Arab contributions to human civilisation are noteworthy, but unfortunately they have most of the time been overlooked by the West. The famous Egyptian actress Yousra, who has been increasingly popular with audiences in the Arab world, has launched a new programme called Al Arabi, which is being aired every Friday and Sunday night on Egypt’s Satellite channels Al Masriya and Al Oula. The programme consists of thirty 45-minute episodes and focuses on contributions by Arab personalities in modern history. Yousra, who has herself won many awards for her different works, has toured Arab and Western countries, including Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Marrakech, London, Paris and the United States, to meet up with hundreds of successful Arab scientists, architects, artists, media personalities and politicians, with the aim to convey a true picture of the Arab people. The first episode of Al Arabi, which aired beginning of May, concentrated on great Arab surgeons and scientists. Yousra met up with Prof. Sir Magdi Yacoub, who is widely recognized as being one of the best cardiothoracic surgeons in the world. Yacoub, who is based in London, has been knighted by HM Queen Elizabeth II for his achievements in heart surgery. He has set up the British charity “Chain of Hope” to provide free heart treatment for children from poor countries. We saw Yacoub for this purpose returning to his native Aswan in Egypt and Yousra entering an operation room to watch an open heart surgery on a child. The actress, who always wanted to become a doctor, handled the situation extremely well. When asked about her experience inside the operation room, she said that she felt herself surrounded by angels. Yousra has succeeded in playing the role of a doctor in several of her movies and drama series. Also this Ramadan Season she has been playing in her new television drama series “red wax” the role of a doctor. There is no doubt that if she’d have opted for that profession she would have been equally successful simply because of her compassion, devotion to the betterment of human life and unwavering desire to help those in need.
Britain’s most successful fertility doctor Dr. Mohammed Taranissi, another Arab doctor of Egyptian origin who was interviewed by Yousra, has helped more than 14,000 women conceive since setting up his clinic in 1995. Taranissi, who runs the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre in London, spoke with Yousra about misconduct claims made in a BBC panorama programme about him. The media campaign against him was meant to damage his reputation, but fortunately Dr. Taranissi was cleared of allegations and the BBC was ordered by the High Court to pay an estimated £500,000 in costs as part of his libel action over the Panorama programme. The motives behind such media campaigns are known to us and it is a great comfort to know that Arabs have finally learned how to respond and fight back against unfair allegations. In Paris we were introduced to Dr. Rheda Souliamas, a French doctor of Algerian origin. Souliamas is a renowned Specialist in Lung Transplantation. All three doctors that we were introduced to best represented Arab culture and reminded the audience of great periods of Arab learning and Arabic influence on the historical development of medicine, for the history of medicine is full of Arab inventions. Outstanding figures in medieval Arab medicine were Al Kindi, Ibn Al Jazzar, Ibn Al Bitar, Ibn Rushd, Avenzor and Ibn Nafis, Ibn Sina, Ibn Al Haitham and Al Ghazi.
The second episode of Al Arabi focused on Islamic and Arabic Architecture. We saw Yousra strolling through the narrow streets of Masr Al Gadida marvelling at its wondrous buildings, and later on relaxing in a nicely decorated apartment while having a stimulating conversation with the Egyptian architect and restoration expert Dr. Mona Zakaria about Old Cairo, Islamic architecture and the different characteristics of courtyard houses in Cairo. Zakaria rejects the patriarchal views of many modern historians who she believes are Orientalists at heart and tells us about her findings in historical documents and the Al Aghani (songs) rooms that existed in traditional Arabic houses. The Al Aghani room, she explains, was built for musicians and singers who were invited to the house for entertainment. A stereophonic sound system was created. The musicians were placed in a mezzanine above the salamlik which allowed the music to filter down through the sides of the mashrabiya. The haramlik on the other hand was not built for the convenience of secluded women. It was simply the private area where the whole family relaxed. Orientalists, Zakaria tells us, always try to make us believe that strict gender segregation had been applied and that women were stifled by the rules of a stern patriarchal society. But fact is, the architect informs us, that we have been presented a rather distorted picture of our rich history.
