independent film is hard to come by in Egypt, and so I really wanted to love Heliopolis, by first time director Ahmed Abdulla and starring
Egyptian heartthrob Khaled Abol Naga.  And I was all pumped up,

The Middle East Film Festival

The Middle East Film Festival

as I ended up sitting in front of Abbas Kirostami and Joan Chen, who are the
festival’s jury.  The filmmaker loves Heliopolis, and that is obvious in the beautiful shots of it he was able to capture, despite the neighborhood’s decline.  And the film is in fact about the neighborhood’s decline, a decline he seems to attribute to a general malaise and hopelessness that has taken over Egypt’s dwindling middle class.   But ultimately, a film needs a story, no matter how charmingly shot the vignettes, were, and there was no story to hook us.   No one walked out because there was a bit of hope that a story would emerge but by the end, you were just praying there would not be another snippet of a vignette.

MIDDLE FILM FESTIVAL: Iraqi and Syrian Films

After seeing an opening night film in which half the crowd walked out and in a year where my limited opportunities to see films has left me until last night

The Middle East Film Festival

The Middle East Film Festival

calling The Hangover my favorite film of the year, I’m delighted to now call Son of Babylon my favorite film of the festival and the year so far.  The film made its international debut last night, with the director just having spent all the previous night in London getting it ready.  Son of Babylon centers on a 12-year old boy and his grandmother as they travel from northern Iraq to Babylon in search of the boy’s father, a Kurdish soldier imprisoned since the boy was born.  From Baghdad to a deserted and remote region of Iraq, the pair encounter the devastation of both the Saddam era and the U.S. invasion, but mostly they encounter the kindness of strangers suffering the same traumas, albeit from different sides of Iraq’s many fences.  The Iraqi-born director, Mohamed Al-Daradji, filmed in his homeland, casting from real life:  the grandmother is played by a woman who was imprisoned herself and continues to search for her husband, who is one of Iraq’s many missing.  The boy is from a small Kurdish village and the Al-Daradji worked with him for several months to get his breathtaking performance.  The principal crew is an international cast funded and/or trained by several international sources, including the Sundance Lab and deserved the standing ovation they received.  Inshallah, it’ll come to a theater near you, and definitely go see it—the big screen will allow you the experience of the spectacular cinematography.
Last night, I sat down to watch Syrian television director Hatem Ali’s feature film, The Long Night, with some fear that the title might be all too prophetic.  And yes, it was a slow film, but the characters hooked eveyone in the first scene:  the usual morning for four lifelong friends stuck in a Syrian prison cell together for 20 years for their anti-government views and for refusing to apologize for them.  The movie is about the night of the release of the three of the men as they journey back to their families.  The film cuts between the men, as well as several of their now adult children as they confront each other and the hyprocisies and fears that have held them together and torn them apart over the years.  Shot with great dependency on close ups and extreme close ups of the actors and food, perhaps a reflection of the director’s television background (although the sequencing of shots and the editing does not result in a television feel) the film, as the director told the audience, is political in its nature but definitely a compelling look at the after effects of  taking care of yourself at the cost of your family and your self-respect.

THE MIDLE EAST FILM FESTIVAL: LEBANON AND SOME SHORTS

When I was a child, I remember my grandmother complaining to my mother about the war having ruined her fashion sense.  My mother’s response was “Which war?”  At that point both had lived through so many wars, as had the other people of the Arab countries of the Mediterrean, from North Africa and Egypt to Syria.  1958 in Lebanon is a year of war that has not been subjected to much cinematic exploration, but it is the title of Ghassan Salhab’s 60-minute documentary, which I watched this afternoon at the Marina Mall.  1958 is the year the director was born in Senegal to his Lebanese parents, and he recounts that time via a head on interview with his somber mother juxtaposed with interviews of two men that had been on different sides of the conflict—all linked together with film of Beirut then and now and with the director’s own beautiful poetry, written in French.  Obviously, there is a lot of symbolism—or metaphor, as the director told the audience he prefers to call it—but while purposefully esoteric to the point of occassionally being exhausting (the people on both sides of me dozed off in parts), this video poem to a time in history that would, as his mother says, begin the decline of Arab nationalism hopes, is well worth the experience.  It is most disturbing to see how the war images of 1958 are so similar to those of today, and most will conclude, as his mother  does at the end, the Arabs have indeed been unlucky in their aspirations.  “Poor Arabs,” she sighs.

