Qatar begins to buzz

By David Lepeska
The National, Oct 25, 2010

Performers prepared their jokes, audience members tossed red squishy-balls and a film crew jostled through the jam-packed upstairs room of the Colombiano Coffee House last Sunday as the pre-show chatter reached fever pitch.

"This is amazing," said Mahmoud El-Achi, 27, crouching in his chair amid the hubbub of the Doha Tweet-Ups' comedy night. A Lebanese telecoms manager, he was born and raised in Doha. "There's almost nothing to do here, compared to Beirut," he added. "So I wasn't expecting this kind of turn-out and energy."

A small, roiling sea of students, artists, academics and professionals had successfully injected the event with that most rare and precious quality in Qatar: buzz.

Maybe it's a sign of things to come.

"The scene is young, but it's maturing," said Tariq al Jaidah, a Qatari entrepreneur and the founder of Doha's first private gallery, Waqif Art Center. "The Arab Capital designation has been a good inspiration and put Qatar on the map for these activities."

Doha is the UN-backed Arab Capital of Culture for 2010. But as recently as a few years ago this city had no major museum and hosted only the occasional small art exhibition. Now, a government vision that views cultural development as integral to national growth has begun to take root.

In 2007, a couple of small galleries opened in Souk Waqif, the faux traditional Arab market in downtown Doha. Late 2008 saw the debuts of IM Pei's Museum of Islamic Art, a cubist masterpiece regarded as an arts anchor, and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. And last year the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival put Qatar on the international movie map.

In addition to the second edition of the film festival, which kicks off this week, consumers of culture should have a full plate over Doha's final months as the cultural capital, including an Oriental music festival, a major musical production, an exhibition of Ottoman art, a series of national cultural weeks and the launch of the much-anticipated Arab Museum of Modern Art, called Mathaf.

Opening on December 30, Mathaf will house a collection of 60,000 works spanning 170 years. The Qatar Museums Authority has been promoting the museum on a regional road show. Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, was among the speakers at a recent stop in Beirut. She believes it will be the world's largest public collection of modern Arab art.

"There's been a major shift of international attention towards the Arab world over the past 10 years, and it's been a phenomenon, really," Carver said during a recent interview. She appreciated how Mathaf officials had amassed their collection methodically and incorporated an educational aspect.

"What's really exciting is to be able to trace back through history and find those threads that pull out on the whole development of the Arab world and the Gulf and the connection between the two," she said.

Al Jaidah was also looking forward to Mathaf. "The new museum will change art in the Middle East because it will change the perspective and take Arab art to another dimension," he said.

Mathaf's opening is among the more promising events of an autumn schedule that, since the end of Eid, has seemed relentless. Qatar's National Theatre has hosted a steady stream of cultural weeks involving dancers, musicians and singers from countries such as India, Syria and Sudan. Still to come are Venezuela, Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia and the UAE.

In Souk Waqif, Al Markhiya Gallery is hosting the Lebanese artist Ginou Choueiri's solo show, For Your Eyes Only, a series of paintings exploring the veil and the women behind it. It's part of the gallery's ongoing survey of Arab artists under 40 years old.

As of last Wednesday, four new galleries at the Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum began showcasing Islamic art and works of Qatari heritage. On that same day, the gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar launched New York Chronicles, a month-long exhibition featuring eight Arab artists' creative responses to New York City.

Christie's, the leading London-based auctioneer, recently hosted a two-day exhibit of paintings from the collection of the Egyptian collector Dr Mohammad Said Farsi at Doha's Four Seasons Hotel. At the opening gala, the director of Christie's Middle East, Isabelle de la Bruyere, said the Middle East art market was the world's fastest growing.

The show, called Journey Through Modern Art, included works by modern Egyptian, Iranian and Lebanese artists worth up to $400,000 (Dh1.5million). "People in Qatar are starting now to see art as a symbol of status," al Jaidah said.

The Museum of Islamic Art remains the defining symbol of Doha's cultural status. This autumn, MIA is hosting a series of arts and historical lectures. In December, Bruce Lawrence, MIA's scholar-in-residence, will speak about Ibn Khaldun, the father of sociology.

