Arabic death throes in the Gulf?

DOHA // Abbas al Tonsi sees something wrong in a future where citizens of Gulf countries wear dishdashas and abayas but are unable to speak Arabic.

“How can you say ‘I am an Arab’ if you don’t know the language?” said the professor of Arabic at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

For Mr al Tonsi, who has written several Arabic textbooks and has been teaching the language for almost 40 years, the crisis is personal. “I am afraid that after 20 years,” he said, “Arabic will just be a language of religious ritual.”

The native tongue for more than 300 million people and used regularly by 1.6 billion Muslims, Arabic is in no danger of extinction. But because of the dominance of English, its usage in everyday life is under threat in several of the Gulf’s smaller states.

A senior official at Qatar’s ministry of culture, arts and heritage recently acknowledged Arabic’s decline and underscored the seriousness of the problem. “Language is the key issue for the identity of a society,” Marzook Basher Binmarzook said last month.

Mr al Tonsi’s forthcoming study of Arabic instruction reveals how Qatari schools are helping to erode that identity. Standards are vague and not communicated well to the teachers, he said.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Meet this level of efficiency’. But how do you guide the teachers to get the students there?” said Mr al Tonsi. “What exactly are the main ideas? In these standards, there are no indicators of intent, no uniform lesson plans or content.”

Secondly, he said, most of the Arabic teachers were inadequately trained and relied on outdated methods.

“The teachers mainly teach grammar, and it’s mainly teacher-centred,” Mr al Tonsi said. “They lecture rather than engage the students.”

Finally, schools use a wide variety of textbooks, which complicates proficiency testing. They also lean too heavily on grammar, according to Mr al Tonsi, and use simplistic drills that fail to develop critical thinking. Further, most books are overly proud and authoritarian, he said.

“‘We are the best, we are the bravest’ – you feel this is nonsense if you’re a young person,” said Mr al Tonsi, who co-authored Al Khitaab, an Arabic textbook used in about 700 universities worldwide.

Similar problems exist in the UAE. Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority recently found that Arabic in private schools was poorly taught by underqualified teachers using inadequate resources.

In addition, fewer Gulf nationals are opting for teaching careers because of low pay and a lack of cultural respect. And a major reform programme in Qatar has instituted a more westernised curriculum.

“Westernising the curriculum, per se, is not necessarily bad,” said Hatem Samman, the director of the Ideation Centre, a think tank based in Dubai, where Arabic has also lost ground in most primary schools. “But if you bring in English in mathematics, geography and science, that definitely has an effect on Arabic, on the language and the culture as well.”

Gulf culture has in recent decades shifted towards the West. Arabs represent a minority population in Qatar, as in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. English dominates business, and is more common in many public places, such as malls.

Many schools now favour English as the primary medium of instruction. And Education City in Doha, American University in Dubai and Sharjah and New York University in Abu Dhabi point to a higher educational system that is embracing English.

Many students and their parents see it as the best route to success.

“Many Arab families now want their children to learn English before they learn Arabic,” said Jinanne Tabra, the founder of Araboh, a producer of contemporary Arabic learning materials. “There is this ridiculous impression that English is somehow superior to Arabic.”

But instead of becoming bilingual, most students in Qatar lack fluency in any language. In the past four years, only five to seven per cent of primary and junior high school students in Qatar achieved acceptable standards in national tests for Arabic and English.

“Unless you have a very solid system of your first language you cannot progress in a second language,” Mr al Tonsi said. “Learning Arabic is important for learning English well – it’s very clear.”

As a result, the cultural winds may be shifting again. Last month the UAE announced a new national plan to help Arabic “re-emerge as a dynamic and vibrant language”. Qatar has organised seminars and festivals to celebrate Arabic language and culture.

Mr al Tonsi has more concrete recommendations. He would like to see all courses from preschool to middle school taught in Arabic and English. He cited the example of Lebanon, where most students were fluent in three languages by the time they reached their adolescence.

He urged schools to improve teacher training and create extra curricular activities in which students could converse in Arabic – book clubs, speech groups, drama clubs and poetry readings. He also thinks schools should use audio and video as the main texts, and teach an Arabic that is challenging, enjoyable, respectful of young minds and develops critical thinking.