On a more upbeat note, the shorts screenings entitled “Mystery,” with seven countries represented.  I’ve been pushing the shorts series on my students, as it’s amazing what young filmmakers are able to do with special effects, and in several of the cases still maintain a powerful, cohesive story.  But it’s really never about the special effects, as was apparent in a delightful short from Lebanon, Tripoli Quiet, about a child who mysteriously appears in a taxi driver’s car, as was The Herd, a documentary by Ken Wardrop about a deer who thinks he’s a cow.  And in the vein of Timothy Burton, Bert and Bertie’s The Taxidermist is all quirk and heart with an incredible set.  And bringing us back to the mood set by 1958 was Matt Faust’s Home, a high tech but svery touching, heartfelt tribute to his family’s house lost in Hurricane Katrina.

Tomorrow is my Syrian and Indian movie night—and more shorts.

LIVE FROM THE RED CARPET: THE MIDDLE EAST FILM FESTIVAL GALA

In the end, rumors were false and Omar Sharif did not show up for the screening of  Al Mosafar (The Traveler), the opening night movie of the Middle East

Middle East Film Festival

Middle East Film Festival

Film Festival in which he stars.  But most of the other actors in the film did, as well as several other stars from around the world.  A lot of it seemed rather random—Demi Moore, who doesn’t have a film playing there, Jason Wu, the designer of Michelle Obama’s dress, who didn’t seem to have dressed anyone there, Hilary Swank, who doesn’t have a film playing here, either, and seemed to be rather randomly chosen to present the Black Pearl Award to Vanessa Redgrave, which was accepted by her husband Franco Nero.  I adore Vanessa Redgrave as an actress and a humanitarian, but again the connectedness to the festival seemed rather random.  I’ll stop with the random, as other star sightings seemed a little bit more in tone with the festival’s goal—to showcase Middle Eastern cinema to a global audience and bring films from around the world to the Middle East.  At the post-screening party, everywhere you turned there were stars of Egyptian, Syrian, and Kuwaiti film and television, including the goofy and tyrannical father of my student’s favorite Ramadan series, Om Al Banat.  But my top sighting was of the Turkish heartthrob that starred in the soap Noor as a man so perfect he alleged caused fantasizing women across the Middle East to ask for divorces because what they had at home just didn’t even come close.  In introducing him, the festival pointedly mentioned that his fiancée was with him.

The party itself was flawless—it was at the terraces of the flawless Emirates Palace and while the there music, food and drink flowing, you could still actually move and hear the people talking to you.  I was as usual baffled by the white women spread out throughout the party posing in courtesan costumes as some kind of weird mix of frozen tag and a mime act.  I’ve seen them at another glam party here, last time I believe in togas, and really all I can say is “What?”  That other party didn’t have anything to do with Rome, and I don’t believe there are any films about courtesans playing at this festival.

There was a lot of “What?’ going through the audience during the screening of Al Mosafar, too.  Great acting and cinematography but seemingly random (yes, that word again) editing that left huge gaps in a story that was also random.  And no, the editing was not censorship on the part of the Abu Dhabi, although it could have actually used a little — the film, which was billed as the first film produced by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, showed an excessively long, graphic rape scene that became increasingly disturbing in its gratuitousness as it went on.  The director, Ahmed Maher, clearly—and successfully– wished to show how Egypt has gone from a poor, secular country in the 1940s to a very poor, very religious country today.  That, however, is so obvious to everyone in the Middle East the he seems to have thrown in the lifetime story of a rapist as his subterfuge.  Omar Sharif plays the rapist as an old man, and if you had ever believed that Omar Sharif was nothing but a pretty face—well, his face is no longer so pretty but he is still a tremendous actor.  And for the last third of the movie, he was allowed to show you that as he played a man on the verge of insanity and death.  It was his Shakespearean moment on a screen stage he seems to have randomly shared with some other fine actors.  Still, it was great to see an Arab film the tried to go beyond formula on the big screen, and I remain optimistic about several of the other films at the festival.