Guest blog post on Yalla Start up: “we need to produce not only to consume”

Last month my friend Habib Haddad co-founder of Yamli asked me to write a blog post on his Yalla Start up which I did with a lot of pleasure – I love the work Habib and his friends are doing and I think their way of thinking will impact a lot on Arab new generation of entrepreneurs-. For some reasons, I totally forgot to re-publish the post which I will do right now.

I think what I wrote few months ago is still very much valid, and the more I go in depth in researching issues in the Middle East, the more I find that fostering original creation is the only way for making the Arab world switching to a pro-active culture(s) that speak(s) for itself instead of being spoken by Others.

In the age of digital media, where the actual cost of content production (whether audio, video, texts, etc) has dramatically (and luckily) fallen, we cannot just complain that somebody else is “monopolizing” our image and telling our Story and stories, we have to switch to a proactive attitude.

I believe this is the right time for ideas like “Orientalism” to stop. We control the knowledge tools much better than in the past, so we have to use them in a the proper way. And when I say “we” I  mean also the Arab world, and I mean also in a way myself as a part of the Arab world, as somebody living here, speaking the language and sharing the culture(s). Few days ago a friend of mine who wanted to introduce me somebody  for my phd research told him on the phone “I want to introduce you a friend of mine, an Orientalist who`s studying Syrian drama”. His expression did struck me, since for me “orientalist” is a negative word, whereas he said that for him “had it not been for the Orientalists, much of our recent Arab history would never have been written“.

This situation can be changed and I strongly believe that digital media is the chance for Arabs to change it.

“We need to produce, not only to consume!”

Few weeks ago, I was running like a crazy from an interview to another in order to finish the first part of my field work for my PHD research about Syrian musalsalat.

An (Arab) friend of mine just looked at me as if I was totally weird and told me: “why are you doing all these crazy efforts?! You read Arabic, just translate those (pointing at few articles and couple of books dealing with drama) into English and khalas, it’s done!”.

While trying to explain him that a PHD research –generally speaking- is something quite serious in terms of getting a critical mass of sources, comparing them, quoting, elaborating, etc I just realised there was an “abyss” between us.

Few days later, I went to interview a smart guy who’s trying to collect different historical sources concerning drama and doing an “encyclopedia” type of project. When asking questions, I saw him being quite reluctant in answering.. he suddenly said: “sorry but you should pay for this”. “Pay?!” . I have to admit it was the first time in more than 10 years of research that I was hearing such an answer. “There is a value in what I do. And, if you are going to take it without giving anything back, at least you should pay”. My efforts in explaining that there is something called “quotation” in academia, something that acknowledges the original creator of a thought, were vain.

He simply concluded that, while the Western world has got “quotation”, the Arab world has only  “copy and paste”.

That “abyss” of few days before finally had a name: “copy and paste” culture, thaqafat al nskh wal lsq.  It seems that Arabs are so used to copy and paste others’ works that original creation is quickly dying in this part of the world. Creativity just disappears when there is no value attributed to cultural creation, no intention to acknowledge, no wishes to build upon somebody else’s work in order to create your own work.

The copy and paste culture is not a revenge against Western imperialism – the West which exploited and deprived the Arab world -, as somebody is nostalgically putting it.

The copy and paste culture is actually something the Arab world itself is paying a price for, by preventing original Arab thoughts to be exposed and debated, original Arab ideas to be investigated, original Arab research works to be published, etc. Cause if nobody attributes a value to a scientific article, a to a piece of information, to interviews and investigations that go into a PHD thesis, how do we expect to have an original Arab thought to be formed?

We always hear debates about the “XXI century Arab thought” etc, but where does its essence lay if not in original creation? And where this original creation can be expressed and exposed the most, if not on the Internet?

It’s precisely there, with all the digital easy access tools that new technology has provided us with, that a new Arab thought has to displayed, debated, re-elaborated, re-innovated.

When we celebrate the boom of the Internet in the Arab world, the increasing usage of social networks, etc, lots of this stuff is actually still about consumption and not creation.

