Tuesday, January 31, 2006

reem kelani's 'sprinting gazelle' CD

When the Palestinian singer and music researcher Reem Kelani, on a visit from London, told women in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh in southern Lebanon her name they immediately burst into the traditional song “Sprinting Gazelle”. This was a tribute to the name Reem, which means gazelle (or more specifically, according to the Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary, white antelope or addax).

The spontaneous performance of the song by women of three generations epitomises the irrepressibility and deep-rootedness of Palestinian musical culture. The women also demonstrated for Kelani the circle dance that accompanies the song at weddings

Kelani has over the years done vital work in recording, arranging and singing the songs she has collected, as well as composing her own songs. The song she heard in Ein el-Hilweh is now the title track of her debut CD “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and Diaspora”, newly released on the British label Fuse Records. The infectiously danceable title track includes musician Tigran Aleksyan on the double-reeded yarghul that is played at Palestinian weddings.

The CD opens with Kelani’s haunting rendition of “As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow”, unaccompanied but for a background vocal drone. According to local Nazarene folklore, women would sing this song while saying goodbye to menfolk leaving to serve in the Ottoman Army.

In the CD’s sleeve notes, Kelani recalls how an elderly man from Shefa Amer near Nazareth approached her after a performance she gave in Dubai “and said that he had not heard this song for at least 60 years.”

Some of the ten tracks are based on traditional songs, such as “The Cameleer Tormented my Heart”, “Galilean Lullaby” and “A Baker’s Dozen”. Other tracks feature Kelani’s compositions for Palestinian poetry: “Mawwal – Variations on Loss” based on poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, “Yearning” by Rashid Husain, “Yafa!” by Mahmoud Asim al-Hout and “Qasidah of Return” by Dr Salma Khadra Jayyusi. The CD concludes with the rousing “Il-Hamdillah – Giving Praise”.

Running through the tracks is a sense of longing and pain, mingled with joyfulness and vibrancy. Kelani’s remarkable voice enters deep into the soul of the music with emotions ranging from tenderness to passion and fury.

Kelani is supported by a terrific lineup of musicians. Her core band, with which she often appears in performance, includes jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, whose piano improvisations (taqasim) add a magical dimension to tracks such as the evocative “Yafa!”

Woodwind whiz Idris Rahman plays clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. On the percussion side, Iranian Fariborz Kiani plays daf, tombak and naghghareh, and Parick Illingworth plays drums. Oli Hayhurst is on double bass and Samy Bishai plays violin.

The sleeve notes are in the form of a 16-page booklet rich in information on each track and with the lyrics in both English and Arabic. The literary consultant is Palestinian scholar Dr Salma Khadra Jayussi and the poetry consultant the well-known British poet Alan Brownjohn. The cover and sleeve notes were designed by Nada Irani, and the Persian-style calligraphy was done by Iranian calligrapher and musician Bahman Panahi.

Reem Kelani is at:

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 31 January 2006

I see the stars at noon

When there is news in the Western media about illegal migrantion from Morocco to Europe, it all too often takes the form of reports on the bodies of nameless would-be migrants being washed up on European beaches after their boat journeys end in disaster. The film “I See the Stars at Noon”, directed and co-produced by Saeed Taji Farouky, shows the picture from the other side by following the attempts of 26-year-old Abdelfattah from Meknes to reach Spain through “hijar sriyyah” (secret emigration).

Farouky was born in Britain in 1978 to mixed Egyptian and Palestinian parentage. His film’s title is a Moroccan saying which means that someone’s world is turned upside down.

Abdelfattah’s attempt to reach Spain fails when Spanish police board the ship that is transporting him and other illegal migrants. Last heard of, he was working as a security guard in neighbouring Tunisia.

The documentary was shown to acclaim at the Dubai Film Festival in December. I saw it last week at its European premier held at the Frontline Club in West London. Farouky and the film’s editor and co-producer Gareth Keogh fielded many questions afterwards. The two are co-founders of the production company Tourist with a Typewriter.

The film consists largely of dialogue between Abdelfattah and the unseen filmmaker as the young Moroccan tries to negotiate his way though the clandestine world of people-smugglers. Abdelfattah knows the risks but is willing to take them. His idea of life in Europe and of his prospects there are inflated.

