Cannes winner ‘For Sama’ — a moving and vital documentary of Aleppo’s fall

Sama pictured in September 2016, in the bombarded east of the city with a placard in response to US presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s infamous gaffe “What’s Aleppo?” (Courtesy of Channel 4, copyright Waad Al-Kateab)
Updated 03 July 2019

Cannes winner ‘For Sama’ — a moving and vital documentary of Aleppo’s fall

  • The movie won the Golden Eye Documentary Prize at Cannes
  • Filmmaker Waad Al-Khateab and her husband remained in Aleppo even after the birth of their daughter

DUBAI: At the heart of “For Sama” — the documentary about the fall of Aleppo by filmmakers Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts that just won the Golden Eye Documentary Prize at Cannes — is a scene that brought me to tears. Doctors are forced to perform an emergency cesarean section on a young woman who has sustained injuries from an airstrike. When the baby’s lifeless body is pulled from his mother, the doctors spend what seems like an eternity trying to save the child — pumping his heart, slapping his back, even shaking him.

In Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 Oscar winner “Roma,” a similar scene plays out in fiction — the main character’s child is stillborn, and a long, excruciating attempt at resuscitation is unsuccessful. Watching “For Sama,” with a real life hanging in the balance, it’s hard to have hope for a better outcome. But just as you are about to force yourself to look away, to resent this film for making you watch a newborn slip from life, a miracle happens — the baby’s eyes open, he stirs to life, and cries. The mother and child are fine now, Al-Khateab, also the film’s narrator, assures us.

This newborn fighting to survive is right at home in Aleppo. Years after protests against the government began, years after extremists and airstrikes destroyed the massive Syrian city, many refused to flee. Al-Khateab explains that, in her view, abandoning their home would mean submitting to the will of a regime they aimed to resist.

Al-Khateab and her husband position themselves as activists, and that’s what unites them, even when it’s unclear what their views are, except for their rejection of both extremism and dictatorship. It’s unclear, too, when bombs are dropping over one’s head, whether one should be expected to think past that fact. Over the years that the film traces, it shows, in unflinching detail—many of those, men, women and especially children—who were lost to those bombs, soldiers. and sieges, until finally, with the city in ruins, her family were forced to flee themselves.

Sama, for whom the film is named, is Al-Khateab’s daughter, born during Aleppo’s slow crumble. The film is narrated directly to Al-Khateab’s infant — sometimes an apology, sometimes a time capsule, other times a direct justification for why they stayed so long in harm’s way with a small child. Al-Khateab, who kept her camera rolling for thousands of hours in order to capture every moment she could, believes her daughter needs to see not only the atrocities that were committed, but also the spirit of her home and its people, who clung to their city, and to their lives, until nearly the last man. The world needs to see that, too.


Saudi Arabia’s Dar Al-Qalam Complex puts Arabic calligraphy under global spotlight

Saudi Arabia’s renowned Dar Al-Qalam Complex is home to hundereds of samples of calligraphy work. (Arab News)
Updated 19 February 2020

Saudi Arabia’s Dar Al-Qalam Complex puts Arabic calligraphy under global spotlight

  • Go behind the scenes at Saudi Arabia’s renowned Dar Al-Qalam Complex as we celebrate the Year of Arabic Calligraphy

MADINAH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture declared 2020 the Year of Arabic Calligraphy and the Madinah-based Dar Al-Qalam Complex has revealed plans to become an international institute granting certificates of competence in Arabic calligraphy.

Ali Al-Mutairi, head of the cultural activity department at the General Directorate of Education in Madinah and supervisor of the Dar Al-Qalam Complex, spoke to Arab News about the institution’s key activities and aims.

The Dar Al-Qalam Complex at night. (Supplied)

Madinah’s Dar Al-Qalam Complex has become a magnet for culture vultures with its art gallery, educational images and documentation unit, historical theater and Ethar center for scouting and volunteer services. But the undoubted gem of the institution is its renowned calligraphy center.

Supervisor Ali Al-Mutairi said that the director general of education, Nasser Al-Abdulkareem, planned to turn the complex into an international calligraphy center.

Madinah-based Dar Al-Qalam Complex has revealed plans to become an international institute granting certificates of competence in Arabic calligraphy. (Supplied)

“With the support of Madinah Gov. Prince Faisal bin Salman, we at the education department have plans to develop the Arabic calligraphy center to make it an institute that grants scientific licentiates in Arabic calligraphy. To do this, we are planning to attract top Islamic calligraphers from all over the world,” Al-Mutairi added.

