GWADAR: When he drives his rickshaw past the yellow Taj Mahal Talkies building, Ali Muhammad can never resist stopping to recall how he used to paste posters of Pakistani blockbusters on its walls.
Opened in 1973, the cinema was one of only two in Gwadar — a fishing town of 50,000 people in Balochistan, an impoverished province of southwestern Pakistan, which is now a key destination for Chinese infrastructure investment projects.
The theater served as a key source of entertainment in the city for over three decades, until it closed in 2006. The other one, Balochistan Talkies, shut down even earlier.
Taj Mahal Talkies witnessed the best years of Pakistani cinematography, its “golden era,” attracting hundreds of people to its screenings of hits such as “Nadaan” (Innocent), a 1973 drama featuring legends Nadeem and Nisho, “Jadoo” (Magic, 1974), featuring legendary actors Sudhir and Mumtaz, “Parastish” (Worship,1977), a drama with Mumtaz, Nadeem, and Deeba, and hundreds more.
Muhammad most vividly remembers “Shadi Magar Aadhi,” a 1984 hit whose poster was the first he pasted during his Taj Mahal career.
The film is still special to him, and he often plays its soundtrack to remember the times when the cinema was full of people. Now not even chairs are left, and only a huge white screen remains on a blistered wall of the ruined building.
“But when I enter here, I go back to the golden days when this space would be full of film enthusiasts,” Muhammad told Arab News. “I continued to paste posters till it was closed.”
When Taj Mahal was shut, he started working as a fisherman, and recently became an auto-rickshaw driver.
“When the cinema was shut down, I was very upset,” he said. “Even today, I’m very sad.”
Saleh Muhammad Sajid, who joined Taj Mahal Talkies as a projectionist in 1976, said women sent their children to Gwadar’s main square, Mullah Fazal Chowk, to check the posters and see what was on.
He remembered how as many as 1,000 people would come to the movies for some evening screenings.
Once, when the 1968 classic “Shahi Mahal” with Mohammad Ali and Firdous was scheduled, Sajid said, people swarmed the cinema in such huge numbers that one of its walls collapsed.
“The enthusiasm had no boundaries. When the hero would hit the villain, or deliver a punch, people would toss a coin towards the screen, in a show of appreciation,” he told Arab News.
Gwadar residents would endlessly talk about a movie from the moment they woke up the next day after its screening.
“‘Mohammad Ali was hit,’ one man would remark. The other would reply ‘no, Sudhir had run away,’ while another would interrupt ‘no, actually it was Sultan Rahi,’ and the discussion would go on for the day.”
The streak would last until the mid-1990s, when Pakistan’s film industry started to collapse and people generally began to turn away from cinema.
There were very few Pakistani productions to play, and although in neighboring India cinema was booming, Bollywood films could not make it to Pakistani screens — a ban on Indian movies, imposed after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, remained in place.
“Had Indian films been allowed, Taj Mahal Talkies would have survived a few years more. Pakistani content could not grab the audience,” Sajid said. “When I see this building, my heart cries.”
Childhood memories of Hajj pilgrimages inspire Saudi filmmaker’s latest project
Mujtaba Saeed’s script draws parallels between Makkah and Berlin, and explores the contrasts between traditional values and the modern world
Updated 02 July 2022
RIYADH: Saudi filmmaker Mujtaba Saeed’s relationship with Makkah began at an early age. He fondly recalls family journeys to the vibrant city for Umrah or Hajj, surrounded by people of all ethnicities and nationalities who gathered at the holy place for one common purpose.
He paints a picture of childhood road trips across the multi-toned sand dunes of Saudi Arabia as buses passed by carrying strangers from all walks of life, all chanting the same prayer in a united voice.
Saeed remembers the journeys from his childhood home in the city of Saihat, in the Eastern Province, to the Hijaz region in the west of the country as being full of excitement and marvel.
“It was filled with adventure,” he told Arab News. “From a child’s perspective, it was a long trip that never ends. My relationship with Makkah was the idea of traveling to a place.”
The screenwriter and director is currently developing a script that draws heavily on his relationship with the holy city, which was a big part of his life until he moved to Germany as a young adult to continue his education.
“After that, I didn’t visit (Makkah) for a while but the memories remained,” he said. “I consider (the memories) things that open up questions related to time, connection and the act of travel … I think it’s similar to any Saudi’s relationship to Makkah.”
Mujtaba Saeed remembers the journeys from his childhood home in the city of Saihat, in the Eastern Province, to the Hijaz region in the west of the country as being full of excitement and marvel. Saeed, who now splits his time between residences in Berlin and Saudi Arabia, said these emotions and his experiences with the holy city are what inspired his latest script.
He added that the city is a focus for the many individuals and families who visit it as pilgrims throughout their lives.