Maybe learning Arabic could even be fun. “You will never learn a language unless you are willing to learn it,” he said. “No one learns a language by force.”

Muslim world lags in aid and development

Doha // Muhammad Yunus may have kick-started modern microfinance, won the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired the current vogue for social entrepreneurialism. But across the Middle East and North Africa, his Muslim brethren seem to have dropped the baton.

Of the thousands of social businesses around the world, Arabs founded less than 75, according to a study by the Middle East Youth Initiative. Of those, five were launched in the wealthy nations of the GCC: three in Kuwait and one each in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; none in Qatar and the UAE.

“Social entrepreneurship is a nascent field here,” said Ehaab Abdou, an adviser to MEYI, a partnership of the Brookings Institute and the Dubai School of Government. “This is a big gap that we need to address.”

One after another, officials, academics and industry experts speaking at the third annual World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP) here underscored how the Muslim world – which represents nearly a quarter of humanity – has been failing to pull its weight in responding to poverty, hunger, humanitarian emergencies and the radicalisation of youth.

In bringing philanthropists and aid organisations up to speed, they may need to start with the basics.

“Very few people in the field in Saudi Arabia even know what development is,” said Saudi Princess Banderi Abdul Rahman Al Faisal, the director general of the King Khalid Foundation (KKF), which works with Saudi non-profit organisations to train their staff, design projects and improve effectiveness and monitoring.

Ms Faisal likely hit on the key problem: inadequate education.

“The way to jannat [Arabic for ‘paradise’] is not just building mosques,” said Atta-ur-Rahman, a former education minister of Pakistan who now heads the science and technology body of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). “You have to build schools, you have to build research and innovation centres and knowledge parks.”

Ten years ago, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, crown prince and deputy ruler of Ras al Khaimah, helped launch the Arab Science & Technology Foundation. Today the organisation has 15,000 member scientists and regularly links international businesses with entrepreneurial Arab scientists.

“We try to match those who have some knowledge with those who have some money to develop something really good,” said Abdallah al Najjar, the foundation’s president and CEO. Out of 90 start-up concepts the organisation has presented to investors, 22 have received financing.

Yet more needs to be done, particularly within Muslim countries. Nearly one billion people in OIC-member states are below the age of 25, according to Mr Rahman. Due to a lack of training and opportunity, many are unable to access the advantages of a globalised economy.

A study by the International Council on Security and Development found that more than 85 per cent of young men in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia say there are not enough jobs and that greater numbers are joining militant groups.
Similar problems exist from Algeria to Indonesia. ISOC works to minimise such discontentment by providing homes, jobs, marriage and education.

“We could turn this group of young men, this demographic time bomb, into married men with jobs, a house, a commitment to their community, a sense of identity, a sense of enfranchisement,” said Norine McDonald, ISOC director. “All these things we work on should be given the same political and financial support as we give to military and police actions.”

Such support is undermined by a lack of information and suspicion about aid efforts. In a recent YouGov survey, nearly 40 per cent of respondents across the Middle East said they had not donated to Haitian earthquake relief because they did not know where or to whom to contribute.

Further, 35 per cent said they did not trust local non-profits and 36 per cent believed it was easier to donate to international organisations.

KKF has partnered with the Columbia Business School, Acumen Fund and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Yet most Saudi donors still view non-profits as ineffective or unaccountable and prefer to give directly to the beneficiary.
“We have to build non-profit capacity because the donors must be able to trust their abilities,” said Ms Faisal. “We’re actually looking to shift the mindset, shift the culture, and that’s very difficult.”

Another hurdle is a lack of commitment from those in a position to help.

The Islamic Development Bank is one of the world’s largest and most innovative international aid institutions and many of the more developed Muslim nations have significant aid agencies. As a percentage of GDP, in fact, wealthy Gulf states are among the world’s leading providers of aid.

And while philanthropists gathered in Doha, Arab leaders met in Cairo hoping to net US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) for a new Darfur reconstruction fund.

Yet only a small percentage of the more than $100 billion in zakat payments collected annually by OIC member states goes to help the needy, said Mat Hassan Essa, head of the International Zakat Organisation. He proposed a cooperative effort to collect and disburse these funds to projects for the poor.

