Go Ahead and Film Me—Nothing Changes

“So what are you here to film?” he asked from his battered bamboo chair, as he exhaled from the stub of the cigarette in his hand, the smoke blending in with the dust sweeping through the camp.  He was about 40, and had been sitting in that dark alley his entire life.   One of my students took his picture.  He looked at her, Shatila“You should ask me to smile,” he said and smiled, revealing crooked and broken teeth.  She got flustered.  He shrugged, “Film whatever you want.  People have been filming me since I was three-years old.  Me, my dead relatives nothing changes.  You make your film, you show everyone the sad poor people and I’m still sitting here in this chair.  Nothing changes.”

Almost anywhere else in the world, you would tell him, “Get a job, any job, have some pride,” but there are few legal jobs for people in the Shatila Refugee Camp.  They can work odd construction gigs under the table in Beirut, which many of them do, or they can operate a small business in the camp, such as a grocery store, where they can sell cheap food to people who can barely afford to pay for it. Or their parents in rare cases can somehow find the money so that they can go to a college outside the camp, and come back to work in a hospital or as a teacher in the declining education system.  Or they can just sit on a bamboo chair.  Nothing changes.  Unless perhaps they get immigration papers to go to Europe or America.   (For statics on life in the camps, check out Franklin Lamb’s article in Counterpunch:  http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/13/can-richard-falk-achieve-civil-rights-for-palestinians-in-lebanon/)

The father of the family we were going to film scavenges through junk piles in Beirut, bartering and trading junk to furnish their dim and dank cramped room/house.  His wife, Sabah, keeps the room meticulous, and we’re asked to take off our shoes as they are covered with dust from outside.  Sabah explains proudly how she decorated with her eldest daughter, Reem, 15, who dreams of being a designer but will not live long enough to realize her dreams would not have been attainable because she would never have had the opportunity or training required.

It’s the women in the camps that hang on to hope, despite being betrayed by either the stupidity or insincerity of the Palestinian leaders of their parents’ generation, who engaged in the Lebanese Civil War for no logical reason and sending them into further isolation and devastation, despite being the keepers of the rusty keys of their family homes in Palestine that their grandparents took with them during their expulsion from what is now is Israel.  They are the third generation born in these camps, and while the hope of a return home is almost beyond their grasp of those old keys, the hope that at least one of their children will find a way out allows them to live.

In Ain Al Helweh Camp, the women sew Palestinian embroidered pillows for sale abroad during the two hours the camp gets electricity.  The bright spring sun barely makes it through the clusters of blocks on top of blocks and even with the electricity, the women squint to see their stitches.  They are undisturbed by the two seven-year old boys outside beating each other up as an affordable form of entertainment.  They are not fazed when the camp goes into lockdown because the Lebanese army suspects a renegade group of having smuggled arms into the camp the night before.  As our Lebanese taxi driver warned us on the way, Ain Al Helweh is where the “criminals of the world” go to hide because there is no law here.  ShatillaCamp

In Bourj Al Barjneh Camp, when a Syrian man came into the crumbling hospital carrying his six-year old wounded son, the female nurses didn’t ask him who shot the boy.  They just did their best to prep him for surgery and calm the father down.  The women of the camps are born and then marry, feed their children and hope.

We were there that week because we were filming patients of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fun, a US organization that sends volunteer medical teams to operate on some of the sickest kids in the camps.  That week the team was two orthopedic surgeons and an anesthesiologist, all from Chile.

You can see the doctors in  “Dreams in Their Eyes” in Los Angeles.  I’m proud of what my students had the courage to explore with this film.  But I will leave you to this blurb.  Otherwise, it is hard to talk about because I always hear the man in the battered bamboo chair.

