‘Baghdad Night’ keeps alive folk tales of the dead

Updated 01 October 2013
0

‘Baghdad Night’ keeps alive folk tales of the dead

As Iraq rebuilds after decades of brutality, one Baghdad resident is bent on reviving an ancient folk tale that, like much of the country’s history, risks being lost in time.
“Baghdad Night” is a 10-minute 3D animated film made against all odds by an Iraqi team led by film-maker Furat Al-Jamil.
It tells the story of the saalua, a ghoul known across Iraq and the Gulf who also makes a brief appearance in “One Thousand and One Nights.”
The saalua is used by parents to scare naughty children, but many now fear its story is fading as Iraq marches into modernity.
“I think most Iraqis have forgotten about her, but when I tell them about the saalua, they remember it, and they all smile and are happy, and remember their childhood,” said Jamil.
The film-maker, born to Iraqi and German parents, grew up in Baghdad.
She told AFP “Baghdad Night” was “an introduction to a new kind of cinema in Iraq... an introduction to Iraq.”
Jamil hopes her film, almost two years in the making and due for release later this year, will revive a classic tale she fears could be lost.
The film aims to give a snapshot of the city and its cultural heritage, but production has suffered from typically Iraqi obstacles — a lack of electricity, shortfalls in equipment, and staff leaving for better opportunities overseas.
Despite this, Jamil and her tiny team, working on a shoestring $180,000 budget, hope to meet a deadline to guarantee inclusion in December’s Dubai International Film Festival.
The saalua is briefly referred to in the “Tales of 1,001 Nights,” but has a greater foothold in Iraqi and Gulf folklore, as a ghoul or succubus used to frighten misbehaving children.
It appears in many different forms across Iraq, but the version Jamil wants to recreate is one she heard from her grandfather, who swore he followed a saalua into a cemetery.
Zaydoon Hussein is in charge of the score, which ranges from environmental sound effects to recreate Baghdad to a version of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” on traditional Iraqi instruments.
Ghaith Shawqi and Haidar Abdulrahim are the film’s designers, the former using a grainy image of Jamil’s grandmother as inspiration for the saalua and the latter painstakingly recreating the streets of old Baghdad.
Rawaa Naimi and Fuad Hanun voice the saalua and a taxi driver who falls under her spell.
Set in present-day Baghdad, the film combines the city’s oldest neighborhoods with a cemetery that is a nod to the Sheikh Omar burial ground where many of Jamil’s ancestors rest.
“Baghdad is very important,” Jamil said. “This saalua character is part of Baghdad.”

“There should be a movie about Baghdad that is a fairy tale, not only depressing stories or war stories.”
Jamil has had to confront obstacles film-makers elsewhere rarely face.
Early on, her lead designer and animator left Iraq, like many countrymen, when he was given the opportunity to take his family to the United States.
Throughout, her team has grappled with a lack of equipment and funding.
Hussein’s sound studio lacks state-of-the-art computers and recording tools, while Shawqi and Abdulrahim have to work wherever they can find the space.
And all are reliant on Iraq’s temperamental power supply, which becomes even worse during the boiling summer.
Shawqi said the computers at his disposal take weeks just to render the 3D animation, to say nothing of other problems he must work around.
“Electricity, it’s a big problem for us,” Shawqi said. Power cuts sometimes mean that massive files have to be rebuilt from scratch.
Funding has also come in fits and starts in a country with more pressing priorities than the arts.
Jamil initially put up most of the money herself, but she has since received grants from the Iraq-based Ruya Foundation and Enjaaz, a funding arm of the Dubai Film Market.
Iraq’s culture ministry has also promised her financial help.
Despite the difficulties, Jamil has high hopes of the project.
She plans to showcase visual interpretations of the saalua by different Iraqi artists in an exhibition running alongside the film.
And she also hopes that if “Baghdad Night” is successful, more short films could follow.


‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018
0

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”