Abdelfattah makes an appealing subject with his attractive looks, and his apparent decency and wish for a better life. He despairs of the future that awaits him if he remains in Morocco. In one scene he takes Farouky to where some of his friends are gathered, drinking and smoking kif, a collage of pictures of scantily-dressed women on the walls.

The unexpected development in the film is the way in which Abdelfattah turns the tables on the filmmaker, forcing him to examine the relationship between subject and director. He asks Farouky for help towards the 750 Euros he needs to pay the people smuggler for passage on a cargo ship, otherwise he will be forced to go on a risky “boat of death”. He points out that the filmmaker is benefiting from him: “Without me the documentary wouldn’t be possible.”

This absorbing and searching film reveals much about the dilemmas of being a documentary filmmaker, and about the desperate struggle many young Moroccans face and the factors that make them keen to reach Europe even at the risk of their lives.

Susannah Tarbush
31 January 2006

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

samira al-mana's novel in english

Deeply Attached

The title of Iraqi writer Samira Al-Mana’s novel “The Umbilical Cord” reflects the deep attachment Iraqis in exile have to their mother country. Al-Mana has first-hand experience of the life of Iraqi exiles, having lived in Britain since 1965. She is married to another Iraqi writer, the poet and translator Salah Niazy, with whom she founded and produced the literary journal Alightrab al-Adabi (Literature of the Exiled).

“The Umbilical Cord” is one of five novels by Al-Mana, who has also written two collections of short stories. Her play “Only a Half” was read on stage in 1990 under the sponsorship of the International Women Playwrights’ Center and Buffalo State University, New York.

The Arabic original of “The Umbilical Cord” was published in 1990, and the English translation has now been published by Central Publishing Services of West Yorkshire, England. The translation was undertaken in conjunction with the late Charles M Lewis, to whose memory it is dedicated.

The novel takes the form of 14 interrelated stories revolving around two middle-aged Iraq exiles, divorced Afaf and diplomat’s widow Madeha, who is a fiction writer. Al-Mana depicts the society of Iraqi expatriates in London with skill and humour. She captures their suspicions and longings, and the corrosive effects of the appalling situation back in their homeland.

Characters recur in the stories. In the opening story “All That Jazz” Madeha encounters an acquaintance in an underground train. He shows her a teapot in the form of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and says: “That’s democracy, whatever they say! Mrs Thatcher sold in London’s department stores as a teapot! Her opponents laugh at her and take revenge.”

Madeha suspects he may be an informant, but when she gets off the train and remembers his old and torn collar is she convinced he is “one of the innocent” who had seen her by chance and wanted to share his grief and his loneliness. In a later story he asks Madeha why she had been suspicious of him.

In the title story, Afaf is assailed by memories of Iraq and its people while waiting on the platform of Gloucester Road tube station. On a visit from Iraq her uncle tells her tales of his dissolute past in Basra and the pain caused to his mother when his father took a second wife

When she looks at her sleeping uncle, Afaf thinks how he resembles many of the functionaries in Iraq and neighbouring countries. “They’re all cast in the same mould, fighting for party slogans, nationality, religion. How oppressed they are, and how much they have oppressed others, inflicting cruelty, and in turn suffered from cruelty.”

Afaf observes the ageing of her generation in the story “The Turquoise Ring”, in which a group of Iraqis who had studied in Moscow more than 20 years previously meets up at a party thrown by Madeha. After the 1958 revolution young Iraqis were very keen to study in Moscow, and Afaf met her husband Jalal there. Several stories in “The Umbilical Cord” describe how the marriage declines, alongside the disappointments of post-revolutionary Iraq.

Al-Mana’s satirical eye brings us memorable characters such as Munir Abu Seifen (“Shining Father of the Two Swords”) who is boss at an Arab publishing house and young female literary star Gazal Hamid around whom there has been much scandal and gossip.

The main flaw in “The Umbilical Cord” is not in its contents but in the typographical errors that mar the text. These will presumably be corrected in future editions.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 24 January 2006

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

toot is launched

The toot team

The number of Arab blogs (online diaries) is mushrooming, and it can be a difficult and time-consuming task to try and pick one’s way through the thousands on offer to identify those with particular appeal.

