CHENNAI: Some of the most haunting stories have been set against war and social turmoil. Margaret Mitchel’s “Gone with the Wind” threw up a passionate love story against the American Civil War, and “Casablanca” wove romance across Paris and Morocco as the Nazis wrought destruction. More recently, “Poland’s Cold War” painted the pain and angst of a pianist and a singer-dancer as they performed a heart-rending ballet during the cruel period.
Such societal disruptions push men and women on a path of not just love, but also rebelliousness. We see this in Mounia Meddour’s first feature, “Papicha” — part of the recent El Gouna Film Festival — a tale set during the black decade of the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s.
A gripping plot about an 18-year-old university student, Nedjma (Algerian-born French actress Lyna Khoudri), who is extremely keen on fashion. She loves to party, but when fundamentalist winds begin to sweep Algeria, and women find themselves pressured to change, Nedjma’s fun-filled days seem to be over. A bloody attack on her university campus leaves the teenager seething with anger, and her vivacious spirit transforms into a symbol of resistance. She decides to hold a fashion show. Her method may have been be colorful, but fiercely defiant in a country passing through suffocating conservatism.
Meddour said in an interview that her movie was semi-autobiographical. She lived in Algeria until she was 18, and studied at university there just like Nedjma. “There is a lot of truth in what I have shown in ‘Papicha’. Of course some aspects were included to give a dramatic effect. The terrorist attack on the university campus was one,” she said.
Although wonderfully acted by Khoudri, and featuring a strong performance from Shirine Boutella as Nedjma’s friend Wassila, the movie tends to whitewash some of the immensely disturbing events of the period. A kind of vacuum in the socio-political arena can be felt in “Papicha”. After an election debacle in 1991, in a fight between the state and radical groups, thousands of people were killed, and social liberalism began to evaporate. While the climax is not convincing enough, the contributions of costume designer Catherine Cosme and cinematographer Leo Lefevre as well as the imaginative use of black-and-white foreground in some scenes help lift the work to a memorable level.
Rare books shed light on history of the Arab world
Regional highlights from the latest catalogue of rare book dealer Peter Harrington, which will be represented at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair later this month
Updated 14 May 2021
A visual record of a Jeddah landmark
This “apparently unique” bespoke album contains 120 original photographs of Jeddah’s well-known Bayt Nassif, taken before its restoration in the early 1980s. The Saudi government purchased this historic landmark in 1975 and initially used as a library, but it is now a cultural center that hosts exhibitions and other events. King Faisal’s decision to rehabilitate the building “provided an enlightening and inspiring model for sustainability in historic areas,” according to a book cited in the Peter Harrington catalogue.
Located on the main street of Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad district, the house was built for the then-governor of Jeddah, Sheikh Umar Effendi Al-Nassif between 1872 and 1881 and is now, the catalogue states, “widely recognized as one of the most important surviving examples of Red Sea coralline limestone architecture.” The house was later used by King Abdulaziz bin Saud as his primary residence in the city until Khuzam Palace was constructed.
Until the 1920s, Bayt Nassif was also the site of the only tree in Jeddah’s old city — so the building is also known locally as The House of the Tree. That neem tree still survives and can be seen in images in this book.
Account of a 19th-century journey from Jeddah to Egypt
In 1819, Sir Miles Nightingall, commander-in-chief of Britain’s Bombay Army, was returning to England from India when their ship “Teignmouth” was grounded on a sandbank in the Gulf of Aden. Having got their boat moving again, Nightingall and his entourage — including Captain James Hanson, the author of this work — headed to Jeddah “where they were welcomed by the Turkish governor, newly installed following the restoration of Ottoman rule in Egypt. Having taken advice from Henry Salt, consul-general in Egypt, they decided on an overland route across the desert that would take in the ‘most interesting and marvelous ruins’ at Thebes.” Hanson’s book describes — and maps — their journey from Kosseir (now Quseer) on the Red Sea westwards inland to Kennah (Qena) on the Nile, just east of Dendera “passing ruined forts, ‘Hills having the appearance of Tombs’ and ‘Sterile Desert - not a blade of Vegetation.’”