“I think I grew up with these visuals and they’re filled with emotions; Makkah is a place filled with emotions for me,” he explained.
Saeed, who now splits his time between residences in Berlin and Saudi Arabia, said these emotions and his experiences with the holy city are what inspired his latest script. It is still a work in progress but he is determined to share its story not only with fellow Saudis but audiences around the world.
“It’s up to everyone to try to engage and integrate with different cultures,” he said. “I think what’s inside us as humans and what motivates us as people is all one.”
The script reflects Saeed’s own life as it revolves around two cities: Makkah and Berlin. Though there are many differences between them there are also similarities, not least a transient nature, with people constantly coming and going: Pilgrims in Makkah, and tourists and students in Berlin.
“These two places are directions (Qiblatan) for many people in the world, so I’m trying to search for the contrasts between the two and how that contrast affects the characters,” he said.
“For me, it’s also really important to see how this young city of Berlin opens up questions for anyone who visits it … questions that relate to our relationships with our bodies, and our connection to ourselves and others.”
Saeed said the search for answers to these questions by the characters in the story creates the conflict that is essential in any drama.
He added that his aim with the script is to explore the contrast between notions relating to the traditional values of “old society” and the modern, globalized world. More importantly, he said, it considers whether diverse groups of individuals, each with their own dynamic and colorful backgrounds, can coexist safely in one place.
“In Makkah, this equation exists,” said Saeed. “From the time I left to study in Germany and then worked there, there was care in a city that was also global. But still, there remains the important question: How can you amplify other voices there?”
He said he feels a responsibility as an artist to amplify voices that often go unheard. As the development of arts and entertainment in the Kingdom continues, as part of which the country aims to become a regional hub for cinema, filmmaking and broader forms of cultural exchange, he believes the growth of Saudi cinema offers an ideal opportunity to achieve that goal.
“At this stage of national renaissance, where we are giving a voice to Saudi cinema, we need, in addition to the work that the Saudi film commission does to develop regulated creations, to have an interest in more collaborative efforts, whether that’s with Europe, India, or other counties,” Saeed said.
“I think cinema will become our language — and it’s a universal language — in the coming years.
“The importance of the European Film Festival in Riyadh is something we can’t argue about and I think it’s important to focus on presenting diverse cinematic content.”
The inaugural EFF, which aimed to promote European cinema and encourage the building of contacts between filmmakers in Europe and Saudi Arabia, took place between June 15 and 22. Saeed believes it was important in terms of helping to bridge cultural gaps and encouraging ongoing communication.
“I don’t think the festival presented films that are new to this audience, because the Saudi audience greatly follows (cinema), but it’s important for European filmmakers to meet this audience,” he said.
Saeed’s other current projects include a screenplay titled “Gharaq,” which translates as “Drowning,” which in June won the Best Feature Film Script award at the 2022 Saudi Film Festival. Saeed said that it explores the duality of forgiveness and revenge, adding: “A person can’t be free unless he forgives.”
The film is prepping for production, with filming due to take place in the east of the Kingdom. He is hopeful it will be a Saudi-German co-production.
Saeed’s 2021 film “Zawal” won a Golden Palm award for Best Short Film at the Saudi Film Festival, and a Golden Sail award at the Gulf Radio and Television Festival, which took place in Bahrain between June 21 and 23. It tells the story of an 8-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a refugee camp under quarantine following the outbreak of a mystery pandemic.
Saranghae KSA festival unites K-pop fans in Jeddah
The Consulate General of Korea in Jeddah delievered a one-of-kind Korean experience, offering to photograph fans wearing traditional Korean outfits, as well as providing cooking demonstrations
Updated 02 July 2022
Ameera Abid & Nada Jan
JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia's first K-pop festival, Saranghae KSA 22, brought fans from a wide range of backgrounds together under the roof of the Jeddah Superdome for a three-day celebration of Korean music and culture.
K-pop installations, an Umbrella Boulevard and a Cherry Blossoms Avenue provided picture-perfect backgrounds for fans, who were also given a taste of Korean cuisine at stalls selling a range of Korean favorites.
One audience member, Ghazal Mazen, 16, said that she grew up listening to Korean songs because of her older sisters, and has been a fan of Ateez since early 2020.
“I really can’t describe how I feel now. It feels like a dream I have been waiting to live in real life,” she said.
High-quality screens ensured fans were able to see their favorite performers, while a screen suspended from the middle of the dome displayed images taken by audience members at the photo booth, as well as short clips of the bands.
The Consulate General of Korea in Jeddah delievered a one-of-kind Korean experience, offering to photograph fans wearing traditional Korean outfits, as well as providing cooking demonstrations.
Performing on the festival's opening day, EPEX and Ateez greeted the audience in Arabic and Korean.
