British-Pakistani filmmaker’s documentaries offer viewers rare glimpses into Islam’s holiest sites

Filmmaker Abrar Hussain films in the Mataf area of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in October 2017. (Photo courtesy: Red Face Films)
Filmmaker Abrar Hussain films in the Mataf area of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in October 2017. (Photo courtesy: Red Face Films)
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Updated 26 February 2022

British-Pakistani filmmaker’s documentaries offer viewers rare glimpses into Islam’s holiest sites

Filmmaker Abrar Hussain films in the Mataf area of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in October 2017. (Photo courtesy: Red Face Films)
  • In 2017, Abrar Hussain released his best-known work, ‘One Day in the Haram,’ a glimpse into Islam’s most revered site
  • His new film, ‘One Night in Al-Aqsa,’ tells the story of the mosque’s compound during the Islamic calendar’s holiest night Laylat Al-Qadr

ISLAMABAD: An acclaimed British-Pakistani filmmaker, Abrar Hussain, who has produced documentaries on the Grand Mosque of Makkah and Al-Aqsa Mosque, has told Arab News that his films aim to counter anti-Islamic narratives by offering rare glimpses into the religion’s cultural heritage.

Born in Islamabad, Hussain moved with his family to London in the late 1970s less than a year after his birth. Prior to becoming a documentary filmmaker, he worked as a series producer at the Islam Channel, and directed and produced the popular returning TV shows “Model Mosque” (2007) and “Faith Off” (2008).

In 2017, Hussain released his best-known work, “One Day in the Haram.” As only Muslims are permitted to enter Makkah, Islam’s holiest city, the film offered a glimpse inside the Grand Mosque in Makkah — showing how the world’s largest mosque is run and what the daily routines are like.

“Post 9/11, there was lot of media backlash against Muslims, especially in the UK and in Western countries, and I knew this is not the true portrayal of Islam,” Hussain told Arab News in an interview.




Filmmaker Abrar Hussain takes aerial shots of the Grand Mosque of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in October 2017. (Photo courtesy: Red Face Films)

“I really felt that I needed to use my creative skills to do something to combat this. So, I started doing Islamic productions and I had very big success.”

Hussain’s new film, “One Night in Al-Aqsa,” premiered in London earlier this month. It shows Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Laylat Al-Qadr, a festival that commemorates the night when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

“Our film is all about promoting better and more tolerant understanding of Islam,” Hussain said.




Filmmaker Abrar Hussain wins the Media Award at the Hajj Awards for 'One Day in the Haram,' in London, UK, on Nov. 4, 2019. (Photo courtesy: Red Face Films)

In a review, the Guardian newspaper wrote that the film “interweaves awe-inspiring aerial footage of Al-Aqsa with intimate shots of the faithful.”

“Many of them are Palestinians from the West Bank who endure numerous Israeli security checkpoints, adding excruciatingly long hours to their journey. Indeed, the omnipresence of the Israeli occupation looms large over the convivial and moving scenes of worshippers praying or breaking bread at the end of their fast,” the Guardian said.

“This documentary is a valuable window into the lengths that Palestinians have to go to simply to celebrate their faith.”

For Hussain, the documentary, shot on a £200,000 ($268,000) budget in about 18 months, was an “incredible and phenomenal experience to preserve cultural heritage and Islamic history.”

“It is one of the most important places (in Islam) and a sense of pride for Muslims,” he said, adding that the aim of the film was to encourage people to come to Al-Aqsa for worship and to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.




British-Pakistani filmmaker Abrar Hussain films scenes for 'One Night in Al-Aqsa' in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy: Red Face Films)

Funds generated from the film have been donated to Penny Appeal Palestine, the international humanitarian charity, which also contributed to its production.

“Through these funds, they will support other projects like this one, and provide health care, food, and other vital aid to the Palestinian people, mostly in Gaza,” Hussain said.

He added that his documentaries had already been watched by millions of people in cinemas, on airline entertainment systems and video on demand platforms.

“‘One Day in the Haram’ remained on Amazon Prime for two years and now it has been transferred to another platform in the US, called USHUB, which is streaming the film in over 200 countries worldwide,” the director said.

“One Night in Al-Aqsa” had already been screened in 12 countries, boasting “big success” in Britain, the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia. It was also shown in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey.

