Farah Al-Qasimi explores spirituality and Gulf history in latest film ‘Um Al Naar’

The film’s titular protagonist is a jinn. (Supplied)
Updated 24 September 2019

Farah Al-Qasimi explores spirituality and Gulf history in latest film ‘Um Al Naar’

SHARJAH: “Everyone in the Emirates has a jinn story — or a family with a jinn story, and yet everyone waivers in their belief. It’s not so much about the jinn as it is about what belief in spirituality allows us to do as humans.”

Emirati visual artist Farah Al-Qasimi is talking about her new film, a 40-minute fictional ‘documentary’ called “Um Al Naar” (Mother of Fire). The film will be shown for the first time in the region as part of Al-Qasimi’s solo show “Arrival,” which opens at the Third Line in Dubai on September 18 and runs until November 23.

The film’s titular protagonist is a jinn — a spirit capable of possessing humans — starring in a reality TV special in which she narrates her version of the history of her region (Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE).

“She laments her waning power and the loss of belief in the supernatural, and eventually decides to take matters into her own hands,” Al-Qasimi tells Arab News.

“We have come to known the jinn through folklore as mischievous, malignant characters, but I'm presenting Um Al Naar as an entity who might be simply misunderstood. Her dilemma is a fear of change, however inevitable and constant it is.”

Al-Qasimi is perhaps better-known for her photography than her films, but in this case, she says, “A longer film seemed appropriate; it gives room for different melodramas to unfold.

“I’m really interested in hearing people speak for themselves,” she continues. “The film moves between real documentary footage and silly, in-studio mockumentary, but everyone is speaking in their own expressive language, whether it's Um Al Naar, Ahmed the exorcist, or the men telling stories of jinn encounters.”

While there is a significant amount of humor in the piece, Um Al Naar “asks questions about belonging, mobility and cultural hegemony; questions that linger as we consider the significance of a lingering international presence in the Gulf, and questions of national progress and who (the Western presence serves),” Al-Qasimi explains.

“In our middle-school history books, the Portuguese and British invasions of the 1500s onwards is often overlooked or, at most, casually mentioned. And that's a pretty formidable history to contend with for such a young nation,” she continues. “The views are Um Al Naar's, but I like to think of her as an amalgamation of many of the critical thinkers I know and admire. She has a deep sense of love for her land, and considers critical thinking a necessary part of that love.”


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.”