First theatre play hold yesterday in Saudi Arabia after 50 years

A real revolution was happening yesterday in Saudi Arabia. A theatre play was represented in the Saudi capital Ryad for the first time after 50 years in front of government authorities.  Religious ulama consider cinema and theatre to be against Islamic sharia law.  Prince Waleed Bin Talal, the media moghul who owns stakes in global media organisations like Murdochs NewsCorp and controls the successful  Arab tv network Rotana, has proposed several times to open a movie theatre in the country but never succeeded in this.

Yesterday event is unprecedented and very interesting in the perspective of the evolution of modern Saudi societies. Lorenzo Trombetta from Italian news agency Ansamed reports about the event here:

“For the first time in almost 50 years a theatre play was performed in front of government officials in Saudi Arabia: on Friday in Riyadh the Theatre Festival was opened in the presence of government members, while the supreme religious authority of the country continues to stigmatise film and theatre as ”breaking Islamic law”. For World Theatre Day, in which Saudi Arabia is participating for the first time, the curtain of the Saudi-Arabian Culture and Art Association (Asca) were raised for the first time in 49 years in the presence of a mixed audience, men and women, including ”high representatives of the Culture Ministry” reported the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, published in London and owned by Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan, on its front page. The play was performed by the actors of Diadema (al-Iklil), preparations have been in the news in the past days ”after threats and attempts to sabotage” preparations ”carried out by unknown persons against the theatre group”. The religious authorities in Saudi Arabia oppose artistic expression: Grand mufti, Abd al Aziz al Shaykh, called theatre an activity that ”breaks Islamic law”. Two years ago a fight broke out between viewers and actors during the performance of a comedy which showed ”the contradictions of a society which is considered to be moderate by the West, but which in fact is subjected to religious extremists”. The few (film) theatres that are tolerated are still rigorously divided into stalls for men and a balcony for women and the performance of comedies, usually by men only, is only allowed during Ramadan. Last year, seven of the ten theatre plays on the bill were performed and directed by men, two by children. Women appeared in just one play according to Najah al-Usaymi of the local on-line daily Arab News. The last show performed in Riyadh in the presence of authorities goes back to 1960. Since then only small private cultural circles and universities organised shows. ”With this event we want to re-launch Saudi theatre” said the vice director of Asca, Muhammad Rassis, adding: ”We are children of today and we talk about today. We have nothing to do with the past”. (ANSAmed).

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Al Jazeera, soap opera arabe e Obama al Festival del Cinema Africano di Milano

Per chi di voi si trova in zona Milano, ci sono una serie di appuntamenti “arabi” che vorrei segnalare.

Intanto la 19esima edizione del Festival del Cinema Africano di Milano (23-29 marzo) che inizia oggi. Quest’anno il lavoro fatto da Alessandra Speciale e Annamaria Gallone, direttrici del Festival, è veramente eccezionale, considerando i tempi cupi che stiamo attraversando in Italia, in termini sia di finanziamenti alla cultura che di sensibilità verso le culture “altre”. Il programma è ricchissimo: http://www.festivalcinemaafricano.org/.

Mohamed Challouf ha invece curato, sempre all’interno del Festival, una sezione dedicata ad “Al Jazeera, l’occhio arabo sul mondo” che comprende la proiezione di preziosi documentari e programmi della rete del Qatar.  La sezione ospiterà inoltre una tavola rotonda, curata sempre da Mohamed, alle ore 17 di giovedi 26 marzo presso lo spazio Oberdan, alla quale partecipa anche Ahmad Mahfouz , il direttore del Documentary Channel di Al Jazeera.

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Inoltre, verrà proiettata per la prima volta in Italia la soap opera di produzione giordana Al Ijtiyah (l’Invasione) vincitrice dell’Emmy Award 2008.

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Sabato 28, sempre all’interno del Festival, presentiamo il nostro libro su Obama:


Sabato 28 marzo – ore 17.00 Libreria FNAC Milano


In occasione della sezione tematica su Al Jazeera, il Festival del Cinema Africano di Milano presenta il libro


“Un Hussein alla Casa Bianca. Cosa pensa il mondo arabo di Barack Obama” (Odoya, 2009)

a cura di Donatella Della Ratta e Augusto Valeriani.


Obama ha passato l’infanzia in un paese musulmano, l’Indonesia, e il suo secondo nome è un nome arabo, Hussein. Può il nuovo presidente americano rappresentare l’interlocutore giusto per il Medio Oriente? Su questo gli arabi e i loro media, dai blog ad Al Jazeera, si interrogano in questi mesi. Gli autori del libro analizzano i media arabi, raccolgono le opinioni di giornalisti, studiosi, uomini d’affari e persone comuni in Medio Oriente e in Usa, offrendoci una prospettiva sui futuri rapporti tra Stati Uniti e mondo arabo.

Alla presenza degli autori e di Khaled Fouad Allam, sociologo e autore dell’introduzione del libro.

