British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies

British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies
Riz Ahmed, 38, who was born in London to Pakistani parents, said that offering funding would be game changing in getting more Muslim actors, writer and producers into the movie and TV business. File/AFP
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British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies

British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies
  • Ahmed is the first Muslim to get a best actor Oscar nomination
  • The $25,000 fellowships for young Muslim artists will be decided by an advisory committee

LONDON: British actor Riz Ahmed on Thursday launched an effort to improve the way Muslims are depicted in movies after a study showed that they are barely seen and shown in a negative light when they do appear.

Ahmed, the "Sound of Metal" star and the first Muslim to get a best actor Oscar nomination, said the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion would include funding and mentoring for Muslim story tellers in the early stages of their careers.

"The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded," Ahmed said in a statement.

"The data doesn't lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives," he added.

Titled "Missing and Maligned," the study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that less than 10% of top-grossing films released from 2017-2019 from the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand featured at least one speaking Muslim character.

When they did, they were shown as outsiders, or threatening, or subservient, the study showed. About one-third of Muslim characters were perpetrators of violence and more than half were targets of violence.

"Muslims live all over the world, but film audiences only see a narrow portrait of this community, rather than viewing Muslims as they are: business owners, friends and neighbors whose presence is part of modern life," said Al-Baab Khan, one of the report's authors.

Ahmed, 38, who was born in London to Pakistani parents, said that offering funding would be game changing in getting more Muslim actors, writer and producers into the movie and TV business.

"Had I not received a scholarship and also a private donation, I wouldn't have been able to attend drama school," he said.

The $25,000 fellowships for young Muslim artists will be decided by an advisory committee that includes actors Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youssef and comedian Hasan Minhaj.


A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’
Updated 12 June 2021

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’
  • A spirited new anthology of poems and stories by Arab women down the ages overturns common expectations of gender 
  • ‘We Wrote in Symbols’ celebrates the literary works of 75 female writers of Arab heritage spanning five millenia

DUBAI: British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh hopes a new book featuring 75 stories of love and desire penned by Arab women will help pave the way for more female authors to emerge from the Middle East region.

The English-language anthology “We Wrote in Symbols,” edited by Dabbagh, was published in April this year, marking a literary first in showcasing the works of women from the region on subjects many might consider bold.

Spanning several millennia, the volume includes the works of classical poets, award-winning contemporary authors and emerging writers.

“It brings together a diverse range of voices who are writers in English, French and Arabic, coming from all of the three main monotheistic religions, as well as those that are not religious at all,” Dabbagh told Arab News.

‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)

The idea arose after Dabbagh stumbled on an anthology called “Classical Poems by Arab Women,” which contained writings from the pre-Islamic period up to the fall of Andalusia in 1492.

The collection left a lasting impression. “Some were what you would expect. There were poems lamenting the loss of a brother in battle,” Dabbagh said.

“But other women were talking about sexuality in a way that was very self-assured. Some were being a bit provocative, but others were just content with that aspect of their life. The voices were surprising, but they also felt fresh, contemporary and spirited.”

Dabbagh began to notice similar themes in the work of contemporary female authors discussing issues of love and desire — in some cases dealing with the disconnection between the two in relationships, which were portrayed with remarkable sensitivity.

As a fiction writer, Dabbagh had always found this a difficult topic to handle, partly due to self-censorship stemming from her own notions of shame.

“There is a universal insistence on associating the actions of a character with the behavior of an author, which we need to be freed from,” she said.

Sabrina Mahfouz. (Courtesy of Greg Morrison)

“To be a writer who is able to depict those delicate shifts in mood and connections between people takes an enormous amount of skill and imagination. So, the collection is basically a combination of the older, classical poets and the newer voices looking at this difficult terrain.

“A lot of them are very funny, some are quite daring and explicit, and it’s just a different way for women identified with the region to have their writing viewed — through matters of the heart and the body.”