And attracting talent from across the globe should not be too much of a challenge, considering the complex’s history.

The complex features an art gallery, educational images and documentation unit, historical theater and more. (Supplied)

Exploring the Dar Al-Qalam Complex’s storied past

According to Al-Mutairi, the history of the Dar Al-Qalam Complex is closely linked to the Taibah Secondary School, one of the first schools of its kind in Saudi Arabia.

“Taibah school was founded in 1942, and students were later transferred to the Dar Al-Qalam building, which has been serving as the school’s new location since its inauguration by the late King Saud bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud in 1962,” he told Arab News.

Al-Mutairi pointed out the role played by Prince Faisal and his deputy governor, Prince Saud bin Khalid Al-Faisal, in the development of the complex.

The Dar Al-Qalam Complex is closely linked to the Taibah Secondary School, one of the first schools of its kind in Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

“Prince Faisal inaugurated the complex in its current style in 2013 at a ceremony attended by the former minister of education at the time, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al-Saud.

“Since then, the Ministry of Education, represented by the General Directorate of Education in Madinah, has attached great importance, care and support to the complex, turning it into a beacon for science and education in the Madinah region,” he said.

Raising awareness about Madani calligraphy

Authorities in the region have also declared a special focus on local culture and art, with the Madinah Development Authority launching an initiative in August 2015 to preserve the homegrown Madani form of calligraphy.

Well-known calligrapher and supervisor of the Arabic calligraphy committee at the Madinah branch of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts (SASCA), Bandar Al-Amri, said: “Historically, the Madani script is an extension of the Makki form of writing, which the Quraish tribe first used in Makkah.

The Madinah Development Authority launched an initiative in 2015 to preserve the homegrown Madani form of calligraphy. (Supplied)

“Nowadays, there are copies of the Holy Qur’an that were written in the Madani style. These copies are kept in many libraries and museums, such as the national library of France, in Paris, and the Berlin library.

“The Madinah region is rich in early Islamic inscriptions engraved on the rocks of its mountains and water stream banks. The inscriptions were found along the caravan ways that used to go through the city. What distinguishes these from other inscriptions is that most of them are for the people of Madinah or those who have settled here,” Al-Amri added.

The Madinah region is rich in early Islamic inscriptions engraved on the rocks of its mountains and water stream banks. (Supplied)

“These inscriptions are not limited to men, there are also inscriptions for women. Some of them include Qur’anic verses, prayers, notes, poems and news inscriptions, and those engraved in Madani fonts are found on the rocks of the valleys of the Madinah area.”

Read more about Arabic calligraphy’s Madani script here.

Training a new generation

One of the complex’s primary aims is to train a new generation of calligraphers in a bid to keep the art form alive and engage with talented calligraphers.

Head of the male student activity department at Madinah’s General Directorate of Education, Abdullah Al-Zahrani, told Arab News that the aim was “to introduce the beauty of Arabic calligraphy to our teachers and students of both genders.”

One of the complex’s primary aims is to train a new generation of calligraphers. (Supplied)

His counterpart in the female student activity department, Layla Al-Amri, said: “The specialized calligraphers, their workshops and fully equipped training halls, all help our female students improve their hand lettering.”

Bassam Al-Sa’idy, an eighth-grade student, said calligraphy works at his school had caught his eye from when he first learned to read.

“The handwriting of the Qur’an by Uthman Taha (Syrian calligrapher) also attracted my attention. I was determined to learn Arabic calligraphy.

Various copybooks of renowned calligraphers for different scripts are used as part of the center’s curriculum. (Supplied)

“My school organized a handwriting training course and I joined that course, after which we received an invitation to visit the Dar Al-Qalam Complex. They welcomed us, and me and my colleagues began to learn Ruq’ah script and the Nuskh scripts,” added Al-Sa’idy.

“So far, I have nearly mastered the scripts of Ruq’ah and Nuskh, and I will soon begin studying the Ottoman script so that I can make my dream of becoming a Qur’an calligrapher come true.”

Calligrapher Adel Barri said that various copybooks of renowned calligraphers for different scripts were used as part of the center’s curriculum.

"Our main goal is to make them acquire the skills of this art," says calligrapher Adel Barri. (Supplied)

“We use the copybooks of the prominent Iraqi calligrapher Mohammed Ezzat in teaching the Diwani script. We also use the copybooks of the Turkish calligrapher Mehmed Shevki Efendi to teach Nuskh and Thuluth scripts. These two names are references in their field,” Barri added.

“We are here ready to provide them (the center’s students) with everything they need for free. Our main goal is to make them acquire the skills of this art.”