Islamic bankers, too, generally ignore the base of the pyramid. Globally, Islamic finance is set to reach $10 trillion this year, yet out of 77 million microcredit loans worldwide, some 380,000, or about 0.4 per cent, are Sharia-compliant.

“Right now Islamic financing is geared towards serving the haves of the world,” said Ali Ibrahim, a law professor at Georgetown University in Bahrain.

Many of those haves might be unaware that one-sixth of humanity remains hungry and that food production in Africa is set to drop one-fifth by 2050. Tarik Cheema, CEO of the WCMP, is not among them.

At the conference’s opening session he announced the Hasana Fund, a microfinance initiative that will provide interest-free loans to small-scale farmers across more than 20 poorer nations, including Bangladesh, Ghana, Ethiopia.

“As human beings and Muslims,” said Mr Cheema, “it is our duty not just to give food but also to help the poor produce their food so that they are not dependent.”


Five years after terror, Doha Players play on

DOHA // The players were nearing the climax of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when an unexpected guest interrupted the show.

“I’d been on stage for 10 minutes when I heard this crashing noise,” said Sherwynne O’Grady, an Australian schoolteacher who played a mother in the production.

An SUV smashed into the theatre lobby. Then it exploded.

“There was a tremendous boom,” Ms O’Grady recalled. “The concussion was amazing, everybody was deaf for a few minutes and parts of the ceiling started falling down.”

Five years ago today, an Egyptian suicide bomber struck the Doha Players Theatre. A dozen people were injured and the show’s director, Jon Adams, who had hurried towards the auditorium doors to investigate the initial crash, was killed.

The attack – Qatar’s first and, as yet, only, terrorist bombing – pierced the nation’s veneer of security.

“My first reaction was to get out of the country,” said Elaine Potter, the Doha Players’ secretary at the time, now theatre administrator and producer. She attended the show with her nine-year-old daughter, but they left at the interval.

Ms Potter was not alone in her fear. In the days after the bombing embassies and international schools erected concrete barriers. Luxury hotels installed metal detectors to scan all guests and visitors.

Worried about repeat attacks, a handful of Doha Players’ members left Qatar, moving to Dubai or back home to Australia or the UK.

Most returned within a year, according to Ms Potter, and resumed their former lives. Yet the Doha Players remains adrift.

Founded by a group of mostly British expatriates in 1954, the troupe performed irregularly at a variety of locations over the next quarter century, and its following grew. In 1979, the Emir, reportedly impressed with the members’ commitment, offered them a permanent home at a 340-seat theatre on Al Wabra street.

By the turn of the millennium the Doha Players had hit its stride, selling out productions of Shakespeare and fairy tale musicals, organising readings and community events and hosting well-known performers such as the Scottish actor and comedian Billy Connolly.

The bombing doused that momentum, took away one of the theatre’s most prominent members and destroyed its home. In the next day’s edition, The Gulf Times, Qatar’s most popular English-language daily, declared “the end of the Doha Players”.

The theatre board convened an emergency meeting. “The decision to rebuild and continue was made very quickly and very unanimously,” said Chris Evans, a former board member who attended the meeting. “We were quite determined to establish the fact that we were not dead.”

Donations poured in from prominent local backers and ex-members overseas. Qataris and expatriates organised a peace rally on a vacant area next to the theatre. It was attended by hundreds of students and religious leaders, including Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi.

Another prominent backer emerged. Before his death, Jon Adams taught for years at the Qatar Academy, a primary and secondary school operated by the Qatar Foundation, which is run by Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. “After the bombing, Sheikha Mozah said anything you need, we will help you,” said Ms Potter.

Together with the Qatar Foundation, the Doha Players organised a fundraiser, with the proceeds helping the theatre get back on its feet. In December 2005 the troupe returned to the stage, with production of Cinderella for a short run at the National Theatre.

The show was a success, but the Doha Players remained homeless. In recent years they have scraped by and performed wherever they could – school auditoriums, the lawn of the Sheraton Hotel, even in gardens and living rooms.

“That’s going back to the way they performed over 30 years ago,” Ms Potter said. “Before they had the theatre, they performed in an old house.”

Since the September 2001 attacks on the US, Gulf nations have been mostly terror-free, outside Saudi Arabia. And with two American military bases, Qatar appeared secure.