In Syria we found Yousra strolling the streets and souqs of my beloved Damascus, visiting Maktab Anbar, an old house in the centre of Old Damascus. Yousra met up with the Syrian architect Omar Hallaj who has gained the Agha Khan award for Architecture in its 2007 cycle. He took her through the different sections of the largest house within the walls of Old Damascus. Maktab Anbar used to be a private residence built in the mid 19th century by the prominent Syrian Jew Mr. Anbar. The 5000 square meter house has later been purchased by the Syrian Ministry of Culture and today been converted into a cultural centre to include a museum, exhibition hall and library.
After Damascus we were taken to Beirut where Yousra was welcomed by the famous Lebanese composer, singer and oud player Marcel Khalife, known for his strong support for the Palestinian cause. Khalife has on several occasions used his wonderful music to address political issues and insists that his music is for the service of humanity. Yousra was invited into the privately-owned historic house of his friend Tony Lahoud. We were presented with historical furnishings and Christian design elements reflecting the original identity of the house. During the programme we were as well introduced to the great works of the world-renowned Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid who has been the winner of many international competitions. Hadid has as well been the first female awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Another successful architect is Harvard graduate Bernard Khoury, a well-known figure in the contemporary architectural scene in Lebanon, who met up with Yousra in his office in Beirut to talk about his various projects such as the B-018 nightclub, the Yabanai Restaurant, the Central Bar Restaurant and the Black Box Aizone in Beirut. Khoury’s work has been extensively published by the international press. He has as well been awarded by the municipality of Rome the honourable mention of the Borromini prize for his radical design projects.
In Marrakech Yousra talked to the brilliant French Algerian designer Imaad Rahmouni. The world renowned architect, known for his neo-modern style, has designed the famous Klubb Rouge in Beijing, the Maison Blanche Gourmet Restaurant in Paris and the D’Sens Restaurant in Bangkok. At the very end of the episode we saw Yousra wearing a black dress and headscarf. It reminded us of special clothing that women are required to wear during Hajj. Mecca is the holiest place on Earth for Muslims, so as such, conservative dress is the norm in Mecca, but Yousra was not in Mecca. Yousra was on an educational walking tour in Abu Dhabi, visiting the famous Sheikh Zayed Ben Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, which is the most important architectural treasure of the United Arab Emirates. More than 3000 workers and 38 renowned contracting companies took part in the construction of the 22,412 square metre Mosque which can accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers. The main prayer hall features the world’s largest chandelier and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet. 28 different types of marble have been used throughout the Mosque. The Mosque, which was officially opened in 2007, features Arab, Mughal and Moorish architectural designs. 545 US Dollars were spent to built this Mosque which offers 82 domes of seven different sizes and four minarets.
Episodes three and four of Al Arabi focused on the satellite revolution. Yousra was welcomed in Beirut by the prominent Lebanese TV presenter Giselle Khoury, who has been presenting one of the most important Arab talk shows having political and cultural discussions with high profile guests, among them political leaders and celebrities from around the world. Khoury was married to the Lebanese historian and journalist Samir Kassir, a keen advocate of secular democracy in the Middle East, who was among the first victims of political assassinations that have occurred in Lebanon in the past few years. In June 2005, while on his way to An Nahar, a powerful bomb ripped through his car, killing him instantly. His wife, who still lives in the same apartment building where the car bomb exploded, tells us that she has vowed to keep his memory alive. She has created a foundation carrying his name and is as well an active supporter of the Democratic Left Movement, the party Kassir helped to found. Yousra had in Beirut more stimulating conversations with the poet and journalist Zahi Wahbi, best known for his programme Khaleek Bel Beit and with the Lebanese media presenter Ricardo Karam, who has interviewed more than 200 personalities around the world. In Cairo she met up with the Egyptian Journalist Amro Khafaji and invited as well the Egyptian talk show host Mahmoud Saad to her apartment to talk about the vast influence of Satellite TV stations.
