Interviews

Exclusive: An Interview with Marwan Hamed

An Interview with Marwan Hamed

By Omar Kholeif, Safar Curator

yacoubian (big) (1)

What do you think are the challenges facing contemporary filmmakers in Egypt and the Arab region more widely?

We face many challenges. The main challenge is a funding crisis which directly affects the level of production. When you have an active market producers are more open to gambling on higher-risk projects. As things stand at the moment, producers want to play it safe; to secure box-office returns and make their money back. This means as an industry we are producing less so that the risks across the board are lower. Producers usually only finance mainstream films and comedies – and even then not many. You mainly see American blockbusters in Egyptian cinemas nowadays.

Why do you think that popular Egyptian cinema rarely gets theatrical distribution in the UK?

I think there are two main reasons: first, our films do not necessarily travel well. Usually Arab films are dialogue-based and reading subtitles can diminish the audience’s enjoyment of a film. Although film ought to be expressed more visually, I think we’ve adopted the use of dialogue from television. The second reason is marketing. A lot of Egyptian films have been great and had the potential to be exported but they were not marketed well and therefore lost out on their chance to be distributed internationally.

What do you think makes film production in the so-called Arab region so unique?

What makes us unique is our culture, history, our people and our heritage. Just put the camera in any street in Cairo and there is a story to be shot.

Growing up, what were the films that inspired you the most? Did you have a specific mentor?

I was inspired by many films: The Godfather; Taxi Driver; In the Mood for Love; Apocalypse Now; the works of [Youssef] Chahine and Atef El-Tayeb. And I do have a mentor – Sherif Arafa. I worked as his assistant for 8 years and I owe him a great deal.

We are of course showcasing The Yacoubian Building. What compelled you to direct this film?

One great thing about The Yacoubian Building for me is that it was about amazing characters – from a dramatic point of view, very complex characters. At the same time they were treated in a very non-judgemental way which pushes their humanity to very high levels. My favourite moments in the film, and indeed the novel, are those moments that express human weakness.

What’s next, and do you plan on working with your father, Wahid Hamed, again (who scripted The Yacoubian Building)?

I have a lot of projects in the pipeline but still haven’t picked the next one. I hope to work with my father again.

 

Marwan Hamed is the multi-award-winning director of The Yacoubian Building, screening as part of Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema on Thursday 27 September, 18:30. Join in the discussion after the screening when Marwan Hamed will be in attendance.  Click here for details.

Marwan_Hamed

Marwan Hamed Bio

Born in 1977, Marwan Hamed graduated from the Cairo Film Institute in 1999. He apprenticed as assistant director to many renowned Egyptian filmmakers including Sherif Arafa, director of Terrorism and the Kebab, as well as directing numerous commercials.

His first feature film, released in 2006 was The Yacoubian Building based on the international bestseller under the same name by Alaa Al Aswany. The film was considered the most expensive Egyptian film ever made with an all-star Egyptian cast including the biggest Arab star Adel Imam. Locally, the film maintained poll position at the top of the Egyptian box office throughout the summer. Internationally, the film reached 200,000 admissions in France and was screened at many international film festivals including Berlin Film Festival (panorama section). This critically acclaimed film is considered one of the 100 most important Egyptian films and has won several awards including the best New Narrative Filmmaker Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2006.

In 2009 his second feature Ibrahim Labyad was released; a film set in the underground world of Cairo, it follows the story of a boy who witnesses the murder of his father by a gang of brutal drug dealers. This violent and bloody film was inspired by real events.

Marwan’s latest work is a collaboration by 10 Egyptian directors; 18 Days is a collection of 10 short films created in direct response to the 25 January 2011 revolution in Egypt. 18 Days premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in the official selection for special screenings.

Marwan is one of the founders of Lighthouse Films, a pioneer production company with a young creative feel specialised in all parts of media production.

Special Announcement

CAABU LAUNCHES AN EMERGENCY FUNDING DRIVE

Without additional support Caabu will have to close

Caabu (The Council for Arab-British Understanding) is launching an emergency appeal so that it can continue its vital work advancing Arab-British relations. If we do not raise substantial funds, Caabu will have to close its office at the end of May.