 The award-winning documentary (UAE/Lebanon)“Dreams in Their Eyes,” will play at the Evolution International Film Festival on Saturday, July 27, at 1.30.   The film portrays the stories of three children in different refugee camps around Lebanon suffering from diseases too costly to treat if not for the help of the US-based Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.  With unprecedented access to operating rooms and family homes, the film was shot over a week when a volunteer team of doctors from Chile came to treat Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian children brought to the Bourj Al Barjneh Camp.  Three young Emirati women directed the film, the first Emiratis to film in the camps, and the film won “Best Emirati Film” at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in addition to having screened at festivals in the UK, India and Spain.

This year over 300 movies out of 26 countries, in 22 different languages were submitted to festival. The final selection includes 24 films in 10 different languages, many with a Middle East theme.

Saturday July 27th, 2013

1.30 to 3.30 pm 

Los Angeles Film School
6363 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028

For more information: 

http://www.evolutionfilmfestival.com/

How To Behave in the UAE

Today I read on the regular old Internet that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, is making his website available as an iPhone application. 

It’s pretty cool to be an iPhone application.  At least it may be my only public appearance that impressed my Apple-a-day-keeps-the-meltdown-away nephews. On these International Herald Tribune apps,  I share Apple time with several others, including my friend David Chaudoir, in these videos directed by Sonya Edelman, all about how to live and do business in the UAE.

And one thing I wished I’d mentioned and which I discovered this week:  If you sometimes feel the need to yell at the phone company, which is not how to behave in UAE, remember that if the phone company doesn’t get you in one country, the electrical company will get you in another.

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/iht-business-navigator-uae/id429691020?mt=8

or you can just peek at the videos here:

http://www.vimeo.com/20975323

http://www.vimeo.com/20974707

Bahrain Again

Since the uprising in Egypt, I’ve been getting e-mails from people asking  me if I’m okay, if I’m safe with

Dubai, not Bahrain

everything going on the Middle East.  Safety in the Middle East is just a question of where you are standing at a given moment.  Sadly, I have never known the Middle East not to have a troubled spot, and if all else fails to scare you, there is always Gaza or Iraq.  But just like I wouldn’t ask some one in Florida how they were handling the snowstorm in Minnesota, not all the Middle East experiences its storms together.  So on that note, I’m going to re-post a blog I wrote about Bahrain in Oct. 2009

http://nightcounter.wordpress.com/category/bahrain-2/

STILL COOL ENOUGH FOR SEVENTH GRADE

When my world of sophisticated urbanite and Mother Nature friends come to Dubai, there is an inevitable rolling of the ideas

Cool at the Marina Mall

and what has become a cliché to my ears, “This place is all about the malls.”  Like blatant consumerism and the globalization of American brands in an air conditioned utopia is a bad thing.  Until recently, I would have agreed.  But recently I paused and looked back on the malls of my life.  They are where I would take my parents as they got older, just like they took me years ago when I was younger, the generic atmosphere being something that different generations can roam around in comfortably with each other.  It’s a safe place to get away from our psychological disconnects, in that there are things to wander amidst together, diverted from what divides, our disagreements temporally swallowed up by the high ceilings and wide concourses filled with stuff.

There, I just gave you one good thing about malls—an escape from reality.  In moderation, we all need that, and a mall is healthier form of escape than drugs and cheaper than a resort vacation in Thailand.  Of course, drugs, ice-cream, junk food, credit card abuse and several other not so healthy opportunities are also available at the mall but they are everywhere else, too, from that resort in Thailand to prison, and the mall is a good happy middle.

The mall isn’t what is once was–places that were primarily for shopping and lunch when it was too hot or cold to be outside.   In the early mall days, only one group of people saw the mall’s future potential—cool 7th graders.  They figured out it was a place hang out without their parents, flirt with opposite sex, try on make up with their girlfriends (mostly girls back then), and play video games (mostly boys back then).  To the rest of us that were never cool enough for 7th grade, malls got labeled the anti-place for people too cool for 7th grade, hot spots for boring middle America suburbanites.

