Topics Covered in Vol. 12, nos. 56/57

By Al Jadid

ESSAYS & FEATURES

Controversial Image of Lebanon Wins World Photo Prize, by Mohammed Ali Atassi. This certainly isn’t the first time a single photo has generated a great deal of controversy, inspiring numerous commentaries and editorials in international newspapers. The image in question, captured by American photographer Spencer Platt, recently took top honors at the World Press Photo Awards – chosen from among 78,000 other photographs. In this article, Mohammed Ali Atassi takes note of the different interpretations of the photo and the message or messages it conveys.

How Painting Came East, by Charbel Dagher. How oil painting, or what we commonly refer to as Western painting, found its way into the Arab world is the major focus of this essay. Charbel Dagher, an eminent scholar of Arab and Islamic art, examines whether it is possible to differentiate between “Western painting” and something else called “Arab painting.” Other issues are considered, including the importation of art to the Arab world and the role of political rulers in this trade, and the timeline of when the decorative arts trickled down from the confines of royal palaces to the general culture. Finally, Dagher looks at the waves of orientalist artists who flocked to the “exotic” Arab capitals, who influenced a number of Arab and Muslim artists who began pursuing their education first at European universities, and then at newly established Arab art institutes.

Mideast Politics Put to Words and Music: Bahraini Democracy Threatened by Musical, by Kelly O’Brien. Democracies have their own paradoxes, and nowhere else are these more present than in the Arab world. This article highlights such a paradox in Bahrain, where a freely elected parliament became a vehicle for suppressing freedom of literary and musical expression.

Burning Questions – Review Debunks Honor-Crime Memoir, by Therese Taylor. Honor killing in the Middle East is a fact of life. But passing off a fictitious work as the account of an actual event does injustice to the real victims of honor killings and raises ethical questions for the publishing industry. Historian Therese Taylor studied and reviewed the evidence of a best-selling memoir, “Burned Alive,” written by “Souad” about her escape from a putative honor killing in the Middle East. Taylor reveals the contradictory accounts and embellished retellings given by the author since the book’s publication in 2003. The reviewer concludes the once-acclaimed account “is an example of fantasy, tale-telling, and stage-acting.”

The Passing of a Great Syrian Writer: Ilfat Idilbi, 1912-2007, by Simone Fattal. Known for her humor and her unceasing affection for beloved Damascus, Ilfat Idilbi was a chronicler of its history, customs and laws, as well as a novelist, story writer, advocate for women’s rights, and a patron of many cultural activities in Syria. In this essay, Simone Fattal describes Idilbi’s works as those in which “She knew the tales, the limericks and the local expressions. Her art was such that she could write about Damascus without sounding exotic or folkloric, without being encumbered by the weight of the details – yet her works are a repository of the traditions of the city.”

Wedding and War in Galilee, by Sunaina Maira. Indian-born Sunaina Maira offers a reflective account of her stay in Galilee for a wedding during the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, recalling a sense of recognition when driving through the West Bank for the first time. She finds herself relating to Palestine as a place that exists on the map under “a sign of ' home,’ of memories of belonging, of being somewhere you feel you are not and of belonging in places you haven’t before known.” Through the juxtaposition of wedding and war, Maira observes the Palestinian demeanor. She also notes changes in the relationships between India and Israel, a move away from opposition to the occupation and solidarity with the Palestinian movement, to efforts to attract thousands of young Israelis to the beaches of Goa, upon finishing their reserve duty.

Disrepair and Neglect Mar Gibran Memorial, by Stan Shabaz. The essay is an ironic commentary about an official celebration (by Bush senior and Norman Schwarzkopf) of Gibran as an advocate of peace while wars are being waged. But the dissonance between the glorification of Gibran as a man of peace, and the orchestration of war by these same officials, is not the only contradiction Stan Shabaz notes. His visit to the Gibran Memorial Garden was hardly reassuring; “To my dismay, I found the memorial garden to be in a state of disrepair, much like the current state of U.S.-Near Eastern relations. The bronze sculpture of Gibran overlooks a fountain of brackish green, still water. Above the fountain, a sign warns: ‘Water unsafe for drinking.’”

Seven Years, by Hanna Saadah. In this gripping and emotionally powerful essay, the author reflects on his personal experiences during his father’s seven-year political imprisonment. His narrative captures the moment when his father, a Lebanese politician, disappeared following his arrest, as well as the end of his incarceration, the hour of his release.