Journals of a British naval officer in the Arabian Gulf 1928-51
This three-volume manuscript relate to Midshipman Francis Wyatt Rawson Larken’s service in the British Royal Navy in the early-to-mid 20th century, for part of which Larken was stationed in the Arabian Gulf around what the British then called the Trucial States, which later became the UAE. The books were unpublished at the time, and according to the catalogue, include “a compelling account of a visit to Dubai and an on-board reception for the Trucial Sheikhs.” Those visitors would have included Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al-Maktoum of Dubai, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al-Qasimi of Sharjah, among others.
“There were some 8 or 10 of the higher cast (sic.) on board and these were taken round the ship by the Admiral and the Captain while their followers stayed on the Quarter Deck. … They all then congregated on the Quarter Deck where the band played. They then left in their respective barges — ornate and rather splendid motor dhows, the various Sheikhs receiving salutes — the number of guns ranging from 6 to 1 in ratio to their importance. They brought us gifts of Beef and Melon Jelly … and were sent away with Gold Flake Cigarettes and chocolate,” Larken writes. “Every man carries his broad curved belt knife — heavily set with worked silver — and the chief ones wore splendid ‘Bournous’ of gold work cloth. All were fine upstanding men very much like the Sheik of fiction.”
During his service, Larken also visited Aden, Muscat, Sohar, Sur, Khasab and Khor al-Jarama in modern Oman, as well as Dubai and the island of Sir Abu Nu’ayr in what is now the UAE.
British intelligence manual from the time of the ‘Arab Revolt’
This manual includes material from T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and was produced by the British Arab Bureau as a guide to the “tribal and political organization, geography and passable routes in the region” at the time of the military uprising by Arab forces against the Ottoman Empire during World War I, led by Hussein bin Ali, the sherif of Makkah, backed by the British government. One of the “passable routes” that Lawrence himself gave information on was that from Madinah to Makkah.
This copy previously belonged to William Cochrane, deputy to Colonely Cyril Wilson, the British Agent at Jeddah. Among Cochrane’s duties was the organization of the Hajj for Muslims from British India, and he reportedly “took charge of the £125,000 in gold sovereigns that was brought to Jeddah each month by the Red Sea Patrol of the Royal Navy” — Hussein’s subsidy from the British for the uprising.
Eyewitness account of a Danish expedition to Arabia in the 1760s
An English translation of a two-volume account of the 1761-7 Danish expedition to the region — “the first great scientific expedition to the Middle East” — by the surveyor Carsten Niebuhr, the only member of that expedition to survive.
“The party left Copenhagen in early 1761, travelling via Constantinople to Alexandria and spending a year in Egypt, ascending the Nile and exploring Sinai. They then crossed from Suez to Jeddah and sailed down the Arabian coast to al-Luhayyah in Yemen, making frequent landfalls, before continuing overland to Sana’a via Mocha, with two members of the party dying en route. On returning to Mocha, the remaining four collapsed with fever and were put on a ship bound for Bombay, with only Niebuhr surviving the sea voyage.”
Niebuhr’s account of the trip, the catalogue says, “has long been considered one of the classic accounts of the geography, people, antiquities and archaeology of the Arabian Peninsula and wider Middle East, with maps which remained in use for over 100 years” and is “a singularly important account of the Gulf in this still-obscure period.”
A chronicle of traditional Arab seamanship
The full title of this work from 1940 is “Sons of Sinbad. An Account of Sailing with the Arabs in their Dhows, in the Red Sea, around the Coasts of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika; Pearling in the Persian Gulf; and the Life of the Shipmasters, the Mariners and Merchants of Kuwait.” As it suggests, the book — written by Australian adventurer Alan Villiers — is a comprehensive account of traditional seamanship, boat building and trade in the region at a time when those traditions were coming to an end with the discovery of oil. It includes dozens of illustrations from photographs and charts too.