In Dubai we saw her visiting Dubai Media City, a regional centre for media organisations, such as MBC, CNN International, BBC World and Al Arabiya. We saw her having a chat with Zakki Nassika, media advisor and director of Al Arabiya, which is one of the largest mainstream Arab news networks. Media plays today a great role in shaping society and can influence public understanding. With the arrival of satellite TV in the nineties, Arabs were first time presented with unfiltered news and political discussions. The number of satellite television channels has today grown into the hundreds, some might be considered harmful, rather focusing on sensationalism and putting aside ethics and others have helped to raise awareness and form a public opinion. Some have been created for propaganda purposes, such as the U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra which, however, has not been able to reach Arab mass audiences. It was launched to polish the image of the United States, but it turned out to be a very costly mistake because compared to other news channels Arabs do not consider it a trustworthy news source. Media plays a very important role as a source of information, education and entertainment. In Arab countries it has become very obvious that one-sided coverage will not satisfy Arab viewers anymore. Arabs are craving today for honest TV media, which is needed to help achieve Arab development and prosperity. The official media has on the other hand begun to loose power. Some Satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera, known for the US war coverage, have a very strong viewership in Western countries. The Hisbollah’s anti-American Al-Manar television is then again very popular in the Arab world. It is very important for Arabs to understand the impact of the media in the world and build new media that will not be able to mislead and divide the world anymore. Arabs need to launch more English-language news channels, like Al-Jazeera International to combat bias misrepresentation of the Arab and Muslim world and establish a real dialog with Western powers. It is a well-known fact that media channels can be sometimes more powerful than the pope, kings or presidents. Arabs are therefore asked to address the Western mentality and challenge Jewish networks’ control over the global news flow. Credible, unbiased information needs to reach the Western world which will help to transform the West’s negative stereotypes of the Arab region and as well help the Arabs to regain control of their destiny and determine the foreign policy of Western states.
Egyptian Cinema was established back in 1896 when a small number of silent films were made. But with the coming of sound, Egypt’s cinema became a regional force and in the 1930s it achieved a real maturity as an industry. The 1940s decade and the 1950s were the golden age of Egypt’s cinema. One icon of the Egyptian cinema is the distinguished Egyptian actress Faten Hamama who has helped in improving the cinema industry in Egypt. Today, Egyptian cinema is known as the Hollywood of the Middle East and it maintains its position as the major attraction for Arabs viewers across the Arab region, for film production activity in other Arab countries remains limited. The Syrian film industry had a boost in the 1960s. Significant improvements were made with well-known Syrian actors Duraid Laham and Nihad Qal’i, who produced a number of very successful films of comedic nature. In the Arab Maghreb, whether Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria, cinema only emerged in the aftermath of the independence of these countries. Episodes 5 and 6 of Al Arabi focused on the Arab cinema. Yousra met up in Cairo with the well-known Egyptian screenwriter Waheed Hamed und the famous Egyptian Film director Yousry Nasrallah. In Paris we saw her visiting the young Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki who co-wrote, directed and stared in her feature-film debut “Caramel”, which achieved box office success and we as well saw Yousra meeting up with the French award-winning actor of Tunisian origin Sami Bouajila. In the United Arab Emirates we saw Yousra having a conversation with the groundbreaking Emirati female film producer Nayla Al Khaja known for tackling taboo subjects in the Middle East, and in Morocco Yousra met up with Moroccan actor Hassan Al Joundi. She as well engaged in a conversation with the Moroccan Film director Nour Eddine Lakhmari who directed “Casanegra” and with Nour Eldin Al Sayel who is in charge of the Marrakech Film Festival. In Abu Dhabi Yousra finally met up with the Executive Director of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival Peter Scarlett, again discussing the role of the cinema. Today it has become quite obvious that television has risen as the major source of home entertainment. Arab Cinema has declined due to the Satellite revolution. Everything seems to be focused today on Ramadan soaps and drama.
Unfortunately Cinema has become an industry highly commercialised. Today movies are aimed at making a quick buck and it has become harder to find quality films. According to Peter Scarlett, Cinema is still the most powerful language of the world because films can help you to understand other people. He regrets though that only money has become important to cinema, and that draws our attention to the fact that cinema can develop a cultural exchange between East and West. Film Festivals are as well very important, especially when they feature movies that portray a good image of Islam and introduce works that explore the rich culture and history of the Arab peoples.