Both bands took a break to meet the audience and answer questions from fans.
On Wednesday, EPEX enjoyed the festive vibe of Jeddah Season by visiting the Historical Jeddah zone, walking through museums and the house of horror, playing games, and winning prizes.
Fans of Ateez spotted the band members shopping at the Red Sea Mall on the same day.
Saturday will mark the last day of the festival with Monsta X and Verivery.
Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
The award-winning Egyptian filmmaker on his moving refugee doc ‘Captains of Zaatari’ and future plans
Updated 01 July 2022
DUBAI: Nearly 10 years ago, Egyptian filmmaker Ali El-Arabi, the award-winning documentarian behind “Captains of Zaatari,” which hits Netflix this month, made a promise. He was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest temporary settlement of displaced Syrians in the world, and a teenaged boy he had just met named Fawzi Qatleesh asked if he could speak his truth to the camera.
“On the first day I arrived, he asked me, ‘Ali, can you film me? I want to say something to the people outside of this camp.’ The second he started to talk, I said to myself, ‘This boy is my hero,’” El-Arabi tells Arab News.
Qatleesh had dreams. He wanted to become a professional footballer. More importantly, he wanted the people outside those fences to know the truth of the refugee experience. He didn’t want pity, he told El-Arabi, he only wanted opportunity.
As the film hits Netflix this month in the Middle East, El-Arabi is overjoyed. Finally, after seven years of filming and a years-long global festival tour, his promise is fulfilled.
“I lost a lot of money, to be honest, because I refused to sell the film to a smaller platform that might limit its reach. That was for Fawzi — because of that promise I made him on the first day. I told him to say what was in his heart, and I would tell everyone in the world his story. That has been my mission ever since,” says El-Arabi.
El-Arabi knew what it felt like to have a message that people needed to hear. He was himself once an athlete, a dedicated and successful martial artist, even winning Egypt’s national kickboxing championship. During the Egyptian revolution, however, El-Arabi abandoned any future he might have in sport, instead turning towards filmmaking.
“I started to feel I had something to say, but I couldn’t say it with my voice,” he says. “I realized filmmaking was the way I could say it. I started making small documentaries about what was happening and screening them in the street. One day, the police came and I took my film and I ran. That made me realize the power of what I could say with a camera.”
El-Arabi left Egypt, partnering with the ZDF TV channel to film documentaries in war zones including Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. War reporting, however, was unfulfilling, as it so often stripped away the humanity of those caught in its horrors.
“Refugees and the victims in the war were all just numbers. It was the news, and the news just wanted statistics,” El-Arabi says. “I couldn’t process it that way. These were people, and I knew there was more going on than the news could report.”
After meeting Qatleesh and his friend Mahmoud Dagher — the two boys he would ultimately follow from the refugee camp in Jordan all the way to an elite soccer program in the Gulf — El-Arabi filmed them for seven years before whittling their story down to a scant 75 minutes, resulting in a story that showed their incredible journey while also refusing to gloss over the realities of refugee life.
Nonetheless, the film is bursting with hope, and El-Arabi’s proudest moments have come showing the film not to the outside world, as he originally intended, but to those in similar circumstances to Dagher and Qatleesh when he first found them.
“We screened it at a refugee camp in Lebanon, and person after person came up to me to tell me that, for the first time, they could think about the future. They said the film showed them that they could not only have dreams, they could achieve them. I will never forget that,” El-Arabi says.
Since its limited release in 2021, the film has already transformed the lives of both young men whose story it follows.
“They’re stars now. They feel it. Even some football clubs have watched the film and want to give them opportunities,” El-Arabi says. “The government of Jordan and the leaders in the camps respect them. Children in the camps are looking to them as role models. I speak to them all the time, and it’s wonderful to watch, even though they also feel the pressure from their families that they need to start delivering on their promise as soon as possible, and transforming their situation too.”
While he may be done telling their story, El-Arabi has been hard at work over the last few years on another — “Ashish’s Journey” — about the upcoming FIFA World Cup. It is inspired by a man who approached him in Qatar as he filmed “Captains of Zaatari.”
“An Indian man came to me one day and asked if he could take a picture with me. He thought I was a soccer player, and he told me he wanted to send the picture back to his family,” El-Arabi explains. “He told me, ‘I came here to watch the World Cup. But I didn’t have money to come, so I came here to work now, so that I could meet the famous players one day. I thought you were one of them.’”
The more time El-Arabi spent with the man, the more his innocent aspirations intrigued him, leading him to not only film Ashish in Qatar, but to follow him and his family back to India, even adding fictional elements (with Ashish playing himself) inspired by the classic French satirical novella “Candide” to the docu-film.
While El-Arabi knows that he will finish filming later this year at the World Cup, chronicling Ashish’s adventures during the games, he does not plan to rush the film out in the immediate aftermath of the event.