Caabu is the longest-standing resident of the Arab British Centre. Please read its appeal below:

At a time when so many Arabs are bravely putting their lives on the line across the region, it is absolutely crucial that Caabu continues its work as the only cross-party, Arab-British organisation lobbying on major human rights and policy issues, briefing MPs and journalists and providing active engagement with the Arab world and Arab-British communities in British schools.

Support is urgently needed to help us ensure that the popular demands across the region are heard in the UK and to maintain pressure on the British government. As major regional conflict looms large, it is essential that we push for constructive policies addressing the crises in Syria and Yemen, promoting stabilisation and transition in Libya and other countries whilst keeping Palestine on the agenda.

Campaigning for Palestinian rights is a cornerstone of our work. Caabu provides an indispensible alternative voice to that of the pro-Israel lobby. In 2011, we took 19 parliamentarians to the occupied Palestinian territory raising issues such as settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian child detainees. We also talked on Palestine and on other key issues to thousands of students in British schools.

Andy Love MP, Co-Chair of Caabu said: “The team at Caabu has down outstanding work to improve understanding of the Arab World with politicians and campaign for a more principled British foreign policy towards the Arab World. I have just come back from a first class Caabu delegation to Lebanon where we saw first hand the horrific conditions that face both Palestinian and Syrian refugees. From my perspective and many other politicians it would be a massive loss if Caabu could not continue this vital work.”

Caabu works with many partners on its programmes. Steve James, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians commented: “Caabu has been a fantastic partner for MAP and has played a key role in raising the plight facing Palestinians with politicians as well as the broader public. We have always admired their professionalism and expertise.”

Sadly due to the global economic recession, our income has dropped. Caabu needs a minimum of £260,000 a year to carry out its work. With the help of our friends and supporters we need to raise £225,000 for our work in 2012. Every pound donated will contribute directly to continuing our work.

Please click here to donate now.

Documentary Filmmaking in Morocco by Saeed Taji-Farouky

There is a saying in Arabic that translates as “I see the stars at noon.” We use it when everything in life is turned upside-down, when things are not as they should be. I first heard it in the tiny Moroccan village of Sebt Jahjouh, travelling with a man named Abdelfattah, a man whose world was upside-down; a man for whom things were definitely not as they should have been.

fort

I was filming my first documentary, and it was an experience that taught me more than I had expected – not only about Morocco, and perhaps the relationship between the Arab World and Europe in general, but about documentary filmmaking. All my preconceptions about the objectivity of documentary films, and the detached perspective of the journalist, were shattered. At the time, it was difficult to deal with, now I appreciate it immensely and realise that early experience shaped the way I would make films, photograph and report from then on.

Abdelfattah was a Moroccan clandestine, a man trying to cross illegally into Spain, and I met him on the balcony of a cheap Tangiers hotel. After living and working in Morocco for 12 months as a tour leader, I decided to make a documentary film about the clandestine – the side of Morocco that my tourists never saw. I rented a room in a hotel overlooking Tangiers port and gave myself one month to find a subject for the film. I met Abdelfattah – and agreed to follow him on his journey – after only two days. Through the documentary, I See The Stars At Noon, I wanted to understand what would make someone risk his life for an utterly uncertain future in Europe, and what he expected to find there.

Over the course of filming, I came to understand that there was something other than simple greed driving Abdelfattah to reach Europe. He was, of course, interested in what he believed Europe could offer him, but he was motivated as much by a hatred of Morocco as an appreciation for Europe. Like many Moroccans, and – I now believe – many Arabs of his generation, Abdelfattah seemed to love and hate his country in equal measures. He loved the fact that he came from such a rich and proud culture, but hated the fact that in recent years, that culture had spiralled slowly into poverty and violence, and had built a rich tourist industry that existed in a parallel universe to the one he inhabited.

The country -particularly under the reformist king Mohammad VI – has promised them so much, but with stubbornly low wages, high unemployment and few opportunities for economic empowerment, many feel the country has abandoned them, and they in turn have given up on it. For many, illegal migration has become their last resort. And it is a national obsession. It has entered the cultural lexicon of Morocco, simmering just beneath the surface and ultimately coming to represent the nation’s loss of faith in itself.

