New chapter for Baghdad’s book street

New chapter for Baghdad’s book street
1 / 4
People walk past an installation depicting a Christmas tree made of lights and marking the new year 2022 during the reopening of the renovated Al-Mutanabbi street on Saturday. (AFP)
New chapter for Baghdad’s book street
2 / 4
Costumed performers walk along the reopened and renovated Al-Mutanabbi street in the center of Iraq’s capital Baghdad on Saturday. (AFP)
New chapter for Baghdad’s book street
3 / 4
Clowns perform during the reopening of the renovated Al-Mutanabbi street, the historic heart of the book trade and an outlet for writers and intellectuals, in Baghdad on Saturday. (AFP)
New chapter for Baghdad’s book street
4 / 4
People walk along the reopened and renovated Al-Mutanabbi street, the historic heart of the book trade and an outlet for writers and intellectuals, in the center of Iraq’s capital on Saturday. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 26 December 2021

New chapter for Baghdad’s book street

New chapter for Baghdad’s book street
  • Inaugurating Al-Mutanabbi Street comes as recalling a golden age when Baghdad was considered one of the Arab world's cultural capitals
  • It was first inaugurated in 1932 by King Faisal I and named after the celebrated 10th century poet Abul Tayeb al-Mutanabbi

BAGHDAD: The Iraqi capital Baghdad on Saturday celebrated the renovation of the historic heart of its book trade, in the latest sign of an artistic renaissance after decades of conflict and strife.
In a city where explosions once could mean only one thing — violence — colorful fireworks lit up the sky during festivities organized by Baghdad municipality to inaugurate the renovated Al-Mutanabbi Street.
Its new look comes alongside art exhibitions, gallery openings, book fairs and festivals reflecting a fledgling cultural renaissance, and recalling a golden age when Baghdad was considered one of the Arab world’s cultural capitals.
Al-Mutanabbi Street was first inaugurated in 1932 by King Faisal I and named after the celebrated 10th century poet Abul Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi, who was born under the Abbasid dynasty in what would become modern-day Iraq.
A narrow street in the heart of old Baghdad, Al-Mutanabbi has long drawn students and young people, usually on Fridays. But it is also frequented by intellectuals and older bibliophiles.
Normality still hangs by a thread in the Iraqi capital, where rocket and drone attacks sometimes target its highly fortified Green Zone, and where a July suicide attack on a market killed more than 30 people.
There was high security for the costumed performers and musicians who performed along the car-free road of new cobblestones.
The road is lined with shops, freshly-painted and sparkling, but most were closed. Fairy lights garlanded the ornate brick facades and wrought iron balconies.
Private-sector banks financed the work, which began in August.
“Since the 1960s, I would come here every week to look at the books on the stalls and to meet friends,” veteran journalist and writer Zoheir Al-Jazairi told AFP, delighting over the street’s latest transformation.
“It’s an islet of beauty in the heart of Baghdad. You notice the difference compared to the rest of the city,” he said, lamenting the oft-neglected heritage of the capital.
Stretching for just under one kilometer (0.6 miles), the street begins with a statue of its namesake overlooking the Tigris River and ends with an arch adorned with the poet’s quotes.
Visitors can find Arabic translations of American best-sellers side-by-side with textbooks.
There are titles in an array of languages, and every once in a while a hidden treasure can be found nestled between the selections.
Years of sectarian violence followed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The rise of the Islamic State jihadist group in 2014 saw more brutality and bloodshed.
Iraq is trying to recover from its years of violence but remains hobbled by political divisions, corruption and poverty.
Even Al-Mutanabbi Street, a center of intellectual life with its cafes and books, could not escape the past violence.
In March 2007, a suicide car bomb killed 30 people and wounded 60 others there.
Mohamed Adnan, 28, took over a bookshop from his father, who died in the blast.
“He was killed, our neighbors too and several others who are dear to us,” said the history graduate, welcoming the renovation.
“I wish those who left were alive to see how the street has transformed,” he said.
On the banks of the Tigris a singer hummed traditional ballads, beneath the fireworks.