  • We need to write, not only to read.
  • We need to film, not only to watch.
  • We need to produce, not only to consume.
  • We need to innovate, not only to preserve.

But, in order to create, we need to give a value to our creation. Then we need to respect this value. We need to trust. I personally see the challenge of Creative Commons organisation in the Arab world to be in this very challenge of creation, of giving a value, of facilitating trust.

Creative Commons was born in a Western world were copyright protection had become a chain, an obstacle to innovation. In the Arab world, copyright is almost unknown or disrespected, and original creation is disrespected, too, to the extent that it is totally neglected. In this context Creative Commons should be understood as a way of giving value to this neglected creation, of building trust and respect around it.

Would be this possible, the Arab world’s past and its history (like the history of its TV drama, just as an example) will finally have a value for Arabs too … the future won’t be made up of only Westerners investigating and writing this story, while Arabs just reading it.

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Najdat Anzour`s new TV drama to set Ramadan 2010 on fire

A very hot and dry summer afternoon in Damascus. The kind of weather which pushes you to be indolent. But in this tiny Maliki apartment there is even more activity that usual. Two workstations in parallel are editing ما ملكت أيمانكم” (“Whatever you possess”) and ذاكرة الجسد” (“Memory in the flesh”), the latest TV drama  works by Syrian director Najdat Anzour.

I`ve been knowning Najdat for some years now and I`ve always admired his dedication and passion, whatever kind of work he does. This can`t be more true this time when he is working on such different contexts and stories. “Memory in the flesh” is inspired by the novel of Algerian writer Ahlam Musteghranemi, one of the more appreciated Arab writer of the last century, and  a very unconventional female personality. This 30 episodes TV drama is been produced by Abu Dhabi TV channel with 25% participation of Egyptian Media City, a miracle that only somebody like Najdat could orchestrate. It is very rare indeed to see Egyptian capital producing something that is shot by a Syrian -this has happened previously, as in the case of the Syrian Hatem Ali`s “King Farouk”, but the final result was rather a “made in Egypt”-.

Anzour is working with Syrian (like Syrian star Jamal Suleiman), Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian actors to create what could be described as a “Panarab” TV fiction production, something that tackles regional interests and issues, as the Algerian liberation war, the Lebanese civil war, etc. And, of course, there is a lot of beautiful literature taken from Musteghranemi`s work. Dialogues are in classical Arabic, as Algerian dialect is still not widely understood at a regional level as much as Egyptian or Syrian.

While he is still shooting “Memory in the flesh” between France, Lebanon, UK and Algeria, Anzour is at the final editing stage of “Whatever you posses” (the meaning of ا ملكت أيمانكم” being wider than this, as it is a Quranic expression coming from the “Sura of the Women” that has got a lot of religious nuances). This musalsal, which is also due to be launched during next Ramadan, is in a way at the opposite end of “Memory in the flesh”. Whereas the latter comes from a piece of literature, is set in the past, speaks Classical and addresses Panarab issues, “Whatever you possess” is a social drama very much set in a contemporary Damascus and spoken in Syrian dialect. It deals with issues like relation between men and women, sex, religion, corruption, poverty and extreme richness, all elements that are embedded together in contemporary Syrian daily life. Najdat and his “monteur” show me two finished episodes and I can`t prevent myself from thinking that this is going to set next Ramadan on fire.


Contemporary Damascus is shown with all its contradictions without any filter: one of the most ancient urban settlement in the history of humanity,and at the same time a tiny village where rural values of tradition and its preservation still seem to prevail over modern urban values.

This contrast is visible in everything from the locations to the characters, with a particular emphasis on females. Rich “enfants gates” that spend their time on the border of a swimming pool in their rich father`s villa, talking about make up and coiffeur, whispering on their fancy mobiles and elaborating on the latest fashion magazine coming from the West – and young educated girls that are pushed to sell their bodies to pay for their parents` health treatments-. The middle class is astonishingly absent from this picture -as it is, in reality, fading away from Syrian society class composition-. Middle class is shrinking everywhere in the entire world, as a result of the globalisation process that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer: but in Syria this process dramatically involves all the values that middle class traditionally brings to society, its dedication to education and hard work, its belief in self-initiative and self-making, its urban background. The females protagonists of “Whatever you possess” -Leila, Alia and Nadine- represent three prototypes well alive in contemporary Syrian society. Their complicated relations with men are mostly based on exploitation, submission, dependence, inequality, frustration and on a unbalanced exercise of power. To this respect, every social class seems to be the same -no differences between the rich and poor, the shrinking middle class being even more desperate as more conscious of the process that is leading to its own disappearance-.