But those 7th graders had it right.  They grew up and built the Mall of America—shopping, skating, movies, game arcades, deep-fried food concoctions galore.  And then others dreamed even bigger and built not just the biggest mall in the world, but the world’s grand city of malls, Dubai.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself at the Dubai Mall, the newest of the Emirate’s landmark destinations, for various reasons unrelated to shopping.  Because of its vastness, I have rarely been in the same spot twice, and I’m okay admitting that I stopped more than once to be awed by the aquarium, a couple of fountains, a painting, and the sighting of my first UAE Taco Bell.  The Dubai Mall, as well as the Mall of the Emirates, with its famed ski slope, and the history-themed Ibn Batuta Mall, are like visits to happening small towns–or as a friend of mine said, the modern souq, places where folks gather to catch up with friends and family, people watch, have some coffee, maybe dinner, visit a doctor or dentist, view some art, see some entertainment, be that cool 7th grader no matter what your age, see what’s new in the world, pray, and maybe spend the night.  The hotels and entertainment options are way beyond Khan Al Khalili and maybe one day we’ll look at what the malls offer as charming, too.

These malls are often organized like souqs—entire sections dedicated to carpets, gold, chocolate, perfumes.  And you get other things that in the heyday of souqs wasn’t so needed—exercise, easy parking and plenty of security.  Try and top that in the real world outside, especially when it’s 120 degrees.

I’m beginning to wonder if the malls, with their overwhelming number of options for the same type of product, shouldn’t throw in bargaining and make the souq connection complete. But the souqs were –and still are—connected to the greater reality around them, a place to hear the local news, good, bad and ugly.  You won’t find any of that reality nonsense at the mall. But maybe if they allow some bargaining, they could bring it down to the street level, so my too-cool-for 7th grade friends won’t feel trapped in utopia with a credit card.

Silence As Golden As Sand

“Silence” is a relative word, referring to how quiet a place is compared to other times.  Silence in a home still involves the hum of the fridge, the heater, the creaking in the wood, the wind on the windows, and so many other things.  Outside, it means the birds still chirping, bugs buzzing, the breeze, a car going by on a distant highway.

Golden Silence

But nature showed my brother and I definite silence when I took him to Liwa on his short visit to Abu Dhabi.  Liwa is the center of the Empty Quarter, Liwa being the oasis in an the unforgiving terrain of spectacular tawny sand swirls going up and down dunes in what I’ve been told is the world’s largest sand desert.  It was just after a holiday, and so no one was traveling–the usual dune hiking was absent as we drove to the most famous and tallest of the dunes.  Merheb Dune is sadly surrounded by concession stands and race tracks that minimize its beauty.  So we went back and stopped at a spot with no duning tracks.  Like I have done for everyone that has come to visit, I wanted my brother to experience the sensation of running up and down a dune, your feet sinking into pockets of hot and cool softness as the sun creates patterns on it.  At the top of one dune, we stopped so he could take a picture.  And that’s when the silence got to us.  We hadn’t grown up with even the pretension of silence inside or outside out home, and as adult both our worlds were noisy, his with rockets and children and mine with a long list of big cities.  I don’t think we’d ever heard total silence:  not an insect or bird, not a trace of wind, no human noise except the noise that is always in our heads, and even that seemed to quiet down.  “What is that?” I asked. “Silence,” he shrugged.  “Kind of freaky, huh,” I answered.  “Cool, too,” he said.  Silence as golden as the sand literally was. We kept waiting for something in nature to make a sound, but nothing did.

I don’t know if there is anywhere else to experience absolute silence.  That’s why I was a little saddened the other day to hear about new plans Abu Dhabi has to build several resorts in the area and expand the population over the next few years by 350,000.  Perhaps it will help the Bedouins of the area have a better life, but maybe there is an easier way to give them that chance, a quieter way, a way that will not defy the reasons it has been called the Empty Quarter for so long.

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.