When I first started filming, I assumed this situation would be a disaster for Spain, but the controversial truth I later learned is that they actually do quite well out of undocumented workers. If your cheap supermarket oranges or tomatoes are imported from Spain, there’s a chance they were picked by a clandestine. The Spanish public occasionally hear about the clandestine when a dead African body washes up on their beaches, or when someone is found soaking and delirious stumbling through the streets of Tarifa, but otherwise they go on exporting their cheap produce and we go on buying it.

In October of 2004, Spain’s government offered amnesty to around 800,000 illegal immigrants working there, thousands of whom are employed in seasonal agricultural work. Though I would like to believe it was out of concern for their rights and working conditions, I suspect it had more to do with collecting income tax and, even more importantly, bolstering Spain’s agricultural labour deficit.

Similarly, while Morocco’s official position is that they are doing everything they can to stop illegal migration, their economy also benefits immensely from remittances from overseas workers. I suspect the Moroccan government also secretly appreciates that a porous border is a very easy way to get rid of the poorest and most desperate elements of society.

This relationship of mutual exploitation that exists between Morocco and Spain is, I realised during the process of filming, uncomfortably similar to the relationship between documentarian and subject, both in journalism and documentary film. In my case, I needed Abdelfattah as an interesting and willing participant in the film, and he needed me both as emotional, and later, financial support. “I think you might be taking advantage of me,” he once said. “If you pay me, then it benefits both of us.”

This was the overwhelming dilemma I faced in making the film, something that I had never anticipated, and something that the editor Gareth Keogh and I eventually chose not to ignore because it was so central to the experience of filming. Not only does it more accurately reflect the atmosphere of illegal immigration than a detached expose, but it raises an issue that few documentaries are willing to touch: the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. Abdelfattah and I often talked about what it was like for him to be followed constantly by a camera, how I could continue filming without influencing his decisions, and ultimately, about whether I would pay him or not.

I was, I know now, naïve in my initial approach to the film. I thought I could record Abdelfattah’s life while remaining entirely disassociated from him, but in the end, it turned out to be impossible simply because we are both humans who understand the value of relationships, money, opportunity and the media. I found it impossible to be a neutral observer, to pretend that my presence had no influence on the events I was recording, and in the end, that tension became the central theme of the film. In other words, it was no longer a film about the journey of a hopeful illegal immigrant, it became a film about the process of me and my camera recording Abdelfattah’s experiences.

The film is in limbo, in much the same way that Abdelfattah was in limbo, and it is intended to fill in the gaps between daily news, tabloid journalism and reality as I saw it. Abdelfattah wasn’t looking to live on welfare or in government housing. He had no illusions that everything would be handed to him on a plate when he reached Europe. Instead he talked about the future in terms of opportunity, pointing out that he was willing to work as hard as any European if he was only given the chance. He believed that in Morocco, people like him who were honest, hardworking and intelligent had been abandoned in favour of corruption and nepotism, and he was ready, in return, to abandon Morocco.

Saeed Taji Farouky joined the Board of the Arab British Centre in September 2008. Click here to read more about him.

Documentary Filmmaking in Morocco by Saeed Taji-Farouky

There is a saying in Arabic that translates as “I see the stars at noon.” We use it when everything in life is turned upside-down, when things are not as they should be. I first heard it in the tiny Moroccan village of Sebt Jahjouh, travelling with a man named Abdelfattah, a man whose world was upside-down; a man for whom things were definitely not as they should have been.

iseestars

I was filming my first documentary, and it was an experience that taught me more than I had expected – not only about Morocco, and perhaps the relationship between the Arab World and Europe in general, but about documentary filmmaking. All my preconceptions about the objectivity of documentary films, and the detached perspective of the journalist, were shattered. At the time, it was difficult to deal with, now I appreciate it immensely and realise that early experience shaped the way I would make films, photograph and report from then on.

Abdelfattah was a Moroccan clandestine, a man trying to cross illegally into Spain, and I met him on the balcony of a cheap Tangiers hotel. After living and working in Morocco for 12 months as a tour leader, I decided to make a documentary film about the clandestine – the side of Morocco that my tourists never saw. I rented a room in a hotel overlooking Tangiers port and gave myself one month to find a subject for the film. I met Abdelfattah – and agreed to follow him on his journey – after only two days. Through the documentary, I See The Stars At Noon, I wanted to understand what would make someone risk his life for an utterly uncertain future in Europe, and what he expected to find there.