In the line of fire: Angelina Jolie on ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’
Angelina Jolie and co-stars discuss shooting Taylor Sheridan’s latest movie
Updated 14 May 2021
DUBAI: It has been two decades since Angelina Jolie, one of the world’s top movie stars, began dedicating herself to helping the people of the world most in need, working with the UNHCR to visit refugee camps across the Middle East and the world.
As renowned as she is for her acting and directing, it is her humanitarian work that is closest to her heart, and through all the tumult that she has gone through in her life, it’s the one thing that has kept her grounded.
“We’re all connected,” Jolie tells Arab News. “A life in service of others makes us better. It makes us grow.”
Jolie’s latest film, “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, may not, on its surface, mirror the mission that Jolie has been following for the most important decades of her life, but it shares those same themes.
In it, she plays Hannah, an elite firefighter called a smokejumper based in the wooded hills of Montana in the northern United States who risks her life at the first sign of a forest fire by parachuting directly into the flames. She’s plagued by the memory of a group of young boys she wasn’t able to save from a fire years earlier. While camped out in the woods, she comes in contact with a young boy on the run from two hitmen, and by helping save the boy, she saves herself.
For Jolie, while the arc of the character is ultimately about the importance of selflessness, she had to keep first and foremost in her mind that Hannah was a troubled character who lacks the maternal instincts that Jolie herself, the mother of six children, has in spades.
“[At first], they are both struggling to be around each other. She doesn't actually hold him closer to her. But it's that interesting moment we see as he says, ‘Are you someone I can trust?’ I think in that moment, she has no idea who she is. If you're somebody that feels like you've failed in your life and you're in grief and somebody comes to you and says, ‘Are you somebody who can help me? Can I trust you? Can you be the person that protects me?’ You want to be, but you can't imagine you are,” says Jolie.
It’s no surprise that Hannah is so broken—after all, she has walked through the fire both literally and spiritually, over and over. While the title of the film seems to be a reference to the hitmen in pursuit of the young boy, Jolie interprets it as being about Hannah.
“It's funny, during filming we used to joke, after Hannah gets hit by lightning, what else can happen to her? It's like the universe is trying to kill her — it’s the universe that wishes her dead. I think most of us have felt that in life. You feel for a moment that you're just completely up against it and what more can be thrown at you or who else can attack? But yes, definitely, we grow stronger. We grow stronger if we survive it,” says Jolie.
While the phrase ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is oft repeated, for Jolie, the concept of what ‘stronger’ means needs to be more deeply interrogated.
“You go through the fire, but how do you come out the other end? Did you come out bitter, angry, broken, at a loss and overwhelmed? Or did you come out of it where your spirit got stronger, you confronted your fears, you protected others? And within that fire you found something that made you stronger,” says Jolie.
The fires were not only both literal and spiritual for her character; they were in fact a real part of the shoot. Director Taylor Sheridan avoided using computer-generated imagery to add to the film’s realism.
“He's amazing. He built a fake forest to light it on fire instead of using CG, because he wants to immerse his actors in what's going on and make them understand what the character's going through,” says Finn Little, who plays Connor, the young boy Hannah protects.
The realism extended past the flames. Through Sheridan’s films “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” he has become his country’s premiere chronicler of rural America, with “Those Who Wish Me Dead” continuing that mission with a keen eye and a true heart.
That’s something that has kept actor Jon Bernthal, who plays a police officer named Harrison in the film, coming back to work with Sheridan, with whom he previously worked on “Sicario” and “Wind River.”
“I think Taylor Sheridan is a great American storyteller. He understands the West, he understands the wilderness and what it means to live off the land. If you look at all his films, there’s a richness and authenticity to them,” says Bernthal.