Whatever you possess” is made up of luxury villas and poor suburbs, smoky bars full of belly dancers and Qoranic schools, women dressed in “total black” and kinky “femme fatales” going from one party to another. It shows a society which is totally permeated with liberalization and globalization but hasn’t developed its “anti corps” , being only able  to read this process in financial terms (i.e. being empowered to buy the latest luxury car or mobile) but not in cultural ones.

I remember Najdat showing the promo of “Whatever you possess” to a Danish non Arabic speaking audience in Copenhagen. The results was amazing, as people could understand -through the powerful visual language – the story he wants to tell, maybe much more universal than as it looks at a first glance.

During the past few years, Najdat Anzour has smartly dedicated his career at “universal” issues that are of Westerners` and Arabs` common concerns, I.e. terrorism, relations between religions, issues like the Danish cartoon controversy. I`ve always found this very interesting but I have to say that I`m happy to see “Whatever you possess” focusing on Syrian society, debating about it, pointing out at its problems. Being more local he has probably become more universal, and even more understandable by us Westerners, even the non Arabic speakers, as those folks in Copenhagen. There is a lot of criticism in Syria in respect to this kind of “Syrian neorealism” featuring all the problems and the contradictions of the Syrian society on Regional TV screens, moreover during the holy month of Ramadan. People say those fictions don`t offer any solution for social change, just portray the bad side of a society. However, I think that through TV works as the latest Anzour`s, people could at least become conscious of some issues and realize they do exist, instead of using TV just as a way to escape in an imagery past that existed once or probably never existed.

“Whatever you possess” by N. Anzour, 2010

pictures from http://www.libyanyouths.com/vb/t27507.html

Tales of ordinary madness in Tunisian web

In the past few days my Twitter feed was constantly blinking concerning the 22th of May global protest that Tunisian activists were trying to organize all over the world against government Internet filtering. Slim Amadou, a prominent Tunisian blogger, was reported missing for some days and everybody on Twitter was asking through tons of retweets “have you heard from him?”. Today Sami Ben Gharbeia, director of advocacy at Global Voices, posted a link with the answer (read here on the C.R.I.M.E report). Unbelievable, or just a tale of ordinary madness from the country that in 2005 hosted the World Summit on the Information Society?

Slim’s Shady Detention

Error 404Slim Amamou’s mistake was to request a permit for a rally in Tunis. The local cyber activist joined with several colleagues to plan a peaceful demonstration against online censorship, part of a May 22 worldwide day against government Internet filtering in Tunisia. But as Slim filed the official paperwork, police swooped in, detaining him and demanding he record a video asking people not to attend the demo.

Tunisia was the first Arab country to introduce Internet access and paradoxically remains a trailblazer – only now with world-class Internet censorship. The May 22 global protest targeted “Ammar 404,” the imaginary censor Tunisians have created whose name is a pun on the “Error 404” message displayed when trying to access censored content. Tunisians living abroad took to the street to protest in front of their country’s embassies and consulates in Bonn, New York, and Paris.

But in Tunis, authorities would allow no such demonstration. During Slim’s lengthy detention (along with fellow activist Yassine Ayari) he had to record a ” public service announcement” urging protestors to stay home. He was also forced to sign a document stating he “understood that his call for a demonstration is wrong.” The next day, a phalanx of Tunisian police gathered outside the Technology and Communications Ministry, which runs the country’s Internet firewall.

Still, young Tunisian organized flashmobs in Tunis cafes wearing white t-shirts to show their defiance to the government ban. And Slim, despite it all, refuses to be silenced. In fact, he maintains a steady stream of commentary via his Twitter feed, appropriately named “Slim404.”