The fresh voice of youth at Aljazeera film fest

DOHA // Many of the nearly 200 films screened during this week’s Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival offered a glimpse into the unsettled lives of youth across a region experiencing great and sometimes violent change as it opens up to, and crashes against, the modern world.

“Young people today are more likely to be bicultural and travel a lot,” Hamid Naficy, a film professor at Northwestern University-Qatar, said after watching several shorts by young filmmakers at the free four-day event.

“They experience different languages and ideas, and are no longer seeing the world through the national perspective, but a personal one,” he added. “They are constructing their own identities, and we’re seeing a shift from roots to routes.”

Launched in 2005, the festival has grown steadily. This year’s films, from more than 90 countries including the United States, China, Russia, Yemen, Japan, Senegal, Argentina, Spain, Iran and the UAE, were chosen from nearly 1,000 submissions. They competed for awards in four categories: full-length, medium, short and New Horizons, for young and first-time directors.

The festival theme was Freedom, but a number of films highlighted the hardships of where they were made. Sons of the Sun, made by the Doha-born Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Abdul Nasser, examined the marginalisation of albinos in Egypt.

Petty Dreams, by the Qatari film student Tariq el Makki, addressed the increase in suicide among expatriate workers in Qatar. The story focused on South Asian labourers but also presented two Arab expatriates painfully recalling how deceptive recruiters destroyed their lives.

“The underbelly of the Qatari economy is blue-collar workers,” said Prof Naficy, who has written three books on exile and diaspora issues. “One part of globalisation is this incredible displacement of people, resulting in a ‘labour diaspora’ that covers a gamut of motivations and social classes.”

One social group with a strong presence in this year’s festival was women. They directed more than 50 of the selections, including Breast Cancer, a New Horizons short made by two second-year journalism students at Northwestern University-Qatar.

The film, for which Thouria Mahmoud and Zainab Sultan received top marks in their visual media class, details how despite advances in modern science, the illness remains a taboo subject across the Gulf.

“It’s always blamed on the woman here,” Ms Mahmoud, 19, a Palestinian born and raised in Qatar, said after the film’s screening. As a result, no locals were willing to speak about their experience on film. The young filmmakers instead focused on the difficult experiences of expatriates.

“Qatari women are involved in activist programmes,” said Ms Sultan, 21, an Indian raised in Saudi Arabia. “But they may not want to come out in such a public forum.” In the end, the film seemed to suggest that only by bringing the illness into the light could it be defeated.

The Syrian filmmaker Su’dad Kaadan, meanwhile, sought to upend gender roles. Looking for Pink tells the story of four Syrian women who excel in professions generally reserved for men in the Arab world, including a musician, a kickboxing champion and a pilot.

“They are in different fields and living distinct personal lives,” Ms Su’dad told the Qatar Tribune. “But they face the same kind of pressure from their families and society.”

Other films held fast to deeply rooted traditions.

Abdel Rahman El Bazanji’s A Tale from Mesopotamia uses Iraq’s narrative tradition – the birthplace of writing; the oft-told tales of Baghdad; the popularity of poetry – to frame the effect of the US invasion.

In making The Falcon, meanwhile, the veteran Australian wildlife filmmaker Lyndal Davis zeroed in Qataris’ centuries-long love for falcons.

Riham Assi also examined nature, but from a different angle. In her short film Forgotten Flower, which she made as her graduation project at St Joseph University in Beirut, a tobacco plant expresses abandonment and neglect as it is cut, dried and packaged for shipping.

“In the Middle East and beyond there has been a real emergence of women filmmakers, and along with that there is a new experimentation with style,” Prof Naficy said. “This is essentially an autobiographical story told from the point of view of the plant, and it’s told with great sensitivity and environmental consciousness.”

With bold thinking, cheaper equipment and the ease of online distribution, such experimentation among Arab filmmakers is leading to a blossoming akin to that of Iranian cinema in the 1970s, Prof Naficy said.

One hurdle, however, is that most major film and television ventures in the Gulf, such as Alnoor Holdings’ film fund, worth US$200 million (Dh734m), have their eyes turned to the West.

“Going towards Hollywood is one way, but going local is another way that can be equally exciting,” he said. Prof Naficy teaches students from 15 countries. He envisions them returning to their homelands to work, yet keeping in regular contact with their former classmates.

“A sort of lateral network will develop that might replace the national,” he said. “Governments would do well to create more venues and events like this festival to increase the opportunities for their creative youth.”

That is not to say there are no opportunities today. While leaving the screening of their film on Tuesday, Ms Mahmoud and Ms Sultan were introduced to a producer from Al Jazeera News. Prof Naficy advised the two journalism students to apply for jobs.