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Creative Commons at Al Jazeera Forum

Creative Commons was at Al Jazeera Forum on the 14th march. There was a co-hosted day featuring a panel on “Building successfull projects on open networks”. Joi Ito, Creative Commons’ Ceo, moderated a debate with Mohamed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera presenting the CC Al Jazeera repository case study; Helmi Noman from Harvard University talked about Arab content on the web; and a nice delegation from European Broadcasting Union headed by Nicoletta Iacobacci, Head of New Media was there to discuss the issues, together with blogger and media activist Danny Schetcher from Mediachannel.org.  New media is getting more important than ever, even from a TV news channel perspective as Al Jazeera, and it was interesting to discuss all those issues in the framework of the Forum. Plus, it was great to see a very active Arab world CC group forming, putting together people with different backgrounds and skills, from lawyers to IT experts from bloggers to language experts. This was a great beginning that should hopefully have a follow up on many topics that are core to be developed in the Arab world, like having more content in Arabic over the web, enhancing the new born web 2.0 communities and fostering sharing and cooperation among Arab youngsters.

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Al Jazeera Forum just over in Doha

Al Jazeera Fourth Forum (14-16th march) is just over in Doha, Qatar. Three days of debates mostly focused on geopolitics from a middle eastern perspective: the strategic importance of Turkey and Iran as neighbouring countries, but also of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China. This is the “new world political order” the Al Jazeera way: not only US, not only Europe, not western centered. The Forum agenda seems to reflect perfecly this emerging perspective, which is also interpreted on a TV level by the English channel.

But for the Arabs the debate that first counts is still the Middle East and particularly the Palestinian issue.

Gaza is still the hottest potato: and, as remarked by one of the panelists of today’s Gaza session, we don’t have to consider it “history” yet. 3iani, we can’t consider it as a written page but more likely as a still-to-be-written one. There are many individuals and organisations in Europe currently working to bring Israel to the International Court for having committed a crime against humanity, so the page is yet to be written. Moreover, as the world famous journalist Robert Fisk recalls -he is one of the guests of the panel together with Alain Greish from Le Monde Diplomatique and Ahmed Sheikh, Al Jazeera Head of News-, in Western media we also have the problem of facing the past, i.e. to trace back the real beginning of the Gaza crisis which is not on the 26 of dec 2008. He reminds the audience that the crisis started more than 2 years ago, in 2006, and since then the Palestinian population was isolated and suffered a big humanitarian crisis. He sadly adds that the media in general is conflict-driven, the TV channels don’t light their cameras if there is not a “story” (which should be an invasion, a rocket, but not people that are starving and dying).  The problem is, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Sheikh remarks, that then they started to be very suspicious about why channels like Al Jazeera have access to this kind of stories, while the answer is very easy: because we invested before, we have been there for many years, he said.

Same in Afghanistan: I remember that when Tayseer Allouni, Al Jazeera correspondent over there was the only to get access to Bin Laden for an interview and then the office was receiving the famous tapes everybody was attacking the channel. Why Al Jazeera? Why not another? Well, answer is easy: cause they were there, they invested money, they built a relation with them. Just like CNN did with Peter Arnett in the First Gulf War, but at the time nobody would have found it strange.

I think it’s time to stop asking questions like this and blaming Al Jazeera. I think it’s time that European media, too, invest in crisis zone but not actually only when the conflict is happening. I think it’s time we start to understand places like the Arab world, Afghanistan, and whatever by living there, understanding the languages, making an effort to understand the cultures, too. Otherwise, we will be to blame. And when somebody from the audience asks Al Jazeera Arabic why they haven’t been as “objective” as Al Jazeera English was in reporting the Gaza conflict (I wonder if the guy does actually understand arabic but it is very unlike: most likely he has just watched images on the Arabic channel and then decided they were biased anyway), Ahmed Sheikh has to remind him that they interviewed many Israeli officials, and they gave the floor and the airspace to Israelis, too. Robert Fisk actually adds something very important to the current debate about “objectivity” in the news: what does it mean to be “objective” in such a situation like Gaza?Does it mean we have to give 50% of airtime to Israelis and 50% of the time to Palestinians and let the audience decide by itself?Is it possible to do this for Gaza the same way we do it during an election or a football match by giving the floor to one party or the other, to one team or the other (what we call in Italian TV, borrowing by Latin, “par condicio” which ends up to be a “sandwich news”? first half cheese, second half tomato in equal parts..)? How can we apply this rule in a situation where journalists are prevented to enter where the actual conflict is happening?So how can they actually report the two sides of the story if one side is forbidden by the other side to be watched and told?

Fisk thinks we have to think about justice before thinking about “objectivity” (which by the way doesn’t exist in general terms and particularly in this Gaza situation for the reasons above mentioned) and I actually do agree with him. We shouldn’t be ashamed to have an ethic in our profession, or values that drive us. Values are not only “objectivity” which by the way can’t be applied in such an unjust unbalanced situation. How can the news be balanced and objective if the situation is objectively unbalanced?