The purpose of journalism is to offer facts, but journalists are today in the business of telling people what to think. The job of a journalist is to report independently and without bias, but all too often we find journalist that omit the truth. This can be very dangerous because readers are not presented with credible news and information. Instead, readers are made to believe in lies and are fed propaganda. Regrettably many papers encourage their journalists to deliver something other than the truth. This is sometime done to justify wars or other immoral acts. Media can be a very important weapon because most people acquire information and knowledge from mass media channels. People who are in control of the mass media can even determine the climate of public opinion. Arab journalism is unfortunately still lacking behind because Arab journalists are still struggling for press freedom. Investigative journalism is not encouraged in the Arab region and Arab journalists are often worried about the reactions of their governments that are targeted in investigations. Arabs need to understand the impact of the media in the world and Arab journalists are encouraged to stick to quality and ethical journalism and always remember that facts can expose evils. Hopefully there is a new generation of journalists in the Arab world who is passionate about investigative reporting.
Episode 7 of Al Arabic focused on the code of conduct and the practice of journalism. We saw Yousra meeting up in Cairo with the President of the Writers’ Union of Egypt, Secretary General of the General Union of Arab Writers and Managing Editor of Al Ahram newspaper Mohammed Salmawi. We were as well introduced to the Editor-in-Chief of the independent newspaper “Al Youm Al Sabea” Khaled Salah and we saw Yousra discussing journalism with the Chairman and founder of the world’s leading Arabic publisher Shorouq Group Ibrahim El Moallem. We were as well introduced to the great works of Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a leading Egyptian writer and journalist and highly respected commentator on Arab affairs. In London Yousra met up with the Al-Hayat columnist and former editor Jihad Al Khazen and in Abu Dhabi with the journalist Nasser Al Zouheiri of Al Ittihad Emirati newspaper. In Beirut we saw her visiting Al Safir newspaper whose editor Talal Salman talked about the role and status of journalism. We were as well told about the life of Ghassan Tueni of Al Nahar whose son the former editor and publisher Gebran Ghassan Tueni was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005, and we were furthermore introduced to the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Lebanese Al Shiraa Magazine Hassan Sabra.
There are many Arab women, whether successful entrepreneurs or politicians, who have become role models for future generations in the Arab world. Unfortunately, Western media always portrays Arab women as passively subordinate. Episode 8 of Al Arabi focused on the gains that Arab women have made in the region. Yousra talked with successful Arab women, who spoke about their experiences and described their journeys to success. One of them is the Egyptian designer Azza Fahmi, who has discovered her passion for jewellery in the late 1960s and built an empire with Azza Fahmi jewelleries that are today sold in London, Paris, New York, Dubai and many other places. Fahmi makes traditional bedouin and folklore jewellery and has been inspired by Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluke and Ottoman jewellery and by old Byzantine designs. She has as well been inspired by Nubian people, by the Muslim philosophers Jalal al-Din Rumi and Ibn Hazm and the poetic works of Gibran Khalil Gibran. Her pieces are a combination of silver and gold with calligraphy. Fahmi, who graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo and studied jewellery craft in the City of London Polytechnic School, learned her craft from a jeweller in Khan Al-Khalili. She produces beautiful handcrafted pieces of jewellery with cultural identity. Rich history is deeply ingrained in her pieces. She tells Yousra, who visited her in her factory, that she is able to easily identify the exact origin of any piece from the Arab world. Fahmi, who is still constantly designing and sketching new ideas, has as well published the book “The Enchanted Jewellery of Egypt” which tells the story of traditional jewellery in Egypt from the end of the nineteenth century up till modern times. In Lebanon Yousra met up with the Lebanese politician and former Minister of Social Affairs Nayla Moawad and as well with Bahia Hariri, a Lebanese politician and the sister of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Bahia Hariri is a former Minister of Education and currently heads the Parliament Education Committee. In Morocco Yousra talked to Professor Hakima Himmich who is the President of the Anti-AIDS Association ALCS, and in Washington we were introduced to Lebanese-American Dr. Azizah Al Hibri, a professor of law at the University of Richmond and founder and president of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. Women, whether Arab or Western, given the right environment, can be equally successful. They have come a long way and there are still many more miles to go. Arab women need to remember that success is a ladder that they cannot climb with their hands in their pockets. They are urged to redouble their efforts and to start initiatives to gain more rights and increase their levels of empowerment.