The Orientalist Museum, which has no physical home and no plans for one, is launching an exhibition of Ottoman art there on Friday. Most works are from its own collection, but several are from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and private collections. The show will conclude with a two-day international conference at which scholars from around the world will discuss the exchange between Ottoman and European cultures.

New cultural education developments include Doha Kalakshetra, a secondary school for Indian classical music and art that opened this month. It will instruct students in dance forms including Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, and in musical instruments such as guitar, tabla, piano and flute.

And the Qatar Foundation is set to open the Qatar Music Academy in January. It will focus on Arab music, highlighting links to American jazz and European composition.

This year's DTFF will, naturally, shine a spotlight on Arab film, and it's not alone in Doha. The $200 million Al Noor Film Fund is one of the region's largest film production firms. The executive director Raja Sharif says the fund has received hundreds of film ideas and plans to make several movies each year.

The Doha Film Institute, which aims to build a sustainable film industry in Qatar, launched this May. DFI has been helping a handful of local filmmakers make 10-minute films that are likely to be shown at DTFF. DFI also manages the Doha Film Fund, which will provide financial backing to up to 10 films per year.

DFI's camera crews are regularly seen at events around Doha, including last week's Tweet-Up comedy night, where Mohammad Kamal, a Qatari student at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, made light of his compatriots' foibles. "The first thing a Qatari says in a fight: I cancel your visa!" he said to a burst of laughter.

Hannadi Hassan, another Qatari student, explained how she could always tell a Khaleeji in London. "They wear their jeans too high," she said to titters.

Still, the road to cultural prominence is not always smooth. Earlier this year, Qatari officials promoted the Qatar Marine Festival at press conferences and in newspapers. A programme was announced and a website set up. Suddenly, the event fell off the radar, never to be heard of again.

"They promoted it and then it was just cancelled," said George Ayache, general manager of International Fairs and Promotions' Qatar, which organises conferences and exhibitions. He expressed disappointment in the number of events this year. "There's really nothing major here, in terms of cultural exhibitions."

Optimists call for patience. "This is a very young country, with very young minds," said al Jaidah. "They cannot immediately jump and make themselves equal with major players, there needs to be time to progress, and it is happening."

Next year will see the completion of five new theatres, according to cultural minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz al Kuwari. The highlight will be the Cultural Village, or Katara, which is hosting DTFF during its forthcoming soft opening. When completed, the 100-hectare arts compound is expected to include an opera house, an enormous state-of-the-art amphitheatre, a cinema/theatre, souk, bookshop and beachfront, in addition to the offices of theatre, music and fine arts organisations.

QMA is to begin construction on the Jean Nouvel-designed Qatar National Museum this autumn, aiming for a 2013 opening. With 40,000 square-metres of exhibition space, it will be larger than the MIA. Also next year, production is set to begin on Al Noor Film Fund's $150m epic on the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

For now, though, Doha residents and visitors are focusing on other films, as they dust off their tuxedos and ready themselves for the red carpet.

originally ran in 25 Oct 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae

Reality TV show spotlights Arab science stars

DOHA // The pan-Arab reality show Stars of Science named its 16 second-season finalists on Sunday night, setting the stage for a six-week battle for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and a spot among the top young innovators in the region.

The finalists hail from Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and beyond. They tinker with diesel engines and robot joints, motorised trolleys and air-conditioned clothes, devising new approaches to common yet complex problems and hoping to make their names and inspire others.

Fouad Mrad, a long-time engineering professor at the American University of Beirut and one of the show's two permanent jurors, said: "This is a lifetime opportunity and these innovators are very anxious, hoping to prove to the world that their idea is valid, is scientifically sound and can be packaged into something useful to society. As long as they work hard, stay on track and are committed to their goal, we should see an exciting competition."

The Qatar Foundation-produced Stars of Science is shown in 15 countries and aims to promote education and interest in science and technology in the Arab region. An initiative of Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser Al Misnad, the wife of the Qatari emir, the show is filmed in Qatar Science and Technology Park and receives support from the universities of Education City.

