A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

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Sabrina Mahfouz. (Supplied)
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Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)
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Laura Hanna
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‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)
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Elif Shahak. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 June 2021

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

  • A spirited new anthology of poems and stories by Arab women down the ages overturns common expectations of gender 
  • ‘We Wrote in Symbols’ celebrates the literary works of 75 female writers of Arab heritage spanning five millenia

DUBAI: British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh hopes a new book featuring 75 stories of love and desire penned by Arab women will help pave the way for more female authors to emerge from the Middle East region.

The English-language anthology “We Wrote in Symbols,” edited by Dabbagh, was published in April this year, marking a literary first in showcasing the works of women from the region on subjects many might consider bold.

Spanning several millennia, the volume includes the works of classical poets, award-winning contemporary authors and emerging writers.

“It brings together a diverse range of voices who are writers in English, French and Arabic, coming from all of the three main monotheistic religions, as well as those that are not religious at all,” Dabbagh told Arab News.




‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)

The idea arose after Dabbagh stumbled on an anthology called “Classical Poems by Arab Women,” which contained writings from the pre-Islamic period up to the fall of Andalusia in 1492.

The collection left a lasting impression. “Some were what you would expect. There were poems lamenting the loss of a brother in battle,” Dabbagh said.

“But other women were talking about sexuality in a way that was very self-assured. Some were being a bit provocative, but others were just content with that aspect of their life. The voices were surprising, but they also felt fresh, contemporary and spirited.”

Dabbagh began to notice similar themes in the work of contemporary female authors discussing issues of love and desire — in some cases dealing with the disconnection between the two in relationships, which were portrayed with remarkable sensitivity.

As a fiction writer, Dabbagh had always found this a difficult topic to handle, partly due to self-censorship stemming from her own notions of shame.

“There is a universal insistence on associating the actions of a character with the behavior of an author, which we need to be freed from,” she said.




Sabrina Mahfouz. (Courtesy of Greg Morrison)

“To be a writer who is able to depict those delicate shifts in mood and connections between people takes an enormous amount of skill and imagination. So, the collection is basically a combination of the older, classical poets and the newer voices looking at this difficult terrain.

“A lot of them are very funny, some are quite daring and explicit, and it’s just a different way for women identified with the region to have their writing viewed — through matters of the heart and the body.”

Dabbagh said there is an expectation among English readers that most Arab fiction is slightly depressing, political or downbeat. In the words of Nathalie Handal, one of the poets featured in the anthology, “people think Arabs don’t love with a beating heart.” The book aims to challenge this misconception.

“It tries to bring that sense of emotional excitement and tenderness to a vast, diverse and varied region through the writing of women,” Dabbagh said.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate about women in Arab literature, which actually predates anything published by a female author in the English language. One of the earliest poems included in the anthology dates back almost 5,000 years.

“You have this tradition, mainly in poetry, of writing and letter writing by Arab women before women started writing in Europe,” Dabbagh said. “I really wanted to show that, because it’s not something that is associated with the Arab world in terms of having higher levels of advancement in female literacy.”




Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)

For Dabbagh, whose debut novel “Out of It” was nominated as a Guardian book of the year in 2011-12, navigating the affairs of the heart is not something that necessarily becomes easier with age.

Although she read the works of Hanan Al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif avidly in her 20s, she wishes there had been more Arab women writers in her youth. “Sadly, I only read fluently in English,” she said.

“It was really radically life-changing for me to read accounts by women of a similar background. I grew up between the Gulf and Europe mainly, and I always found it such a difficult subject matter for me to find my voice.”

Reading their stories made Dabbagh more articulate about her own feelings.

“It just gives you a set of tools with which to negotiate this tricky emotional terrain,” she said. “I think (my book) might help to provide a level of self-knowledge because there are so many different characters in it that readers should be  able to relate to.”

Having read the works of critically acclaimed American writers, whose brash depiction of the hook-up culture she found dulling, her interest returned to the writings of women of Arab heritage to see how their interpretations of romance, sentimentality, vulnerability and desire affected her.




Laura Hanna. (Supplied)

In these works, she found creativity, humor and craft. “We’re always being told to see these two worlds I come from (the West/Europe and the Arab world) as almost antithetical to one another,” Dabbagh said.

“But with the language of love and looking at the Mediterranean as a kind of sea of stories, we can see how there’s been influence over time between Europe and the Arab world.

“In the 19th century, you had a lot of writers and explorers who came to the Arab world because it was a place of freer sensuality. It seemed to be less restrictive than the puritanical backgrounds these writers came from.

“Now that pattern has, to some extent, been reversed.”

During the Abbasid period, the topic  was written about and seen almost as a scientific study. “You could have a book which dealt with astrology and physics as well as expounding on sensuality, because sensuality and getting that harmony right between a couple was something that was indicative of how you can have harmony in the society as a whole,” Dabbagh said.




