art of resistance, Tunisia

Playlist: Ghalia Benali.

/Ghalia Benali, photo © Cidric Saletnik/

I just realized I haven’t written anything about Tunisia in a while, which is a shame. I will make up for it sometime soon. In the meantime, new Playlist edition allows me to share songs by one of the greatest Tunisian singers – Ghalia Benali.

Benali writes songs, sings and dances, and she does it all in the most beautiful way (just listen to her voice, how easy it all seems). She was born in Belgium, grew up in Tunisia and returned to Belgium at age of nineteen to study graphic design.

She regularly visits Tunisia and performs all around the (Arab) world – always with outstanding musicians in her band.

Somebody wrote that Benali is a “microcosmos that merges the Arab musical legacy into something new”. I agree. Enjoy this haunting music.

Previous Playlist:

Alsarah & The Nubatones

Kaan Wafi, Pieces From Exile

Yasmine Hamdan

Atab by Cheb Abid

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art of resistance, Israel, Morocco

Remembering Ronit Elkabetz: A Thing Of Soul & Beauty.

ronit/From the film The Band’s Visit/

Ronit Elkabetz died. It’s hard to believe it, but it’s true – there will be no more films featuring the lovely and talented, bright and insightful, funny and beautiful beyond words – Elkabetz.

She was only 51, the cause of her death cancer. During the last twenty-five years she became a true diva of Israeli cinema, one of Israel’s most respected artists – she was an actress, director and screenwriter.

Elkabetz was born in Beersheba, to a religious Moroccan Jewish family originally from Essaouira. She became an important voice for Mizrahi women – her uncompromising and daunting work helped push Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront. The ethnic, class, and gender oppression of the Mizrahi women was an issue Elkabetz deeply explored in her work.

Michal Aviad, who cast Elkabetz as the lead in her film Invisible, said Elkabetz taught her film. Speaking to Haaretz, Aviad said:

“She had an enormous heart, she was terribly funny and she knew how to distinguish good from bad with brilliant clarity. And her heart was in the right place – politically, morally, as a feminist, as a Mizrahi, whatever it was.”

From 2012, Elkabetz served as president of Achoti (Sister), an organization set up by Mizrahi feminists. She worked as a volunteer, before the group asked her to be its president.

Gett/Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem/

In 2010, Elkabetz received a lifetime achievement award from the Israeli Film Academy for her contribution to Israeli cinema. During her career, she played the roles of single mothers, prostitutes, immigrants, hairdressers – those who are struggling, those who choose to live differently, those stuck in the middle of nowhere, those at the margins of the society.

I will never forget her as Dina in The Band’s Visit, Ruthie in Or and Viviane Amsalem in the trilogy To Take A Wife, Shiva and Gett. Her witt, smile, her broken china voice and the way I believed her from the first moment she appeared on the screen – it was magic, a thing of beauty that is joy forever.

ttaw1/To Take A Wife/

She believed that the cinema has to build a new world and bring about change. She wanted to be involved in projects that investigate the soul, to act and direct only things that can influence and change reality and society.

Alongside her dominant role in Israeli cinema, Elkabetz also starred in French films, including some directed by André Téchiné and Fanny Ardant.

She will be truly missed and remembered as one of the greats –  her soulful ways made all the difference. Elkabetz was human, and in her case – that word should be taken with all the romance and beauty that it entails.

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Leila Alaoui: The Moroccans

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance

Remembering Samir Kassir: Life as Courage, Death as Silence

Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People

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art of resistance, Egypt

Ahmed Naji: The Guide For Using Life.

ahmed-nagy-1-768x430/Ahmed Naji, photo via Daily News Egpyt/

The Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji has been given a two-year prison sentence two months ago for “violating public modesty” after publishing a book with references to sex and drugs. An Egyptian citizen brought charges against the author after an excerpt of his novel The Guide for Using Life was published in the magazine Akhbar al-Adab.

The prosecution argued that the published work “violates the sanctity of public morals and general ethics”. The United Group, an organisation comprised of lawyers, legal researchers, and human rights advocates, submitted the appeal to the prosecution with the cooperation of Nagi’s family.

The sentences handed to Naji and Al-Taher have received widespread condemnation and have been criticised for being unconstitutional by many politicians, writers, media figures, associations, and parties.

Naji wrote the experimental novel collaborating with the illustrator Ayman al-Zorqani, who drew for the book. The following English translation was done by Ben Koerber (it was first published on Arabic Literature). Read the excerpt, share your support for Naji’s case!

That’s not to say life in Cairo was completely miserable. There were good times to be had year-round: some during our long summer, and quite a few during our short winter. Such times were, invariably, either days off work or days without it. They say the city never sleeps, they say it bursts at the seams. The city rotates and revolves. The city branches out. The city beats, the city bleeds.

In their places of work and worship, the people of this city swarm. They shop and scurry and go for a piss, so the Wheel of Production might go on spinning despite the traffic. That’s how it all looks, if you’re an eagle soaring up above. But if you’re just a little mouse of a man spinning inside that great Wheel, you never get to see the big picture. You go to work and do your job, and might even earn a reasonable salary. If, by some great fortune, you manage to see the fruit of your labors, it still won’t move you an inch. Whether you work or not, the Wheel of Production keeps on spinning, and the current carries you along.

Which brings me to the time Mona May and I went over with a group of friends to Moud’s apartment in Garden City. This was after a party at Youssef Bazzi’s place. We stayed up until the morning smoking hash and competing to finish a whole bottle of vodka. I remember seeing the music dissolve into monkeys that clung to the ceiling. There was a blonde German tapping her leg to the beat. Erections popping around the room. A young Palestinian-American, with poor Arabic, talking a lot about racism. Smoke, cigarettes, hashish. And more smoke.

“Bassam,” says Kiko, turning to me with a totally bloodshot look. “I’ve got smoke in my eyes.”

“Go easy on ’em, baby.”

I pull a tissue over her eyes and blow gently.  The German girl watches with a confused look.  As I pull the tissue away, my palm drips with the dark freshness of Kiko’s face.  I plant a light kiss on her lips.

“Did you know there’s a kind of sexual fetish called ‘licking the pupil’?” says the German girl in English.

“How exactly do you mean?”

“Yeah, I read about that once,” interjects Moud.

“That’s disgusting,” objects Kiko, wrapping her arms around me.

What are your typical twenty-somethings to do in Cairo? Might they go for pupil licking? Are they into eating pussy? Do they like to suck cock, or lick dirt, or snort hash mixed with sleeping pills?  Or one might ask how long it would take for any of these fetishes to lose its thrill.  Are they good for life?

Everyone here has done lots of drugs, both during and after college. Yet here we all are, little islands unto ourselves, with no greater aspiration than to hang out together. We manage to stay alive by sucking our joy out of one another.

Mona May is standing next to the speakers. Her eyes are glazed over as though her soul’s been sucked up by the music monkeys on the ceiling, and her body sways to the beat.

After a while, taking drugs clearly got old. Or they were just not enough. And if one of us ever gave in to total addiction, his life would be over in a few months: this we know by trial and experience. Those of us left in this room are too chicken to end our lives in this or any other way, maybe because we still cling to some sort of hope, some sort of love or friendship.

For all that Cairo takes from its residents, it gives nothing in return – except, perhaps, a number of life-long friendships that are determined more by fate than any real choice. As the saying goes, “He who goes to Cairo will there find his equal.” There’s no such thing as smoking by yourself. And the food’s only got taste if you have someone to chow it down with, happily, carcinogens and all.

In this city, you’ll be lucky if you can get over your sexual tension, and appreciate sex as just one of the many facets of a friendship. Otherwise, your horniness will make you a testy bitch. Kiko rubs my back, and I feel a heat between my legs.

useoflife/The Use of Life/

As dawn came up, Moud went to his room, and everyone else went home. Too lazy to head back to 6th of October City, I lay down and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up early with a slight headache, an army of ants marching in the space between my brain and my skull. I went to the bathroom and took one of the pills Moud had brought from overseas to fight hangovers. After taking a warm shower, I called Lady Spoon and agreed to breakfast at Maison Thomas in Zamalek.

On the way, the streets were washed over and empty of traffic.  It’s a holiday: perhaps the Islamic New Year, or Victory Day, or Revolution Day, or Saltwater Catfish Day.  Whatever it was, the city looked drowsy and everyone was checked out.  At moments like this, I barely recognize the place.

When I’m able to get from Qasr al-Aini to Zamalek in under 20 minutes, I almost feel like she’s decided to warm up to me.  But I know that wicked smile on her face: She’s telling me, “At any moment, I can have you stuck in traffic for over an hour, with nothing to do but sit back and feel sorry for yourself as the noise of the streets slowly sucks the life out of you.”  Open veins spewing blood all over the bathroom.

I met Lady Spoon outside the restaurant.  She had on a long white dress showing her arms and a bit of cleavage.

“You smell really nice,” she said, kissing me on both cheeks.

“It’s Moud’s cologne.”

It was her neck that made me fall for her. She’s nine years older than me, but she knows how to stay youthful, exercising regularly and always eating healthy. She’s pretty, cheerful, and has a successful career in advertising. Unfortunately for her, she’s a Protestant and happens to love Egypt, and her chances of meeting someone with both these qualities in Cairo are slim at best.

She studied overseas before spending quite a long time being terrified of getting married or settling down. Sometimes, she’d like to have children. She had been used to dating men who were older than her, but suddenly, they had stopped showing an interest. Those that did show interest didn’t interest her. This was the first time that she would be dating someone younger than her, which made her embarrassed to tell her friends.

The name “Lady Spoon” was given to her by Mona May.  She saw her once at a concert wearing a pair of spoon-shaped earrings.

These were the same earrings she had on now. They swayed with the movement of her hand as she chopped a loaf of bread. In spite of the dryness in my throat, I’d been smoking since I woke up this morning. Cigarettes have a different sort of taste with the morning breeze in Zamalek: something resembling bliss, desire, a softness in violet and orange.

Our breakfast was eggs, along with slices of the finest quality pork, imported from abroad. After honey, jam, and a glass of orange juice, I’m back to life.  As the poet says, “You ain’t you when you’re hungry.” At Maison Thomas, her smile nudges me awake under a white bed.

We walked around the streets of Zamalek in the direction of her apartment.  She had a thin silver bracelet around her ankle and toenails painted red.  Sometimes we would walk hand in hand, and sometimes with my arm around her waist.  Under the shade of the trees, we laughed. We shot smiles at the officers standing guard outside different embassies, but their solemn demeanor didn’t change.

I thought … Do I love her?

Of course I love her.  I can’t touch a woman I don’t love. But then, what is love exactly?  It’s a relaxing of the heart, a tranquility in your soul, a warmth in your stomach.  It’s like any love in Cairo, always ready to disappear.  A lover of companionship.

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art of resistance, Egypt, Sudan

Playlist: Alsarah & The Nubatones.

laila shawa/image © Impossible Dream, Laila Shawa/

Alsarah is a truly talented Sudanese singer/songwriter, enriching the music scene with a mixture of north and east African tunes with Arabic influence. She characterizes her music as “East African retro pop”, and her songs have a life-affirming buoyancy that makes it hard not to dance along as you listen.

She’s crowned as the new princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro for a reason, and all I can say is YESSS and MORE PLEASE. She and The Nubatones made a great debut album, Silt, released two years ago. There are many amazing tracks on that album, including Soukura and Habibi Taal, which I am posting here today.

I am in love with this album – enjoy the energy and the beauty of the music and – dance along!

Previous Playlist:

Kaan Wafi, Pieces From Exile

Yasmine Hamdan

Atab by Cheb Abid

Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud

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art of resistance, Yemen

Safa Al Ahmad: There’s No Longer A Yemen.

/photo © Alex Potter/

Safa Al Ahmad is a Saudi freelance journalist and filmmaker. Her focus is the Arabian Peninsula, primarily Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and her work so far has been insightful, corageous, informative and mesmerizing in many ways.

She has been reporting on Yemen since 2010, and is one of the rare journalists who spent much time inside the country (she keeps going there) and is able to talk about the complexity of the situation on the ground today.

I am so happy Status Hour recently aired an interview with her. In conversation with Adel Iskandar, Al Ahmad delves into her recent coverage of Yemen reflecting on the humanitarian disaster there, the various actors on the ground, and the gendered dimensions of covering this conflict.

“Fighters are the ones who get salaries these days in Yemen, nobody else does. It just goes to show you how fragile the situation has become. I would argue that there’s no longer a Yemen, North and South are completely separate from each other”, Ahmad says.

Please listen to this important interview and stay informed about the horrendous situation in Yemen, which remains under-reported and totally neglected.

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art of resistance, Libya

The Book To Read: In The Country Of Men.

Textiles of a city Najla Shawakat Fitouri/Textiles of a city by Najla Shawket Fitouri, image © Noon Arts/

Libya, where art thou? That is a question I already asked – a lot of times. There are no certain answers, but I still manage to find Libya and its people, to catch a small glimpse of their lives.

It doesn’t happen through media and daily news, Libya is still a zero-interest story for most of those outlets. I go through libraries, art exhibitions, old and new photos – that is how a part of the country, a part of its history, a part of the daily lives of some of its people is revealed to me today.

One of those moments happened with Hisham Matar’s book In the Country of Men. It is Matar’s debut novel, first published in 2006. It has been translated into many languages and has won numerous awards.

It is a book about Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy living in Tripoli, stuck between a father whose anti-Qaddafi activities bring about searches, stalkings and telephone eaves droppings by the state police, and a vulnerable young mother who resorts to alcohol, her “medicine”, to bury her anxiety, anger and powerlessness.

Matar’s own family fled Libya for Egypt in 1979, and his father, a former UN diplomat and political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990 in Cairo, while Matar was studying in London. In the Country of Men is an autobiographical book in many ways.

men

Through the eyes of a young boy, the novel explores his relationship with his unwell mother and his uneasy relationship with his father. Matar writes beautifully:

“Although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me,my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Coping with the harsh and counfusing reality around him, Suleiman makes disturbing decisions, he isn’t afraid when a normal child would be, and it easily leads to (more) destruction around him. He feels emotionally distant at times, and it is unusual to see a child act that way – it makes you think about the heavy influences of the tense and violent environment he lives in.

At the end of this simple but powerful novel, fifteen years later, the narrator looks back with regret at a life interrupted by political forces that have left him distrustful, displaced, alienated, half empty.

Matar writes:

“I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. I am both repulsed and surprised, for example, by my exaggerated sentiment when parting with people I am not intimate with, promising impossible reunions. Egypt has not replaced Libya. Instead, there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike.”

In the Country of Men is highly memorable, it feels honest – and there’s a special and rare beauty in that.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

After Zionism

The French Intifada

The Librarian of Basra

A Hand Full Of Stars

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