Over the course of filming, I came to understand that there was something other than simple greed driving Abdelfattah to reach Europe. He was, of course, interested in what he believed Europe could offer him, but he was motivated as much by a hatred of Morocco as an appreciation for Europe. Like many Moroccans, and – I now believe – many Arabs of his generation, Abdelfattah seemed to love and hate his country in equal measures. He loved the fact that he came from such a rich and proud culture, but hated the fact that in recent years, that culture had spiralled slowly into poverty and violence, and had built a rich tourist industry that existed in a parallel universe to the one he inhabited.

The country -particularly under the reformist king Mohammad VI – has promised them so much, but with stubbornly low wages, high unemployment and few opportunities for economic empowerment, many feel the country has abandoned them, and they in turn have given up on it. For many, illegal migration has become their last resort. And it is a national obsession. It has entered the cultural lexicon of Morocco, simmering just beneath the surface and ultimately coming to represent the nation’s loss of faith in itself.

When I first started filming, I assumed this situation would be a disaster for Spain, but the controversial truth I later learned is that they actually do quite well out of undocumented workers. If your cheap supermarket oranges or tomatoes are imported from Spain, there’s a chance they were picked by a clandestine. The Spanish public occasionally hear about the clandestine when a dead African body washes up on their beaches, or when someone is found soaking and delirious stumbling through the streets of Tarifa, but otherwise they go on exporting their cheap produce and we go on buying it.

In October of 2004, Spain’s government offered amnesty to around 800,000 illegal immigrants working there, thousands of whom are employed in seasonal agricultural work. Though I would like to believe it was out of concern for their rights and working conditions, I suspect it had more to do with collecting income tax and, even more importantly, bolstering Spain’s agricultural labour deficit.

Similarly, while Morocco’s official position is that they are doing everything they can to stop illegal migration, their economy also benefits immensely from remittances from overseas workers. I suspect the Moroccan government also secretly appreciates that a porous border is a very easy way to get rid of the poorest and most desperate elements of society.

This relationship of mutual exploitation that exists between Morocco and Spain is, I realised during the process of filming, uncomfortably similar to the relationship between documentarian and subject, both in journalism and documentary film. In my case, I needed Abdelfattah as an interesting and willing participant in the film, and he needed me both as emotional, and later, financial support. “I think you might be taking advantage of me,” he once said. “If you pay me, then it benefits both of us.”

This was the overwhelming dilemma I faced in making the film, something that I had never anticipated, and something that the editor Gareth Keogh and I eventually chose not to ignore because it was so central to the experience of filming. Not only does it more accurately reflect the atmosphere of illegal immigration than a detached expose, but it raises an issue that few documentaries are willing to touch: the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. Abdelfattah and I often talked about what it was like for him to be followed constantly by a camera, how I could continue filming without influencing his decisions, and ultimately, about whether I would pay him or not.

I was, I know now, naïve in my initial approach to the film. I thought I could record Abdelfattah’s life while remaining entirely disassociated from him, but in the end, it turned out to be impossible simply because we are both humans who understand the value of relationships, money, opportunity and the media. I found it impossible to be a neutral observer, to pretend that my presence had no influence on the events I was recording, and in the end, that tension became the central theme of the film. In other words, it was no longer a film about the journey of a hopeful illegal immigrant, it became a film about the process of me and my camera recording Abdelfattah’s experiences.

The film is in limbo, in much the same way that Abdelfattah was in limbo, and it is intended to fill in the gaps between daily news, tabloid journalism and reality as I saw it. Abdelfattah wasn’t looking to live on welfare or in government housing. He had no illusions that everything would be handed to him on a plate when he reached Europe. Instead he talked about the future in terms of opportunity, pointing out that he was willing to work as hard as any European if he was only given the chance. He believed that in Morocco, people like him who were honest, hardworking and intelligent had been abandoned in favour of corruption and nepotism, and he was ready, in return, to abandon Morocco.

Saeed Taji Farouky joined the Board of the Arab British Centre in September 2008. Click here to read more about him.

Middle Eastern Hospitality by Caroline Muir

I was married on 13th August 1966 and one week later went with my husband to Lebanon, where he was learning Arabic at MECAS. I was 21 and had no actual knowledge of the Middle East at that point, but I had heard of the famous Arab hospitality.

