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.”


South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.