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.


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
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)


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.


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.


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.