An Introduction into Contemporary Arabic Culture at the Margaret Mead Festival of Ethnographic Film 2016

10.12.2016 - David Andersson

An Introduction into Contemporary Arabic Culture at the Margaret Mead Festival of Ethnographic Film 2016

By Gabriela Jurosz-Landa

What would the world do without film festivals? Information that should daily come through television and other media is bound instead to the efforts of a handful of people offering what media doesn’t. The Margaret Mead Festival of Ethnographic film is one such festival, and it is far from being “out there” in the sense of showing remote cultures.

Of the many important films in this year’s festival, I chose one to describe in detail. I believe the Arabic culture is underrepresented in education — as is the Latin American culture and so many others. But the Arabic world view is often presented as a world apart from Western culture. Truth is, much of Western culture comes from the Orient, and that is something we should learn more about.

Yallah! Underground is a collection of stories, a road-documentary, introducing Arabic culture from different countries to the outside world. The film asks: What is underground? Through interviews with musical artists and their work, the film shows what life in the Arab region looks like today, as opposed to their image in the media.

Written and directed by Farid Eslam, this international film-production follows musicians in various Arabic countries. They explain how their societies are changing. Czech photographer Prokub Souček and editor Jakub Vomáčka both add another layer of unpretentious, meaningful realism to the film.

This film shows a new generational movement that challenges the norms of the ruling society. It is a decadent youth that now are dealing with its absurd day-to-day situation through art, music and parties. Much of the Arabic world is a region where music is still not recognized as a job. Artists and musicians create out of political and existential urgency. These people rely on their inspiration for survival. Mainly the film is about how the Arab population is sick of its “behind a veil” image in the world. Young people strive to communicate with the rest of the world. Music and art are one way to do so. The hour-and-twenty-five minutes are filled with musical emotion of a people who never know, if the sun will rise the next morning.

In Cairo, Egyptian DJ and musician Mohamed Safi describes: “Cairo starts for me after 1am. Its smell, sound, its identity. The concept of individuality has not blossomed yet. The internet and the freedom of speech that comes with it has affected and liberated people. People realized that with the smallest act you do, change is possible. Our generation, if we don’t like something, says it out loud. Even the parents-generation opens up and to a great deal embraces the freedom for their children that they didn’t have. The idea of the father and after that the husband as the care-taker is starting to tumble. The tension of taboos coming from the religion doesn’t fit anymore.”

In Amman, a Hip-hop musician from Jordan adapts the American music and fashion style as a liberation from the status-quo explicitly because it is “not from here.” He writes what he feels and helps create a freed community for generations to come. In his texts he talks about the censured newspaper articles, and the humiliation. “I have to avoid trouble until I become useless and disconnected.” He also describes the traditional society in which one cannot talk to girls openly.

A member of an alternative Arabic music group describes the Arab world as estranged from each other. “We all look at each other. In our hearts, we have the dream of unity, but even in neighboring villages there are strong frontiers. I wish we could live in an Arab world that would not look to the religious principles, because the whole world is afraid of the Arabic world because of the fanatics.”

Some care how the West sees the Arabs, others don’t. A female singer from Egypt says that the Western world considers them as an enemy because they need an enemy. To her, “it is their problem, not ours. I concentrate on my life here.” Her co-musician adds, “we still look to the East or the West”. He sees that all people share the same problems and the same hopes. “We have to be all satisfied with our lives, because we will other people unhappy”.

Lebanese music artist Zaid Hamdan is one of many artists who have been imprisoned, others are killed, for offending General Suleiman, advisor to President Assad, now assassinated by Israeli naval commandos. He told Suleiman and his system to “Go home.” Hamdan now lives in California.

To Mahmoud Radaideh, founder of rock group JADAL, the biggest problem today is the freedom of choice. He works as an engineer to survive, but also to keep his reputation, which as an artist he doesn’t have. Many people don’t even know that he plays music.

In Ramallah, West Banks, Palestine (2010), visual artist Amer Shomali is cooking Arabic (also Turkish) coffee on the stove and talks about it as a representation of his culture. “It shows a relaxed process of welcoming someone. You drink it slow, bit by bit out of small cups. It represents our culture.” To Amer, art is the tool for social change. People are looking for meaning in life. “Politicians are stealing your dreams, and artists can give them back to us.” He wants to change the colonial tradition, which remains in a state of constantly waiting for the help from outside. In oppose to that, to him and his generation, everything is questionable. “We don’t respect anything anymore which is a step toward doing things better.” He continues “In 1996 the musicians wanted to become rock stars, but the government shut them down. You had to change everything towards what the tradition told you.”

Poetic musician Shadi Zaqtan calls Ramallah the last spot of civilization in the West Banks of Palestine. Occupied by Israel and under its military control since 1967, it is not a normal town, because you cannot move out of the space you are allowed to live in. And therefore its citizens had made it an oasis. He sings about the “hundred-men-high wall” and about the constant “military presence in his days and nights.” He says, “It is about freedom. You can’t even go to the sea that you smell around you. Here even the beach becomes a political issue. Here you cannot separate politics from life…An artist in a place of occupation has a lot to do. It is a fight with a changed weapon. A bullet makes a big sound, a song makes a bigger one. I am a terrorist but not with a rifle. I am one of those that you will never expect. I shoot with a song.”

In Haifa, Israel, a rapper from Haifa introduces himself: “I am from a destroyed village. My grandparents are internal refugees, since 1948… If we, the refugees weren’t here, there would not be a place to return for all those others of our people living in different places.”

Hope towards the future lies in tolerance. The world is changing. We are counting on this new energy to show itself to us and to find common ground and learn about cultural differences in a civilized way.

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Gabriela Jurosz-Landa is a scholar of art anthropology and anthropology. She lectures and publishes on topics of art and museology, Mayan traditions and spirituality, Czech cultural philosophy, and city-anthropology. She is a member of the Czech Association of Art Historians in Prague, and the jury of Berlin-based literary contest Federleicht. As founder and president of Forum of World Cultures, she organizes international cultural-political events. She has contributed to ANTHROPOS-Journal, the BBC, ART NEWS, DIE WELT Germany, MUENCHENER MERKUR, ATELIER Prague, Euro-Journal, PRAGER WOCHENBLATT, EL NUEVO DIARIO Nicaragua, THE REVUE Guatemala, SFERA and MLADY SVET Prague. Ms. Jurosz-Landa’s essay Emmigrantenkinder received an award from the inter-cultural magazine Český Dialog.

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