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Louis Awad's Secular Tradition; Samir Nakash's Love of Arab Culture; Rethinking Edward Said's ‘Orientalism'; Arab Satellite TV Funding
By Beige Luciano-Adams
A new issue of Al Jadid is out (Vol. 10, no. 48). As usual it covers a wide range of topics and subjects in the field of Arab and Mideast culture, arts, and literature. Topics covered in this issue include the civil liberties of Arab-Americans, the Palestine-Israel conflict, Arab media, Jewish-Arab relations, critical intellectual discourse, and much more.
In the Features and Essays Section, Mohammad al-Atassi examines the rise of Arab satellite news channels in the Middle East and how they have changed the face of Arab television, with particular attention to the role of Gulf money. In an era where media has progressed beyond its former role as a tool of the state, and has the potential to be a forum for social and political progress, al-Atassi exposes satellite television as largely a tool of Saudi hegemony, funded by petrodollars. He realistically examines Al Jazeera's political inception, the controversy it causes within and beyond the Arab world, and cuts through the gushing praise of the station's perceived autonomy and image as a bastion of free speech and voice of dissent, to deliver a searing critique of the Qatari government's ambitions.
Mohammed Dakroub warmly profiles an important Arab voice of the 20th century in “Louis Awad: Early Pioneer of Secularism.” The Egyptian intellectual was an outspoken voice in calling for democratization and secularism in the Arab world, yet was often misunderstood and marginalized by his contemporaries. Perhaps because of his Christian faith, Awad was accused of having Egyptian or Pharonic rather than Arab sympathies, mainly because he remained a voice of reason, neither blind isolationist nor uncritically pan-Arab. His optimistic adherence to rationalism and tolerance were the hallmark of the intellectual renaissance he defined.
Another important literary figure, again misunderstood and marginalized, is remembered by Mohammad Ali al-Atassi in “Samir Nakash: The Wandering Arab-Jew.” A Jewish Baghdadi, Nakash spent the greater part of his life trying to overcome his family's life of exile in Israel and ensuing years of displacement. Fiercely loyal to the Arabic language, he continued to publish his books in Arabic (with difficulty) while in Israel . His writings, which include rich resources of now-extinct, colloquial Iraqi-Jewish dialect, are difficult to find; as a writer he is considered neither Hebrew nor Arabic. “An author obsessed with presenting a comprehensive picture of humans in literature,” writes al-Atassi, Nakash's life and work reflected the humanism that is often swept away in the rage of such powerful conflicts. From his uncomfortable position of ostracized observer, Nakash was afforded an exceptional vantage point, and critiqued with equal fervor both Zionism, and what al-Atassi calls the Arab “indifference, fear, and hatred” which kept Nakash drifting between two worlds.
The Feature and Essay section also includes a profile of the Palestinian poet Ahmad Dahbur by Mark Grimes. Grimes looks at the poet's political life, and traces his profound journey from the political to the personal in “Ahmad Dahbur: In Pursuit of Blackness.”
Rafif Rida Sidawi's study of the concept of sex in the Arab novel focuses on the transformative role of the feminist novel in the evolution of Arabic narrative voice. The 1960s arguably marked the emergence of the modern Arab novel, and the social and political forces that helped define it. Sexual symbolism used by feminist writers helped to liberate the novel from dominant norms. Sidawi argues that the most successful examples are those that transcend the male-female dichotomy to become a universal expression of Arab voice. In an interview with Inayeh Jabber, Sidawi talks about her methods and approaches to literary criticism, the Lebanese war novel, and form and content in the Arab literary voice.
Iranian artist Susan Kahroody talks to Judith Gabriel about her life and current sculpture, much of which expresses the female perspective on war in the Middle East . Kahroody works with various media, including clay, fabric, and fire, which she calls “an extreme expression,” to convey the physical destruction and emotional horrors of war. She also uses pregnancy in her art as a tactile metaphor for the pain that women carry.
Japanese photojournalist Satoshi Yammaji's assignment takes him to Rafah refugee camp and the Gaza Strip to cover International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activities, where he befriends a group of adolescents living under the devastating rule of occupation. In this very personal sojourn, Yamaji witnesses the horrors of violence first hand.