“I want to savor the material. I don’t want to rush it for a big festival. I love working on this film. I don’t want to kill the process — kill everything I’ve put into this — just to have something done fast,” he says.
El-Arabi has other projects in the works as well. He’s currently producing a film about Algeria and discussing producing an upcoming project with his best friend Mohamed Diab, the director of Marvel’s “Moon Knight.” Closest to his heart, though, is the fiction film he has in the works between Los Angeles and Egypt, inspired by both his own history in boxing and his relationship with his father.
“We’re talking to major international stars (about) it,” he says. “It’s a story that takes a lot from my own experiences with my family, and nearly every time I pitch it to people they cry. One person I work closely with, as soon as I finished, said they had to leave room to call their father.”
While telling Arab stories will remain a key part of El-Arabi’s career moving forward, ultimately what drives him is not capturing his identity — it’s capturing his soul.
“I will tell Arab stories, but I don’t think a lot about telling stories about the Arab world,” he says. “I think about humans. That’s all I’m interested in.”
The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos
Updated 01 July 2022
PARIS: A new exhibition at Paris’ Louvre Museum illustrates the longstanding cultural relationship between France and Lebanon.
“Byblos et le Louvre,” which runs until Sept. 11, is a unique display of archaeological artifacts from the Lebanese seaport town of Byblos (also known as Jbeil), one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.
Visitors will find ceramic jars, small figurines, cuneiform tablets, and ancient weapons on display, some of which are thousands of years old. Despite their age, many of the items are in remarkably good condition.
“What is amazing is the pottery, which looks like it’s been made yesterday,” Tania Zaven, an archaeologist of Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, told Arab News.
For Louvre archaeologist Julien Chanteau, who was on site during recent excavations, Byblos is a hugely significant site with a lot of stories to tell.
“It’s a very small site, maybe six hectares. But you can read all the history of mankind there, from the Neolithic period until today,” Chanteau said. “Byblos is like a book.
“You have all cultures and civilizations: The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Arabs have all left traces on this site,” he continued. “It’s very impressive for an archeologist to have such an amount of information. It’s like a chronicle of humanity.”
Under Napoleon III, the first French-led excavations in Byblos began in 1860, led by scholar Ernest Renan. He brought many objects back to France, and released detailed publications of the excavation.
Excavations have continued to the present day — although they were interrupted in the Seventies because of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2018, a scientific excavation program was relaunched, pairing archaeologists and experts from the Louvre Museum and the DGA. They have explored the area’s royal underground chambers, tombs, and temples.
Zaven noted some of the challenges of undertaking archeological missions in Lebanon, including security and looting. “Every day we are working against illicit trafficking,” she said. “We wanted to have this exhibition to show that Lebanon is still here. We believe in our culture and we want our culture to stay alive.”
In October, the exhibition will travel to a museum in the Dutch city of Leiden. It will also be exhibited, next spring, in an old house in Byblos, coming full circle.
The founder of the brand presented various designs in a spectrum of colors, inspired by the bold and bright hues of India.
A complete turnaround from his previous men’s collection, which featured all-white ensembles, this season, the designer went back to the brand’s roots with colorful fabrics and experimental silhouettes.
His aim was to intensify the senses and make the audience look at the details of each garment — the silhouette, the neckline and the surface decoration — rather than focusing on “looks.”
“I was also inspired by India’s diversity — from culture, religion, languages, geography and everything in between,” he added. “Their unique differences while building one nation really inspires me — I want to dig deeper and find out how this uniqueness made them create dimensional colors that we only see within our naked eyes.”
The event, which kicked off on June 28, presented the Spring/Summer 2023 collections of more than 10 regional and international designers, including Lebanese brand Maison du Mec, London-based label Permu, Beirut fashion house Tagueule and Dubai-based couturier Michael Cinco.
The first day of the fashion week kicked off with a collaboration between Swiss tech accessories brand Ferronato and Maison du Mec that was a mash up between fashion and technology.
The collaboration featured soft leather backpacks, micro smartphone cases, multi-functional clutches and slouchy drawstring bags in shades of blue and burgundy. A life size robotic dog, representing Ferronato’s innovative accessories, closed the show.
For Permu, designers Heyun Pan and Jing Qian presented daily ensembles and occasion wear that featured skin-tight tops, bucket hats, backwards-facing blazers and jackets with cut slits, puffed sleeves and exaggerated shoulder pads.
Tagueule’s silky trousers and shirts in monochrome shades were featured on the same runway as vests and cargo pants outfitted with utilitarian pockets and straps.
Cinco’s designs were marked by a sunset color gradient ranging from orange and yellow to black. Capes and kandoras were a salute to Emirati culture, while an array of smart, sporty sets spoke to a wider clientele.