“The Muslim audience has appreciated that someone went through all the troubles to make this film,” Hussain said.

For his next project, the filmmaker is going to return to Saudi Arabia.

“Another big project on which we are working nowadays is ‘A Day in Madinah’,” he said, adding that it will feature the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, the second-holiest city in Islam.


Webb telescope: NASA to reveal deepest image ever taken of Universe

Webb telescope: NASA to reveal deepest image ever taken of Universe
Updated 5 sec ago

Webb telescope: NASA to reveal deepest image ever taken of Universe

Webb telescope: NASA to reveal deepest image ever taken of Universe
  • The James Webb Space Telescope will explore objects in the solar system and atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars

WASHINGTON: NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Wednesday the agency will reveal the “deepest image of our Universe that has ever been taken” on July 12, thanks to the newly operational James Webb Space Telescope.
“If you think about that, this is farther than humanity has ever looked before,” Nelson said during a press briefing at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the operations center for the $10 billion observatory that was launched in December last year and is now orbiting the Sun a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth.
A wonder of engineering, Webb is able to gaze further into the cosmos than any telescope before it, thanks to its enormous primary mirror and its instruments that focus on infrared, allowing it to peer through dust and gas.
“It’s going to explore objects in the solar system and atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, giving us clues as to whether potentially their atmospheres are similar to our own,” added Nelson, speaking via phone while isolating with Covid.
“It may answer some questions that we have: Where do we come from? What more is out there? Who are we? And of course, it’s going to answer some questions that we don’t even know what the questions are.”
Webb’s infrared capabilities allow it to see deeper back in time to the Big Bang, which happened 13.8 billion years ago.
Because the Universe is expanding, light from the earliest stars shifts from the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths it was emitted in, to longer infrared wavelengths — which Webb is equipped to detect at an unprecedented resolution.
At present, the earliest cosmological observations date to within 330 million years of the Big Bang, but with Webb’s capacities, astronomers believe they will easily break the record.


In more good news, NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy revealed that, thanks to an efficient launch by NASA’s partner Arianespace, the telescope could stay operational for 20 years, double the lifespan that was originally envisaged.
“Not only will those 20 years allow us to go deeper into history, and time, but we will go deeper into science because we have the opportunity to learn and grow and make new observations,” she said.
NASA also intends to share Webb’s first spectroscopy of a faraway planet, known as an exoplanet, on July 12, said NASA’s top scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.
Spectroscopy is a tool to analyze the chemical and molecular composition of distant objects and a planetary spectrum can help characterize its atmosphere and other properties such as whether it has water and what its ground is like.
“Right from the beginning, we’ll look at these worlds out there that keep us awake at night as we look into the starry sky and wonder as we’re looking out there, is there life elsewhere?” said Zurbuchen.
Nestor Espinoza, as STSI astronomer, told AFP that previous exoplanet spectroscopies carried out using existing instruments were very limited compared to what Webb could do.
“It’s like being in a room that is very dark and you only have a little pinhole you can look through,” he said, of current technology. Now, with Webb, “You’ve opened a huge window, you can see all the little details.”


Ukraine cuts ties with Syria after it recognizes separatist republics

Ukraine cuts ties with Syria after it recognizes separatist republics
Updated 25 min 13 sec ago

Ukraine cuts ties with Syria after it recognizes separatist republics

Ukraine cuts ties with Syria after it recognizes separatist republics
  • Syria became the first state other than Russia to recognize the two separatist republics

KYIV: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday announced the end of diplomatic ties between Kyiv and Damascus after Moscow ally Syria recognized the independence of eastern Ukraine’s two separatist republics.
The breakaway states of Donetsk and Lugansk, whose independence Moscow recognized in February, are situated in the Donbas region at the center of Russia’s invasion and have escaped Kyiv’s control since 2014.
Syria provoked Ukraine’s ire after becoming the first state other than Russia to recognize the two separatist republics earlier on Wednesday.
“There will no longer be relations between Ukraine and Syria,” Zelensky said in a video posted on Telegram, adding that the sanctions pressure against Syria “will be even greater.”
Zelensky described Syria’s move as a “worthless story.”
This is not the first time that the Syrian government, which since 2015 has been heavily backed by Russia in its own civil war, has supported Moscow’s recognition of breakaway states.
In 2018, Syria recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent from the former Soviet state of Georgia, prompting Tbilisi to cut diplomatic ties.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are internationally recognized as part of Georgia, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but Russia and a handful of other countries recognize their independence.


