What Film Directors Look Like

As kids, we grow up with clear imagery of what professionals in certain professions look like.  In my Sesame Street days, I learned farmers wear overalls with checkered shirts, nannies are British and carry parasols, and professional Arabs wear white robes and headdresses accessorized with grenade belts.  These images came to me from film and television, and I bought most of them, even with real live Arab parents there to counterbalance the TV Arab.

Photo by Fahd Mohammed, 1978

Photo by Fahd Mohammed, 1978

(Okay, there are some exceptions in which my childhood TV holds true—like waitresses at diners wear white aprons that tie at the waist.  This one persists as the whole diner concept has evolved into nostalgia for an imagined memory of American utopia.)

I wanted to make films, too.  But then I learned from TV that directors-are flamboyant, European, wear berets and ascots, have a cigar and carry megaphones when they talk—and are men.  So I thought about other possible dreams, as I knew that I could be convinced to shout in a megaphone but had no hope of being a man.

Then a person grows up and moves to Hollywood and finds out farmers, at least the organic ones, have pretty hip jeans and cool t-shirts, often with a marijuana leaf on them, the accent that nannies have is Spanish, and Arabs are the mostly like to wear overalls to work at the gas stations, if not wearing polo shirts as engineers.  And directors are indistinguishable from the rest of the angst-ridden people in Los Angeles—although they’re still most likely men.

But every once in while, your Hollywood childhood imagery is a pleasant memory that comes

Photo by Ebla Maleh

Photo by Ebla Maleh

back to you– like it did when I interviewed Syria’s most acclaimed director Nabil Maleh, during which he gave me a photo of himself as a young director.  There was the beret, megaphone, and still to this day an endearingly larger than life personality.   He has never been a farmer, but on the day of our interview he was the one wearing the checkered shirt.

A Leopard in Winter:  http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/9845/a-leopard-in-winter_an-interview-with-syrian-direcn

My Very Short Middle East Movie List

Recently a professor in the US asked me if I could put together a list of Arabic language films she might be able to use in her women’s studies and global studies classes.   This is only a short excursion around 20 plus countries sharing a common language and multiple problems and plenty of quirkiness.   Some countries have only one or two features, like Jordan and the UAE, so those were pretty easy to do.  Morrocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, I apologize to all the wonderful films I didn’t list–and to Iraq, the Arab cinema I know almost nothing about yet.  The Middle East also includes Iran, which may have the most powerful films of all, but that’s a whole other list.  For that, see the link below.

EGYPT :

Cairo Station/The Iron Gate (Youssef Chahine, 1958):  A memorable love triangle amongst the workers at a Cairo train station.

Dreams of Hind and Camelia (Mohamed Khan, 1988):  Two maids in Cairo struggle with their employers and family.

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Yousry Nasrallah, 2009)

Asma (Amr Salama, 2011)  A woman struggles with the shame of AIDS

 

LEBANON

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)  Daily life of five women at a beauty salon in Lebanon.

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011)  Award-winning film that takes a lighter, simplified  look at the start of the Lebanese civil war.

West Beirut (1998)  Probably the best narrative film on the Lebanese civil war as it affected the middle class

PALESTINE

Paradise Now (Hany Abu Assad, 2005)  Oscar nominated, two young men are sent on a suicide mission.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Najwa Najjar, 2008) A newlywed copes with the sudden imprisonment of her husband.

Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008) A Palestinian American goes back to see what was once her family’s home.

PALESTINE/LEBANON/ISRAEL

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)  Israeli animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Under the Bombs (Philippe Aractingi, 2007) One woman’s struggle to find her missing child in the midst of Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel.

SYRIA 

The Leopard (Nabil Maleh, 1973) Freedom fighters as revolutionaries

The Extras (Nabil Maleh, 1993)  Life and love under a police state

MORROCCO

Omar Killed Me (Roschdy Zem, 2011)  The difficulty of proving your innocence when your guilty by ethnicity.