Meet Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Iman Vellani

Meet Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Iman Vellani
Updated 26 May 2022

Meet Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Iman Vellani

Meet Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Iman Vellani
  • The young star of ‘Ms. Marvel’ reflects on her ‘surreal’ experience playing Kamala Khan in new Disney+ series

DUBAI: In 2014, a young girl named Iman Vellani was browsing the Marvel comic books at her local bookstore in Canada when she saw something she’d never seen before: A face that looked like hers. It was Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim superhero in the company’s decades-long history. Little did she know, at the age of 19 in the “Ms. Marvel” Disney+ series, she would be the one to bring Kamala Khan to life.

“Playing her is the most surreal thing ever. The whole reason I got into the comics was because I saw in her a girl like me. She was a Pakistani-Muslim superhero fanatic. I was a Pakistani-Muslim superhero fanatic. It was just crazy, because I didn’t think a story like that was possible, because I never really saw it before. This comic book was holding a mirror in front of me, and I just completely fell in love with her,” Vellani said at a recent media roundtable.

Vellani herself has still to properly process what’s happened to her. After all, she was cast while still in high school as a complete unknown with zero professional credits to her name, whisked off to another country to find herself face-to-face with her hero, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. It’s hard to blame her for walking through the entire experience as if it’s just some wonderful dream.

Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim superhero in the company’s decades-long history. (Supplied)

“I was basically in shock for a year and a half,” she said.

Playing her favorite character, however, turned out to be more than just a chance to connect with the cinematic universe that she posted about so fervently online throughout her formative years. It also enabled her to explore her identity as a Muslim and a Pakistani herself — something that hadn’t been easy, growing up with friends who were not a part of her culture.

“Being Pakistani was a part of my life I was very dismissive about, and I felt disconnected from my culture prior to this show. I was born in Pakistan, but I moved to Canada when I was one. I didn’t have any Muslim or Pakistani friends,” Vellani said. “I felt that isolation that comes with not feeling understood. As close as I get to my school friends, they’re never really going to know my experiences and I’m never going to really know theirs.”

Playing her favorite character enabled her to explore her identity as a Muslim and a Pakistani herself. (Supplied)

On set, Vellani found herself surrounded by South Asian actors she had grown up seeing on television, and Sana Amanat, the character’s co-creator and Marvel’s Director of Content and Character Development, herself Pakistani-American, took Vellani under her wing.

“Honestly, one of the biggest things for me is just having brown friends for the first time in my life,” Vellani told Arab News after the roundtable. “I was sitting on set with my co-star Rish Shah and listening to Bollywood music; that’s something I’d never done before in my life with anyone but my parents. I’d never had the chance to socialize with people from the same background as mine, and it really made me see things in a new way.”

At the roundtable, she praised Amanat, describing her as a “big sister” on set. “I felt so far removed from the film industry and wanted to be a part of it so badly growing up,” she said. “I’m so grateful I got to work with so many women and people of color behind the camera. I couldn’t be happier that Marvel is taking steps to be more inclusive and creating space for a character like Kamala to exist. I hope that opens a lot of doors.”

Performing as Kamala Khan was a daunting task at first for Vellani. (Supplied)

Fittingly, her journey is not unlike the one Kamala Khan herself takes in the comics — a coincidence not lost on Vellani.

“I think it’s so cool that there are so many parallels between Kamala and me; that we both went on the same journey of self-discovery, learning about our family and our heritage as the show progressed. And now I could not be prouder to be Muslim, and to be Pakistani. It’s cheesy, but it’s true,” Vellani said.

Performing as Kamala Khan was a daunting task at first for Vellani, who struggled to act naturally as a character she adored so much.

Despite her lack of familiarity with being in front of a camera, Vellani did have some invaluable experience that the writers on the show lacked: Being a teenage girl in 2022. (Supplied)

“It was really difficult, because I felt like I had to put on a face: ‘I’m acting, so I have to be in character.’ And this was my first character — my first role ever,” Vellani explained.