WHO wants vaccine efficacy data in monkeypox fight

WHO wants vaccine efficacy data in monkeypox fight
Updated 35 min 13 sec ago

WHO wants vaccine efficacy data in monkeypox fight

WHO wants vaccine efficacy data in monkeypox fight
  • The UN health agency decided that monkeypox did not meet the threshold of a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern

GENEVA: The World Health Organization on Wednesday appealed for vigilance to ensure monkeypox does not spread among more vulnerable groups, such as children.
Fighting the virus requires “intense” efforts, said the WHO, calling for broad data collection and sharing on how well vaccines work against the virus.
Experts have detected a surge of monkeypox cases since early May outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic. Most of the new cases have been in western Europe.
“I am concerned about sustained transmission because it would suggest that the virus is establishing itself and it could move into high-risk groups including children, the immunocompromised and pregnant women,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
“We are starting to see this, with several children already infected.”
There are two cases aged under 18 in Britain.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan called for “very careful studies of the vaccine in different population groups... so that we get data that’s broadly applicable, and also to ensure that children, pregnant women and the immunosuppressed are considered for inclusion in these trials.”
As of June 22 this year, 3,413 laboratory-confirmed monkeypox cases and one death have been reported to the WHO, from 50 countries.
The countries with three-figure case numbers are Britain (793), Germany (521), Spain (520), Portugal (317), France (277), Canada (210), the Netherlands (167) and the United States (142).
The vast majority of cases so far have been observed in men who have sex with men, of young age, chiefly in urban areas, in “clustered social and sexual networks,” according to the WHO.
Last week the UN health agency convened an emergency committee of experts to decide if monkeypox constitutes a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the highest alarm that the WHO can sound.
But a majority found the situation had not yet crossed that threshold.
Nonetheless, “they acknowledged the emergency nature of the event and that controlling the further spread requires intense response efforts,” Tedros said.


The WHO chief called for equitable access to counter-measures like vaccines and antivirals and the systematic collection of clinical data to inform future recommendations.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said that countries with stockpiles of vaccines, led by the United States, had shown willingness to share them.
However, the vaccines have largely only been licensed for use against monkeypox’s far more severe relative smallpox, which is also caused by an orthopoxvirus and which is the only disease successfully eradicated through vaccination.
“It’s really important as we encourage the sharing of these products that we also collect the necessary clinical efficacy data,” said Ryan.He said the chief intervention in controlling monkeypox should be reducing transmission through education and taking steps to avoid infection, and then targeted use of available vaccines and antivirals.
Currently, vaccines are in short supply and are broadly limited to health workers exposed to higher risk while tracing contacts of cases, said Ryan.
He said some countries were beginning to consider offering vaccines to individuals “engaged in high-risk activities or at particular risk of being exposed.”


Paris attacker sentenced to whole life in prison

Paris attacker sentenced to whole life in prison
Updated 29 June 2022

Paris attacker sentenced to whole life in prison

Paris attacker sentenced to whole life in prison
  • The sentence was read out by the head of a five-judge panel overseeing the marathon trial of 20 men
  • Abdeslam had begun his appearances by defiantly declaring himself as a "Daesh fighter", but finished apologising to victims and asking for leniency

