In a Suspicious World, Creative Arabs, Iranians Having a Banner Year

13 December, 2017

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.

Algerian director Damien Ounouri with his star and partner, Adila Bendimerad

“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 else­whereThe 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.

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 and is the edi­tor of The Markaz Review.