It may still be. Qatar has not suffered any more attacks in the ensuing years, and Qatari authorities believe the Doha Players’ bomber, an engineer employed at Qatar Petroleum, acted alone. They have been unable to link him to al Qa’eda or another terrorist group.

Yet the attack occurred on the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and a week after an al Qa’eda leader in Saudi Arabia called for attacks against western targets in the Gulf. “My sense is that this was an independent operation by someone who was inspired by al Qa’eda ideology,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment whose book, Jihad in Saudi Arabia, will be released next month.

The Doha Players recently moved into a temporary home on land owned by the Qatar Foundation. The villa will provide offices and storage space but the troupe must look elsewhere to house productions such as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, scheduled for May.

On a recent afternoon, several dozen actors auditioning for next production seemed unconcerned about any potential terrorist attacks.

“The show must go on,” said Ms Potter. “Nothing ever is going to stop the Doha Players … No matter what happens, there’s still going to be enthusiastic actors who will do anything to find some place to perform.”

originally appeared in the 19 March 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae


Story of the artist as a...Qatari

DOHA // Indian-born artist MF Husain has been seeking sanctuary for a long time. “Since my wife passed in 1996 I had no home,” Husain said during an interview at his West Bay villa in Doha.

Barefoot and wearing a loosefitting Arab kandoura, he tapped and twirled an oversized black paintbrush as a servant poured tea. “At this stage of my life, my mission is to work,” he said. “And I like to work in maximum peace and comfort.”

Realising these are two things he might never find in his homeland, Husain, 94, relinquished his Indian passport this week and accepted Qatari citizenship. With that, India lost a national treasure and Qatar gained a living legend.

“The arrival of a world-renowned artist like him, it will be a blessing for Qatar,” said SAM Bashir, an Indian businessman who has lived in Qatar for 20 years and is the former president of the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre in Doha.

Husain’s paintings hang in museums from New York to Shanghai and controversy has mostly brightened his star. Today his works sell for up to US$2 million (Dh7.3m) at auction – as pricey as the work of any living non-western artist.

“But it is a national disgrace for India,” added Mr Bashir. “I don’t know why anyone from the Indian government didn’t make any attempt to solve the problem and bring him back to India. It’s a total failure of our democracy and secularism.”

Born in Pandharpur, near Bombay, in the fall of 1915, Maqbool Fida Husain had a rather progressive upbringing. “Nobody was religious, we were nationalist,” he said. “We were very secular right from the beginning.”

He began painting when he was six years old, and later attended art school. In 1947, the year India gained independence, Husain cofounded a progressive artists’ alliance.

He had a well-received solo show in Munich a few years later, followed by exhibitions in the United States and Europe. He moved into filmmaking, and his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter, won the Golden Bear at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival.

The Indian government honoured him with top civilian awards in 1955, 1973 and 1991.

The trouble began just months before Husain’s wife died in 1996, when an Indian magazine published images of naked Hindu deities he had painted decades prior. With religious sensitivities running high in the wake of several communal clashes, Hindu nationalist groups responded angrily, filing lawsuits, burning effigies and threatening his life.

Husain left, bouncing between Europe and the Middle East for years. He spent a lot of time in Dubai. He visited Doha and struck up a friendship with the royal family, who bought dozens of his paintings for their new Museum of Islamic Art.

New works continued to spark controversy. In 2006 he painted India as a naked woman (Mother India). After the November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai, he depicted that woman being raped (The Rape of India), whipping right-wing Hindu groups into an anti-Husain lather. Returning home seemed out of the question.

Around this time, Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned learnt he was working on a series about Arab civilisation and offered to serve as his patron, promising housing, facilities and creature comforts.

“I wanted a sponsor, so I accepted,” said Husain.

More than 1,200 court cases have been filed against him in India, mainly for impugning religious and nationalist beliefs. Hindu extremists threaten to chop off his hands or gouge out his eyes if he returns.

Husain blames the government’s lack of response to the venom of Hindu nationalist groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena, which are linked to India’s leading opposition political party, the BJP.

“The government was weak, and it’s still weak,” he said. “The whole thing is political, it has nothing to do with art or religion – they only want to get some votes.”

The sacred and the profane have mingled in Hindu iconography for centuries. Examples include the erotic carvings at Khajuraho and certain engravings within the Ajanta and Ellora cave complexes not far from Husain’s birthplace.

