Past and Future Stories of the Arab Peoples
Co-presented by The Sasakawa Peace Foundation The Sasakawa Middle East Islam Fund
To Live in a World that is Coming Apart
When I started studying Arabic recently, I learned that when numerals are written in Arabic they are referred to as “Indian” numerals. My Iraqi teacher told me that this numeral system was invented in India and is still referred to in Arabic by the same name it had when it was adopted. Later, this system was transmitted to Europe where it developed into the “Arabic” numerals we use internationally today. In the Arab world, they are “Indian” and in Europe they are “Arabic.” When I first learned about this tangled etymology of the numeral system, I was embarrassed by my own ignorance. Although I use “Arabic numerals” every day, I never once thought about how they got their name.
I had my first introduction to the thinking and actions of the Arab peoples at the last festival via the series of popular uprisings known as the “Arab Spring.” It led me to learn Arabic and I chose to design a program at YIDFF this year that takes another look at the Arab world. It aims to question our perspective on what is “Arab,” and to learn about the perspectives of artists and other people who live in the Arab world facing the text of film. I have adopted the theme of “looking for connections between people” in choosing not only six new works that paint a portrait of the contemporary Arabic-speaking world, but also four films from an earlier time that convey a sense of the changing landscape of Lebanon and Palestine between the 1940s and the 1980s.
In one of the new films, The Unbearable Presence of Asmahan, Azza El-Hassan reflects on her experience of being born Palestinian but educated in Europe, and questions the perceptions of Europe that exist in the Arab world. In another, Um Ghayeb—Mother of the Unborn, Nadine Salib captures the worldview of women who live in a region still bound by ancient customs. She succeeds in looking beyond gender to understand their perspectives as individuals. Dalila Ennadre’s Walls and People employs a fly-on-the-wall perspective to dip into different layers of society where people give voice to their anxieties about the present and the future, while praising the king at the same time. In Trip Along Exodus, Hind Shoufani shows how her deep love for her father, who is forced to live far away, in fact serves to express the Palestinian people’s history of displacement. In From My Syrian Room, Hazem Al-Hamwi, who was raised in an authoritarian country where he had to repress his individuality, demonstrates his strong desire for freedom. Finally, the couple fighting against the government in English director Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story, are portrayed through a focus not on their political activism, but on their experiences of love and separation.
In all of these films, the filmmakers do their best to completely disrupt our preconceptions. Their powerful works prompt us to deep reflection. Four older films have also been included alongside the six new ones, in the hope that seeing the enormous changes that have taken place in the Arab world might help us to grapple with today’s realities. As part of the backlash against the unraveling of the foundations of the modern state, reactionary desire for control has gained ground. In order to live in this complex world, we need to dream of the possibility of a world where connections across borders can be made through sharing and exchanging the riches of knowledge and art, just as “Indian numerals” remain in Arabic script and “Arabic numerals” continue to be used in Europe. Watching these films from the Arab world can help us to keep this vision alive.