THE BREAKDOWN: Saudi artist Rashed Al-Shashai discusses conceptual artwork ‘Brand 14’
Updated 14 May 2021
DUBAI: The Saudi artist discusses his conceptual artwork, recently displayed at Art Dubai through Jeddah-based Hafez Gallery, fueled by the theme of modern day consumerism.
I come from an academic background; even though I loved art before academia. I grew up in a village and, at one point, my father was an art educator. From an early age, he gave me the confidence to make art and I used to design things in the house. I graduated with degrees in art in Makkah and I’ve been teaching art for around 20 years.
I’m one of those people that likes to think outside the box. I don’t like traditional art. In the past few years, I’ve leaned towards using art as a medium of expression, knowledge, enlightenment and an embodiment of things that affect our daily lives.
In the Gulf, we are living in a time of rapid development, which is due to the presence of oil and people’s need to have a better quality of life. This rapid change leads to changes in different aspects of life, including art. I always focus on change in its social and collective context. I’m always keen that my work is visually attractive and conceptually deep.
My ‘Brand’ series discusses how humanity has been cheapened in the face of global organizations and world economic trade. I’m not against organizations, but I’m against organizations taking advantage of people. A person has become cheap — like a second-or third-class citizen. It’s like you’re telling a person that you’re just a number in this organization. The problem isn’t the consumer; it’s these organizations that are brainwashing us. People have this stunning will to buy. They’re always working on this idea that you work to buy a new television; you work to buy a new car.
In “Brand 14,” I focused on the consumption of cleaning and decorating products as seen on supermarket shelves. The cases in the front are made of plastic, which were used as supermarket crates. I’ve used light in many of my works. As you can see here, I always place light in the background of the artwork and not in the front. Light isn’t there just to see the work, but it is a main component. I feel that light has a filtering that creates another story.
“Eventually my friends wanted to start wearing what I was wearing and I started making them pieces. Then it just got out of hand to be honest, but in a good way. So I started selling online.”
Dobiea began selling a few items on Instagram under a different brand name. But during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, she worked on the branding, quality and designs of her new brand, Threadz by Marmar.
The designer is set to release a new Eid collection, just in time for the holiday.
Lebanese artists address their country’s crises in new exhibition
In ‘Before the Cypress Broke,’ 15 artists examine how their country reached its current juncture
Updated 13 May 2021
BEIRUT: “After the explosion, I was ready to give away everything I’ve ever done if it made the situation better. I hopped on any opportunity to donate my work in exchange for raising funds,” says Lebanese visual artist Ayla Hibri. “A lot of good people put together these platforms of exchange and it really felt like it was helping. It confirmed to me that art carries a kind of transferable honorable energy that can push people to do good.”
Hibri is by no means alone. Following the lethal blast in the Port of Beirut in August, Mary Cremin, the director of Void Gallery in Northern Ireland, reached out to Beirut Art Residency (BAR), offering the organization her support. She was willing to host a fundraising exhibition at her space in Derry, with all proceeds going towards the BAR Support Fund, which provides emerging artists with small grants.
“It was a very stressful period for us, as all three of our spaces in Gemmayze (the residency, the Project Space and La Vitrine) were heavily affected by the blast, as well as our homes,” says Nathalie Ackawi, partner and co-director at BAR. “We were, however, very moved by the messages of support we received, and this gave us strength to work on this exhibition.”
The end result is “Before the Cypress Broke,” which brings together work from 15 contemporary artists and addresses the seemingly simple, yet immensely complex, question of how Lebanon reached its current juncture. Borrowing its name from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem "The Cypress Broke,” the exhibition includes work from Ali Cherri, Charbel Haber, Omar Khouri, Salah Missi, Sirine Fattouh, Stephanie Dadour, Sandrine Pelletier, Gregory Buchakjian, Valerie Cachard, Ziad Antar and Hussein Nassereddine.
Hibri’s "Everlasting Massacre” was the first piece to be selected for the exhibition, “mainly because of the strong duality it holds,” says Amar Zahr, founder and co-director of BAR. “At first glance it looks to be a beautiful view. However, upon closer inspection the viewer will notice the mountain is literally being scraped off for cement — an illegal practice whereby Lebanon’s mountains are being wiped off the map. The natural environment has been altered for the sake of profitable investments, to build skyscrapers and to export cement. It’s a strong statement on the corruption that was ignored for so long, but is now clearly visible in the altered landscape of the country.”
Another of Hibri’s photographs, “Everlasting Residue,” is also included in the show. Both are part of a series called “Acts of Violence.” They represent what Hibri describes as “unfortunate interventions” — acts of apathy, indifference or contempt that are sadly common in Lebanon.
“They range from a plastic chair left behind after a picnic, to a whole mountain being destroyed, and it gets worse and worse until it leads to the explosion of the port and the destruction of half the city,” she says. “It’s all connected. They are examples that capture arrogance, negligence and disregard — attitudes and sightings that we have learned to live with. These photographs carry the weight of the price we have to pay and the damage that will need to be reversed in order to transcend to a better place.”
Although she wasn’t in Beirut at the time, the explosion halted everything for Hibri and her priorities radically shifted. She concentrated on being available for her family and friends, raising funds, and talking about what had happened in an attempt to try and understand. On a creative level, however, she has struggled. “It’s actually been quite hard. I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of Beirut after the explosion and I only managed to shoot one roll of film, which came out quite special but I will keep it to myself for now. It doesn’t feel right. Not much feels right to be honest when there is so much change to deal with and so many people suffering,” she says. “I spent most of my time the last few months researching, learning about our history, and trying to keep up with events as they occur, while maintaining my daily practice of going to the studio and working.”
In contrast, Jacques Vartabedian’s “Prelude to Reversal” was an almost immediate response to the explosion — an attempt to recreate the destruction that he saw around him. It features a lone figure blended into a complex but colorful environment.
“I started painting it while the studio was in a chaotic state after the blast,” explains Vartabedian, whose studio is in the heavily damaged area of Mar Mikhael. “I just kept going to the studio for weeks, simply sitting there in the destruction and trying to digest it without moving a thing. I realized the need to recreate harmony with all the destruction around me by reimagining it in an aesthetic form.”
Vartabedian, perhaps, is in the minority. Daniele Genadry has also struggled creatively, not just with the explosion, but with all that has happened in Lebanon over the course of the past few years. She has found it “hard to react directly or even immediately on a creative level,” although she has been working on the idea of “first and last sight,” whereby perception is heightened through the knowledge of something’s potential loss. In other words, any given thing is only really seen for the first time when it is about to disappear.
For the exhibition, which runs until June 5, Zahr and Ackawi chose a handful of prints from Genadry’s “Afterglow,” which features 20 photographs of a mountain view taken from Qartaba in Mount Lebanon. Shot over the course of 10 years, they vary in terms of timing, positioning, lighting and perspective, creating images that are “at once familiar and strange,” says Genadry, who also played with the distribution of light and color in each photograph. She then screen-printed them in black and white on mylar, a translucent material that changes appearance according to the light conditions in which the photographs are viewed.
“I think we are at a point right now where our perception of all nature is affected by a kind of bittersweet quality,” she says, “knowing that it is in danger and threatened due to the climate crisis and the shift in our relationship with it.” And because “Before the Cypress Broke” converses with grief and inevitability, says Genadry, “Afterglow” resonated “with the way I have approached the landscape motif in my work recently — as a bittersweet image.”
Although the question is left unspoken, all of the participating artists are faced with the same question: Where do they go from here? It’s almost impossible to answer.
“I believe that solidarity amongst the different players of the art scene both locally and internationally is essential,” says Ackawi. “Art and culture have always been essential pillars of the Lebanese identity, as well as its economy and tourism. It’s important for artists to continue to create and tell our story. As for us, as art practitioners and curators it is our job to support them in any way we can.”