black saturday

In Sham. The geography of my body changes.
The cells of my blood become green.
My alphabet is green.
In Sham. A new mouth emerges for my mouth
A new voice emerges for my voice
And my fingers
Become a tribe
I return to Damascus
Riding on the backs of clouds
Riding the two most beautiful horses in the world
The horse of passion.
The horse of poetry.


Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me?

by Nizar Qabbani

You Tube and Kuwait: much ado about nothing?

Two days ago the news about Kuwaiti Ministry of Communications blocking You Tube for carrying offensive content provoked a certain turmoil on the Arab media. Issues were raised as those of censorship, freedom of expression, etc. Blogger communities had felt of course very attacked.

The origin of all this “ado” is believed to be some videos posted on You Tube, one of them featuring a man signing verses from the Quran while playing oud (a traditional Arab music instrument) and another showing caricatures of the Prophet.

The content was judged offensive, expecially during the holy month of Ramadan (in traditional Gulf countries having music played together with holy Quran could be interpreted as offensive to religion).

But, according to Global voices and other sources like, the ban should be lifted soon as the Ministry of Communications decided yesterday to revoke the decision.

“To ban or not to ban”, this is the question.

But at a deeper look it could be a “much ado for nothing” issue, as Gulf countries are used to be supportive of media revolution while banning it at the same time.

It happened with Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the satellite era when, while banning dishes at home, the country was financing the boom of satellite networks abroad, opening Arabic tv stations in European countries like Italy and UK.  Movie theatres are still banned throught the country, while Saudi capitals are heavily financing the still developing but promising movie industry all across the Arab region. And, now that Wall Street and hedge funds are facing the economic crisis, US companies are making deals to produce English language movies in the Gulf with local funds plenty of pocket money not to be found in Western countries.

UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait itself are at the forefront of the Internet revolution in the Middle East. They are financing big projects -like the Internet City in the Dubai area-, inviting web investors, sponsoring high level conferences on telco and IT issues, opening first class training courses for enterpreneurs and trying to support innovation and digital creativity.

At the same time, Skype is banned in the UAE as it is in Kuwait (even if people largely use those services), probably just for telcos monopoly reasons, not for the censorship or freedom of expression argument.  Liberal Dubai also does censor contents on the popular photo sharing web platform Flickr.

Is it possible to support innovation and digital revolution while at the same time putting limits and conditions to it? Is this the new model that will take place in the rich Gulf states that now control many key sectors of world economy? A “walled garden” innovation, under certain conditions and constraints?

Or is it simply the “Arab way” to do things? Which is: a “much ado about nothing” strategy.

The Saudi Arabian grand mufti in July released a fatwa on Turkish soap operas, followed by millions of Arabs, just because they are considered to be immoral and “evil”.  It happens that those soaps operas are distributed on MBC screens, a very influencial tv network based in Dubai but backed by Saudi Sheikh Walid Al Ibrahim‘s capitals. The Sheikh is a relative to the ruling family, so everything happening seems to be an “internal discourse” among the country different establishments.

On the one hand there is a push to change and invest in the new; on the other hand, a pressure to block it which is coming from the same – or very much related- internal powers. Is it a real struggle happening among different powers going in opposite directions, or is it just the way things progress in the Middle East? By being banned formally to “keep the facade” while in reality everybody is doing the contrary and being tolerated?

Is religion a tv genre?

It seems that Algerian state run tv ENTV will open to a new Ramadan tailored tv genre: the Islamic reality show. Knights of the Quran is the new reality style tv programme but under a religious flavour. This time the participants -males and females- are competing in Quranic recitation rather than in pop songs. Quranic recitation is not new to tv screens expecially during Ramadan, but what sounds new is the format, which owes a lot to the reality show genre. Audiences can contribute from their homes to choose the best Quranic reader and the show also features competitors tours in religious locations across the Arab region, like the Al Qarawiin mosque in Fez, Morocco, the Al Zeituna mosque in Tunisia and the Al Azhar mosque in Egypt.  See the original article

on The National UAE to read the Arab media analyst Marwan Krady commenting on this.

