Iraqi, Syrian guides bring views to Philadelphia museum

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Moumena Saradar, left, originally from Syria, guides visitors through the Middle East gallery at Penn Museum, in Philadelphia. (AP)
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Part of the Middle East gallery is displayed at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is opening the galleries to showcase previously undisplayed items, and is making the artifacts more relatable by adding guides native to those parts of the world. (AP)
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Abdulhadi Al-Karfawi guides visitors though the Middle East gallery in the Penn Museum, in Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is in the midst of dramatic renovations, opening new galleries to showcase previously undisplayed items. (AP)
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A wall panel of glazed terra-cotta, from a Sufi monastery in Iran, circa 1400 to 1520 BCE, hangs in the Middle East Galleries at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. (AP)
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The headdress and jewelry of Queen Puabi dating to some 4,500 years ago, is displayed at the Middle East gallery in the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is in the midst of dramatic renovations, opening new galleries to showcase previously undisplayed items, telling the stories of those artifacts in more relatable ways and adding guides native to the parts of the world being showcased. (AP)
Updated 20 May 2018
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Iraqi, Syrian guides bring views to Philadelphia museum

PHILADELPHIA: Three Iraqi natives and a Syrian woman have been enlisted as guides to share a modern cultural perspective with visitors to new Middle Eastern galleries at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
The guides intersperse personal stories with historic content as they lead groups through the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s new galleries that tell tales going back 10,000 years.
“People really have trouble understanding and connecting with objects from the ancient past,” said Ellen M. Owens, Penn Museum’s Merle-Smith director of learning programs. “People who come from these places, even in contemporary times, can find a connection with the objects and they provide an interesting window into what it’s like to walk through these magnificent ancient ziggurats or visit a marketplace where traditions go back thousands of years.”
On a recent tour, guide Abdulhadi Al-Karfawi pointed out cuneiform tablets used for accounting, legal text and, in one case, a school boy’s recounting of an argument with his father. Using a blunt reed on a clay tablet, the boy detailed how his father had scolded him, saying “Why are you wasting time? Get to school! Apply yourself at school!“
“I read that and think of my father, who was a tough person who had 15 boys and girls but was on top of everything,” said Al-Karfawi, 40, a former translator for the US Army in Baghdad who settled in the US with his wife and children last year. “Today, as a father, I have the same argument with my kid. I never thought it was happening thousands of years ago.”
In another part of the galleries, Moumena Saradar, 41, paused in front of bronze and brass balance scales and weights dating back to the 1800s. The scales are similar to the ones used at the market near her home in Damascus. Saradar remembers when, as a teenager, her mother taught her to use the scales so she could double check the weights of the fruits and vegetables she’d purchased from a vendor.
“Because if he cheats her, everyone in the town would know,” Saradar said, drawing laughter.
Rusty Baker, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group PA Museums, said programs like the Penn Museum’s Global Guides provide visitors with a richer experience and could help grow audiences. At Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary historic site, former prisoners and guards lead tours, he said, while some tribal museums feature Native Americans guides.
“Museums have been looking at demographics and asking, ‘Who is not here and how do we do something about that?’” Baker said. “These programs are an opportunity to provide a more authentic experience as opposed to a typical tour with a docent who is knowledgeable and passionate but not culturally connected.”
Penn Museum will continue to expand the Global Guides program, Owens said, as it opens two new galleries showcasing Mexico/Central America and Africa in the next year. The museum is working with two organizations that help new immigrants to find trainees.
Part of that training includes discussing provenance and how guides feel about seeing objects from their home countries on display in the US Guides in the current group say they are happy to have pieces of their old homeland in their new one
“Every time I go through the gallery, I feel like this is Iraq,” Al-Karfawi said. “My grandma wore a headpiece like (Queen Puabi). . The dishes are so lovely and they remind me of my sister serving food.”
Saradar said she saw the exhibit as a way to build cultural understanding.
“This is the best thing I could do, being a messenger for my culture. I wouldn’t be able to do that without these objects,” she said. “I’m finding connections between your people and my people.”
After taking Al-Karfawi’s tour, Lalaine Little said she enjoyed hearing his personal story of sleeping on rooftop mattresses with his family during the hottest nights.
“There’s something universal about a family camping out, looking at the stars,” said Little, director of the Pauly Friedman Art Gallery at Misericordia University. “This experience felt very authentic. Sometimes you go on these tours and there are somewhat canned responses (from guides), but his were very heartfelt. He’s not repeating what he learned in training. He’s talking about his heritage because he’s very proud of it.”


Film Review: ‘Beauty and the Dogs’ takes hard look at an unfeeling society

Updated 20 October 2018
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Film Review: ‘Beauty and the Dogs’ takes hard look at an unfeeling society

CHENNAI: A brutal title, “Beauty and the Dogs” is an electric French-Tunisian drama by Kaouther Ben Hania (“Imams Go to School,” “Zaineb Hates the Snow”), which has been entered as Tunisia’s submission for the best foreign-language film at the 2019 Academy Awards. Although the film is yet to earn a nomination, it is a powerful piece of cinema that deserves recognition.
Based on a real-life incident in 2012, the movie begins at sunset and ends at sunrise and zooms in on a woman traumatized by an unfeeling society. A rather weak script, but bolstered by a strong, moving story mounted on lovely long takes, Hania’s creation is an unflinching look at how a young woman who is raped by a policeman fights a degenerate system.

Hania does not sensationalize and focuses on the aftermath of the horrifying incident when her protagonist, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), doggedly pursues the villainous cop, who has all the muscle power and support of his superiors. They try every trick to derail Mariam’s grit and determination.

The movie begins on a note of fun with Mariam attending a college party at a Tunis disco. After a mild flirtation with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), the two go for a walk on the beach, where she is raped. We only see Mariam running with Youssef at her heels, and we get a feeling that he is chasing her. But no, she is running away in desperation.

“Beauty and the Dogs” is a hard critique of an unfeeling society. Even a woman police officer that Mariam approaches is uncaring and, worse, throws her back into the den of dogs, so to speak. Earlier, a female attendant at a clinic where Mariam goes for a mandatory physical examination seems contemptuous. The film is littered with points of horrific humiliation for Mariam, something which leads to audience sympathy staying unwaveringly strong.
The film is especially important in the current #MeToo climate, where an international discussion on sexual harassment and rape is taking place from Hollywood to Bollywood but has yet to shake up the Middle East.