“We will,” said Ms Mahmoud, smiling.

originally appeared in 23 April 2010 The National (www.thenational.ae)


Lone Qatari professor offers a woman's perspective

DOHA // After earning her doctorate in comparative literature from the University of London five years ago, Amal al Malki arrived at a career crossroads. She returned to Doha and came across an advertisement for professorial positions at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, which had just opened.

“I always planned to be a writer, a novelist, but I said I’m going to try for a year and see where I go from there,” she said. “It was only when I started teaching that I realised, ‘Oh, this is where I should be.’”

In late 2005, Prof al Malki accepted a full-time position at CMU-Q, becoming the first – and to this day, the only Qatari faculty member out of nearly 300 professors within the six American universities of Education City, the showpiece of Qatar’s higher educational system.

“It’s very prestigious and a privilege, but it’s a great responsibility,” she said. “I would like to model myself as a good example, someone who is educated, who is modern, who is tolerant and flexible.”

Born and raised in Doha, Prof al Malki earned her bachelor’s degree from Qatar University before heading to the UK for further studies. Upon accepting the job at CMU-Q, she received no local opposition, in part because Qatari women have a long history in research and education. That history is continued today by the Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation and the driving force behind Education City.

Prof al Malki's forthcoming book, The Veil in Arab Media, extends that legacy. For more than three years, she and several colleagues studied the portrayal of Arab women in English and Arabic language media.

Their findings suggest that Arabic language media portray Arab women as modern and active, while English-language media appears biased, extending stereotypes about the oppression of women in this part of the world.

“‘Any woman who is veiled is most probably oppressed by her religion or her culture,’” said Prof al Malki, parroting the western perspective. Her own view is that the hijab, which she wears, is rooted in religious custom, while the abaya is a cultural or tribal tradition.

“Their reduction of women into one single heterogeneous entity is wrong,” she explained. “There are other factors that determine who we are, it’s not just religion. Just being labelled a ‘Muslim woman’ reduces us, in a way.”

Prof al Malki, who recently married, believes Muslim women should be seen as equals to men in business, politics and society. She teaches a course on Islamic feminism, a movement that grounds its ideas about female equality in the Quran, which has predominantly been interpreted by male scholars.

“They are men, interpreting verses about women,” she said. “So each one would interpret reflecting his own prejudices and his era’s prejudices against women.”

This era is not free from those prejudices. Of 134 countries ranked in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, which measures opportunity for women in health, politics, business and education, all 14 Arab countries included placed in the bottom 30.

Hissa Hilal, a Saudi mother and a poet, earned death threats for calling for greater freedoms for Arab women on the popular television show Million’s Poet. Many Arab women have a different perspective.

Last month, hundreds of Yemeni women marched in opposition to a proposed law banning child marriage. In Syria, an all-female Islamist group, Qubaysiyat, promotes piety and conservative Islam in its popular and well-funded schools, mosques and nurseries.

Prof al Malki sees progress in the Gulf – where Saudi Arabia is building a top-notch university for women and Kuwait recently elected its first female parliamentarian – but acknowledges that challenges remain. Even in Qatar, with Sheikha Mozah as a role model, young women have difficulty finding their way.

“Our female students are going through an identity crisis because they see western education in a very conservative, traditional setting and they don’t know how to negotiate between both,” Prof al Malki said. “There’s no need to be one or the other – there’s nothing wrong with being hybrid, being a fusion of different cultures.”

Prof al Malki hopes to draw more students, male and female, towards careers in higher education, and has spoken with the Qatar Foundation about creating a process to funnel more Qataris into teaching at Education City. But each American university there – Texas A&M, Georgetown, Carnegie-Mellon, Weill Cornell, Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth – is responsible for hiring its own faculty, independent of the Qatar Foundation.

Robert Baxter, communications adviser for the Qatar Foundation, said: “We have chosen our university partners because they apply such high standards in all their activities. The young people currently passing through our universities are gaining an education upon which they can build an academic career, should they choose to do so.”

Prof al Malki is optimistic about Muslim youth, but she worries that too few young people in the Gulf appreciate their own culture and language. She hopes that, like her, they might learn from the West, take what they need and return home.

“It’s really nice to be modern and educated but you have to still have some grounding and know where you came from,” she said. “It would be really sad if we have a generation that has no history.”


Visa row over, Muslim scholar to visit US

Just as Tariq Ramadan was preparing to take up a professorial post at the University of Notre Dame in August 2004, the United States government revoked his visa, denying him entry on ideological grounds.

The US State Department lifted the ban in January, and the Swiss scholar is set to arrive on American soil later this week for a series of speaking engagements – his first visit since losing his visa.

“It was a mistake by the Bush administration, to prevent intellectuals from being critical,” Ramadan said during a recent interview in Doha. “The main thing is for me to go there and build bridges.”

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if Ramadan – rigorous scholar, champion of Islam and outspoken advocate for the rights and assertiveness of Muslims in the West – is building bridges or burning them.

