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’
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Sabrina Mahfouz. (Supplied)
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Sabrina Mahfouz. (Supplied)
Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)
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Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)
Laura Hanna. (Supplied)
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Laura Hanna
‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)
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‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)
Elif Shahak. (Supplied)
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Elif Shahak. (Supplied)
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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.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Pakistani-Indian music label plans joint release every month

Pakistani-Indian music label plans joint release every month
Updated 26 July 2021

Pakistani-Indian music label plans joint release every month

Pakistani-Indian music label plans joint release every month
  • Tarish Music formed this year to bring together subcontinental artists
  • Latest track featuring stars Atif Aslam and Sajal Aly crossed 2.4 million views since release

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani-Indian music label behind Atif Aslam’s most recent hit said it is planning to release collaborations every month bringing together artists from Pakistan and India — two neighboring countries that have been locked in enmity for the past seven decades.

While relations between Pakistan and India have been tense since the partition of the British-ruled subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India in 1947, the independent music record label, Tarish Music, seeks to create a bridge between them by bringing together artists from both countries.

The label was established earlier this year by producers Omer Ahmad and Tarun Chaudhary.

“The plan is to release 12 songs a year with six singers from India and six from Pakistan,” the label's Pakistani co-owner, Ahmed, said in a recent interview. “We’ll release a song every month.”

Their latest track, “Rafta Rafta,” which features Pakistani stars — singer Aslam and actress Sajal Aly — was released on Wednesday on Eid Al-Adha.

Shot in Pakistan’s scenic mountainous northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, “Rafta Rafta” was written by Indian singer and songwriter Raj Ranjodh and Pakistani director Hassam Baloch.

Having crossed 1 million views on the day of release, the song has now been listened to more than 2.4 million times on YouTube and is now the platform’s third top trending piece.

“It was an amazing experience working with Atif Aslam, everyone knows how loved he is in the subcontinent,” Ahmad said. “In terms of music, he always comes up with something fresh, innovative and different. His vocal skills are on another level.”

“It has been a truly delightful experience overall.”

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Zuhair Murad celebrates Jennifer Lopez’s birthday with fashion tribute

ennifer Lopez performed at the Citizen VAX LIVE concert in May wearing a jumpsuit by Zuhair Murad. (Getty Images)
ennifer Lopez performed at the Citizen VAX LIVE concert in May wearing a jumpsuit by Zuhair Murad. (Getty Images)
Updated 25 July 2021

Zuhair Murad celebrates Jennifer Lopez’s birthday with fashion tribute

ennifer Lopez performed at the Citizen VAX LIVE concert in May wearing a jumpsuit by Zuhair Murad. (Getty Images)

DUBAI: Lebanese designer to the stars Zuhair Murad celebrated US singer Jennifer Lopez on Saturday, taking to Instagram to toast the queen of pop’s special relationship with the fashion house.

The hitmaker is known for her love of Zuhair Murad gowns and regularly hits red carpets, and the stage, in glittering outfits by the designer.

The fashion house celebrated the singer’s birthday on July 24 by releasing a short video of the numerous occasions she has donned a gown by Murad.

“Celebrating the beautiful Jennifer Lopez today, by reminiscing over some of our favorite #ZuhairMurad looks of hers,” the caption read. “Happy birthday @jlo! Cheers to your everlasting youth and to more #ZMxJLOMoments!”

Murad is one of Lopez’s go-to designers for special red carpet events and performances.

The “Let’s Get Loud” singer previously opened up about her affinity for Murad’s designs, describing the couturier as “probably her favorite designer” in a past interview with Venture Lifestyle.

“I discovered him years ago when I was doing a show, and I was so jet-lagged and I was up in the middle of the night watching Fashion TV, which they had in this country I was in,” explained the hitmaker. “He had this beautiful show and I was like, ‘who is this guy?’”

Lopez went on to explain the hurdles she faced when trying to get in touch with Murad, who doesn’t seem to have been a household name at the time.

“I came back (to the US) and I said, ‘Do you guys know Zuhair Murad?’ and nobody knew who he was, none of the stylists, nobody in the United States knew who he was. I was like, ‘You have to get me this dress for the Met Ball,” she said, referring to the Met Gala, an annual fundraising gala for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York and one of the fashion world’s most eagerly anticipated events. 

“I wore his dress to the Met Ball and after that, I just started using him for everything — he designed my last tour — we just have a great relationship. He’s a beautiful man, a beautiful designer,” Lopez added.


US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans

US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans
Updated 24 July 2021

US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans

US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans

DUBAI: From British actress Emily Blunt, to US stars Justin Bieber and Khloe Kardashian, Egyptian-American jewelry designer Jacquie Aiche’s celebrity fan base expanded this week.