Writing from Cairo , Miranda Bechara pays homage to the legendary actress Amina Rizk as “one of the last living witnesses to the belle époque of Egyptian arts and culture.” Another legend, the deified Umm Kulthum, is further immortalized in a new exhaustive, three-volume encyclopedia about her life by brothers Victor and Elias Saab. In her interview with Victor Sahab, Mai Munasa discusses the importance and trajectory of Umm Kulthum as one of the greatest Arab artists, and the musical heritage she represents. Another rich addition to the field of Arab music, A.J. Racy's book “Music Making in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab ,” is reviewed by Anne K. Rasmussen. Also, Judith Gabriel reviews five CD releases – ranging from traditional Armenian Folk and contemporary Rai, to modern Turkish/Arabic percussion mixes, eclectic Eastern European compositions, and modern Flamenco/Middle Eastern fusion.
Edward Said is remembered in two films, “The Last Interview of Edward Said,” reviewed by Brigitte Caland, and in “Selves and Others: A portrait of Edward Said,” reviewed by Doris Bittar. Caland reflects on time she spent with the thinker and looks at his last interview, which captures the quintessential Said, unstoppable and as powerful as ever in his last days. In “Selves and Others,” Doris Bittar paints a telling, intimate portrait of Said in his Manhattan home and the sense of exile that haunted and defined him and his work. In an interview with the editor, Charbel Dagher brings a fresh perspective to the discourse on Orientalism, and challenges the Saidian doctrine of critical literary theory. In particular, Dagher takes issue with Said's use of Western discourse and methodology to criticize Orientalism, his exclusion of the German Orientalist School , and the periodization of Orientalism.
Miranda Bechara reviews Youssef Chahine's newest film, “Alexandrie… New York .” She finds a film that eschews the common Arab-American political dichotomy in favor of an up-close view of Arab-American relations through Chahine's intimate, autobiographical narrative.
There are several other documentaries reviewed in this issue of Al Jadid. Lynne Rogers looks at three post-9/11 documentaries about Arab Americans, which deal with the difficulties and the joys of being Arab in New York City after 9/11. These films address abuses under the Patriot Act and a critique of post-9/11 racism, but also consider the more complex feelings of identity, love and affinity that Arab Americans feel for New York .
It is with a laudatory voice that Lynne Rogers writes about three other documentaries in “The Legacies of War and the Ghosts of a Normal Life.” To some extent, but from differing angles, each film deals with effects of the Palestinian conflict. While one film (“Suspended Dreams” by Mai Masri Jean Shamoun) weaves personal stories in Beirut to tell a larger, collective narrative of war in Lebanon, the other two (“Sucha Normal Thing,” by Rebecca Glotfelty and “3Cm Less,” by Azza El Hassan) focus on life under occupation during the second intifada. All three add insight to the familiar themes of war and peace, and give faces to the tragedy, destruction and despair that have become routine vocabulary in our dialogue.
A Syria with different voices and a sense of its complex history and social fabric is presented in Saul Landau's film, “Between Iraq and a Hard Place ,” reviewed by Bobby Gulshan. Gulshan also reviews Amal Moghaizal's “20 Years in the Middle East ,” in which the filmmaker hops around the Middle East to collect a mosaic of youth experience. What he finds is a generation united by a sense of despair and anxiety, rather than a vision or ideal of Arab unity.
The international activist group “Women in Black,” is profiled in a film of the sam e name by Donna Baillie, reviewed by Beige Luciano-Adams. The Women in Black offer a fresh look, and feminist contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by advocating dialogue and peaceful protest as an alternative to traditional diplomacy, politics and violence. Luciano-Adams also reviews the documentaries “In the Name of Honor,” by filmmaker Alex Gabbay, which profiles the brutal practice of honor killing and the women's liberation movement in Kurdish Iraq.; and “Rainmakers II: Yildiz Temurturkan in Turkey,” by Luc Cote, which follows a young human rights activist in her crusade against state terror in Turkey.
The controversial murder of photographer Zahra Kazemi is explored in Diana Hill's “Last Days in Iran ,” reviewed by Emaleah Schakleton. This Discovery Times Channel film offers a personal profile of Kazemi, an elucidating account of events leading up to and following her death, and a look at her case, taken up by Nobel Prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi.
Finally, in her reviews of Mia Grondahl's photography in the book “In Hope and Despair,” and Barbara Grover 's photographic exhibition, “This Land to Me: Some Call it Palestine, Others, Israel,” artist Doris Bittar considers the biography behind images – Grondahl's work explores memory and representation of historic Palestinian refugees, while Grover captures the unique identities and voices of Palestinian and Israeli individuals which form the oft-ignored human texture of both conflict and resolution in today's world.