PARIS: The sole surviving member of an Daesh terror cell that killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 was handed a whole-life sentence by a French court on Wednesday, the toughest punishment possible.
Salah Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin, was captured alive by police four months after the bloodbath.
The sentence was read out by the head of a five-judge panel overseeing the marathon trial of 20 men accused of involvement in the worst peace-time atrocity in modern French history.
The other 19 suspects, accused of either plotting or offering logistical support, were found guilty, with their sentences ranging from two years to life in prison.
Hundreds of survivors and witnesses have attended proceedings since their start in September and they packed out the benches of the specially constructed courtroom as the verdicts were read out.
A team of 10 Daesh militants laid siege to the French capital, attacking the national sports stadium, bars and the Bataclan concert hall in an assault that traumatized the country.
The trial has been the biggest in modern French history, the culmination of a six-year, multi-country investigation whose findings run to more than a million pages.
Abdeslam had begun his appearances by defiantly declaring himself as an “Daesh fighter,” but finished apologizing to victims and asking for leniency.
His lawyers had argued against the whole-life sentence, which prosecutors had called for.
It offers only a small chance of parole after 30 years and has been pronounced only four times since being created in 1994.
The former pot-smoking party lover discarded his suicide belt on the night of the attack and fled back to his hometown, Brussels, where many of the extremists lived.
He told the court that he had a change of heart and decided not to kill people.
But prosecutors have argued that he shared the murderous intent of the rest of the attack team and that his equipment simply malfunctioned.
“Those who committed these heinous crimes are nothing more than lowlife terrorists and criminals,” prosecutor Nicolas Le Bris said in his closing statement earlier this month.
The November 2015 attacks deeply traumatized France, with the choice of targets — music and sports venues, the capital’s famed bars and cafes — and the manner of the violence seemingly designed to inflict maximum shock.
The huge loss of life marked the start of a gruesome and violent period in Europe, as Daesh claimed responsibility for numerous attacks across the continent.
France, under then president Francois Hollande, who testified at the trial, ramped up its military campaign to defeat the extremists in Syria and Iraq.
In the absence of the rest of the attackers, the men on trial besides Abdeslam are suspected of offering logistical support or plotting other attacks.
Only 14 out of the 20 appeared in person, with the rest missing, presumed dead.
One of them, Mohamed Abrini, has admitted to driving some of the Paris attackers to the capital and explained how he was meant to take part but backed out.
The 37-year-old also started out justifying Daesh violence as part of a fight against Western countries, but ended by apologizing to victims in the trial’s final stages.
The court handed him a life sentence with 22 years as a minimum term.
Also on trial is Swedish citizen Osama Krayem, who has been identified in a notorious Daesh video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.
The overall commander of the Paris attacks, senior Syria-based Daesh figure Oussama Atar, was also tried in absentia but is presumed dead.


Paris court rejects 10 ex-militants’ extradition to Italy

Paris court rejects 10 ex-militants’ extradition to Italy
Updated 29 June 2022

Paris court rejects 10 ex-militants’ extradition to Italy

Paris court rejects 10 ex-militants’ extradition to Italy
  • The Italian nationals had been living in freedom in France for decades after fleeing Italy
  • All 10, only some of whom were linked with the deadly Red Brigades group, spent the last 14 months under French judicial supervision

PARIS: A Paris court on Wednesday ruled against extraditing to Italy 10 former left-wing militants, including some former Red Brigades members, convicted of domestic terrorist crimes in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Italian nationals had been living in freedom in France for decades after fleeing Italy before they could be imprisoned to serve their sentences.
The crimes in connection with which they were convicted include the 1980 killing of a Carabinieri paramilitary general and the kidnapping of a judge in the same year.
All 10, only some of whom were linked with the deadly Red Brigades group, spent the last 14 months under French judicial supervision as judges deliberated on Italy’s extradition request following the activists’ arrests and police questioning a year ago.
The Paris Court of Appeal said in a statement it rejected Italy’s extradition request for each member of the group of 10 men and women, but didn’t explain its reasoning.
Wednesday’s ruling can still be appealed at France’s highest court.
Italy’s justice ministry said in a statement it respected the French judicial process as they await to hear the assessments of the ruling by the Paris attorney general, who is the only one authorized to appeal the court’s decision to deny the extradition of each of the 10 convicted militants.
“I am waiting to know the reasons behind the ruling that denies all extraditions without distinction,” said Italian Justice Minister Marta Cartabia.
“This is a long-awaited ruling for the victims and the entire country, which concerns a dramatic and still painful page in our history,” Cartabia said.
The French presidency said it will not comment on the court’s ruling.
The unwillingness of French authorities to detain convicted Italian former left-wing militants living in France has long been a thorny issue between Paris and Rome.
Italy has sought the extradition of around 200 convicted former militants believed to be in France over the years.
Italy’s far-left Red Brigades group killed about 50 people in a terror campaign in the 1970s and ‘80s.