Le Grand Voyage (Ismael Ferroukhi, 2004), A young man goes with his father from France to Mecca on an emotionally challenging road trip.

ALGERIA

Rachida (Yamina Bachir, 2002):  A woman faces down a group asking her to commit a terrorist act at home.

Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966):  An epic about one of the most heroic and bloody fights for independence in modern history.

TUNISIA

Silence of the Palace (Moufida Tlalti, 1994)  A masterful look at the manipulation of  poor women in mid-20th century Middle East.

UAE

City of Life (Ali Mostafa, 2010)  The lives of two young Emirati men collide with the lives of a variety of expats living in Dubai.

Sea Shadow (Nawaf Al Janahi, 2011) A young man tries to understand what love is in a seaside town.

JORDAN

Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, 2007)  A janitor pretends to be an airplane pilot to entertain the kids in his neighborhood.
*For a bit of a taste of the grand cinema of Iran, check out this short list from the website Your Middle East  http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/5-great-iranian-films_8295

Poetic Pomegranates

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?

THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:

If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Where are the Actors?

Every year I ask this, and here I go again for the third time, “Know any enthusiastic student filmmakers living in the Middle East?”  If so, please let them know about the Zayed University Middle East Film Festival, which brings

ZUMEFF 2011 winners from Eygpt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine

together student films from across the Middle East to reveal an industry in rebirth, as well as a student population living in times that are  a changin’ for better and worse.

At the end of last year’s film festival, we did a ZUMEFF research project and survey of student filmmakers in the region.  We expected them to say the worst trials they face are self censorship, money, poor equipment, little technical expertise.  Some of that did indeed come up in the research.  But the number one obstacle they face–and this was from all the countries that participated–was that they couldn’t find good actors to work with, and the few they could find wanted ridiculous amounts of money just for a student film.  I’m not in Los Angeles anymore.

For more on ZUMEFF visit–submissions deadline is March 15:  www.zumeff.com

or check out this article from one of our constant sponsor and supporter, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival  http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/year-round/magazine/2012/01/26/zayed-university-s-middle-east-film-festival

 

A Good Library is Hard To Find

What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.  ~Archibald MacLeish, “The Premise of Meaning,” American Scholar, 5 June 1972

The other day in Jordan, my mother made the day of a young Spanish woman with whom we were chatting by telling her she could be Audrey Hepburn’s double.  This was true enough, but what struck me was how quickly the woman

Faten Hamama

blushed and said thank you,  banging on her tea cup to make sure her boyfriend had heard the compliment.  Audrey Hepburn was before my time, let alone this younger woman’s.  Yet the three of us shared a common language:  Hollywood films.  What we didn’t learn of this language on the big screen or at home, we were taught via the video store, TV, or iTunes.   Or for those of us who wanted to perfect the language, our knowledge grew through classes—and through access to a film library.

Jordan’s Royal Film Commission is in my favorite part of Amman, Rainbow Street, which fits because the street is named after the city’s first cinema, the Rainbow Theatre, now long gone. I love the film commission because it has given Jordan a genuine film fan and filmmaker community.

But perhaps more uniquely, it has a cozy film library over looking old Amman.  It’s not big or comprehensive, but if you’re looking for film that brought Syrian cinema to an international audience in 1972, you can scan the shelves and find it:  The Leopard.  Arabic films have a language of their own and very few people learn it because the Middle East has no significant film library and no effort has been made to educate students about Arab cinema.

While everyone laments the decline of reading in the world, particularly the Middle East it seems, one forgets that good libraries also house novels and films, perhaps both truer windows into who we are and who we were than any text or history book could ever be.

Before Kramer vs Kramer made divorce a topic to carry a movie or Broke Back Mountain told of the tortured deceits of closeted homosexuality, Egypt’s most famous actress Faten Hamama was dealing with them in the 1974 film Oridu Hillan  (I Need a Solution) . (Honestly, I haven’t seen it recently, so I can’t verify the gay issues that my cousin said were implied in the divorce.)  The movie in fact changed Egypt’s divorce laws.