GAZALONDON

My husband had completed the Intermediate Arabic course prior to our marriage and was on the Advanced course and I joined the Intermediate course. At MECAS at that time, students were sent off in November to gain some real experience of speaking Arabic in Lebanon and the surrounding countries and we decided to drive through Syria to Jerusalem (still a divided city then).

We had the most marvellous time for ten days and then we headed back to Shemlan. My husband adored our LandRover, but it was pretty ancient and after passing through the border into Syria at Deraa, we came to a grinding halt a few miles further on. It was around 8.00pm at this point and I had resigned myself to a night at the roadside, when a couple of hours later, a very kind Jordanian lorry driver stopped and insisted on towing us back into the town of Deraa and dropped us off at a garage he knew and introduced to the garage owner.

It was a bearing that had gone in a LandRover and we were told that it could be fixed first thing in the morning, but not that night. “But where is there somewhere to stay?” we asked. “Oh, you can stay here” was the answer. Our hosts were not well-off, but we were given the owner and his wife’s bedroom and my husband was taken off with the men. My hostess got all her girl-friends over and we had a wonderful “girl’s night”; thankfully all spoke some French and one of the friends was an English teacher, since my Arabic was very much at the embryo stage (it has improved a bit since). But in a mixture of languages we talked about everything from birth-control to the problems of marriage, children and, of course, men.

They were truly wonderful and seldom have I felt such warmth and had such generosity of spirit as on that occasion. Over the years I have come to meet and experience many examples of hospitality from many sources in the Arab world, but that first experience will always be something very special.

Caroline Muir is a former member of the Arab British Centre Board of Trustees. She served from March 2009 to September 2011.

Middle Eastern Hospitality by Caroline Muir

Lebanon

I was married on 13th August 1966 and one week later went with my husband to Lebanon, where he was learning Arabic at MECAS. I was 21 and had no actual knowledge of the Middle East at that point, but I had heard of the famous Arab hospitality.

My husband had completed the Intermediate Arabic course prior to our marriage and was on the Advanced course and I joined the Intermediate course. At MECAS at that time, students were sent off in November to gain some real experience of speaking Arabic in Lebanon and the surrounding countries and we decided to drive through Syria to Jerusalem (still a divided city then).

We had the most marvellous time for ten days and then we headed back to Shemlan. My husband adored our LandRover, but it was pretty ancient and after passing through the border into Syria at Deraa, we came to a grinding halt a few miles further on. It was around 8.00pm at this point and I had resigned myself to a night at the roadside, when a couple of hours later, a very kind Jordanian lorry driver stopped and insisted on towing us back into the town of Deraa and dropped us off at a garage he knew and introduced to the garage owner.

It was a bearing that had gone in a LandRover and we were told that it could be fixed first thing in the morning, but not that night. “But where is there somewhere to stay?” we asked. “Oh, you can stay here” was the answer. Our hosts were not well-off, but we were given the owner and his wife’s bedroom and my husband was taken off with the men. My hostess got all her girl-friends over and we had a wonderful “girl’s night”; thankfully all spoke some French and one of the friends was an English teacher, since my Arabic was very much at the embryo stage (it has improved a bit since). But in a mixture of languages we talked about everything from birth-control to the problems of marriage, children and, of course, men.

They were truly wonderful and seldom have I felt such warmth and had such generosity of spirit as on that occasion. Over the years I have come to meet and experience many examples of hospitality from many sources in the Arab world, but that first experience will always be something very special.

Caroline Muir is a former member of the Arab British Centre Board of Trustees. She served from March 2009 to September 2011.

Interlude in a Sandstorm by William Fullerton

interlude_in_sandstorm

Forty years ago I had the good fortune to have the chance to travel by Land Rover from Beirut to Jedda. The vehicle was my own and I was going to take up a posting as Information Officer, a title I soon adjusted to the grander sounding one of Press and Cultural Attaché, at the Embassy.

I had just finished the Higher Arabic Course at Mecas and was to share a house in Jedda with a Chancery colleague, Christopher Long, a seriously good Arabist, who had graduated from a previous Mecas course and was now already en poste. Christopher had flown up from Jedda to join me on the journey down. As a bachelor, and one going to a house already set up, I travelled light with just a couple of suitcases and the vehicle which must have been an administrative officer’s dream of a new arrival.