 The label has quickly managed to emerge as a A-lister-loved brand, with stars like Kylie Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski and Shanina Shaik adorning themselves with the Los Angeles-based jewelry house’s signature diamond-encrusted body chains, anklets and stacked gemstone rings on the red carpet.

This week, Blunt showed off an ornate ring by the label while doing press interviews for Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” her latest film in which she stars alongside Dwayne Johnson and Edgar Ramirez.

Blunt was dressed by Hollywood stylist Jessica Paster, who made sure to get mileage out of the ring by featuring it in several ensembles on the press tour, including outfits by Gabriela Hearst and Zimmermann.

For her part, Kardashian opted to show off a dainty body chain by the brand during a photoshoot for her label Good American’s latest swimwear release. She paired the jewelry, which wrapped around the torso, with a neon yellow swimsuit.

To wrap things up, Bieber showed off a pair of small hoop earrings by Aiche, which he paired with a red visor.

(Instagram)

Aiche, who was born to an Egyptian father and an indigenous American mother, launched her eponymous label from her garage in 2008. She has since amassed an impressive celebrity client list that includes the likes of Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Katy Perry, whose stylists flock to her Beverly Hills showroom in droves to adorn their clients in her signature delicate earrings, finger bracelets and chokers ahead of red carpet events. The jeweler is also the brainchild behind Chrissy Teigen’s bespoke engagement ring from John Legend.

The part-Egyptian jewelry designer’s store in Los Angeles is full of jewelry items made from delicate raw quartz, tourmaline, moonstone and countless other special stones. Her pieces often feature Arab influences like hammered gold, amulets and the evil eye talisman, as well as natural elements such as turquoise, fossils and precious gemstones, which are a nod to her indigenous American ancestors.

 


New exhibition in Manchester explores nature through British-Arab eyes

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
Updated 24 July 2021

New exhibition in Manchester explores nature through British-Arab eyes

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
  • Manchester-based installation highlights stories of migration, diaspora
  • Lead artist: ‘After the year we’ve just had, this project and exhibition is the lightness we all need’

LONDON: A new mixed-media exhibition exploring the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain through the lens of people’s relationship with nature and green space has launched in the north of England.

Free to visitors and run by the Arab British Centre, the Manchester-based installation highlights stories of migration, diaspora, and the intricacies of the Arab-British experience in all its intersections and diversity. 

Themed around the idea of nature and named “Jarda” — “garden” in Moroccan Arabic — artists will give audiences a chance to “walk in nature through Arab eyes.”

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown and when parks, fields and forests became people’s only outing.

The women-led exhibition encourages visitors to appreciate the green spaces available to them, while also exposing audiences to the Arab experience in modern Britain.

“Working with this group of amazing women has made me appreciate Manchester, myself and my femininity in a whole new way. After the year we’ve just had, this project and exhibition is the lightness we all need,” El-Mal said.

Amani Hassan, program director at the Arab British Centre, said: “Since it was first launched in 2019, our Arab Britain theme has set out to explore the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain.”

The program aims to overturn preconceptions, challenge prejudices, retrace the ways the Arab world has influenced and shaped British culture and society, and celebrate the contributions of Arabs in the country, past and present. 

“Jarda highlights the universal comfort and connection we can all find in nature through intimate and personal reflections on home, belonging and the power of community,” Hassan said.

“We hope that visitors to the museum enjoy their walk in nature through Arab British eyes and are encouraged to reflect on their own connections to it.”

The physical exhibition will be accompanied by a digital offering that will give people free access to a host of creative activities that aim to encourage people to reflect on their own connections with green spaces.

“Jarda” is open now, and will run until Oct. 10 in Manchester’s People’s History Museum.


Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city
The text-based installation “Beirut Narratives” is currently in display in Lebanon. Supplied
Updated 23 July 2021

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city
  • Text-based installation offered residents ‘a silent, anonymous way of protesting’ after the devastating port explosion

DUBAI: “I burst into tears.” “I was shaking.” “My chair flew me right above ground.” “No right to dream.” “Bitter feelings.” “Apocalypse.” 

These are some of the brief-but-harrowing testimonials from survivors of the catastrophic Beirut Port explosion of August 4, 2020, which are now being publicly displayed on the streets of the Lebanese capital as part of the text-based installation “Beirut Narratives.” The installation was conceived by Lebanese sisters, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mécanismes, Celine and Tatiana Stephan. 

From the banking crisis to price inflation and fuel shortage, it has been a surreal year of lows for most Lebanese civilians. On the day we had arranged to discuss the sisters’ latest project, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri resigned after failing to form a new government. 