Elif Shafak. (Supplied)

“So, it was a way of ensuring that the community was in balance and that, to me, is such a beautiful idea. But it’s something that is rarely associated with the religion anymore.”

Nowadays, any associations between religion, women and sexuality appears to be overwhelmingly negative. “I wanted to show that range, to try to break up that stereotype,” she said.

And although one book is unlikely to change opinions overnight, Dabbagh believes women’s voices are gradually subverting traditional methods of censorship.

“The region has been engulfed with images, films and TV for the past 70 years, and most of it was state-run,” she said. “But now with Netflix and online streaming, we have a lot more content coming in and it’s hugely influential.”

Nevertheless, the depiction of Arabs and the Islamic world in Hollywood has improved little in the past century. “There is a kind of mass absorption of negative images of the region from outside, which is going to influence behavior,” Dabbagh said.

“We need to find ways of writing stories which are connected to regional history, cultures, which are exciting, dramatic, sleek and sexy. It’s just about being trained up, opting into it and starting to influence the way these stories are told.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


‘Titane’ wins top Cannes honor, 2nd ever for female director

Updated 17 July 2021

‘Titane’ wins top Cannes honor, 2nd ever for female director

  • Julia Ducournau is the second female filmmaker to win the festival’s top honor in its 74 year history
  • Saturday’s win was mistakenly announced by jury president Spike Lee at the top of the closing ceremony

CANNES, France: Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” a wild body-horror thriller, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
This made Ducournau just the second female filmmaker to win the festival’s top honor in its 74 year history.
The win on Saturday was mistakenly announced by jury president Spike Lee at the top of the closing ceremony, broadcast in France on Canal+, unleashing a few moments of confusion. Ducournau, a French filmmaker, didn’t come to the stage to accept the award until the formal announcement at the end of the ceremony. But the early hint didn’t diminish from her emotional response.
“I’m sorry, I keep shaking my head,” said Decournau, catching her breath. “Is this real? Why am I even speaking English right now?”
After several false starts, Lee implored Sharon Stone to make the announcement, explaining: “She’s not going to mess it up.” The problems started when Lee was asked to say which prize would be awarded first. Instead, he announced the evening’s final prize, as fellow juror Mati Diop plunged her head into her hands and others rushed to stop him.
Lee, himself, spent several moments with his head in his hands before apologizing profusely for taking a lot of the suspense out of the evening.
Decournau’s win was a long-awaited triumph. The only previous female filmmaker to win Cannes’ top honor — among the most prestigious awards in cinema — was Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993. In recent years, frustration at Cannes’ gender parity has grown, including in 2018, when 82 women — including Agnes Varda, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek — protested gender inequality on the Cannes red carpet. Their number signified the movies by female directors selected to compete for the Palme d’Or — 82 compared to 1,645 films directed by men. This year, four out of 24 films up for the Palme were directed by women.
Cannes’ closing ceremony capped 12 days of red-carpet premieres, regular COVID-19 testing for many attendees and the first major film festival to be held since the pandemic began in almost its usual form. With smaller crowds and mandated mask-wearing in theaters, Cannes pushed forward with an ambitious slate of global cinema. Last year’s Cannes was completely canceled by the pandemic.
In 2019, the Palme went to Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which later took best picture at the Academy Awards, too.
The other were spread out across a slate of films that included many leading international filmmakers.
The Grand Prix award was a joint honor split between the Iranian drama “A Hero” and Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s “Apartment No. 6.”
Best director was awarded to Leos Carax for “Annette,” the fantastical musical that opened the festival. The award was accepted by the musical duo Sparks, who wrote the script and music for the film.
Nadav Lapid’s “Ahed’s Knee” won the jury prize, while Caleb Landry Jones took home the best actor prize. Renate Reinsve won best actress for Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World.”
The Croatian coming-of-age drama “Murina,” by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, took the Camera d’Or award, a non-jury prize, for best first feature. Kusijanović was absent from the ceremony after giving birth a day earlier.
Lee was the first Black jury president at Cannes. His fellow jury members are: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Song Kang-ho, Tahar Rahim, Mati Diop, Jessica Hausner, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Mylène Farmer.

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Saudi performing arts chiefs unveil major plans to boost theater sector

Updated 15 July 2021

Saudi performing arts chiefs unveil major plans to boost theater sector

  • Authority will work to establish partnerships to create advanced theater industry that meets goals of Vision 2030

RIYADH: Saudi performing arts chiefs on Wednesday raised the curtain on an ambitious new strategy to create a thriving theater industry in the Kingdom.

The Theater and Performing Arts Authority has unveiled plans aimed at promoting Saudi talent, job opportunities, and standards of entertainment in the sector.