This is, I have to say, a very bad Western habit to think that values can be applied in general conditions while there are no general conditions ever. There is always a context.

Having said that, I really wish Western media can understand and move forward. The real point is not how much floor you give to Palestinians and Israelis, the real point is how you frame the context of what’s happening. And how you portay the Palestinians, too. Cause actually there is no such a general thing as Palestinians, there are different human beings that think different ways. There are Palestianians who are against Hamas, others who are against Fatah, and others that are simply against both of them. The issue is much much more complicated than this. The real question is: how can we expect to challenge Al Jazeera -which could be actually be challenged for the way it portays Palestinians and for the way it portrays one part of the Palestianians as it was all of them- if first, we don’t understand it, and secondly, we are always stressing on this “generalisation process”? Palestinians are no more individuals, they become just a collective entity opposed to Israelis in our generalised view. I wish I could see one day a more complex and deeper debate on those issues which concern us as media professionals and as human beings too.

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photo by Joi Ito published under Creative Commons license: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/3358743639/in/photostream/

Dox Box, the documentary festival in Damascus

I’ve just attended the “Voices of women” workshop, one of the side events and meetings of the DoxBox Festival, currently being held in Damascus till the 15th of march.  A very interesting and bold discussion was taking place in front of a very mixed audience, men and women, syrians and foreigners. At the core of the discussion there was the so-called “gender issue” and the complexity of this in a very male driven society like the Arab one. But there is no such a thing as “one” Arab society, and even in the same country women’s lifestyles, behaviours,problems are very different. The discussion, which features many women directors and also a man-a Moroccan French who has shot a film on modern women slavery in Europe- is quite monopolised by questions asked to Moroccan filmaker Fatima Jebli Ouazzani. She moved with her family to Holland when she was ten years old and since then her struggle between tradition and innovation has started. The topic of her film is virginity and marriage, and her freshness and strenght is not to stand on one side or the other, but to try to understand the reasons of both.  “In my father’s house” is the title of her film which was never distributed in Morocco. It is fresh, and doesn’t take anything for granted, just as Fatima herself seems to be.  Discussion is joined also by Saudi female filmaker Haifa Al Mansour who speaks about Saudi Arabia and its women, a topic which is always so much seen through Western stereotypes. Among the European filmakers invited, there is also the Italian Alina Marazzi, one of our best new fresh voices in documentary film. Sitting in the audience we can see Omar Amiralay, the father of Syrian documentary and a very controversial one in his country; and Mohamed Malas, the great director of “The night” feature film.

Tomorrow, another round table about the war and filmakers who have dedicated their work to tell people what TV doesn’t always tell.

DoxBox is a very bold association of independent filmakers who since 2007 has been working on creative documentary in Syria and all across the Arab world.



Israeli cartoon on Gaza

BBC Arabic is now reporting about this cartoon on Gaza which was just released by Yoni Goodman, one of the creators of  Academy Award nominated “Walz with Bashir” on Sabra and Chatila Israeli massacre. BBC Arabic reports of him now launching this short cartoon “Closed Zone” which can be screened here: www.closedzone.com. The cartoon features a Palestinian child who runs but every time he is approaching Gaza “borders”human hands are preventing him from trespassing. Israeli hands, but also Egyptians. And, even when he takes a small boat to sail the sea he is prevented to go further thanks to the same “human hands”. The cartoon is produced by Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, a human rights organisation which defends the right to freedom of movement of Palestinians through legal and public advocacy.

The cartoon is very interesting and surely it will have a large distribution on the net, hopefully reminding the people around the world about the everyday life tragedy that every palestians should face to go to school, to work, to do every kind of activity which implies freedom of movement.

Beirut Barcamp and what’s next

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First ever Arab barcamp was held yesterday in Beirut at AUB.  Despite an horrible weather (never seen such raining and cold weather  in Beirut) there was an incredible attendance of people, coming from different fields, from IT, education, media. And lots of Lebanese Geeks that have kindly uploaded nice pics on Flickr!

We discussed many interesting topics such as the state of Arabic content on the Web and how to improve it, the state of computer education in Lebanon and in the Arab world, the use of ICT to improve education and knowlegde, social media marketing, how to do community outreach and raise awareness for the upcoming Lebanese elections, IP, and how to develop Creative Commons in the Arab world. The sessions notes can be find on the barcamp wiki.

We also discussed what to do next to keep this incredible group of people together and to go further into the discussion of those key topics for the future of innovation and creativity in the Arab world. There is an idea to hold barcamp focused sessions on each topics: follow the wiki to stay updated.

With this exciting event Lebanon proves once again to be a very interesting place for everything which concerns creativity, innovation and people participation. Thanks to Dave Munir Nabti of Rootspace and all the co-organisers, sponsors and partners for making this happen.

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