A Nationalist Scene in the Congestion of Republics, by Suhail Shadoud. In this vignette, enslaving the masses to happily perform for tyranny, or be part of it, is sometimes the result of the consent of such masses. The narrator suggests that people strengthen the hold of tyrants on their daily lives by participating in, or using the tools of, their sociopolitical practices. Dictatorship is not only preventing the people from saying what they want to say; it is what they say in agreement with it, as well.

FILMS

Approaching Iraq: Poetry and Nationality, by Beige Luciano-Adams. “Iraq in Fragments,” writes Beige Luciano-Adams, “is a film about men: men’s thoughts and men’s bodies, individual and collective; a nation of men; the political vigor and rising, shifting, fading dreams of old men and young boys.” Should the title be taken literally – is Iraq on its way to partition? The statement of one of the film’s young subjects will certainly disappoint those calling for the partition of Iraq: “Iraq is not something that you can cut into pieces. Iraq is a country. And how can you cut a country into pieces?”

Transsexuals in Iran, by Pamela Nice. A documentary about transsexuals in Iran might come as a shock to many Westerners. The social context of such a group, or statistics on Iranian transsexuals in general, is not readily available in either the documentary or in literature on this topic. But each subject in the documentary, as Pamela Nice writes, “is portrayed respectfully and simply; the tone is gentle. We are invited into a world usually hidden, that of the inner thoughts and feelings of someone who feels trapped in the body of the wrong sex.”

A Mother’s Enduring Love, by Lynne Rogers. “Sari’s Mother” is a short documentary by James Longley, director of the multiple award-winning “Iraq in Fragments.” This film follows an Iraqi mother as she cares for her 10-year-old son, who contracted AIDS from a hospital blood transfusion. In the words of the reviewer, “This poignant film lets the images speak for themselves as Sari’s mother stoically navigates the government and medical bureaucracy for assistance.”

Young Canadians Craft Documentaries on Issues Affecting Muslim Women, by Lynne Rogers.In “Me and the Mosque” and “Vendetta Song,” two female Muslim Canadian filmmakers candidly document the gender inequities they find within their own communities. In the first, the focus is on the dividing partition in the mosque, the separation of women from men, the early practice of women praying behind the men, and Muslim women revolting against these segregationist policies. In “Vendetta Song,” the audience is invited into an old story of an honor killing that had taken place in a Kurdish village 30 years before. Director Eylem Kaftan returns to her family’s village in Turkey to uncover the truth about her aunt’s death. Three decades later, villagers still remember Kaftan’s aunt and her murder, her fatal choice of love over obedience now memorialized in verse and sung by some of the young villagers.

Land and Betrayal, by Rebecca Romani. “The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani” raises many questions. Among them, notes Rebecca Romani, are the myths that the Zionists arrived in “a land without a people,” and that the violence against Palestinians was invited by Palestinian behavior. Moreover, the question remains – was Yossef Nachmani, an Arabic-speaking Russian immigrant, a compassionate Zionist or an individual torn between his sympathy for the Hagannah and his belief in coexistence between Palestinians and Jews? “Like its subject Nachmani, the documentary is conflicted – was Nachmani a national hero, the conscience of Zionism as (Benny) Morris suggests, or the unwitting architect of what the Palestinians call al-Nakbah – the disaster?”

Pathology of an Occupation, by Rebecca Romani. “Hothouse” is a documentary about the thousands of Palestinians housed within the walls of Israeli high-security prisons. The director offers the dual perspective of interviews with both the Palestinians and their Israeli wardens. The documentary follows the lives of numerous prisoners through their pursuit of education, their acquisition of Hebrew language skills, and their factional politics. Such a documentary, Rebecca Romani writes, “leaves one in stunned silence….” Careful attention should be paid to the participants in the documentary for, as director Shimon Dotan suggests, “like in South Africa and Ireland, such a prison system may well produce…the next round of Palestinian leadership.”

INTERVIEWS

A Conversation with Alaa al-Aswany on “The Yacoubian Building," by Pamela Nice.  “Some Egyptians didn’t like the movie because they felt it focused only on the negative aspects of their society. But most of the many people I talked to were profoundly, emotionally moved by the film or book. Some credited the film for the success of the book. Others thought it was the sexual content (certainly tame by American standards) that boosted book sales,” wrote Pamela Nice.