The authority’s chief executive officer, Sultan Al-Bazai, said: “Our main mission is to stimulate the development and growth of the theater and performing arts sector by empowering Saudi talents to build successful careers and create content that inspires audiences.”

Alongside an employee awareness campaign about the strategy, he pointed out that the authority would be working to establish partnerships in the sector to create an advanced Saudi theater industry that met the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 and the Ministry of Culture.

The initiative, backed by Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, was launched in the presence of Deputy Minister of Culture Hamed bin Mohammed Fayez, Al-Bazai, and other prominent figures.

Deputy Minister of Culture Hamed bin Mohammed Fayez

Fayez said: “This strategy has been set, among its objectives, to provide support in different models, care for infrastructure, and societal and geographical access to each city, in addition to a comprehensive development of the sector with all its components, on top of which is the development of talents and capabilities that abound in the Kingdom.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us until we reach the establishment of a great theatrical industry that perpetuates our culture, documents our stories, expresses our concerns, our arts, and our ambitions.

“We also have a lot of challenges to overcome in providing empowerment opportunities for all fields that fall within the scope of theater and performing arts, in order to achieve the goals and outputs that everyone aspires to,” he added.

The strategy will cover all forms of performing arts including theater, dance, circus shows, stand-up comedy, street and motion performances, and opera. It will also encompass venues, content, production, and the prevalence of the culture of performing arts in the Kingdom.

Sultan Al-Bazai

The authority’s vision, according to its website, was “to create inspiring performances with exceptional talents on every stage.”

Its key aims were to enhance the quantity and diversity of content, increase the number and variety of local productions, improve access to the theater and performing arts sector, raise appreciation levels among members of the public and practitioners, and generate audience demand.

In meeting the objectives, the authority would be looking to create an effective theater space for Saudi talent, strengthen the sector’s contribution to economic growth, promote culture as a way of life, and boost levels of professionalism and creativity.

A total of 26 initiatives to develop the sector will be implemented in stages through to 2030. They will include talent development involving education, training, talent-spotting, school theater, traditional dance, cultural business incubators, theater academies, career development schemes, graduate recruitment, and sector awards.

Work to upgrade the country’s performing arts infrastructure, national theater, and Riyadh theater district will also be undertaken, and funding will be made available to help support local productions, the staging and hosting of shows, and the financing of events and content.

On modern technology, the strategy will introduce an innovation support program and multi-screen initiative. And to drive audience figures, the authority intends to subsidize ticket prices, carry out audience satisfaction surveys, promote critical reviews of theater performances, raise awareness of local and international works, and encourage community participation and cultural tourism.

Through the provision of educational and training courses, officials hope that around 4,500 graduate performers and 4,200 qualified trainees will emerge.

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Saudi-Japanese anime to premiere in 6 European countries

Updated 15 July 2021

Saudi-Japanese anime to premiere in 6 European countries

  • Koch Media is scheduled to begin distributing and showing the much-anticipated film to European audiences
  • “The Journey” by Manga Productions is the first Saudi film to present a movie experience in 4DX technology

RIYADH: Manga Productions, a subsidiary of the Misk Foundation, announced the signing of a cooperation agreement with Koch Media, a leading film distribution company, to distribute the “The Journey” in Germany and five other European countries: Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

The deal comes as part of the subsidiary’s strategy of becoming a global competitor in the film industry.

The signing took place digitally, in the presence of representatives from the two companies in Riyadh and Berlin.

Koch Media is scheduled to begin distributing and showing the much-anticipated film to European audiences, providing viewers with the opportunity to learn about the culture of the Arabian Peninsula and its rich and inspiring stories.

 

 

Dr. Essam Bukhary, CEO of Manga Productions, said: “We will continue in our mission to create inspirational content for all audiences and our heroes in the future. Let us reveal our Saudi creativity to the world.”

Stefan Kapelari, managing director of Koch Media and Koch Films in Planegg, Germany, said: “Koch Media always seeks to attract original and high-quality content. From this point, we are happy to release ‘The Journey’ as the first anime from the Arab market, as we view it as a high-quality movie in terms of drawing, animation and story. We hope that this partnership will be the beginning of a long-term relationship with Manga Productions in the creative content industry.”

Manga Productions, a subsidiary under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Charitable Foundation, produces animation projects and video games aimed at conveying the Saudi message globally through professional works that include distinguished creative content.

The company also provides training opportunities for Saudi talent in partnership with Japan’s Toei Animation, with the aim of transferring knowledge and localizing the creative industry in the Kingdom.

“The Journey” is the first Saudi film to present a movie experience in 4DX technology. It is one of the milestones in the journey of Manga Productions, which seeks to be a pioneer and global leader in the production of creative content in the Arab world and beyond.

Directed by Shizuno Kobon, the film tells an epic tale about the ancient civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, and establishes a historical fantasy for future generations.