Born and raised in Switzerland, the 47-year-old is a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He is often named among the world’s most influential public intellectuals yet regularly excoriated in both Muslim and Western media for a seeming lack of commitment to their respective values: he regularly denounces global capitalism, for instance, and says women should decide for themselves whether to wear the veil.

Last week he lectured in Doha at the request of the Faculty of Islamic Studies, where he will teach a course on contemporary Islam later this year. Before delivering his speech he considered the tensions within Gulf societies.

“You have some people that are very reactive to anything that has to do with the West, saying ‘this is the end of Islam,’” he said. “And you have some others saying, ‘No, we have to follow in the footsteps of the West because this is the way to be developed and modern,’ and in between you have people trying to find their way.”

In his next book, to be titled The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy for Pluralism, Ramadan writes about the shared values between Islam and the West.

“My understanding of Islam makes it clear that there is no contradiction in the Islamic values and the Western values,” he said. “To deal with modernity doesn’t mean that you lose your Islamic background.”

Yet since Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, DC, in September 2001, signs of a clash have been near-constant. After a unanimous parliamentary vote last week, Belgium inched closer to becoming the first nation in the world to ban the full Islamic veil in public. Ramadan's home country, Switzerland, recently voted to prohibit the construction of minarets.

And in the wake of Farouk Abdulmattalab's attempt to blow up an Amsterdam to Detroit flight on Christmas Day, the United States has increased background checks on visa applicants from Muslim majority countries.

But in US President Barack Obama, Ramadan sees a leader with a considerable grasp of the situation. Though impressed by Obama's speech to the Muslim World in Cairo last June, he thought the time for words had passed.

He pointed to Iraq, where despite elections terrorist attacks, such as Saturday's massacre of two dozen members of a single family in Baghdad, are still common and society remains fragmented along sectarian lines. He cited the lack of progress with Israel, which has continued to announce settlements in East Jerusalem despite the Obama Administration's repeated calls for a freeze.

“Netanyahu is sending a very strong message: 'we don’t care,'” said Ramadan.

Despite what he sees as Palestinians' continued suffering and the marginalization of many Muslim communities in the West, Ramadan believes Muslims must look forward, not back. “We need to stop nurturing the victim mentality,” he said.

This is among the key points of Ramadan's 2009 book, What I Believe, that Muslims living in the West need to engage positively and work to become full partners in Western democracy.

“As citizens it is our Islamic duty to abide by the law of the country as long it does not contradict with our religious beliefs,” he said during the Doha lecture. “We must criticise the government while remaining loyal to the law – this is critical loyalty.”

Dr Basma Abdelgafar, a professor of public policy at the Faculty of Islamic Studies who has read several of Ramadan’s books, attended the lecture and came away impressed.

“It’s a very useful type of contribution to our understanding of Muslims in the West,” said Abdelgafar, a Canadian of Egyptian heritage who was looking forward to having Ramadan as a colleague. “It has nothing to do with a person’s creed or belief, it’s that they are representing something that’s right.”

Ramadan's critics, however, see him as a dangerous radical. “I don't see anyone today who is as effective as Tariq Ramadan in furthering fundamentalism in France,” French journalist Caroline Fourest, the author of an anti-Ramadan book, said last year. She accuses him of double-speak – saying one thing to Muslims and another to Western audiences.

Paul Berman, a journalism professor at New York University, goes further. “The problem lies in the terrible fact,” he wrote in a lengthy 2007 article, “that Ramadan's personal milieu -- his grandfather, his family history, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition -- is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theoretical justification for religious suicide.”

That may be going too far. Ramadan has distanced himself from Al-Banna's political opinions and denounced radical violence. His website prominently displays a large banner ad supporting non-violent resistance in Palestine.

Still, he does have some views unlikely to sit well with some Westerners.

“The neo-liberal economy, the way it’s now impacting lives and killing people every day because of the injustices of the economy, this is a'anam al harb (the world of war),” Ramadan said during the interview in Doha. “This economic order is killing people, and this is why we need ethics in our economy, and this recent global crisis is telling us exactly this.”

Taking an anti-capitalist, even socialist, stance is neither illegal nor in opposition to the West. But his position on certain huddud punishments may be more problematic.

Ramadan was asked if he saw any contradiction between his stated commitment to Western values and his calling, on French TV in 2003, for a moratorium on the stoning of adulterers in order to debate the merits of the punishment.

“As long as we don’t have answers to these questions we have to open a debate,” he said last week in Doha. “It’s not a contradiction, because Amnesty International, a Western organization, is calling for the same thing on the death penalty. So why is it not a contradiction for them and it is for me?”

In truth, the New York-based rights advocate takes a rather less equivocal stance on legal executions. “Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances,” according to their website. “The organization works for an end to executions and the abolition of the death penalty everywhere.”


an edited version appeared in 5 April 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae