"Goats" a play by Syrian playwright Liwaa Yazji, at London's Royal Court Theatre
By Jordan Elgrably
It would be comical if it were funny: Arabs/Muslims and Iranians have become the scapegoats and villains du jour. Everywhere these days, they represent everyman’s fear. In the United States and Europe, Muslims are either immigrants who are going to cause terror attacks—hence Trump’s anti-Muslim ban, and France’s new anti-terrorism statute—or they want to annihilate somebody. In Iran, after all, ayatollahs have the A-Bomb and want to rearrange the map of the Middle East.
Naturally, it’s not only politicians and media outlets that feed this frenzied rhetoric. For too long now, the great mass of Middle Easterners have been vilified by Hollywood. It’s almost as if every Arab, every Muslim is a potential terrorist until proven otherwise.
Happily, we can attest that this year, Arab and Iranian filmmakers and writers are having a heyday, reminding us that 97% of the world’s Muslims are not busy wreaking havoc. At a recent film festival in the south of France, for instance, Arab directors dominated among prizewinners.
At the 39th edition of CINEMED in Montpellier, the Algerian new wave was central to the festival’s 100-film panorama of the Mediterranean. Among films from Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, France and Spain, nearly a third of the festival’s schedule featured work by Algerian filmmakers. There was also a major retrospective of the works of the Algerian godfather of cinema, Merzak Allouache. The festival prizewinners included Algerian writer-director Sofia Djama’s The Blessed; Franco-Moroccan writer director Saïd Hamich’s Return to Bollène; Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir’s Wajib; and Egyptian writer-director Sameh Morsy’s Fifteen.
“Every Algerian movie that gets made is a victory for us all,” Damien Ounouri, a 35-year-old Franco-Algerian director, told me. I interviewed Ounouri, Sofia Djama and other Algerian filmmakers for the Middle East Eye, and came away excited about a potential cultural movida in Algiers that could really open Algeria to the world in the next few years. As it happens, most of the Algerian filmmakers I spoke to have a French parent and dual nationality, so it will be fascinating to watch how these young artists negotiate their identities and their creative projects going forward.
On the literary front, this was a splendid year for exiled Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, whose memoir The Return won the Pulitzer Prize in a very competitive field. As I’ve written elsewhere, The Return’s greatest accomplishment is that it humanizes its author and his family, and all those Libyans opposed to Gaddafi’s brutal dictatorship. It follows the underdog as he struggles against the oppression and indeed the terrorism of the state, leaving the reader with the feeling that we are all of us in this world together, and we must strive to defend human rights and call for enlightenment wherever we find darkness.
A thirty-something Arab writer who has made headlines is French-Moroccan novelist Leila Slimani. After being the first Arab woman to ever win France’s coveted Prix Goncourt for her second novel Chanson Douce (Lullaby), in November, President Emmanuel Macron appointed Slimani to a junior post in his cabinet as the minister of Francophone affairs. A dual national whose mother is Franco-Algerian and father Moroccan, Slimani is now the pride of France and Morocco.
Speaking of Morocco, the new director of UNESCO is Audrey Azoulay, France’s former culture minister under François Hollande. Azoulay is a Franco-Jewish politician of Moroccan heritage whose father André Azoulay has been a terrific bridge-builder between Arab and Jewish communities in Morocco, Spain and France for decades.
In the United States, Egyptian American playwright Yussef El Guindi (“Back of the Throat,” “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes”) had a good year. He premiered a new play at Artists Repertory Theater in Portland called “The Talented Ones,” about the thwarted hopes of immigrants looking for the American Dream, while several of his earlier plays were produced nationwide, and his one-act “Collaborator” just closed in Australia.
Iranian American poet-translator Sholeh Wolpé achieved a major coup earlier in 2017 when she brought out The Conference of the Birds, her translated poems by the 12th-century poet Farīd Ud-Dīn Attar, a revered Persian bard who was rumored to have met and inspired the young Rumi and who wrote more than 4,000 couplets for The Conference of the Birds alone. As the lit mag Guernica noted of Wolpé, “Through her translations of Iranian writers, and through four collections of her own poetry, Wolpé seeks to bridge the fierce political divide between her native Iran and her adopted Western homes—to pierce their mutual ignorance, and reveal one to the other.”
Wolpé explained why her work on the Attar translations mattered: “We live in a world torn apart by various ideologies. Every day, we hear about how different we are. For me, the only thing that really draws people together is the arts.” She said what made Attar particularly significant was the fact that he “was able to bring into a coherent whole all the philosophy—both religious and non-religious, spiritual and non-spiritual—that had existed [in Persia and in Sufi Islam] for hundreds of years, into a form that was not only beautiful, but entertaining.”
Another Iranian whose work makes us forget all about today’s anti-Iranian rhetoric is Reza Aslan. The religion scholar and writer achieved considerable notoriety for his previous book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). He has just published a new book that looks at the history of our human relationship with God entitled God, a Human History, in which he insists that we almost always see God as a divine extension of ourselves. (Listen to an interview with Aslan.)
A critic of Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat writes about the struggle of Arab Jews and Palestinians.
And a milestone in publishing took place earlier this year, when Iraqi-Israeli-American firebrand Ella Habiba Shohat published her collected writings, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements, in which many of her essays defy the binary Eurocentric view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, digging deeply into matters of history, race, identity, and exceptionalism. As the British-Palestinian physician and author Ghada Karmi noted, Shohat’s book is, “Authoritative, knowledgeable and fascinating”—a collection of essays from the last thirty-five years that “is an essential addition to understanding the nature of Israel and the conflict its establishment has created, not just for Palestinians but also for the Mizrahi or ‘Arab Jews.’”
In Great Britain, meanwhile, the Syrian playwright and filmmaker Liwaa Yazji has seen her provocative and at times satirical play about the war in Syria, Goats, open for an extended run at London’s Royal Court Theatre (through 30 December). Yazji told me that she first work-shopped the play in Arabic in Beirut and London, before the Royal Court translated it for a British audience. Goats is both dark and at times comical; Yazji considers it theatre of the grotesque. (She talks about it here.) (You can obtain the published play here.)
The Syrian playwright and filmmaker managed to go back and forth between Damascus and Beirut during 2013-2015 but moved to Berlin last year and now zig-zags across Europe while she works on her next project, a TV series about refugees struggling to resettle in whichever country will take them.
It’s refreshing to remember that the cunning terrorists depicted in western media and entertainment as modern-day bogeymen represent but an infinitesimal fraction of the real Middle East, while Arab and Iranian creative artists are a flourishing multitude.
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Jordan Elgrably has written about film, literature and cultural identity from Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles and other cities. He cofounded The Markaz as the Levantine Cultural Center in 2001.