Once again, the women at Marvel helped her through it.

“Marvel’s amazing casting director Sara Finn held my hand throughout the whole thing and said, ‘Look, we cast you. We want you. Just be yourself. You don’t have to put on a face. That’s not you. You’re already Kamala.’ That was all the reassurance I needed,” she said.

Despite her lack of familiarity with being in front of a camera, Vellani did have some invaluable experience that the writers on the show lacked: Being a teenage girl in 2022.

“Ms. Marvel” is not a show that just attempts to capture the Muslim-American experience — it’s also about being a teenager, and all the pain and shame that comes with it. (Supplied)

“The show is written by 30-year-olds and they’re writing for 16-year-old characters. That has, a lot of times in Hollywood, not been the most realistic thing,” Vellani said. “I really appreciate that the (creators) talked to us as humans. Our directors called me and said, ‘We want to hear about you. What was your high-school experience?’ In the end, they brought so many of my — and others’ — real experiences into the show. I think it shows how important it is to have those conversations.”

After all, while identity is certainly a part of “Ms. Marvel,” it is not a show that just attempts to capture the Muslim-American experience — it’s also about being a teenager, and all the pain and shame that comes with it.

“We really wanted to lean into that coming-of-age, corny vibe, because being a teenager is so embarrassing sometimes and cringy. When you’re a teen, everything is so heightened. Small inconveniences feel like the end of the world,” says Vellani. “We wanted to embrace all of that. I think our show is quite self-aware about how corny it is.”

Sana Amanat. (Supplied)

It’s been a steep learning curve for Vellani, who will become a global star almost overnight when the show comes out, and who is going directly from filming “Ms. Marvel” to the set of the upcoming movie “Marvels,” releasing in 2023, in which she will star with Brie Larson.

“I’ve really had to learn to slow down and take care of myself. This has been such an amazing and exhausting experience that if I don’t stop and look after my own needs, I won’t be able to do it,” she told Arab News.

Vellani is well aware that breaking ground as Marvel’s first Muslim superhero means she will be connected to that phrase for life. But she’s smart enough not to allow it to define her.

“It’s an honor and a privilege that Marvel trusts me to bring her to life,” she said. “But I don’t go to work every day thinking, ‘Oh, I’m the first Muslim superhero.’ I’d never get anything done that way.”


Central Asian artists step into the spotlight

Central Asian artists step into the spotlight
Updated 26 May 2022

Central Asian artists step into the spotlight

Central Asian artists step into the spotlight
  • ‘Totems of Central Asia’ — a new exhibition in Dubai — shows how ‘we are all connected through globalization and migration’

DUBAI: Three Central Asian artists reflect on issues of globalization and identity through the intersection of ancient mythologies, regional rituals and modern symbols at a new exhibition, “Totems of Central Asia,” at the Foundry in Downtown Dubai.

Traditional ikat fabric, nomadic games on horseback and a 15th-century astronomer from Samarkand take center stage in this exhibition of works (including NFTs) by Almagul Menlibayeva and Said Atabekov from Kazakhstan and Dilyara Kaipova from Uzbekistan. The show runs until June 11.

While Kaipova takes traditional Uzbek ikat textiles and turns them into contemporary art objects, Atabekov uses photography to depict Kokpar — an ancient game from the legendary steppes — with players sporting new-age logos on their jackets.  Menlibayeva’s prints on silk take inspiration from the famous scientist and astronomer Ulugh Beg as a powerful metaphor to bring attention to environment challenges in her country.

From the series Steppenwolves (ADIDAS), Said Atabekov. (Supplied)

“Central Asia is a unique geopolitical and cultural region, heir to ancient civilizations and the fabled Silk Road. It was mainly excluded from the international context during much of the 20th century. Through this exhibition, I hope visitors will get a better glimpse of this rich region. (The) artists show how we are all connected through globalization and migration,” curator Natalya Andakulova, founder of Dubai’s Andakulova Gallery, tells Arab News.