The former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon was once quoted as saying that Israel’s strongest weapon is Arab disunity and treachery towards each other. I am ashamed to say that his statement contains elements of truth. Arab Unity is the main subject discussed in Episode 9 of Al Arabi. In Cairo we saw Yousra talking to Randa Ghazi, an Egyptian born and raised in Italy. Ghazi wrote, when only fifteen years, the bestseller “Dreaming of Palestine”. She was inspired by the killing of the Palestinian boy Mohammed El Dorra. The book has today been translated into several languages. Ghazi presents her readers with a world in which misery, everyday struggle, frustration and fears are ever-present. The book is about how war destroys young lives. It gives voice to the voiceless and lets the reader know that a glimmer of hope to eradicate the suffering of Palestinian people still exists. In my hometown Damascus we saw the great Syrian comedian, actor and director actor Duraid Laham bemoaning the state of inter-Arab fragmentation. He tells Yousra that Arab unity has not been realized as a result of internal factors. It is always said that outside forces keep perpetuating Arab agenda, but according to Duraid Laham “Arabs have Nobody to Blame but Themselves”. Laham, who has produced some of the most popular plays in the Arab world, was in 2004 stripped of his title “UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to the Middle East and North Africa region” for openly criticising Bush and Sharon and comparing them to Hitler. He has undertaken a series of initiatives to break the siege of Gaza and been more than once to Gaza to show solidarity with the Palestinians in the Strip. Yousra talked as well to Hatem Ali, one of the most important Syrian directors, who directed an epic about Palestine called “Al-Taghriba al-Filastiniya (The Palestinian Diaspora), a work dealing with the suffering of the Palestinians as a people. Also the editor-in-chief of the Lebanese Al Safir newspaper Talal Salman, Lebanese journalist Zahi Wahbi, the Al-Hayat columnist Jihad Al Khazen, the writer and journalist Mohammed Abdulkarim and the Egyptian journalist and media figure Mahmoud Saad were asked about Arab unity. All of them emphasized the importance of Arab unity and wondered why Arabs have not learned from the EU experience. They pointed out that Arab countries share one culture, one language and one religion. If Arabs can’t unite they should at least form a union of countries who can assist each other economically and militarily. Mohammed Abdulkarim explained that one missing necessary condition is the lack of political will. The Arab region covers an area that is rich in minerals, wealth and resources. Arab leaders need to realise that giving up some of their authorities in favour of Arab unity and economic integration will realize progress and development and as well guarantee solutions for solving the problems of the Middle East. Together Arabs are able to force Western countries to stop their blind support given to Israel. Arabs need also to remember that they are sharing one culture, one language and one religion. They should learn from the EU experience, and instead of being driven apart by mistrust and competition, they should do everything possible to promote co-operation and materialize in a solid and powerful entity that is strong politically and economically. Arabs need to speak with one voice, as they did during the oil embargo in the early 1970s when they imposed an effective oil embargo on the United States and Western Europe because of their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
Some people consider music the language of peace and harmony. To many people it is an important part of their way of life. Arabic music has a long history and has deep roots in Arabic poetry dating back to pre-Islamic times. Many musical instruments used in Western music have been derived from Arabic musical instruments such as the lute (oud), the guitar (qitara), the flute (Al Shabbaba) or the drum (Al Tabl). In Episode 10 of Al Arabi Yousra talks to the famous Egyptian composer and pianist Omar Khairat who believes that music is the only language that all people understand, irrespective of race, culture and religion. Khairat is considered to be one of the most outstanding composers of the time whose music bridges contemporary Arab and Western music. He has been presenting great symphonic works, operettas, compositions for TV drama and compositions for movies. He has as well won more than 20 awards for his soundtracks, including the Middle East Music Award. Khairat has moreover rearranged works of the great Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdul Wahab and songs of Um Kalthoum. Mohammed Al Wahab has on the other hand composed Um Kalthoum’s famous song “Enta Omri”. Known as “Kawkab Al Sharq” and considered the most well-known singer of the Arab world, the extraordinary talent Um Kalthoum recorded over 300 songs during her sixty years of career. Presidents and statesmen used to attend her concerts which took place on the first Thursday of each month. King Farouk of Egypt and Gamal Abdul Nasser were both big fans of Umm Kalthoum. She died on 3rd February 1975 at the age of seventy and was honoured with an enormous state funeral. She is remembered in the Arab world as one of the greatest singers to have ever lived. In Beirut we saw Yousra talking to Marcel Khalifa who was in 2005 named UNESCO Artist for Peace. One of the things that makes Khalifa extraordinary is that he believes in marriage of Islamic and Christian culture. He likes to listen to Christian church music as well as to Islamic recitations of the Qur’an. Khalifa uses modern Arab poetry for his work, especially the poetry of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to draw attention to the suffering of the Palestinian people. In Paris Yousra met up with another outstanding singer and songwriter. Cheb Khaled, known for his songs “Aisha” and “Didi”, is probably the most internationally famous Algerian singer in the Arab world. Cheb Khaled, who has sold over 46 million albums worldwide, was in October 2003 nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
It is said, that scientists bring us closer to “knowing God’s secrets” and Episode 11 of Al Arabi has been devoted to scientists. Dr. Farouk El-Baz, a charming Egyptian scientist and Research Professor and Director of the Centre for Remote Sensing at Boston University, visited Yousra in her apartment in Cairo to talk about his work with NASA. El-Baz, who is the recipient of many honours and awards, participated from 1967 to 1972 in the Apollo Programme. In 1973 NASA selected him as Principal Investigator of the Earth Observations and Photography Experiment on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. El-Baz is the author and editor of twelve books and has contributed over 200 scientific papers to professional journals. Throughout his career he has succeeded in conveying the excitement of science and the importance of using advanced technology. Yousra talked as well to the child Mahmoud Wael, Egypt’s youngest mathematical genius. Mahmoud Wael was born in January 1999 and has an intelligent quotient of 155. He is the youngest student ever to enrol at the American University of Cairo. Wael told Yousra about his future plans on becoming a mathematician or a scientist, like his role model Ahmed Zewail whose intelligent quotient is 165. Ahmed Zewail is the Egyptian 1999 Nobel prize winner in chemistry. He is the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics and the Director of the NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. In his home country Egypt postage stamps have been issued to honour his contributions to science. We as well learn of the Egyptian scientist Dr. Mohammed Al Nashai, who has been nominated by China for Nobel. He has discovered new molecules that will be considered a victory in the field of non-linear Dynamics and deter-miniptic in which he has excelled. Another distinguished Harvard educated University Professor is Dr. Ismail Serageldin, who has received 18 honorary doctorates and has published over 50 books and monographs and over 200 papers on biotechnology, science, rural development and other topics. We saw Yousra enjoying a stroll inside the Alexandria Library which offers the most-up-to-date technology. The library covers an area of 36,770 square meters and contains four million books. Yousra discussed with Serageldin, who is the director of the library, the importance of education. It is an important component of life and promotes the skills that we need to be successful. Early childhood education is a must and for that purpose Yousra went to Dubai to take a look at the School of Research Science, an Arabic and Islamic school established in 1998 with the aim to develop the intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual and creative needs of ambitious students. Yousra talked over there with Layla Al Sobda who told her that the school is concerned with preserving the heritage of the Arab culture and Islamic tradition and that it hopes to develop effective future leaders in the field of science and technology. In Paris Yousra met up with the female scientist Dr. Souheira Jandi who is an Arab biotechnological engineer and scientific consultant based in France.