While Algeria tv is investing in religious reality show, neighbouring Tunisia launches the first Tunisian religious channel, Hannibal Elferdaws (Hannibal Paradise). Investor is the local businessman Larbi Nasra, who founded Tunisia’s first private TV channel Hannibal in 2005. If for someone this is an attempt to teach young people a “moderate” version of Islam in order to discourage militant political Islamic groups, for others it’s just a sign that times have dramatically changed since former Tunisian president Bourghiba drunk an orange juice in the middle of Ramadan on tv declaring that “a modern nation cannot afford to stop for a month every year”.

Two-rooms and a kitchen better than a window on the Bosphorus??

Two-rooms and a kitchen is a local flavoured expression to describe Italian contemporary cinema (in my roman familiar dialect it will sound like “du’ camere e cucina”).

Why two-rooms and a kitchen movies have replaced Italian neorealism? Or, better said: why two-rooms and a kitchen movies have become the new Italian realism? As Italians, we have to ask ourselves why indoor claustrophobic familiar stories have become our daily life concern, instead of looking outside and going outdoor, as neorealism directors did teach us a while ago.

These days Italian media are unanimously applauding Italian movies at Venice film festival. Everybody seems to agree with the alleged fact that there is a re-birth of Italian cinema (a re-birth coming from a two-rooms and a kitchen delivery).

I am not a cinema expert but an eager “eater” of each kind of images. And these days I would have a question for Ferzan Ozpetek, a Turkish director who has been living in Italy for many years (and who’s now presenting in Venice his new movie Un giorno perfetto).

Turkey these days is a vibrant country in a great mood. And this great energy reflects on its audiovisual industry too.

As an Arab media watcher, I was charmed by the raising of the Turkish soap operas phenomena. Doubled in Syrian dialect, Turkish soap operas like Nour or Lost years are gaining an incredible audience success all across the Arab world. There are many reasons for this incredible boom –and many of them concerns some internal characteristics to Arab markets and Muslim societies- but I just would like to point out one thing which should be important for other countries, Italy too.

Though being tv works (which means serials), aimed at gaining audiences and ads time (which means commercially oriented), these soap operas have something more. They tell about a society which is in evolution, which is trying to bridge globalisation and local culture, progress and tradition, religious belief and liberalization, just as the charming Bosphorus river is bridging East and West in beautiful Istanbul. They are shoot in poor neighbours and luxury 5 stars hotels, in popular traditional coffee houses and brand new malls. They show the poorest working class and the richest one. They talk about illegal immigration and struggles against local and foreign mafia as well as foreign investments in the booming real estate industry in Istanbul. Their protagonists work in a cafeteria to pay their university studies or in the family fashion company just to have fun, drink champagne and go to trendy parties while they are making money indeed.

Why a clever Turkish director like Ferzan Ozpetek should do two-rooms and a kitchen movies instead of doing soap operas like these? I really don’t know. Maybe cause we still consider cinema as a work of art while tv is just a “bread-gaining” work? Maybe. But I don’t think so, especially when tv is well done.

And why our fellow Italian journalists (and all the media industry in Italy) are applauding the alleged re-birth of Italian movies inside this claustrophobic and self-referential space instead of going outside to see what’s happening in this big globalized world?

Maybe it’s because there are still stuck in two-rooms and a kitchen. And have lost the key to get out of it.

UAE influence in global film industry increases

1 billion dollars is the huge amount of money reported to be spent over the next 5 years in film production by Imagenation Abu Dhabi the just born jewel in the Abu Dhabi goldmine.

The fund will be devoted not only to develop and finance Arab (and Gulf) feature films, but also international movies. Abu Dhabi has already signed an agreement with Warner Bros (500 millions dollars) for a production fund which is going to release soon its first product, Robert Rodriguez’s Shorts. Together with film production, Abu Dhabi and WB also have a big thematic park project to be built in the UAE and a videogame fund of other 500 millions dollars.

This is not enough for the eager-to-invest emirate, which is aiming to launch itself as international movie hub, the “place to be” in terms of film industry. The upcoming Middle East Film Festival (oct. 10-19) will award the lucky winners with more than 1 million dollars in cash.