Book Reviews

“Dunya,” A New Novel by Alawiyah Sobh: A Look into Pandora’s Mid-Eastern Box, a review of Alawiyah Sobh’s “Dunya” (Life), by Rafif Rida Sidawi. In her previous novel, “Maryam Al Hakaya” (The Stories of Maryam), Alawiyah Sobh criticizes the past, her grandparents’ generation, debunks a history of social hypocrisy, and the covert violence that dictated relationships between men and women. In “Dunya” (Life), which is reviewed by Rafif Sidawi, Sobh presents a radical critique of contemporary Lebanese society. “Dunya” does not mince details, the details of men’s abuse of women, including those who pretend to be reformists or progressives, nor the details of how families sabotage relationships, even between husband and wife. In Sobh’s discourse, writes Sidawi, “the family is the nucleus of society and therefore responsible for propagating fanaticism, social hypocrisy and dualism.” To clarify, Sobh “does not write about the war but writes about the effects war has on society.”

The World as a High Rise (plus a few feet on the roof), a review of Alaa al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building,” by Rebecca Romani. Few novels have enjoyed the success of “The Yacoubian Building,” and few have caused as much controversy as has this novel. Recently released as a film, the story is again garnering success and receiving stellar reviews. The novel exposes this that should be kept from the public--corruption, repression, prostitution. Never mind that some would object to the frank language of the novel, it is “an absorbing read, one made more timely by recent events,” writes Rebecca Romani. See also Al Jadid's exclusive interview with Alaa al-Aswany in the same issue.

Redemption in an Open Space, a review of Samir Khalaf’s “Heart of Beirut,” by Andrea Stanton. Andrea Stanton identifies the positive and the negative, even the contradictory elements of the use of space in Beirut’s Martyr Square. Khalaf, Stanton writes, examines the after-effects of the long civil war and the collective efforts toward either obsessive remembrance or adamant forgetting. He also looks at the bourj in comparative historical terms as well as from the present perspective, analyzing its role in building the Beirut of today and the future. He attributes the rise of sectarian neighborhoods to the destruction of the bourj and other non-communal public spaces.

The Science of ‘Palestinian Arab Music,’ a review of Dalia Cohen’s and Ruth Katz’s “Palestinian Arab Music: A Maqam Tradition in Practice,” by Sami Asmar. “Palestinian Arab Music: A Maqam Tradition in Practice” is the culmination of four decades of research by musicology professors Dalia Cohen and Ruth Katz, and documents the parameters of the stylistic variability of “Arab folk music in Israel.” The authors’ goal is to provide a “comprehensive picture of a musical tradition as an integral part of its culture.” Over 400 pages, it is not surprising that it took four decades to accomplish a complete analysis. Although reviewer Sami Asmar finds the book’s focus a bit too narrow–specifically, documenting the vocal music of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, nevertheless, he finds that this scholarly work provides an “outstanding enhancement to the field of Arab musicology,” and is a “treasure trove” for a musicology researcher.

Collective Memory and the Search for Authenticity, a review of Jonathan Shannon’s “Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria,” by Sami Asmar. In “Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria,” by ethnomusicologist Jonathan Shannon, Syria serves as an example of “the cultural fixation on the concept of authenticity in Arab music.” Reviewer Sami Asmar finds that the book is less about music and more about “how the arts frame debate concerning Arab culture, and how the traditional culture’s admitted decline and numerous crises, in return, shape the arts.” Inevitably, questions arise over whether an obsession with authenticity and tradition are really an attempt to evade current societal struggles and serve to prevent a nation from ingenuity and progress? Does this mean there is no longer a role for contemporary music? Asmar finds Shannon’s answers to these questions a “literary treasure…spiced with Arab philosophy, poetry and…humor…a must-read for Arabs and those interested in their rich culture.”

A Walk on the Wild Side, a review of Rawi Hage’s “DeNiro’s Game,” by Bobby Gulshan. Rawi Hage’s recent novel, “DeNiro’s Game,” borrows its title from a memorable scene in the film “The Deer Hunter,” in which Robert DeNiro’s character takes part in a game of Russian Roulette. The main characters of Hage’s novel are Bassem and George, two best friends who also play this deadly game. Deeply affected by the Lebanese civil war, Bassem and George are anti-heroes. As they search for a way out of their trapped lives, they follow separate paths that lead to even more violence and intrigue. According to Gulshan, the title’s cinematic allusion is especially appropriate in light of Hage’s writing style. Hage’s description of Beirut in the midst of civil war is “often brutal and unflinching…at times touching, but rarely sentimental.”