The title of the exhibition refers to the concept of the totem as a spiritual being, with a life of its own, considered sacred in ancient societies.

“In ‘Totems of Central Asia,’ we are showcasing issues of the preservation of national traditions while adapting to the new world,” says Andakulova.

“Scream Red” by Dilyara. (Supplied)

Atabekov’s “Wolves of the Steppes” series of mostly black-and-white images (only the logo-emblazoned jackets of the Kokpar riders are in color), for instance, shows how globalization has infiltrated even the nomadic way of life.

Kokpar is a traditional sport played by nomads in Central Asia as a sacred ritual. Horseback riders fight for a goat carcass across the undulating green steppes in scenes that can resemble a battle more than a game.

“These are not staged photographs. Here, the players wear what they have and what they like. Through this game I observe what is happening around us — competition, high cost, military conflicts. In this space, we see how every speck of dust wants to find a place under the sun,” the 57-year-old photographer says.

Capsula Ulugh Beg, Almagul Menlibayeva. (Supplied)

Atabekov lives in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. His photographs have won international recognition for their blend of ethnographic signs, recollections of the Russian avant-garde, and post-Soviet globalism.

Visual artist Menlibayeva’s series of prints on silk are made up of stills taken from a video installation she created for the Lahore Biennial, 2020. They are abstract works in which the artist refers to the Uzbek astronomer, mathematician and ruler Ulugh Beg, who built one of the finest space observatories in Samarkand.

“I wanted to show how we perceive space now, at a time when there is increasing space debris,” she says. “It was also an attempt to present Central Asia through my eyes in a global context looking at science and technology from a local and historical (point of view).”

From the series Steppenwolf (FERRARI), 2014. (Supplied)

She expands on these themes with her photography prints, which focus on ecological blunders caused by economic development, focusing especially on the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, it had completely dried up by 2014, although ongoing efforts in Kazakhstan have revived it somewhat since.

Menlibayeva’s photographs show a derelict part of the Transoxiana region. Centaur-like female figures appear as a mirage in the barren desert. It is an attempt, she says, to alternate between dream and reality, and to show her homeland finding its place between the past and the present.

Born in Tashkent, Kaipova, 55, has spent much of her working life combining ikat textiles with contemporary motifs in an attempt to preserve Uzbek culture.

In her handcrafted traditional ikat fabric designs, well-known brand logos and pop-culture icons represent modern totems. “Ghost Face,” the killer from Hollywood’s ‘Scream’ franchise, features on one of her robes. Other creations feature Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader, mixing elements from the East and the West, symbolizing elitism and mass media.

“I create the sketches and craftsmen from the Ferghana valley, in the city of Margilan, Uzbekistan, make the handmade robes,” Kaipova says. “By including modern, recognizable signs and logos, I have tried to create a different view of the world through the optics of today, the view of a person living here and now. I always hope the audience is interested in the clash of archaic and modern.”


REVIEW: ‘Stranger Things’ embraces the darkness in season four

REVIEW: ‘Stranger Things’ embraces the darkness in season four
Updated 26 May 2022

REVIEW: ‘Stranger Things’ embraces the darkness in season four

REVIEW: ‘Stranger Things’ embraces the darkness in season four
  • The friends face their most dangerous foe so far — and Eleven no longer has her powers

DUBAI: “Stranger Things” is back for its penultimate season. Once again, the sci-fi horror show’s main setting is the fictional town of Hawkins — unremarkable except for a laboratory the Ministry of Defense once used for some deeply unethical scientific experiments. One, involving children, resulted in Eleven — a girl with awesome psychokinetic powers. But they also opened a portal to a dangerous alternate dimension: The Upside-Down — where demonic entities dwell, posing a lethal threat to Hawkins and the wider world.