When looking for the roots of today’s revolutions, much of it can be found even in the poorly produced and directed very broad comedies and melodramas of Egypt over the past decade—rife with farcical scenes about men not being able to afford marriage because jobs are always illusive, scenes government institutions and the absurd rules applied to the Everyman when he tries to feed his family or take care of their health needs, and scenes of the brutal consequences of speaking out against the corruption.

Arab cinema is not always at level of most Western cinema, but it has a long history that lays scattered—and damaged by time—because libraries don’t have the importance they should.   Arabs have a long film history that is their history.  Yet sadly, Arabs don’t have as much as they should a language in which they can say, “You remind me of Faten Hamama in….”

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for Letting Me Write

Since I was in college, the one thing that has been in my life nearly everyday—and for better or worse, nearly all day—has

Thank you, Steve Jobs

been my Apple. Along with one of those apples that grow on trees, turning on my Mac has been part of my morning ritual wherever I have been and in whatever state-of-mind I have been in, minus a couple of war zones that have made it impossible. But even in those times, I would sometimes move my hands like they were going over the keyboards writing my thoughts.

I have never been addicted to my Mac, but I’d say we’ve been pretty co-dependent—or let’s say the best of friends, a reliable friend I always cleaned up with only the finest soft cloth, a friend I could count on to help me stay bond to my other friends and family, a friend I never cheated on once, no matter how many times a PC tried to get my attention. A friend who would only abandon me when it was his time to go, like Steve Jobs today. But my Macs always left memories behind, a hard drive that recorded our history together and the history of my life for the time we were together. And I am glad none of them tried to erase me from their memory, at least until we were no longer together .

It hasn’t always been the same Mac, but it has always been the same genius bringing me my new model—as well as smaller ones, ones that were phones, ones that meant I didn’t have to endure the same 10 pop songs on the car radio, ones that are what I now use to read all the books I love, new and old. Some Macs have been better to me than others, but overall, I would be less of a person for not having had them all in my life—even the big, bulky ones that weighed me down, that refused to move with the times, that were serious baggage, but only in the best sense.

I’m old enough to remember life before the various Macs that have lived with me. I would be a different person without them, as we would have all be. The way I stay in touch with people, read, listen to music, watch films, study, figure out my bills—all the paper and machines that would be cluttering up my world if my Macs hadn’t helped me get it together. They have also been fun–playing with my Macs in all their forms is something my nephews and I have bonded over, unlike video games (their choice) or baking cookies (my choice).  Apples are our happy middle.

Most importantly, my Macs helped make me who I am today. I wouldn’t be a writer without my Macs, whether for fiction, nonfiction, for film or television or print. And if I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have discovered peace of mind. Whenever my Mac and I have been writing, truly hard as it is everyday, I have felt that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It couldn’t have done it without my Macs: I have weak hands and it is quite painful for me to write with pen or pencil and hard for anyone to read, including myself. It was only when I met my first Mac that I felt free to write.

So if you are wondering why this is posted on this blog dedicated to Middle East culture, it is because I would have never written anything about this part of the world if I hadn’t come here with my Mac. (And of course, because Steve Jobs was part Arab American.)

Zayed University Film Festival In San Francisco

There has been more than one time me in my life when the call to prayer has been a comfort to me, and that includes at 4:30 a.m. yesterday when I had to walk to my car in the dark to go get to school in time for “The Best the Zayed University Film Festival” showing at the San Francisco Arab Film Festival, followed by a live video conference with San Francisco State University and the student organizers and me over here.  Walking in the darkness, I was cursing myself for doing this, but when the call to prayer went off, I felt safe again and remembered that it was to celebrate the great job my students did.  Thanks to Bill Lex for making it happen.

http://www.arabfilmfestival.org/wp/topics/arab-film-news/