An Accidental Primer, a review of “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire,” by Arlen Jones. This book is a collection of essays contributed by prominent scholars and activists. Arlen Jones notes the importance of the introductory essay which attempts to move the meaning of ‘empire’ from the realm of abstraction to concrete policies, war, militarism, and propaganda. While the book comprises about 25 interviews, the reviewer examines two in some detail—one by Tariq Ali and a second by Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski.

A City’s Burden of Providence, a review of “The Open Veins of Jerusalem” (Edited by Munir Akash), by Robert Livermore. “The Open Veins of Jerusalem,” is a collection of essays, memoirs, poetry and illustrations. Twelve authors offer their personal portraits of the occupation of Jerusalem and the subsequent Palestinian displacement and loss. Editor Munir Akash examines how invasion and occupation is sometimes explained and justified by way of “special providence arguments.” In another essay, Karen Armstrong argues Jerusalem’s status as a holy city is actually a burden, and that “the holiness of a city does not depend solely upon the sanctity of its shrines, but also on the behavior of its inhabitants.” On the other side of the spectrum, art historian Sarah Rogers notes that peaceful scenes, rather than violent reality, typically dominate Palestinian art, and discerns the symbolism of the Dome of the Rock. Reviewer Robert Livermore recommends this book to “anyone who is distraught by the destruction and displacement caused by fanatical supporters of the ‘fundamentals’ of any faith.”

Reality Checks on American-Orientalist Film, a review of Tim Jon Semmerling’s “‘Evil’ Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear,” by Pamela Nice. Tim Jon Semmerling’s “‘Evil’ Arabs in American Popular Film” examines American films since 1973 and concludes that “the portrayal of Arabs in American cinema…reveals more about Americans and their orientalist fears than about actual Arabs.” Reviewer Pamela Nice provides a critical analysis of Semmerling’s claim. While supporting the author’s theory and selection of films, Nice questions Semmerling’s tendency to over-scrutinize, stating “Semmerling is more convincing in his broader strokes and his overall urging that viewers explore films as revelations of an unstable American psyche confronted with challenges to its dominant myths.”

Dangerous Crossings – Two Novels Tackle Arab Immigration West, a review of Laila Lalami’s “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” and Weam Namou’s “The Mismatched Braid,” by Andrea Shalal-Esa. Reviewer Andrea Shalal-Esa critically compares two fictional works, Laila Lalami’s “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” and Weam Namou’s “The Mismatched Braid.” Both concern Arab immigration to the West, of which she writes, “Let’s face it: immigration is hell.” Lalami’s novel follows a small group of Moroccan refugees who flee to Spain, only to find that life there holds “far less promise than they had each imagined.” Namou’s story charts the journey of an Iraqi immigrant from his native country to Greece, Canada and finally the United States. While Shalal-Esa praises Lalami’s accomplished writing and narrative different points of view, she finds Namou’s characters underdeveloped and lacking Lalami’s sure hand. She hopes, however, that as more books by Arab writers are translated into English, Western readers will develop the ability to see more nuance in Arab life, instead of a “tendency to seize upon one work as all-encompassing and representative of a diverse and rich civilization.”

What’s in a Word?, a review of Elisabeth Kendall’s “The Top 1,000 Words for Understanding Media Arabic,” by Andrea Stanton. "Suicide bombing" and "economic sanctions" are two of the terms included in Elisabeth Kendall's book - intended to familiarize readers with critical words for understanding Arabic press coverage.  Although it is not an exhaustive resource, the book is valuable for those "interested in learning, rather than looking things up," writes Andrea Stanton.

Palestine and its Nemesis, a review of Rashid Khalidi’s “The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood,” by Faisal Tbeileh. The reviewer claims that it is imperative to recognize the multi-dimensionality of the Palestinian struggle. He also argues that Rashid Khalid’s “The Iron Cage” “does a commendable job of delineating the various dimensions of the conflict and how they play into this seemingly unsolvable impasse.” However, the reviewer’s reading of “The Iron Cage” leads him to believe that the author concludes on a “pessimistic note.” Unless there are changes on the part of the Israeli lobby in their pressuring politicians in Washington, there will be no resolution for the Palestinians’ demands for self-determination.