Last season’s finale laid fertile ground for showrunners the Duffer brothers to explore: Eleven vanquished (with bully-turned-hero Billy’s help) the Mindflayer in the Battle of Starcourt Mall, but at the cost of her superpowers; her adoptive father, Hawkins’ chief of police Jim Hopper, was (we thought) killed while destroying the Russian weapon responsible for reopening the portal to the underworld; and Joyce Byers and her sons Will and Jonathan (and the re-orphaned Eleven) moved to California to start a new life.

The sci-fi horror show’s main setting is the fictional town of Hawkins. (Supplied)

Six months on (but three actual years since the last season), the rest of the gang (El’s boyfriend Mike, his friends Dustin, Lucas, and Max, his sister Nancy, her ex-boyfriend Steve and his friend Robin) remain in Hawkins — a town in mourning following the Mindflayer’s decimation of its population — hopeful that the Upside-Down is now shut forever.

It isn’t. Obviously. And the new danger takes the show further into horror territory than ever before (although its trademark humor remains thankfully intact too). The humanoid demon and main antagonist, Vecna, is terrifying. Not just for his appearance — reminiscent of the undead in “Game of Thrones” — but for what he does to his victims. (No spoilers, so no descriptions, but it’s genuinely horrific.)

The adrenaline-inducing set-pieces are as slickly executed and powerful as ever, but it’s in the quieter moments that season four really excels (at least in the four episodes we’ve seen). There’s a new depth to the characters — Eleven struggling to adapt to her ‘powerless’ reality and getting bullied at her new school; Lucas hanging with the school jocks so he can be ‘cool’; Max dealing (or not) with her step-brother Billy’s death; Steve learning to be actual friends with a girl — that really adds to the show.

The Duffer brothers have ramped up the jeopardy too; every episode has you convinced something terrible is about to happen to one of the beloved main characters. Four seasons in, “Stranger Things” is only getting better.


Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie
Updated 26 May 2022

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie
  • The Emirati filmmaker and the two-time Academy Award-winning composer will collaborate on her upcoming feature, ‘Baab’

CANNES: UAE filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja has teamed up with the multi-award-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman for her upcoming feature film “Baab.”

“This means the world to me, I feel like he is going to do something extremely unique and unprecedented and I need to match that with a picture, my camera language, and to be honest with my work,” Al-Khaja, herself the winner of multiple awards, told Arab News at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Rahman — the Oscar-, BAFTA-, Golden Globe-, and Grammy-winning composer of more than 145 film scores — will score Al-Khaja’s upcoming feature film “Baab,” which she describes as her first “art-house” movie.

Al-Khaja (right) on the set of her short film 'The Shadow.' (Supplied)

Al-Khaja is widely recognized as the UAE’s first independent female filmmaker. Her previous work includes short films “The Neighbor,” “Malal,” “Animal,” and “The Shadow.” She co-wrote “Baab” with Masoud Amralla Al-Ali.

“People like her coming and laying the road for younger women is a fantastic thing to do and being a part of it is legendary,” Rahman said. “BAAB” will be his first Middle Eastern project, and he explained why he was immediately attracted to the proposed collaboration.

“For me, it feels like I’m just starting out,” he said. “It feels like it’s the first film for me, because she has a very new vision and she comes from a different place, which I have not been to before. And I always feel good about a clean piece of paper that has nothing written on it.”

The collaboration came about by chance, Al-Khaja explained, sparked by a spur-of-the-moment coincidence that led to a dream partnership.

A. R. Rahman with his two Oscars for 'Slumdog Millionaire.' (Supplied)

“The truth is, (this happened because of) Instagram,” she said. One day — having seen one of Al-Khaja’s Instagram stories in which she mentioned Rahman — her driver jokingly said to her, “Imagine if, one day, he called you.”

“He just put it out into the universe. It was just a casual remark, but two days later I got a call arranging a meeting,” Al-Khaja continued.

The pair both agree that the best collaborations often arise from such spontaneous connections.

“It was completely unplanned,” Al-Khaja said. “But I don’t want to say it was an accident. It was born out of an honest and real place.”