Though he has not set foot in India for five years, the decision to renounce his Indian citizenship was not an easy one. “I still love my country,” said Husain, who is working on a series of paintings on Indian civilisation.

Like Sheikha Mozah, many Doha residents look forward to his future contributions to the Gulf.

“This is the first time a big Indian celebrity is taking a passport from the GCC, from an Arab country, so I think this is very good,” said PN Baburajan, an Indian property agent who has been living in Qatar for 25 years. He also works as a correspondent for a Malayalam TV news channel. “Now he loves Qatar and he’s going to do some work for Arab culture and civilisation.”

Earlier this week, several dozen large, completed works were scattered about Husain’s villa, clogging the hallways and leaning against the walls and furniture. Most had never been publicly exhibited. They included a sombre work called Palestine Blue and a large, disjointed painting entitled Yemen.

In addition to his thousands of paintings, Husain has six children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Most of his family remains in India, where some observers see the artist’s decision as a defeat for free speech.

“A large body of people stood up and spoke for you in the confidence that you are with them in this struggle,” analyst Shazi Zaman wrote in open letter to Husain in the Calcutta Telegraph this week. “We thought that a person as privileged, as loved, liked and respected as you would certainly fight. But you took a flight out to Qatar.”

Sipping tea in his new home, Husain had a different perspective. “I am not a leader, I am a painter,” he said. “My job is to paint.”

first appeared in 12 March The National, www.thenational.ae


Al Bashir and Darfur rebels sign peace deal

DOHA // The Sudanese president, Omar al Bashir, and the leader of the main Darfur rebel group signed a ceasefire agreement in Doha last week, paving the way for talks intended to bring peace to Sudan’s war-ravaged western region weeks before the nation’s first national elections in decades.

“We are taking a very important step towards ending conflict and war in Darfur,” Mr al Bashir said before the signing.

The 12-point accord represents a ceasefire between the government and the largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem). It also marks the start of bilateral negotiations on a final deal, which is to be signed by March 15, and a list of provisions to be included in those negotiations.

They include the integration of Jem troops into the armed forces and the release of Jem prisoners of war. Further, the pact immediately transforms Jem from rebel group to political party, stipulating “participation of the Jem at all levels of powers”.

Since ethnic rebels in Darfur took up arms against the mostly Arab Sudanese government in 2003, some 300,000 have been killed and 3 million displaced, according to the UN. Violence has waned but never halted. Without the backing of regional players, key rebel groups or the international community, several previous peace deals failed to hold.

But the presence of Mr al Bashir and the Chadian president, Idriss Deby, who also attended the signing, highlighted a considerable improvement in relations. The leaders of Chad and Sudan have in the past exchanged bitter accusations about supporting rebels operating on each other’s territory.

The deal is the most far-reaching yet. Greater international scrutiny, the support of Chad and Sudan’s first national elections in 24 years, scheduled for April, should further bolster the agreement.

Still, the Sudanese government appreciates the need for a more broadly embraced settlement.

“We believe that Darfur can’t be solved bilaterally,” Amin Hassan Omar, the government negotiator, said on Monday. He called the Jem truce an “important breakthrough”, adding, “we hope we can negotiate with the other groups to reach a final and comprehensive agreement.”

A dozen smaller rebel factions have fused into two main groups to narrow their demands. After meeting with the lead negotiator for the UN-African Union team in Doha, they hinted yesterday at the possibility of joining the talks.

Another provision in the pact is the return of all displaced people and government compensation for all victims of the conflict. The world’s first leader charged with war crimes by the Hague-based International Criminal Court while still in office, Mr al Bashir may be seeking to burnish his image at home and abroad.

The Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, who also attended the signing, said he planned to establish a $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) fund for reconstruction in Darfur.

The agreement may herald a peacemaking coup for his government. The tiny but wealthy Gulf state has in recent years carved out a reputation for helping to settle international disputes.

The US state department has praised the deal as an important first step towards a peaceful Darfur. Yet shortly after preliminary commitments were made on Saturday, Jem field commanders in Darfur reported skirmishes with government troops.

Arab world facing brain drain

DOHA // As millions of young people across the Arab world reach the age of employment, many Arab economies are likely to lose a good number of their most prized human resources.