In those days there was a stretch of sand desert for about fifty miles between Jordan and Saudi Arabia with no made up road. Our journey to the frontier went well apart from refusal on the part of a Jordanian official to let us pass Mudawwarah, the last village in Jordan, whether we had a Saudi letter or not and never mind any diplomatic visas.

This meant a delay of a couple of days while messages were telegraphed back and forth between us and the British Embassy in Amman and various authorities. Fortunately we came across a company attempting to restore the Hejaz Railway with a tempestuous Welshman in charge who put us in an air conditioned cabin while we waited. I have always much enjoyed the varied desert scenery round the Wadi Rum and Mudawwarah, and the Hejaz Railway had a considerable fascination as indeed did the Welshman with some hair raising stories about his exploits in World War II, so the time passed agreeably enough.

At the Saudi frontier, a nondescript place with a small hut or two, we were unexpectedly asked by an Egyptian doctor in a beige raincoat for evidence of some inoculation or other, possibly cholera. Fortunately I had a certificate; Christopher did not and had to suffer, against payment of a fee, immediate inoculation on the spot in that very remote, dusty, flyblown place with a needle of uncertain provenance.

About two days into our journey a sandstorm blew up. We were driving steadily, if slowly, along the road south of Tebuk when out of the murk there appeared a Saudi soldier. With a resigned and forlorn gesture he motioned us to stop and directed us to a nearby tent. We took out our Foreign Ministry letter expecting some suspicious military or other official and a possible rerun of our Mudawwarah experience. However we found in a the tent a gathering of rather distinguished, elderly Saudi sheikhs sitting in a circle in elderly chintzy easy chairs. We were courteously greeted and invited to join them. There was no apparent purpose apart from a wish for conversation, to hear such news as we might have.

A wireless in the corner was broadcasting a programme from Saut al Arab much of which we could not hear well but sounded like, and almost certainly was, thoroughly anti-British propaganda, not uncommon from that source in those days, but this was ignored. Saudi-Egyptian relations were anyway then not good. Nowadays there would probably be a television with all manner of satellite channels. After a quarter of an hour a large circular tin tray of dates was brought in. These were not of course your narrow round ended boxes of smart dates from Morocco or Tunisia, but large sticky wodges of solid date, none the less tasty for that. We partook of the dates as the dish was passed round. Then a large enamel bowl of water was brought in and handed to Christopher. I could see in his mind the thought that these chaps in the desert were pretty civilised as he neatly washed his hands in the bowl and gratefully passed it to the elder next to him. This fellow without more ado took a drink from the bowl and passed it to me. Glad that I had not been first in line, I took a drink and passed it on. All drank. It finally returned to Christopher who gamely drank, albeit gingerly, of the remaining water which by then had a layer of floating bits of date and possibly fly. No comment was made about the odd habits of Ingliz who washed their hands in the drinking water. I wonder if the situation would have been as well handled in England with roles reversed. We excused ourselves with many thanks and, following an exchange of courtesies, went our way.

 

William Fullerton is a former member of the Arab British Centre Board of Trustees. He served from 2000 to 2011.

MADA’IN SALEH BY VIRGINIA FORBES

The C130 lumbered into the dawn sky above Jeddah, heading northwards to Mada’in Saleh. I had waited 20 years for this visit, my every request being met with an ‘Inshallah’, and suddenly it was happening. A Nabatean city like Petra, Meda’in Saleh stands in the desert as Petra used to – unknown by the masses and visited by the very few.

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Charles Doughty wrote of his ‘discovery’ in 1876, but a Greek writer, Diodorus Siculus, had written of the place as al Hijra , and now UNESCO has made it a World Heritage Site.