Rahman explained what initially drew him to the production. “I like the nuances,” he said. “There are open and unexplored parts of working with a filmmaker, which is great.”

He went on to explain his composition process: “Talking to a director, I find out the dos and don’ts — their inspiration and level of realism. I do a little bit of research to find sounds, sometimes I use them and sometimes I throw them away. Having it and discarding it is better than not having it when producing,” he said.

Al-Khaja bills the film, which — Variety has reported — follows a girl called Wahida as she investigates the mysterious death of her twin sister, as “100 percent art-house fantasy, and borderline horror.”

Both Al-Khaja and Rahman are hopeful that the film will be something special. (Supplied)

“It’s hard to define,” she said. “It’s intense. There are some creepy parts where it’s extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know that I can classify it (entirely) as a a horror movie, but we have maybe two or three scenes that are over that line. But for the most part, I’d say it’s art-house fantasy.”

One of those “uncomfortable” scenes comes towards the end of the movie, she explained, where one of the characters is hanging inches away from the ceiling.

“She’s tied by her arms and legs with a rope. The ceiling is almost touching (her face) for the whole scene, then (suddenly) one rope rips and she’s hanging there a long time and she’s breathing against the ceiling, it’s quiet and then it snaps. That’s right at the end,” Al-Khaja said.

Shooting on “BAAB” will commence in Ras Al-Khaimah in March, and both Al-Khaja and Rahman are hopeful that the film will be something special — not just in terms of storyline and performance, but with costume design, production, and music.

“We really want to push this as far as we can,” Al-Khaja said.

Decoder

Baab

Baab is an upcoming feature film by multi-awarded Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja, in partnership with Indian composer A.R. Rahman, himself a winner of multiple awards. The film tells the story of a girl named Wahida, who investigates the mysterious death of her twin sister. Shooting on “BAAB” will start in Ras Al-Khaimah, UAE, in March.


Pakistan’s first Cannes film a ‘dream come true’

Pakistan’s first Cannes film a ‘dream come true’
Updated 25 May 2022

Pakistan’s first Cannes film a ‘dream come true’

Pakistan’s first Cannes film a ‘dream come true’

CANNES: The debut screening of Pakistan’s first entry to the Cannes Film Festival felt like “a dream has come true,” one of its stars, Sarwat Gilani, said after the film received a prolonged standing ovation.

The movie, “Joyland,” seeks to break gender stereotypes in the country.

“It felt like the hard work that people do, the struggles that we face as artists in Pakistan, they’ve all come to be worth it,” Gilani told Reuters this week.

Gilani, a film and TV starplay, plays Nucchi in “Joyland,” which competes in the “Un Certain Regard” section, a competition focused on more art-house films that runs parallel to the main “Palme d’Or” prize.

(FromL) Pakistani actress Sana Jafri, Pakistani actress Sania Saeed, actor Ali Junejo, director Saim Sadiq, actor Alina Khan, Pakistani actor and model Sarwat Gilani, actress Rasti Farooq and film producer Apoorva Charan attend a photocall for the film “Joyland” at the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. (AFP)

Nucchi belongs to a household that has long hoped for the birth of a son to continue the family line, with the consecutive birth of her three daughters not enough to please her conservative father-in-law.

And her brother-in-law Haider secretly falls in love with a transgender woman Biba, who fights for her right to work as a performer.
“Joyland” also explores the frustration of women seeking to pursue a profession, when Haider’s wife Mumtaz falls into a depression for being forced to stay at home and do household chores and stop working as a make-up artist.
“It’s not just about a love story anymore. It’s about real-time issues, real life issues that we all go through,” Gilani said. 
She said she hoped Pakistani movie-goers and critics would give “Joyland” as warm a reception as it received in Cannes.
“I’m very positive that at least our people will understand that this is also a kind of cinema that can be successful. If worldwide, then why not locally, nationally,” she said.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17 to 28, with the prizes awarded on the last day.