“Toot”, a new website launched on 1 January, provides a way into the Arab blogosphere by presenting some of the best blogs around in an attractive and user-friendly way. The website points out that the word “toot” is both a fruit (it is Arabic for mulberry) that consists of little bits that make up a whole, and “the sound you make to draw attention to yourself.”

Toot’s Amman-based team constantly trawls through the toot list of the Arab blogs, whether in Arabic or English, and displays the most interesting posts and conversations. At present toot has a menu of 50 blogs, seven of them Saudi: blogger Ahmed’s “Saudi jeans” and “yawmeyat” blogs, “farah’s sowaleef”, “tech2click”, “al-mohareb”, “al doktoorah” and “prom 2000”.

Toot was founded by entrepreneur, blogger and podcaster Ahmad Humeid (co-owner of branding and web design firm SYNAX) together with his London-based friend Mazen Arafat, Mazen’s brother Karim, and George Akra.The other team members are chief designer Wael Attili, web developer Jad Madi and Roba Al-Assi, who manages the blogs.

Humeid told Saudi Gazette that he hopes to see more Saudi blogs added to toot as it expands, including technology-oriented blogs “that reflect the active open source community there.” He sees the Saudi internet as “a very interesting space, although dominated by the ‘discussion forum’ phenomenon - not to forget those ‘romantic’ sites.”

The toot-listed blogs include from one end of the Arab world “Moorish Girl”, the literary blog of Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami (currently living in Portland, Oregon), and from the other end “Muscatis”, written by Omani Osamah M Abdullatif and his wife. Blogs from many other Arab countries also feature.

The ‘what’s tooting’ section features nine handpicked bloggers of the day. The ‘tootreads’ section consists of posts that the team is currently reading, and ‘tootstream’ has the freshest harvest of posts, with blogs’ RSS feeds. The members of the toot team write a ‘toot(b)log’. Each month the site will feature the top 10 blogs, voted for by visitors.

Bloggers can submit their own blogs to toot for possible inclusion on the site. Humeid says that toot’s current set up will allow it to eventually handle 150-200 blogs.

I asked Humeid whether there is a risk toot will be seen as cliquey and elitist, especially by those whose blogs are rejected for inclusion. He said: “Although we do have our own understanding of what quality blogging is, if we manage to cover a wide spectrum of interests I don’t think we’ll be perceived as elitists. We will be on the constant lookout for fresh voices and we will rely on the pulse of the blogging community to determine what is good.”

He adds: “One thing we will be careful about is that we don’t want to include extremist or very distasteful content. That kind of stuff already has enough forms.”

Toot is at http://itoot.net

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 17 January 2006

galloway in celebrity big brother

The Respect Party MP George Galloway has taken many risks in his political career, and has generally come up trumps. But his surprise decision to participate in the reality TV contest Celebrity Big Brother may be a gamble too far even for this wily politician - who currently faces serious allegations that he received large sums of money from Saddam Hussein in the form of oil allocations.

Galloway formed Respect after he was expelled from the Labour Party for his strongly anti-Iraq war stance. How does he justify spending up to three weeks incarcerated in the Big Brother House with 10 other mostly minor celebrities?

Before entering the house 12 days ago, Galloway explained that he was participating in order to reach a new young audience for his political views. He is giving his fee for participating, and any winnings, to the Palestinian charity Interpal. But Channel 4 TV made it clear that he would not be allowed to use the house as a political soapbox.

Galloway's most famous TV appearance to date came last May when he appeared before the US Senate Subcommittee on Investigations in order to refute under oath claims that he had received Iraqi oil allocations. He used the occasion to deliver a stunning indictment of the invasion of Iraq.

The Cuban cigar-chomping politician’s current TV appearance is of a different type altogether. Under the surveillance of 24-hour cameras he and his fellow housemates are ordered by the invisible “Big Brother” to carry out bizarre tasks in order to win food and other perks. Viewers decide which celebrities are to be ejected.

In one demeaning incident, which has made him an object of public ridicule, Galloway was filmed doing an impression of a cat, purring loudly and pretending to lick milk from the cupped hands of 58-year-old former actress Rula Lenska. Lenska stroked his head and rubbed his whiskers while he nuzzled against her thigh.

Galloway had several heated confrontations with 27-year-old glamour model Jodie Marsh, who was the first housemate to be evicted from the house on Friday. Samuel Preston, lead singer of The Ordinary Boys complained that Galloway was trying to turn the Big Brother House into a socialist republic.

Galloway is being accused of neglecting his constituents, who include many Muslims, in the impoverished constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in East London. A group calling itself the United Residents of Bethnal Green and Bow has set up a website entitled 'Contestant George Galloway MP: Why Isn't he at work?'

The housemates are a rum lot. Disgraced entertainer Michael Barrymore is using his appearance to try and make a comeback. Bangladesh-born Faria Alam's sole claim to fame is that she had much-publicised affairs with England football coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and Football Association chief executive Mark Palios.

The other contestants include US basketball star Dennis Rodman, former "Baywatch" actress Traci Bingham and rapper Maggot from Goldie Lookin' Chain. A “fake celebrity”, blonde Chantelle, was promoted to official celebrity status after she convinced the other housemates that she is lead singer of a girl group called Kandy Floss.

Although Galloway’s stint in the Big Brother House looks as if it could deal a serious blow to his career, the man may yet show that, like the cat he imitated in the house, he has nine lives.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 16 January 2006

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

the english harem

The premise of the drama “The English Harem” sounds potentially salacious. A young English woman Tracy, who works as a cashier at a supermarket, and constantly retreats into dreams of Oriental romance, fails to detect shoplifters and is sacked. She persuades the prosperous Persian owner of a restaurant in the Kensington area of London to take her on as a waitress, and the two fall in love. The Persian, Sami, already has two wives, but she agrees to become his third wife and to move into the palatial family house – hence the title of the drama.

In fact in the ITV drama, which was a highlight of the intensive TV viewing season over Christmas, Tracy only agrees to marry Sam after he assures her that he has no marital relations with his two wives whom he married only out of duty.

The first wife had been married to Sam’s brother, and when his brother died he married her and took on her four children. His second wife was his first wife’s best friend, and married him after her husband too died. The wives work in Sam’s restaurant and egg their husband on to form a relationship with Tracy, to whom they have given their seal of approval.

“The English Harem” was adapted by New Zealand-born writer Anthony McCarten from his novel of the same title. A major draw for viewers was the presence of two of Britain’s most popular actors, Melanie McCutcheon and Art Malik, in the lead roles.

McCutcheon first made her name in the soap opera EastEnders, playing the character of Tiffany Mitchell. She is known internationally for her role in the film “Love, Actually” as 10 Downing Street tea-girl Natalie who becomes the subject of the affections of the prime minister, played by Hugh Grant.

The Pakistani-born actor Art Malik had his major breakthrough in 1984 when he starred as ill-fated young Indian Hari Kumar in the TV series “The Jewel in the Crown”. Most recently he has been playing doctor Zubin Khan in the medical series “Holby City”.

The major obstacles to Tracy and Sam’s marriage come from Tracy’s father and her racist ex-boyfriend Ricky. Tracy dumped thuggish Ricky when she caught him with another woman, but he desperately wants her back and is ready to do anything to sabotage her relationship with Sam.

Thanks to the efforts of Tracy’s father and Ricky, social services remove the children of Sam’s first wife. A masked Ricky then assaults Sam so violently that he suffers a life-threatening brain aneurysm.

The tone of “The English Harem” is an at times awkward mixture of romantic comedy and harsh reality, but the strong cast carries the drama off and the twists in the plot sustain interest. However, it can’t be said that the drama sheds much light on Muslim life in Britain, nor is it a serious exploration of the polygamy that does occur to some extent.

the mozart controversy

The 250th anniversary year of the birth of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has got off to a quarrelsome start following the refusal of the controller of the BBC classical music station Radio 3 to play the entire works of the composer back to back.

Last June Radio 3 carried out the first experiment of this kind when it played the entire works of Beethoven over six days. Following the success of this experience, it broadcast all the works of Bach in ten days over Christmas, to a rapturous reception. In September the station played the entire oeuvre of the composer Anton Webern – admittedly only five and a half hours in all.

So why, in his quarter-millennium anniversary year, is Mozart being denied a Radio 3 accolade of the type accorded Beethoven, Bach and Webern? The station’s controller Roger Wright says: “With Mozart end to end, the overall effect would be detrimental to the music. The music could wrongly be seen as slightly more chocolate-boxy than it really is.”

The term “chocolate-boxy” with its connotations of froth, sweetness, predictability and insubstantiality, touched a particular nerve among Mozart loyalists. Perhaps Radio 3 was also deterred by the fact that it would take around 14 days to broadcast Mozart in his entirety.

The music critic Norman Lebrecht fuelled the controversy when, in a piece headed “Too much Mozart makes you sick”, he wrote: “Mozart is the superstore wallpaper of classical music, the composer who pleases most and offends least. Lively, melodic, dissonance-free: what’s not to like?”

Lebrecht claimed: “The coming year of Mozart feels like a term at Guantanamo Bay without the sunshine. There will be no refuge from neatly resolved chords, no escaping that ingratiating musical grin.”

The comments of Wright and Lebrecht have led to furious reactions. Catherine Sprague wrote: “The greatest minds in the history of western civilization have studied Mozart’s spiritual depths and mastery of composition and have concluded exactly the opposite as Mr Lebrecht.”

She asserted that not just composers, but nearly all great philosophers, writers, poets and musicologists consider Mozart to be the greatest musical genius that ever lived. “This does not just mean that Mozart was a prodigy, which he was. Or virtuoso which he was. It means, in plain English, that his music is deep, musically, technically and spiritually. Kierkegaard, Stendhal, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw etc etc and on down the list have argued such.”

Mozart died at the age of only 35, having produced well over 600 works. To some extent he has been a victim of his own success, and some of his best-loved compositions have become almost too well-known.

But it is unfair to pillory Mozart as predictable and as having failed to move music onwards. There are numerous examples of depths in his music – as shown by for example the opera “Don Giovanni”, the piano sonatas, the sublime string quintets, the Requiem.

In Austria, the capital Vienna and Mozart’s birthplace Salzburg are gearing up for a dizzying year of celebrations. In Britain “Mozart 250” will be marked by many concerts, CD releases and radio and TV programmes. Even if Mozart is not played back to back in his entirety by Radio 3, the station will during the year play very many of his compositions.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 3 January 2006

palestine's children: silent witnesses

Images of Conflict

The photographic book “Silent Witnesses: the Lives of Palestine’s Children” brings home to the reader the traumatic conditions in which many Palestinian children live, but it also conveys their spirit and resilience.

The photographs, mostly in black and white, take us into the streets, homes, families and schools of Palestinian refugee camps and towns. Some show scenes of confrontations and demonstrations, with children having apprehensive, fearful or glowering expressions. In others, children dance, study, stand with arms round friends or family, protect siblings and smile at the camera. Interspersed with the photographs are colourful drawings by children, which reflect the violent conditions under which the children are growing up.

The handsomely produced 240-page book is a project of the Al-Madad Foundation, the UK-registered charity founded in 2000 by Faiza Alreza of Saudi Arabia with the help of her daughters Basma and Yasmin. The book is published by Elliott & Thompson of London and was launched in collaboration with Boucheron, the jewellers. The majority of the photographs were taken by the internationally renowned fashion photographer Stefano Massimo.

Al-Madad has a track record in aiding projects for the Palestinians, including Action Around Bethlehem Children with Disability (ABCD) and Spafford Children’s Center in East Jerusalem.

The charity also co-produced the film “Seeds of Peace” about the work of the Seeds of Peace camp in the US, which brings together young people from regions of conflict including Palestine and Israel.

One of Al-Madad’s earliest projects was to help Birzeit University Photographic Library. “Silent Witnesses” is a further development in this process, with its photographs coming not only from Stefano Massimo, but also from Rula Halawani, Ali Karakrah, Ameer Shata, Baker Atari and Birzeit’s Photographic Department.

In his introduction to the book, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan writes: “The voice of the silenced majority, including that of the youth, has to be raised in our traumatised part of the world.”

The only fault of the Palestinian children portrayed in the book is “the fact that they were born under an occupation that erects hundreds of check points, roadblocks, trenches and earthen walls to block their way to school and to normality. It is not normal to witness the death of friends, the firing into schools and the razing of homes.”

Prince El Hassan states: “As political, economic and security plans are designed, the voices of the children are stifled behind the Wall, but it is initiatives such as this book that will carry their clear voices to the world with the message that every child is born free, without a label.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 3 January 2005