The winner receives US$300,000 (Dh1.1million), second place $150,000, third place $100,000 and fourth $50,000. The first season, which ran in the spring 2009, was won by Bassam Jalgha, a Lebanese mechanical engineer who created "Dozan", an automated tuning device for stringed instruments.

The current season began on October 3 and will end with on November 28. During its first few weeks, the show went from Tunis to Cairo to Jeddah to Doha, whittling 7,000 applicants, including Eric Suleiman, whose project involved simplifying cable installation, down to 125 semi-finalists and then to 16.

In the coming episodes they will be judged on proof-of-concept, engineering, design and marketing as their numbers drop to four for the live 90-minute finale. Starting October 25, the show will also broadcast daily 30-minute episodes from Monday to Saturday, following the progress of each project.

Some of the innovators from the first season are already reaping rewards. One of last year's finalists, the Algerian computer engineer Wahiba Chair developed a calorie-counting software for the iPhone that scans barcodes and retrieves health information. Her application CarrotLines launched in June. Ms Chair says the show helped her improve the design and gave her the confidence and credibility to pursue her idea.

Mazen Salah from Jordan, also a finalist last season, developed Staticap, a non-rotating hubcap for cars that can display a team logo, flag, or whatever the owner would like. "In today's world the need for uniqueness and related self-expression has never been stronger," he said. "StatiCap fulfills this need."

Mr Salah received his patent earlier this year, launched his company in August and aims to exhibit at the Riyadh Motor Show in December.

This year's finalists include Abdullah Abou Zeid, of Egypt, who co-invented a new robot rotational joint; Ahmad al Khater, a Qatari who devised a means to harness magnetic energy to use as power; and Maha al Amro of Saudi Arabia, who developed an air-conditioning vest for outdoor workers.

This season Stars of Science added guest jury members from each of the countries visited during the tour for contestants. Suaad al Shamsi served as a juror at the Al Ain stop. She said: "I was looking for projects that don't exist on the market, creative ideas and the ability to implement the idea during the programme period."

Though no Emiratis are among this season's finalists, Ms al Shamsi sees an increase in scientific inquiry in the UAE, thanks to the country's of new universities, Masdar City, and the Sheikh Rashed and Al Owais scientific awards.

For Mr Mrad, the show is a beacon of light. He said he has long been "disappointed in what we do with our research, who we do research for, who uses our outcomes".

"When I saw the opportunity, this vision of QF [Qatar Foundation], I felt, 'My God, this is a vehicle I'd like to be a part of.' And I'd like to drive, not just be a passenger, and have a say in how it goes," he said.

Arab countries mostly lack the technology networks and hubs that foster progressive thinking and innovation, according to Mr Mrad. This is crucial, he said, because technology is key to developing a civilisation.

"I don't believe any such programme by itself is going to be able to change the economics or the cycle," he said.

"But all of these viewers will see and believe, 'Yes, we can take our ideas and transform them into useful products, and we can apply what we learn in school.'"

originally ran in the National, www.thenational.ae


Prison Time in Iran

By David Lepeska
The National's weekly Review magazine, Oct 2010

Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to be Shane Bauer or Josh Fattal, the American hikers stuck for more than a year in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

But for Roxana Saberi the experience is all too real. An Iranian- American journalist, she’d been living in Tehran six years when Iranian intelligence agents burst into her apartment on January 31, 2009.

They threw her into a car and, after hours of questioning, drove her to Evin and deposited her into a 7’ X 9’ cell with blankets for a bed and the screams of unseen prison-mates for company. During all-day interrogation sessions, her questioners pushed her to “cooperate,” or rather, admit she’d been working as a spy.

“They’re threatening you with the death penalty, life in prison, or finding and harming your family,” she said. “When you’re in that situation every threat is very real. They make you believe they have complete power of your life. Nobody knows where you are, and you know the history of Evin prison.”

She spent 100 days there, but during a recent interview at Doha’s Grand Hyatt hotel, looked none the worse for wear. Elegant and poised, the 33-year-old Saberi retains the ivory skin and mile-high cheekbones of a beauty queen (a former Miss North Dakota, she was among ten finalists in the 1998 Miss America pageant).