“The young folks that are most educated, most connected and most employed are the ones who want to emigrate more,” said Ahmed Younis, a senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

Nearly a third of young employed Arabs surveyed would like to leave their country permanently, while only 17 per cent of the unemployed felt the same way, according to the Silatech Index, released here on Tuesday.

Just over a quarter of those who have some college education, meanwhile, are interested in moving abroad, versus 16 per cent of those who never finished high school. These are also the people most likely to start a business.

“Brain drain is the kind of phraseology that’s used,” said Mr Younis, who is also the director of strategic partnerships for Silatech.

“But we’re seeing an SME [small and medium enterprises] drain, an entrepreneurship drain, and there will be less innovation, less enterprise development and less ability for these economies to create an atmosphere that convinces ambitious young people to stay in the future.”

The Silatech Index is the first survey to comprehensively gauge young Arabs’ views on opportunity and the job market. Silatech, founded in 2009 by Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, seeks to foster job creation and entrepreneurship for young people in the region.

Partnering with Gallup last year, surveyors asked more than 40,000 15- to 29-year-olds across 21 Arab countries a battery of questions about their economy, job prospects, education and governmental support. With two-thirds of the Arab world’s population under 30, their perspective is vital.

The first data set came out in June 2009, highlighting three key metrics: mindset, which gauges society’s support for the economic contributions of youth; access, focused on access to skills training, entrepreneurial assistance and job placement services; and policy, measuring the government’s ability to increase employment opportunities.

The findings of the second Silatech Index suggest that Arab economies often fail to meet the needs of their increasingly informed and ambitious youth.

One key question concerned how to reduce “waithood”, the sometimes-lengthy period between college graduation and full-time employment in one’s chosen line of work. The overwhelming response was the need for more quality jobs.

But creating jobs is not a simple proposition. Just ask US President Barack Obama, whose economic stimulus package, enacted a year ago and aimed primarily at job creation, has mostly failed to stem the tide of job loss.

And most Arab economies face a much steeper climb. One of the key problems is that launching a business is so taxing, with stacks of forms to be filled out, endless red tape and weeks of waiting. According to the survey, nearly a quarter of all Arab youth would like to start a business in the next year. But the number that will actually do so is considerably lower.

“Policy structures are not encouraging for young people to start their own businesses,” said Mr Younis. “There needs to be a public discourse about how policymakers present the options to young people to join economic life in their country.”

Such entrepreneurialism may help build a stronger society, according to the index. The youngsters most likely to start a business are also those who know a reliable person who could serve as their business partner. They are also those most likely to have helped a stranger in the past week.

“This suggests that those who perceive a community are those that seek to start a business,” said Mr Younis. “We need to communicate to policymakers and developers that economic development and community development are intimately linked.”

The social and economic development of a country is also linked to the degree to which its youth are sanguine about their prospects. Thus, the index’s highest scores were found in the Gulf countries, which maintain the highest GDP and the best security and living standards in the Arab world; although about two-thirds of all young Gulf nationals remain outside the workforce, either as students or unemployed.

Qatar topped the mindset and access categories, while the UAE led in policy.

The lowest scores were in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, three countries mired in conflict. Some 15 per cent of Iraqi youth believe enough is being done to increase the number of jobs, and less than a quarter believe the government is maximising the nation’s youth potential. In Lebanon, just one in five young people think now is a good time to find a job and 88 per cent believe the government is not maximising youth potential. Less than a third of young Palestinians believe that children learn there every day – the lowest among all countries surveyed.

It is not only the war-ravaged economies that have problems. About a third of Algerian youth are unemployed, and only slightly more are confident about the job market. Morocco scored among the lowest on quality of education, with just 42 per cent of respondents saying the country’s schools were adequate. Only one in four Egyptians believe the economy is headed in the right direction, while nearly 70 per cent believe the West can help their country’s economic situation.

Amid the dark data, Mr Younis sees a silver lining. Those surveyed called for more education and training, better access to job placement and business development services, and a more responsive government.

“Young Arabs know exactly what they need, they just can’t find what they’re looking for,” said Mr Younis, who recommended greater co-operation among the 22 Arab nations surveyed. “If young people are given the resources to succeed in the economic life of their country, they would rather stay in their home country than leave permanently.”

Neighborhood watch

The rough-and-tumble streets of Jaffa’s Ajami neighbourhood probably seasoned Scandar Copti for the Herculean task of making his first feature film, and also lent the film its propulsive realism. But it was his parents’ effort to keep him away from danger that pointed him towards his future career.

“They wanted to keep us off the streets, so they brought us a lot of films,” says the 34-year-old Palestinian. He remembers watching Bruce Lee and French movies on Betamax with his brothers as a child.

“I would try to understand, ‘How did they do this? How did they make this funny?’” he recalls. “So I would rewind them and watch them again and again.”

If his first film is any sign, Copti is a quick study.

Ajami, which he co-directed with Yaron Shani, has drawn large crowds and lavish praise, won a special mention for Best First Feature at the Cannes Film Festival and become the first mostly Arabic-language film to sweep Israel’s top film honours. Last month, the film received an Oscar nomination for the year’s Best Foreign Language Film.

Getting it to the screen was a fraught ordeal that took plenty of time. The idea of an urban crime drama filmed with non-professional actors first came to Shani, who grew up in a seaside village south of Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital, about a dozen years ago.

By 2002 he had put it on the back burner to organise a student film festival, where he came across Copti’s 12-minute mockumentary, The Truth. “‘He approached me and said, ‘Let’s work together, I like the way you think,’” says Copti, who gravitated to film after earning a degree in mechanical engineering from a prestigious Israeli university. “I said, ‘Whoa. What – a movie?’”

The two began working on a jigsaw puzzle of a script set in Ajami, a neighbourhood that offered a glimpse into the life of the roughly 1.5 million Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship. Today a part of much larger Tel Aviv, Jaffa is an ancient seaport that dates to the eighth century BC. Most of the city’s Arab residents fled with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, and Jaffa now contains some 40,000 Jews and about 18,000 Arabs.

Nestled against the Mediterranean, Ajami is the city’s only predominantly Arab quarter. Some 25 per cent of its residents are Jewish, but with recent gentrification that number has been increasing – along with tensions.

Socio-economically, the neighbourhood is diverse. Judges live above criminals and doctors next to those on the margins. Shacks with no electricity sit near restaurants with gorgeous sea-views, like the one in the film. Copti worked there as a waiter and cook while he and Shani pounded out the script.

“It’s so hard to create something from nothing,” he says, citing scriptwriting as the most difficult part of making Ajami. “Sometimes you feel stupid, sometimes you have nothing to say and you lose your self-confidence.”

Finishing the screenplay took three and a half years. Then the two inexperienced filmmakers strolled into Israeli production houses peddling a movie that called for dozens of non-professional actors who would never see the script. It would be made mostly in Arabic and shot in chronological order, using two cameras simultaneously.

“‘What, are you nuts? Please close the door on your way out,’” Copti recalls one producer telling them. “We were knocking on the doors of producers and nobody wanted to get in.” Eventually they raised nearly $1 million (Dh3.7m) from German and French backers as well as an Israeli film fund.

Next they put the word out in the neighbourhood that they were looking for non-professional actors. Some 300 people turned up, from high-school kids to ex-convicts, mothers, sisters and former police officers. After several workshops they’d trimmed the group to a few dozen and began role-playing.

The goal was to move the participants – not actors – away from performing and towards reacting with real emotion. They were asked to crawl on the floor like serpents, to scream at the top of their lungs or chase each other with chairs. “We start with this and you are liberated, you don’t see the camera any more,” Copti explains. “Then, bit by bit we add emotions and start to see which participant would fit into which character.”

After 10 months of workshops and rehearsals, the cast was set. Filming began, with one unusual condition: none of the actors got a screenplay. “They had to trust us and we had to build this trust,” says Copti.

The shooting of one scene reveals the power of that bond. Three policemen are cruising around Jaffa one afternoon when they pull up along a curb. A scruffy man in torn clothing approaches their window. Mumbling, he offers them a pair of bright red boots. The policemen examine the boots and pass them back to the junkie, telling him off.

“He was a real junkie,” says Mr Copti, laughing. “He wasn't a part of our movie, he was just walking on the street, he didn't see the camera.” The incident was fitting, and stayed in the film, because seconds later the officers receive a call to arrest a drug dealer nearby. They soon pull up behind the dealer's car and start to yank him from the vehicle.

Dozens of young boys and men – placed there by the filmmakers and told to help their friend – pop out of nearby buildings. They swarm the police, striking the officers and wrestling with them and ultimately freeing the drug dealer. “It's real violence – it happened,” said Mr Copti. “We had to stop it, we had to jump from the monitor and say 'OK, cut. Kiss each other and let's do another take.'”

The filming took a brisk three weeks. All of Ajami pitched in: cars and locations were provided free of charge; and seeing the cast and crew working late into the night, residents brought Arabic coffee to the set.

Seven years after their first meeting, the co-directors had a film (both filmmakers got married in that span, Shani also became a father and learnt Arabic). But before its release, there was a final hurdle.

“We showed it to people, to sell it for distribution, and they said, ‘Look, it’s an amazing film, but nobody will watch it,’” Copti recalls. “‘It’s in Arabic, it’s complicated, it’s not pleasant. It will never make any box office.’”

In the end it was seen by hundreds of thousands of Israelis. That’s just one long-standing myth the film upset. Another is that Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and Christians are homogeneous groups. A third is that each side automatically blames the other for its predicament.

Harsh and gritty, Ajami follows the criss-crossing lives of a handful of neighbourhood residents. Omar, a young Muslim, tries to repay a family debt while wooing the Christian Palestinian daughter of a restaurateur. While working illegally in Ajami, a Palestinian teenager from the West Bank turns to crime to pay for his mother’s surgery back home. A combustible Israeli police officer desperately seeks answers about his brother’s disappearance.

Shani has said, “The film is about a society that is segregated, where people live in bubbles.”

Even so, the lives of the characters often paralleled the lives of the actors playing them. Copti’s brother Tony, who played the drug dealer in the film, was arrested earlier this month after coming to the aid of kids getting harassed by the police. The violent Israeli policeman whose brother goes missing is played by Eran Naim. A month before filming began, says Copti, he was dismissed from the police force after being caught on camera putting his fingers into the nostrils of an Israeli settler who was lying on the floor to protest at his evacuation from Gaza.

And the husband of the first-time actress Nisreen Siksik was chased for years by a gang of killers – once they shot him eight times, another time they bombed his car – before finally being ambushed in his shop. In the film, her son is stalked by a violent clan. Siksik, a 45-year-old mother of four who still lives in Ajami, has acknowledged how all of the old worries flooded back during the filming. Yet she has since acted in two more films.

Critics have given high praise to Ajami’s journalistic feel for daily life in a vendetta-fuelled district, its intelligence and even-handedness and its subtle approach to the most tangled of conflicts. “This is Ajami’s moment,” said The Wall Street Journal.

The most significant compliments might have come from an unlikely source. “What Ajami shows, in continually surprising revelations, is the essential core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: people on both sides trying to protect their loved ones and keep them alive, often with heartbreaking consequences,” wrote Bradley Burston, the film critic for the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Days after that review was published last September Ajami won best picture, best screenplay and best direction at the Ophirs, the Israeli version of the Academy Awards. Its nomination for an Oscar seemed inevitable.

Indeed, a film from Israel or the Palestinian territories has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in four out of the last five years. The streak began in 2006 with the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now.

Copti condemns the Israeli government for exploiting the film as a promotional tool. He says Palestinians living in Israel have no equal rights, are treated with racism and not allowed to teach their history or culture. He hopes the film calls attention to their plight. “Acknowledging a group of people exists is the beginning,” he said. “When you know that something exists, you know it has problems. When you know that it has problems, it’s the first step in finding a solution.”

Oddsmakers say Ajami’s Oscar chances are slim. But if it were to win, Shani would be the first Israeli to win the Oscar, and Copti the first Palestinian. “I never made this film to get awards or nominations,” says Copti, who is taking a break from filmmaking to work as the director of community outreach and a programming official with the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. “Getting Israelis to watch it, in Arabic, and to identify with a Palestinian character – to cry when his mother is crying, to humanise him again after 60 years of demonising Arabs and portraying them as terrorists, as inhuman – that’s been the most rewarding thing.”

An edited version of this story appeared in the 26 February The National, www.thenational.ae