Dabbagh said there is an expectation among English readers that most Arab fiction is slightly depressing, political or downbeat. In the words of Nathalie Handal, one of the poets featured in the anthology, “people think Arabs don’t love with a beating heart.” The book aims to challenge this misconception.

“It tries to bring that sense of emotional excitement and tenderness to a vast, diverse and varied region through the writing of women,” Dabbagh said.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate about women in Arab literature, which actually predates anything published by a female author in the English language. One of the earliest poems included in the anthology dates back almost 5,000 years.

“You have this tradition, mainly in poetry, of writing and letter writing by Arab women before women started writing in Europe,” Dabbagh said. “I really wanted to show that, because it’s not something that is associated with the Arab world in terms of having higher levels of advancement in female literacy.”

Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)

For Dabbagh, whose debut novel “Out of It” was nominated as a Guardian book of the year in 2011-12, navigating the affairs of the heart is not something that necessarily becomes easier with age.

Although she read the works of Hanan Al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif avidly in her 20s, she wishes there had been more Arab women writers in her youth. “Sadly, I only read fluently in English,” she said.

“It was really radically life-changing for me to read accounts by women of a similar background. I grew up between the Gulf and Europe mainly, and I always found it such a difficult subject matter for me to find my voice.”

Reading their stories made Dabbagh more articulate about her own feelings.

“It just gives you a set of tools with which to negotiate this tricky emotional terrain,” she said. “I think (my book) might help to provide a level of self-knowledge because there are so many different characters in it that readers should be  able to relate to.”

Having read the works of critically acclaimed American writers, whose brash depiction of the hook-up culture she found dulling, her interest returned to the writings of women of Arab heritage to see how their interpretations of romance, sentimentality, vulnerability and desire affected her.

Laura Hanna. (Supplied)

In these works, she found creativity, humor and craft. “We’re always being told to see these two worlds I come from (the West/Europe and the Arab world) as almost antithetical to one another,” Dabbagh said.

“But with the language of love and looking at the Mediterranean as a kind of sea of stories, we can see how there’s been influence over time between Europe and the Arab world.

“In the 19th century, you had a lot of writers and explorers who came to the Arab world because it was a place of freer sensuality. It seemed to be less restrictive than the puritanical backgrounds these writers came from.

“Now that pattern has, to some extent, been reversed.”

During the Abbasid period, the topic  was written about and seen almost as a scientific study. “You could have a book which dealt with astrology and physics as well as expounding on sensuality, because sensuality and getting that harmony right between a couple was something that was indicative of how you can have harmony in the society as a whole,” Dabbagh said.

Elif Shafak. (Supplied)

“So, it was a way of ensuring that the community was in balance and that, to me, is such a beautiful idea. But it’s something that is rarely associated with the religion anymore.”

Nowadays, any associations between religion, women and sexuality appears to be overwhelmingly negative. “I wanted to show that range, to try to break up that stereotype,” she said.

And although one book is unlikely to change opinions overnight, Dabbagh believes women’s voices are gradually subverting traditional methods of censorship.

“The region has been engulfed with images, films and TV for the past 70 years, and most of it was state-run,” she said. “But now with Netflix and online streaming, we have a lot more content coming in and it’s hugely influential.”

Nevertheless, the depiction of Arabs and the Islamic world in Hollywood has improved little in the past century. “There is a kind of mass absorption of negative images of the region from outside, which is going to influence behavior,” Dabbagh said.

“We need to find ways of writing stories which are connected to regional history, cultures, which are exciting, dramatic, sleek and sexy. It’s just about being trained up, opting into it and starting to influence the way these stories are told.”

___________

Twitter: @CalineMalek


Arab athletes Dareen Barbar, Asma Elbadawi star in new Adidas campaign

Arab athletes Dareen Barbar, Asma Elbadawi star in new Adidas campaign
Updated 11 June 2021

Arab athletes Dareen Barbar, Asma Elbadawi star in new Adidas campaign

Arab athletes Dareen Barbar, Asma Elbadawi star in new Adidas campaign

DUBAI: Lebanese athlete Dareen Barbar and Sudanese-British basketball player Asma Elbadawi are the stars of a new campaign from German sportswear giant Adidas, “Beyond the Surface,” for full-coverage women’s swimwear.