We watched the arid mountains and desert unfold beneath us, unable to talk above the roar of the plane’s prop-driven engines. From the cockpit the Captain pointed out Medina to our left, explaining that as I was an infidel, he couldn’t fly over the holy city. A short while later we saw the palm trees of al Ula, as we circled slowly over a brand new landing strip standing alone amongst the skeletons of new airport buildings. A phalanx of black cars, blue lights flashing, was lined up to greet our royal companion. The somewhat rotund soldiers stood to attention, the Special Forces distinguished by their red berets and considerably fitter physique. After greetings, our cavalade swept off along the road from al Ula, over a sandy gravel plain surrounded by harsh mountains, already fading into the morning heat. The road had been cleared of lesser mortals, and we raced through the al Hamdha and al Mazaz valleys empty of any traffic, seeing only camels and the odd flock of goats.

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Suddenly we saw Mada’in Salah. Massive outcrops of yellow sandstone rock seemed to bubble out of the plain to great heights, the sun burning them orange and red. Unlike Petra, the site is not entered through a siq, but extends over a vast area, comprising 94 monumental tombs, dating between 1 BC and 75 AD. Similar to the tombs at Petra, they are carved out of the sandstone with geometric designs and crenellations, topped by sculptures of eagles, vases and serpents. In contrast, the inside of the tombs are bare and undecorated. All around ,the natural erosion of the sandstone has formed dramatic curves and honeycombed perforations which appear almost man-made. The siq at Jabal Ithlib, surrounded by rocky summits, hides a deep gorge. Here a central gully cut by rain water has over the centuries carved a dramatic entrance, by which towers the vast diwan. The water captured here was used for purification in the worship of the principal Nabatean god, Dushara, and contained in the rock cistern inside the siq.

VF 023 (1)

There was a wonderful feeling of exploration of the unknown, as no tourist disturbed the peace, and no litter disturbed the beauty. Discounting our armed escort, who after all belonged in this country, there were only three of us infidels, and that was a glorious feeling in this century of mass tourism. The airport will be built, Western tourists will come, and I will keep my memories of that almost solitary day.

In Allah ma a’sabareen!


Sura

A Film by Yasser Alwan

Photographer Yasser Alwan pairs his compelling portraits of Cairo’s working poor with speeches by Gamal AbdelNasser and popular song. The 11-minute film is about Egyptian Revolutions past and present.

Director: Yasser Alwan | Genre: Documentary | Produced In: 2011

 

Image: Al Hussein bus stop after Friday prayers, 2001. Photo courtesy www.yasser-alwan.com

Britain in Palestine is a research and exhibition project on British rule in Palestine 1917-1948. The exhibition will be displayed at the Brunei Gallery from October to December 2012 and will be the culmination of 4 years of dedicated research and consultation.

Hebron children

Britain in Palestine will tell the story of what happened to Palestine and its people under the British mandate for Palestine. It will show what Palestine was really like in the early years of the 20th century, who lived there, and how their lives were changed forever by British rule. The exhibition will feature stunning and dramatic photographs, film of moving personal testimonies, important original documents, and fascinating historical objects from Palestine. This material will be drawn from major public and private collections in Britain and the Middle East. Private individuals have generously agreed to lend precious family documents, photographs and objects for the exhibition.

The exhibition displays will show the beauty, diversity and vigour of Palestinian culture and society, in which the majority Arab population lived alongside long established Jewish communities and Armenians. Scenes from Mandate Palestine rarely shown: the busy towns and cities, the cultivated and fertile landscape, and the fruitful economy. Alongside these displays the exhibition will portray the dramatic events and key turning points of the Mandate era using original documents, photographs and film. Rare and previously unseen Arab political documents will demonstrate the articulate, forceful and constructive Arab opposition to British policy.

Extracts from interviews with Arabs, Jews and British who lived or served under the Mandate will bear witness to the extraordinary times the people of Palestine were living through

“My uncle was one of the revolution members fighting against the British and together with his colleagues escaped to the house, the British army surrounded the house, the members of the revolution escaped except one person who was wounded, so they put him in the women’s part – in 1930’s the women were covered, all their faces were covered, the British commander insisted on searching the women’s part, the women started screaming the women told him you must give us some time to cover our faces, they decided to put the man on the bed and cover his body, the British soldiers asked who it was, and they told him it was an old woman who was dying – the British asked to see her face, the woman said no, so they looked at her legs, and they took him, it was a ten minute order to evacuate the house with whatever you could take from your own belongings and the soldiers bombed the house.” Naseer Arafat, interviewed in Nablus

jerusalem protest 1919

“A feast, this was in Hebron, one of the local Arab military leaders who the British had been chasing for years, we arranged to go and meet him, the meeting consisted of lots of food,…we had to leave the armoured car and part of the agreement was not to bring our weapons, Arabs guarded the armoured car…this was the feeling between the Arabs and the British….if you’d been having his food you can’t arrest him, it wouldn’t be right..it wouldn’t be fair…but probably a week afterwards if you met him you would shoot him.”  Palestine Policeman Jack Bewsey on the 1936-39 Arab Uprising.