The text-based installation was conceived by Lebanese sisters, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mécanismes, Celine and Tatiana Stephan. Supplied

“Each one of us is thinking: ‘How can people still be so adapted to such a situation, in terms of the economic crisis and the socio-political situation?’ Everything is happening all at the same time,” Celine told Arab News. “People are, I believe, tired and frustrated. What we’re trying to do, as architects, with this urban installation is to rethink the city.”

Unlike many young professionals who are hoping to migrate or have already left the country for better opportunities abroad, Celine and Tatiana have decided to stay for now, for better or for worse, in their home country. “Beirut is like a parent to us,” said Tatiana. “When your parents are getting old, you just don’t leave them behind and go. You help them, support them and push them to be better.” 

Continuing the theme of family, Celine added: “I have two daughters. I would like them to live in Lebanon and see change happening and be part of that change. Despite its misery, chaos, and lack of infrastructure, it’s a city that inspires us at all levels.”

The Stephan sisters gathered testimonials from a diverse group of people, including friends and family, firefighters and healthcare workers. Supplied

In recent months, the pair turned their attention towards buildings and spaces in the neighborhoods of Gemmayze, Karantina and Mar Mikhael, which have been damaged and stand empty in the aftermath of the blast. In a commemorative manner, these silent and neglected buildings are given their own voice. 

“We wanted to make those buildings talk, because it’s somehow like a new way of manifestation,” explained Celine. “It’s a silent, anonymous way of protesting,” added Tatiana. 

The Stephan sisters gathered testimonials from a diverse group of people, including friends and family, firefighters and healthcare workers, all of whom were releasing pent-up anger and sadness and were willing to share their experiences of that horrific day. Children also contributed drawings to the project. 

Children also contributed drawings to the project. Supplied

For the Stephans, it was all an emotional and healing experience. “We sat with those people, we talked to them, we cried, we heard every single story. I still have goosebumps now,” said Celine. 

Divided into three categories — descriptions, emotions, and reflections — the testimonials were written out with red, black and white spray paint onto pieces of brown jute, later transformed by stitching into bold tapestries or “fragments.” According to the Stephans, who did the spraying and stitching, the use of jute was intentional, as it is accessible and serves as a reminder of the durable material used to transfer wheat into the silos at the Port of Beirut. 

The sisters and their collaborator, the Lebanese-Danish creative consultant Mira Hawa, went to different sites, personally hanging the fragments, which is in itself a risky task. “We had to go to the edge of a high building, on the 11th floor, and the wind was extremely strong. We had to improvise, we didn’t know how to install it because it was huge and there was a lot of wind,” Tatiana said of one of their challenging experiences near the port. 

The testimonials were written out with red, black and white spray paint onto pieces of brown jute, later transformed by stitching into bold tapestries. Supplied

Seeing the women lead the installation process on site was surprising for some. “Men were coming out in their sleeveless vests, with their big muscles, hanging over their balconies to see who these three girls were,” said Hawa. “One of the first comments we got was: ‘Who’s going to help you? Where are the guys?’” 

Despite encountering difficulties in accessing some buildings, they persisted and installed the work on 13 buildings. For some, the fragments proved to be too intense — akin to rubbing salt into a wound. 

“Some people were very disturbed when they saw the piece,” said Celine. “I remember one time we were not even installing; we were trying to talk to an NGO to discuss the possibility of installing. The owner of a building was there and he was really destabilized and he started crying. We felt really bad and asked ourselves so many questions: Are we making the right choice?” 

The project also tackles the notion of speaking up in an environment that often suppresses inner thoughts and feelings related to trauma. Supplied

Tatiana echoed Celine’s sentiments, highlighting how sensitive this whole project has been. “I felt that for some who were engaged in the piece, you feel in their eyes as if you put a knife into a wound,” she said. But overall, the project was positively viewed and embraced by locals. It brought out a sense of community, with many assisting the women during the arduous installation process. 

“We were touched by everyone who wanted to help, who offered us coffee, or water. They barely have anything to eat and drink,” remarked Celine. 

“Beirut Narratives” ticks a number of boxes, acting as a form of cultural activism, supporting the Lebanese people and offering them a sense of justice. The Stephans and Hawa hope that one day these fragments can also travel abroad, igniting empathy with the Lebanese diaspora. The project also tackles the notion of speaking up in an environment that often suppresses inner thoughts and feelings related to trauma. 

“We have a very painful habit in the Middle East, that every time something (bad) happens we just get on with it. I think it’s about time we stopped and made some noise,” said Hawa. “When you see the pieces on the street, it’s very bold, it’s very raw and prominent. You cannot ignore it.”