Dubai, which was the first in the Gulf to start betting on the movie industry having launched the first movie festival in the Gulf area and the huge Dubai Studios project, will not sit down and wait for its rival emirate to leave it behind. The fifth edition of the Dubai Film Festival (dec. 11-18) will launch the first Middle East Film Market, which is aimed –according to its organisers- to compete directly with Cannes and US markets. If it seems an ambitious project, Dubai is used to fulfil its most ambitious dreams with the help of its pockets.

At the moment Gulf capital are not heavily investing only at home, but all across the world. In Italy we have good example in many different sectors: from the business with stylish furniture designer Poltrona Frau to develop the brand in the UAE with Mubadala company, to real estate (all Gulf princes are heavily buying hotels, properties all across Italy) to the 2 billion euros investment in Palermo harbour by the Sultan of Oman. Even Italian government controlled electric company Enel has to pay the rent of its offices (around 30 millions euros in 2007) to the Saudi Al Rajhi Group.

Arab tv battle for the next Ramadan 2008 hit begins today

Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins today (mabrouk to the Muslims all over the world). As every year, this is not only a time devoted to praying and fastening, but also a crowded battle field for Arab tv channels. Arab broadcasters invest a great amount of their annual budgets in producing tv shows especially tailored for this season which is the richest even in terms of ads spending. Every tv genre is touched by the “Ramadan effect”. Mtv Arabia, the latest born music channel in the Middle East, has promised to refrain from playing music video clips during the holy month, replacing this pretty secular tv genre with cultural news programmes and some reality shows believed to be more appropriate, like “Hogan Knows Best” which follows wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan in his lesser-known roles as husband and father.

Also mobile offers are influenced by the starting of Ramadan. Du, the UAE integrated telco service provider launched in 2007, has just announced a bunch of new services tailored for the holy month. To test customers’ knowledge of Ramadan, Du launches a Sms challenge which will give free credit to the winners.  Customers can also subscribe to “hadeeth of the day”, a free service which sends to mobile screens Prophet Mohammed’s say for each day of the holy month. But there is also room for pay-per-view content: Du, in cooperation with MBC, one of the most watched Arab broadcasters, will offer ad hoc designed “mobisodes” of the tv drama “Rabeh wa Douktora” for the first time. Islamic tailored content, produced by religious channel Al Majd, will also be available on Du subscription Tv package.

But Ramadan tv hottest potato will be musalsalat as usual. After the huge success across the Arab region of the Turkish soap operas “Nour” and “Years of lost” dubbed into Syrian dialect, everybody is waiting for the next big thing. Meanwhile there are some “evergreen” of Arab tv to be back again: as Syrian drama “Bab al hara”, inspired by nostalgia for life of Old Damascus, already a huge success all across the Arab world.

As usual, Ramadan musalsalat are accompanied by huge polemics and “pros and cons” supporters inside and outside the Arab world. There is a big debate running every year over the topics of the musalsalat. Arab tv drama has been devoting itself in breaking lots of cultural and social taboos by tackling issues like polygamy, divorce, rape, even the struggle of a transexual, and politics of course. During the past few years lots of Ramadan “hot potatoes” have been prevented from broadcasting, like “Tariq ila Kabul”, a Qatari tv production dealing with the history of Afghanistan from the struggle against former Soviet Union till US occupation after 9/11.

This Ramadan 2008 lots of polemics have already been raised for ERTU, Egyptian public tv, preventing the broadcasting of “Nasser”, a musalsal based on life of the father of Panarabism and former Egyptian president directed by Syrian Bassel Al Khateeb. No explanation has been given yet for the decision, but many Egyptian government opposition papers, like Al Wafd, have already expressed their criticism for the government seems to allow series like last year big success “Malek Farouk” (directed by Syrian Hatem Ali) while doesn’t keep the same behaviour when it comes to a chapter of Egyptian history that the ruling party at power wants to forget.

In Ramadan tv hot race there is also a room for newcomers: many expectations have been put on “Matabb”, the first locally produced Palestinian drama believed to show daily life under occupation which should be on air by tonight.

While in Lebanon, still the less conservative and more “osé” country in Arab tv panorama, Al Lubnania – a new born channel- announces a tv grid made up by cosmetic surgery programmes, like liposuction and facelifts. A typical “Lebanese (and provocative) way” to be added to this Ramadan tv offer for all audiences flavours.