 

 

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Saudi Arabia’s Ithra Film Production unveils two new films at Cannes 

Updated 14 July 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Ithra Film Production unveils two new films at Cannes 

  • The films are part of Ithra’s commitment to nurture and develop talent across the Kingdom’s creative industries
  • Both movies, which are being produced under the Ithra Film Productions banner, are scheduled for release in 2023

RIYADH: The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) is unveiling two new films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The projects are part of its contribution to the Saudi Pavilion, which is being hosted by the Saudi Film Commission at the festival.
Egyptian screenwriter and producer Mohamed Hefzy will introduce his Ithra-commissioned film “Sea of Sands” alongside the unveiling of Saudi independent filmmaker Khalid Fahad’s “Valley Road.” 
The films are part of Ithra’s commitment to nurture and develop talent across the Kingdom’s creative industries.

Egyptian screenwriter and producer Mohamed Hefzy will introduce his Ithra-commissioned film “Sea of Sands” alongside the unveiling of Saudi independent filmmaker Khalid Fahad’s “Valley Road.” (Arab News/ Ammar Abd Rabbo)

Both movies, which are being produced under the Ithra Film Productions banner, are scheduled for release in 2023.
Ithra said the cast and crew for both would consist of aspiring Saudi talent, which would nurture a generation of film creatives.
They follow the successful international release of Ithra’s first commissioned film “Joud,” which is described as “an unconventional meditation on the cycle of life” and an “ancient poem for modern times.”
The film uses an experimental story structure derived from a pre-Islamic form of poetry, the qasida, and is dialogue-free. It was shot in 16 locations across Saudi Arabia and screened at several international film festivals.

Ithra said the cast and crew for both would consist of aspiring Saudi talent, which would nurture a generation of film creatives. (Arab News/ Ammar Abd Rabbo)

“Ithra Film Productions is a leading indie film producer in Saudi Arabia,” said Majed Z. Samman, head of performing arts and cinema at Ithra and producer of both new films. “We support the Kingdom’s growing film industry by nurturing homegrown talent and fostering cinema and filmmaking in Saudi Arabia. We are honored to announce our next two projects at one of the world’s most prestigious film fairs as part of the Saudi Pavilion at Cannes Film Festival.”
Hefzy has written, produced and co-produced nearly 40 feature films in Egypt, the US, the UK and the Arab world. 
“Sea of Sands” is a coming-of-age story about a young Bedouin orphan and a camel who form a special bond and embark on a journey across Saudi Arabia.
“Ithra has played a significant role in supporting independent filmmakers from Saudi Arabia at a critical time just as the Kingdom’s booming film industry begins to take shape,” said Hefzy. “I am thrilled to work with them and all the Saudi and Arab talent who will be joining this exciting project.”

“Sea of Sands” is a coming-of-age story about a young Bedouin orphan and a camel who form a special bond and embark on a journey across Saudi Arabia. (Arab News/ Ammar Abd Rabbo)

The film will be shot in various locations across Saudi Arabia.
“Valley Road” follows the journey of an autistic man called Ali who gets lost on his way to see a doctor. He finds himself alone in the middle of nowhere, but a series of obstacles and challenges cannot stop him from discovering the world ahead of him.
Apart from Ithra’s commissioned films, the center is also the driving force behind several initiatives supporting the Kingdom’s film industry.
Ithra Cinema provides a space for the country’s film talent to hone their skills and showcase their work.
It is home to initiatives and programs such as Saudi Film Production, Saudi Film Days, and the Ithra Film Society.
Ithra is also the cradle of the annual Saudi Film Festival, which supports local talent and focuses on content development.
Ithra Film Productions has produced 20 films, of which 15 have won local, regional and international awards.
The center also offers people a learning experience through a training and shadowing program, providing an opportunity for those who are passionate about filmmaking to craft their career in the field.

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What We Are Reading Today: Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza

Updated 09 July 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza

Author: Gilles Deleuze

In this remarkable work, Gilles Deleuze, the renowned French philosopher, reflects on one of the thinkers of the past who most influenced his own sweeping reconfiguration of the tasks of philosophy. For Deleuze, Spinoza, along with Nietzsche and Lucretius, conceived of philosophy as an enterprise of liberation and radical demystification. He locates in Spinoza “a set of affects, a kinetic determination, an impulse” and makes Spinoza into “an encounter, a passion.”
Expressionism in Philosophy was the culmination of a series of monographic studies by Deleuze (on Hume, Bergson, Nietzsche, Proust, Kant, and Sacher-Masoch) and prepared the transition from these abstract treatments of historical schemes of experience to the nomadology of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, co-authored with Félix Guattari). Thus, Expressionism in Philosophy is both a pivotal reading of Spinoza’s work and a crucial text within the development of Deleuze’s thought.