Makdisi Memoir: Witness to Arab Women in Transition, a review of Jean Makdisi’s “Teta, Mother and Me,” by Pauline Homsi Vinson. Vinson highlights the similarities between Makdisi’s work and other autobiographical works of Arab women like Nawal el Saadawi, Leila Ahmad, and Fatima Mernissi. Makdisi, writes Vinson, “delineates the intersections between her individual life and the social changes and political upheavals that have been taking place in the Middle East during the past century.”

A Major Contribution to Arab-American Studies, a review of Michael Suleiman’s “The Arab-American Experience in the United States and Canada: A Classified, Annotated Bibliography,” by Pauline Homsi Vinson. Suleiman’s book is being described as unique and instrumental, and, according to Vinson, it contributes to a greater understanding of Arab Americans. She recommends that “this book should be added to the holdings of all major academic universities and public libraries.”

Tanzimat Legal Reforms Left Changes in Palestinian Society, a review of Iris Agmon’s “Family and Court: Legal Culture and Modernity in Late Ottoman Palestine,” by Saadia Yacoob. This review tackles the impact of the Tanzimat reforms on the Sharia Court, specifically on gender and family, and the living conditions of families living in Jaffa and Haifa. This work, according to Yacoob, is “well researched and written in great detail, describing minute aspects of the arrangement of the court records and recording procedures, etc.”

Deconstructing Paradigms on Ottoman Past, a review of Rifa’at Ali Abou-El-Haj’s “Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” by Faika Celik.“Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” by Rifa‘at Ali Abou-El-Haj, attempts to contradict what the author describes as the commonly held but “distorted” perceptions of the Ottoman Empire during the middle centuries. Instead of a period of decline beginning in the 17th century, Abou-El-Haj argues that it was instead a period of transformation. Rather than the Ottoman Empire being overcome by European powers, political change was the result of the internal ruling class’ desires. These misperceptions are the result of faulty readings of primary source material as well as a “standard nationalist retrospective approach” to Ottoman history. Faika Celik discusses the most significant arguments of Abou-El-Haj’s study and reviews his work as “one of the most thought-provoking studies of modern Middle Eastern history.”

In Other Words: Book Charts Arabic to English Impact, a review of Salih Altoma's Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion, by Judith Gabriel. "Modern Arabic Literature in Translation" is a comprehensive yet concise resource that surveys English translations of Arabic fiction, poetry and drama.  Altoma identifies three "phases" of growing interest in English translations, the first beginning in 1947.  The current phase began in 1988, when Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, and the author begins his book with a chapter devoted to the man he considers instrumental in the current popularity and demand for Arabic literature in translation.  With its inclusion of complete bibliographies, Judith Gabriel finds the book  to be a "keen, knowledgeable companion." 

Books in Brief

A review of Etel Adnan’s “In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country,” by Lynne Rogers.Adnan’s latest book is a semi-autobiographical narrative in which she reflects on the past and the present, attempting to connect early historical events like the 1916 Arab Revolt with the recent wars in Lebanon and Iraq. “Adnan’s literary experiment momentarily disrupts the dishonest discourse of war with her honest efforts against depression and human indifference,” writes Rogers.

A review of Salwa Salem’s “The Wind in My Hair,” by Lynne Rogers. A memoir about Salwa Salem, a Palestinian activist who succumbed to cancer; this powerful story follows a young girl “from Palestine to Kuwait to Vienna, with a few stops in between, finally arriving with her own family in Italy.” Salem’s memoir exposes the difficulties most Palestinians experience under occupation, yet echoes optimism, even from her deathbed—and reinforces the value of activism.

A review of Mariam Shahin’s “Palestine: A Guide,” by Lynne Rogers. This guide offers a comprehensive picture of Palestinian history and culture. The only neglected aspect of Palestinian history, according to the eviewer, is its arts scene. Still, Rogers considers the book to “contain an encyclopedic range of facts.”

A review of Paul Starkey’s “Modern Arabic Literature,” by Lynne Rogers. Covering 200 years of Arabic literature, Starkey’s book is described as a text for those “coming to the subject for the first time.” Rogers writes that “Starkey’s literary history provides an encyclopedic and accessible backdrop for understanding contemporary Arabic literature,” whether prose, poetry or drama.


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