After earning two master’s degrees, including one from Cambridge, she moved to her father’s homeland in 2003. She’d carved out a good life in Tehran – freelancing for the BBC and National Public Radio, writing a book about modern Iran and dating a highly regarded Iranian Kurd filmmaker – before the trip to Evin. Her book about the experience, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, has received mostly positive notices since it was released in March.

Saberi’s Doha visit was organised by her alma mater, Northwestern University, to meet journalism students at NU-Qatar and deliver a lecture about human rights and Iran. On her first trip back to the region, she felt safe because she was “being looked after.” Sitting in the Hyatt's spacious atrium, she spoke openly and comfortably about her ordeal.

“I gave in pretty early,” Saberi admitted with a sheepish grin. After two days at Evin she confessed, falsely, to spying for the CIA. “I was so ashamed. I thought why couldn’t I at least put up more of a fight.”

Transferred to another cell, Saberi met Silva Harotonian, an Iranian-Armenian health worker who had refused to fold for her interrogators. Saberi became disgusted with herself and decided to speak the truth. “‘What kind of life do I want to live?’” she recalled asking herself at the time. “‘The life in which I know what I did is right.’”

She recanted her confession and later defied her bazju, or lead interrogator, but not before being allowed a phone call to her parents. She told her father she’d been detained for possessing alcohol, as directed by her keepers. Suspicious, he contacted the press, and within days Saberi became a minor international cause celebre: supportive stories appeared on the BBC, The New York Times and elsewhere; the president of the European Union requested proper treatment; the US State Department called for her release. Yet at the end of a classic Iranian “show trial,” she was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was just the push she needed.

Saberi, realising she would never get justice, found a new sense of purpose. She appealed her sentence and began a hunger strike. After nine days without meals, she stopped adding sugar to her water.

“Mentally everything’s a little shady and you can’t concentrate and you just wait for the days to pass by,” she said of her two weeks without food. On May 11 her sentence was suspended and she was released, frail and 15 pounds lighter. “What helped me was the feeling of defiance.”

That feeling motivates her work today, as a campaigner for human rights and media freedom. She’s confident the media coverage played a key role in her eventual release, just as international support led to the suspension, last month, of the stoning sentence for Iranian widow Sakineh Mohammadi.

“Even if the international outcry-- governments, organisations, also individuals – doesn’t always lead to the release of prisoners,” she said, “it does at least raise awareness about what is happening and empowers those people in prison and helps them tolerate the harsh conditions.”

Due to her severe treatment, Saberi understood the anger and frustration of the protesters that filled the streets of Tehran a month after her release, in the wake of the contested presidential election.

“I think that the people in power have lost a lot of legitimacy for much of the population,” she said. Because of Iran’s armies of informed, tech-savvy youth and the leadership’s internal bickering, Saberi sees change as “inevitable.” “I think the majority want a democratic government that respects human rights.”

Yet the regime is said to regularly deny those rights. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of sexual assault, beatings, torture and other forms of abuse in Iran’s prisons. Reporters without Borders recently expressed concern that Iranian prosecutors will request the death penalty for two leading Irani- an bloggers who have been in Evin prison for two years.

And then there’s Fattal and Bauer. The third American hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released from Evin last month after the sultan of Oman took care of her $500,000 bail. Shourd maintains she’s only “one-third free” because her fiancĂ© and friend remain in Evin.

“She is in a very sensitive position because the Iranian authorities are paying attention to what she says,”
said Saberi, who directed the interested to visit www.freethehikers.org.

With the right kind of international support, Fattal and Bauer, like Saberi, might soon be able to appreciate the everyday freedoms most of us take for granted. “To make a phone call when I want,” said Saberi, thinking of things that feel new and precious to her post-Evin, “to eat when I want, to eat what I want, to put my head on a pillow, to turn off the lights at night, to write an email, to surf the internet, to read what I want, to go jogging in the streets, to talk about what happened to me and what’s happened to so many others.”

an edited version appeared in The National's Review, on Oct 1, 2010, www.thenational.ae