Released on Thursday, the 18-piece collection is designed for women who prefer to cover up when swimming.

According to a released statement, Elbadawi said: “I am incredibly proud to support a campaign that will remove barriers for women across the world to enjoy swimming.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by adidas MENA (@adidasmena)

The multi-piece collection includes swimsuits that offer coverage from neck to ankle. They feature press studs that connect the top to the trousers to offer an adjustable fit and prevent movement of the swimwear in and out of the water.

The range, which comes in black, purple and burgundy, also feature thumb holes in the sleeves for optimized fit. The sets also come with a swim hijab with an adjustable inner cap to prevent it from slipping whilst swimming.

“At Adidas we believe that nobody should be prevented from enjoying the benefits of being in and around the water,” said Sybille Baumann, senior product manager at Adidas swimwear. “We are constantly looking at ways to diversify our product offering for all women and our full-cover swimwear collection is rooted in that mentality.”


British Museum shines spotlight on MENA artists in new exhibition

British Museum shines spotlight on MENA artists in new exhibition
Updated 11 June 2021

British Museum shines spotlight on MENA artists in new exhibition

British Museum shines spotlight on MENA artists in new exhibition
  • Highlights from ‘Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa,’ which runs until August 15 in London

 

Hengameh Golestan

‘Untitled (1979)’

This image comes from the self-taught photographer’s “Witness ’79” series, which documented a demonstration by more than 100,000 women on the streets of Tehran protesting the recently issued post-revolution ruling that women had to wear the hijab. “The mood was one of anticipation and excitement, and a bit of fear,” she has said of the protest. “We were actively taking part in shaping our future through actions rather than words and that felt amazing.” Even though Golestan developed the film at the time, the photos were not printed until 2015.

Hayv Kahraman

‘Honor Killing’
The Kurdish-American artist — who fled Iraq with her mother and sister at the end of the First Gulf War — incorporates international influences into her work, from European renaissance art to Japanese woodblock prints via Middle Eastern techniques. “Through her distinct vocabulary she evokes her home in Baghdad, exile and war, and wider issues affecting women,” the museum notes state. In 2017, Kahraman told Glass Magazine: “I am concerned with the multitude, not the self. This is not only my story.” This 2006 work — containing hints of calligraphy — in which women wearing the hijab hand from a tree, “tackles a subject that continues to affect women … across the world,” the museum says. “It refers to the killing of a woman because she is considered to have dishonored the family by transgressing social conventions governing gender relations.”

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

‘Untitled (2005)’

Farmanfarmaian became internationally famous for her minimalist, geometrical works (Andy Warhol, with whom she became friends while studying at Parsons School of Design in New York, reportedly kept one of her famed mirror balls on her desk), and though she is best known for her mirrored sculptures, she also produced minimalist, abstract drawings such as this one, in which, the museum notes state, “the central dodecagon is punctuated by cubes of mirror, with multiple triangular grid patterns emanating from the central point.”

Khalil Joreije and Joanna Hadjithomas

‘Faces’

Much of the Lebanese multimedia artists’ work focuses on the 15-year Civil War, the aftereffects of which continue to shape their homeland. The project from which this 2009 work is taken focuses on the victims of that violence — the ‘martyrs’ whose framed images adorn the streets. Traveling throughout Lebanon, the museum says, “they sought out posters of ‘martyrs from all confessions and political backgrounds,’ particularly choosing those that had been left in place for a long time and that had deteriorated, with the features gradually disappearing so that ‘all that remains is an outline of the face, a sketched and mostly unrecognizable shadow. … They intervened in the image, enhancing the shape of an eye or a mouth with graphite as though reclaiming the figures from the shadows of disappearance.”

Rafa Nasiri

‘A Library Set On Fire’

The influential Iraqi artist made this 2008 silkscreen — one of a series of six — to mark the burning of Iraq’s National Library, one of the many losses to afflict his homeland in the Iraq War of 2003. Each of the silkscreens includes an extract from Al-Mutanabbi’s poem “On Hearing in Egypt that his Death had been Reported to Saif Al-Dawla in Aleppo.” This one contains the lines: “Unhappy I, friendless, homeless/Solitary, cheerless, comfortless.” The words are, the museum says, “placed within a dark abstract composition, the colours echoing the orange and red flames of a fire.” The notes continue: “As the Iraqi writer May Muzaffar has commented, ‘The burning of books and manuscripts is paralleled with the burning of the mystic al-Hallaj, a human body, and announces not only the death of the book as a social thing/being but also the end of civilization and humanity.’”

Sulafa Hijazi

‘Untitled (2012)’
The Syrian artist began his “Ongoing” series — of which this image is part — in 2011, originally publishing the pieces on social media, which, as the museum notes, “became an increasingly significant platform through which artists in Syria were able to share their work.” In Malu Halasa’s 2012 work “Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria,” she quotes Hijazi as saying: “Before I left the country in 2012, people were still trying to do something positive. We had great hopes about the prospect of changing our country through peaceful means. There was still a space in our society for us to do this. Then it started to become violent; … (now) the sound of weapons drowns out the voices of peaceful activism.”

Taysir Batniji

‘Untitled (2016)’

Movement and exile are predominant themes in Batniji’s work, and the suitcase is a recurring symbol of them. “In this watercolor, the suited male figure, dwarfed by the sheer size of the suitcase, can be considered as an insertion of the artist himself,” the museum notes say, adding that the Palestinian artist’s work explores “the notion of being between worlds — in his case the world he lives in, France, and his home, Gaza, which he has not been able to visit since 2012.”


UAE’s Venice pavilion explores sustainable building practices

UAE’s Venice pavilion explores sustainable building practices
Updated 11 June 2021

UAE’s Venice pavilion explores sustainable building practices

UAE’s Venice pavilion explores sustainable building practices
  • Architects Wael Al-Awar and Kenichi Teramoto make cement out of salt for ‘Wetlands’

DUBAI: The theme of the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture is ‘How will we live together?  The question — posed by curator Hashim Sarkis — resonates deeply as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

In response, the curators of the UAE Pavilion — architects Wael Al-Awar and Kenichi Teramoto — present “Wetlands,” which includes a structure that explores sea salt as a locally sourced building material.

Standing 2.7 meters tall with a 7 x 5 meter base, the structure offers an interior space that visitors can easily enter. It was built using MgO cement, made from brine left over from industrial desalination processes, a resource that is abndant in the UAE, and which has the strength and durability to be used in modern architecture.

Standing 2.7 meters tall with a 7 x 5 meter base, the structure offers an interior space that visitors can easily enter. (Supplied)

“As architects, we have a responsibility to question the damaging practices of the construction industry, and search for more sustainable alternatives,” Al-Awar told Arab News. “This exhibition aims to call into question the materials we are using and the processes of modern architecture.”

The pavilion also offers an exercise in how to build sustainably while incorporating local heritage. Its organic shapes are inspired by the UAE’s traditional vernacular of coral-built houses and the mineral-rich sabkhas (salt flats) that are part of the country’s wetlands. The pavilion includes a number of large images of sabkhas by New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al-Qasimi.

“They are one of the UAE’s richest and most unique geological features, and a really fascinating phenomenon,” Al-Awar says of sabkhas. “For example, they can absorb more carbon dioxide per square meter than the rainforest. But our understanding of them is in its very early stages. Through our research, we found a way to recreate the sabkhas’ salt and mineral compounds in a lab and transform them into a recycled building material without damaging the sabkhas at all.”

“Wetlands” includes a structure that explores sea salt as a locally sourced building material. (Supplied)

It’s not the first time the sabkhas have been used in architecture. Blocks were hewn from the hundreds of salt pools spread throughout the Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s western desert to create the salt-based brick buildings found in the medieval town of Shali, located east of the Libyan border.

The cement industry reportedly currently accounts for 8 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We have developed an alternative construction material that is equivalent in scale, cost and strength to Portland cement but without this high environmental impact,” says Al-Awar. “Our proposed cement alternative would mitigate this harmful environmental issue. Our research has enabled us to develop a proof of concept showing that locally sourced salt-based cement is a viable, scalable alternative.”

The cement industry reportedly currently accounts for 8 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. (Supplied)

This is the seventh time that the UAE has participated in the Venice Biennale of Architecture, each time offering innovative modern structures that draw from the nation’s architectural heritage and desert landscape. The UAE’s first pavilion, in 2014 — “Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE,” curated by Dr. Michele Bambling — examined how public and residential architecture shaped the country. “Transformations: The Emirati National House” in 2016, curated by Yasser Elsheshtawy, explored the transformative aspect of the housing model of Emirati National Houses known as sha’abi (folk) houses. In 2018, curator Dr. Khaled Alawadi spotlighted the UAE’s unique form of urbanism through “Lifescapes Beyond Bigness.” 

“The pandemic has demonstrated how vital it is for people to engage with issues like climate change through art and culture,” Laila Binbrek, the UAE pavilion’s coordinating director, told Arab News. “As such, we have collectively acknowledged the anthropological necessity for art and culture in our lives, especially as we withstand the challenges presented by the pandemic.”

And, as Al-Awar points out, there has been a creative and philosophical shift because of the pandemic.

“We have inevitably seen a shift in creative production in a world with limited access to physical spaces and travel,” he tells Arab News. “However, it has also pushed us to open new dialogues and approach our work more creatively, with a focus on impact, not process.”


THE BREAKDOWN: Syrian filmmaker Mohamad Malas discusses short film ‘One of us left the photo’

THE BREAKDOWN: Syrian filmmaker Mohamad Malas discusses short film ‘One of us left the photo’
Updated 11 June 2021

THE BREAKDOWN: Syrian filmmaker Mohamad Malas discusses short film ‘One of us left the photo’

THE BREAKDOWN: Syrian filmmaker Mohamad Malas discusses short film ‘One of us left the photo’
  • The Syrian filmmaker discusses his short film, which he co-directed, co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred in with his twin brother Ahmad

BENGALURU: We have never studied cinema or filmmaking, but we are heavily inspired by theater and by filmmakers like Majid Majidi, Michael Haneke, and Abbas Kiarostami.

The opening scene of our short film “One of us left the photo” is a table laden with different breakfast items, showing the assimilation of European and Arab cultures. The protagonist is a Syrian refugee who has fled to France, married a French woman, and started afresh in a new country. Soon, he receives an unexpected guest — his twin brother, who joins him from Syria.

As the story unfolds, we use heavy symbolism to provide clues to what is brewing between the brothers. In one scene, the protagonist looks at the camera and quotes Macbeth: “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” probing the audience to contemplate the moral cost of a killing.

Mohamad Malas gifts a flower pot to Claire Corris, who plays the French wife of the protagonist. (Supplied)

Over the next 15 minutes, we also watch the protagonist’s resentment build. Eventually, he confronts his brother over a WhatsApp video where the brother is seen committing a war crime against civilians during the Syrian revolution.

The inspiration for the story is the trials that are currently taking place in Europe. There are refugees who arrived in Europe trying to escape the war and its atrocities, but recently we have also witnessed the presence of many Syrians who come here because of the poor living conditions in Syria. The authorities are trying to judge if those seeking asylum have been involved in war crimes in Syria.

We are asking: Does someone have the right to seek political asylum if he has committed war crimes in Syria? We don’t claim (to have the answer). We are just trying to raise a question and urging the audience to think about possible answers. Today, we see a widening gap in families and societies because of this divisive issue.

The audience will notice the frequent use of objects to symbolize a social issue. The last scene shows a dying flower pot, conveying the message that the only beautiful memory the protagonist retains of his brother is the flower pot he gifted to his hosts.