On the literary scene, Arabic literature flourished during the Islamic Golden Age dating from the mid-8th to the mid-13th century. It has prospered until today and an Arab literary movement has been created. Episode 12 of Al Arabi focused on great Arab writers and novelists. Yousra talked to the Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher who feels that the West wants Arab writers to submit work that reflect exoticism, gender discrimination and problems between minorities. But Taher, who has been awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, refuses to comply with stereotypes. The most famous Arab novelist is most probably the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who has won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He has published over 50 novels and more than 350 short stories. When Mahfouz supported Sadat’s Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978 his books were banned in many Arab countries. His work deals mainly with politics and he strongly opposes radical Islam. In 1994 extremist, who were angered by his work, attempted to assassinate Mahfouz. He was stabbed in the neck outside his Cairo home. Although he survived the attack, it weakened him physically and damaged nerves in his right hand. Mahfouz, who died in August 2006 aged 94, was accorded a state funeral with full military honours. We learned of Syria’s most prominent novelist Hanna Mina who was awarded the Arab Writer’s price in 2005 and of Ghassan Kanafani, a writer and major figure in Palestinian literature and leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Kanafani was assassinated 1972 in Beirut by the Israeli Mossad. The programme introduced us as well to Antoine Taouq, a professor of Arab literature and former president of the Gibran National Committee and to the Saudi novelist Turki Al Hamad, who explores in his novels issue of political movements, sexuality and religious freedom. Furthermore, we met the famous Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif, who was stripped of his Saudi citizenship because he had criticised the regime. Most of his books reflect political and economic realities of modern Arab society. Abdul Rahman Munif, whose work was translated in over 10 languages, died in January 2004 in Damascus. Yousra travelled as well to Paris to talk to the Moroccan poet and writer Tahar Ben Jelloun whose celebrated novel “The Sand Child” was translated into 43 languages. His well-known novel “Racism Explained to my Daughter” was translated into 33 languages. All of his work is written in French. Ben Jelloun, who used to be a university professor in Morocco, left his country in 1971 after the arabization of the philosophy department of the university where he used to teach. It is said that he was unwilling to teach Arabic, but most probably he was unable to. Yousra conducted most of her interviews in Arabic, but sometimes she had to switch to English because quite a few Arabs, especially Algerian Arabs, such as Dr. Souliamas or the architect Imaad Rahmouni, were unfortunately not able to communicate in their native tongues due to lasting effects of colonialism.
Al Arabi is a great programme because it highlights accomplishments of Arabs who have contributed to civilisation and combats bias misrepresentation of the Arab and Muslim world. The programme has been directed by the young Egyptian filmmaker Marwan Hamed who has done Imarat Yacoubian, one of the most controversial and expensive films in Egyptian cinema history. The Egyptian script writer Tamer Habib did the voice-over of the programme and the creative decorations were done by the interior designer Fawzi Al Awamiri. Al Arabi has shown its audience that there are many distinguished Arabs worldwide. It is a very important programme which definitely needs to be translated and aired in the West so that Western countries start recognizing Arab contributions to human civilisation. Like other nations Arabs deserve to be proud of their accomplishments, whether in medicine, chemistry, physics or literature. Unfortunately they still rank low among winners of Nobel, but one needs to remember that the greatest Arab achievements were before Alfred Nobel decided to donate his money for the Nobel Peace Prize and that Arabs are generally denied credit by the world at large.
Being a presenter is all about personality and Yousra, who presented the programme with enthusiasm and great passion, did a great job simply because of the beauty of her uncomplicated approach. She spoke clearly and came across as very natural. We often found her adding humour to the discussions. She has succeeded in showing her audience that Arabs do play their part in augmenting human progress. The programme has stopped airing during the holy month of Ramadan, but Egypt’s great talent Yousra will return with more episodes on oriental dance, terrorism, Sufism, US-Relations, democracy, cooking, art and Arab capitalism and introduce us to more influential and highly successful Arabs. Al Arabi will be aired after Ramadan on Egypt’s Satellite channels Al Masriya and Al Oula and also on Abu Dhabi TV.