Treasured family objects have been collected from the people of the West Bank, who have generously agreed to lend these for the exhibition. There are vivid and fascinating stories that accompany these objects; some simple and moving, others dramatic and complex. By including these in the exhibition visitors will be reminded of the ordinary people of Palestine, whose voices are often lost in the high political drama of British rule.

Stone to crush olives from Deir al Ghosoun, Tulkarm

Narrator Sami Dawood

“I want to tell you the story about this stone. It belonged to my grandfather Mohammad Dawood since 1945. My grandfather was a farmer and he had many olive trees in his land. He was a merchant; he bought and sold olives from all over Palestine, he also traded with Jordan.

My grandfather carried this stone with him everywhere. When he bought olives he would use it to crush one olive from the crops he intended to buy. This allowed him to examine the concentration of oil in it. This would determine whether he bought the crop.

After my grandfather died, my father took the same trade, and he used this same stone to examine the quality of olives.

I still have the stone and if you gave me another stone I will not be able to check the quality, only my stone can tell. Every time I use it if feel good and optimistic as if my father and grandfather are still standing with me while trading. And when I want eat pickled olives I ask my wife to serve me those olives which have been crushed with this very stone. It is a sacred relic for me; I feel all the goodness in it.”

Cigarette roller and tobacco container from Jenin

Narrator Sanabel Zaed

“I want to tell you the story of this cigarette roller and the Arabic tobacco container. They belonged to my grandfather since 1930. My grandfather bought them one year before he got married, to indicate that he is now a grown up man. He continued using them all his life.

His sons, my uncles, grew up and they wanted to smoke like their father but they couldn’t. In those days according to our traditions, it was forbidden for the boys, even if they were grown men to smoke in the presence of their father, it was considered most disrespectful. And if the father caught them smoking he would beat them. So my uncles had no choice but to steal tobacco from their father and hide in the olive grove to smoke. My grandfather found out about these little thefts. One day he put his cigarette box on top of the kitchen cupboard and pretended to be asleep. My uncle Salim came to steal one cigarette and my grandfather caught him red handed, he beat him very badly. And my grandfather continued forbidding his sons from smoking until he died.

On the day of his death and after the funeral my uncle Tawfiq, put on his father’s clothes and took the cigarette roller and the tobacco container, put them in his pocket and said a poem

The lion of the land is dead

The fields are now open

Now the fox can run free

To roam all the fields

My father Mohammad kept these two items since then.”

 

About Britain in Palestine and Anne Lineen

The exhibition project was originally started by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in 2008, but the Museum halted the project in February 2011 due to financial difficulties.

Anne Lineen originally developed the exhibition for the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum. Anne will be continuing the project independently of the Museum as a freelance curator. She is a trained and qualified curator who has worked on museum and exhibition projects for over 20 years. In 2008, the exhibition she created for the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum was short-listed for the Art Fund Prize, the most prestigious arts prize in the UK.

“The Judges felt the Breaking the Chains exhibition was a model of how to address a difficult history with academic rigour, but also with sensitivity and imagination.” Art Fund Prize 2008 Judges’ citation

The Britain In Palestine exhibition will take place at the Brunei Gallery in London from October to December 2012; it will then be available to tour other important venues in the Middle East, America and Britain.

Anne is seeking funding for the exhibition, and is still keen to talk to any people who have memories or mementoes from Mandate Palestine. If you would like to contribute or discuss the project with Anne, you can contact her on anne.lineen@gmail.com

For more on Britain in Palestine visit www.britaininpalestine.org.uk

For more information on the Brunei Gallery visit: www.soas.ac.uk/gallery

Images above, from top to bottom:

Local children in Hebron, 1929.

Arab protest against the terms of the Mandate for Palestine, Jerusalem, 1919.