5 Books + 16 Films That Will Make You More Aware of Issues in The MENA Region

By: Nour Jumma

I recently watched The Red Sea Diving Resort on Netflix and the story of the movie was one that hadn’t occurred to me before. Chris Evans is rescuing a group of Jewish Ethiopians and smuggling them out of Ethiopia. For some reason, I’d never considered that there would be Jews in Ethiopia and that they’d need to be smuggled out for their own safety. And then that made me think of how misrepresented the MENA region is in general, and (after seeing how Sudan was represented in that movie) surprise surprise, The Western World has done it again. 

If you look up “movies about wars in the middle east” the most condescending list of google-suggested movies will come up.  How many more movies need to be made about Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, or Brad Pitt fighting in Afghanistan for the US army before they realise the extreme inaccuracy of everything represented vis-a-vis the Arab world. Wallahi kefaya el habal dah. For decades film-makers colour-correct their movie scenes dusty yellow and orange to accommodate to the western viewers the famous picture of the MENA region, and it’s becoming too infuriating. Not to mention the fact that most of these films depict the USA as the long-standing hero everyone adores and needs desperately (and don’t even get me started on everything wrong with that). 

The same goes to all the ‘history and ‘political’ books written by American or British authors who’ve perceived the MENA region through a completely different perspective coming from a different background. The misrepresentation of MENA countries in their true, authentic colours and stories is absurd at this point, and I’m sort of sick of it. 

From a heavily censored Arab World to a heavily involved American influence, it’s difficult to see and feel the effects of war-torn, disputed, and conflicted areas around us. But to be productive members of society we need to have a clear, unfiltered awareness of significant events that happened/happen around us every day.

So to the readers out there, here is a list of 5 authentic(-ish, censorship is forever the enemy of true humanity) books about our regional disputes and conflicts, as un-Americanised as it could get. 

  1. The Tiller of Waters – Harat Al Miyah by Hoda Barakat (2001)

The Lebanese author known to often explore war and trauma in her books brings us a hallucinating man in Civil War Beirut. The multi-layered story of Tiller brings to light a number of cultures and explores how the Kurds came into being through her poetic descriptions. Many reviews explained that Hoda paints a very true and real picture of the Middle East and North Africa by tying together a rich heritage in the single protagonist of the book. Shortly after its release, the book was translated into English in AUC – Egypt, with sufficient beauty. However, the original Arabic transcript has a stronger sense of authenticity than the translation.

  1. The Yacoubian Building – 3emaret Ya3qubyan by Alaa-Al-Aswany (2002)

Originally published in 2002, and later adapted into a movie in 2006 (which can be viewed on youtube), The Yacoubian Building battles a number of ‘taboo’ subjects in 1990 Egypt, then a ‘modern’ Egypt prior the revolution of ‘52. Set in an apartment building (named after Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian) in downtown Cairo, the book discovers the urbanisation of Egypt, political corruption, homosexuality, extreme religious values, and the fragility of humanity. The flawed and morally diverse character set tumble towards an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany’s international best-seller.

  1. The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari (2010)

Following a tragic chain of events, Yousef Al Firsiwi is pushed in a journey of loss, pain, and agony after his son’s death in Afghanistan fighting the Islamist resistance. The anguish filed book genuinely doesn’t stop breaking your heart. After another handful of terrible developments, Yousef is left questioning his own identity and morals. Mohammed Achaari displays the harsh reality of crime and violence in his life. An absurdly captivating read that you should certainly check out.

  1. The Hashish Waiter by Khairy Shalaby (2011)

As its title suggests, the story is placed at a tucked-away corner just off Downtown Cairo, where a group of artistically intellectual friends gather in a basement and smoke together. Rowdy, their loyal waiter, with an ambiguous past, reflects each and every character in himself. The intriguing storyline weaves in political statements of the peace initiative of 1970, bringing to light a unique perspective of the artistic minds that gather together. Khairy is able to portray a powerful philosophical narrative without sounding pompous or too prophetic.

  1. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (2013)

Iraqi writer Saadawi gives a war-time twist on the classic Frankenstein. A contemporary, black comedy take on the US-occupied Baghdad, Ahmed is able to portray the horrors of war through a surreal black-humour. An oddball of a man decides to collect the scattered pieces of people murdered on the street, so he can stitch them into a person, and present it to the government as a way of demanding proper burial for them. But when the corpse comes to life, then goes missing, trouble roams the streets of Baghdad as the monster starts feasting on live human flesh.

And on that note, and in no particular order, here is a list of 16 movies that don’t feature an American actor with a chiselled jaw and pretty blue eyes. The following are genuine ‘min qalb el 7adath’ movies from the heart of wars, from an unforgiving political society, harsh eyes, and religiously rooted ideals of the Middle East and North Africa. 

  1. Man of Ashes – Rih Essed (1986) dir. Nouri Bouzid 

It goes without saying that toxic masculinity is deeply rooted in our culture as Arabs. Moreover, the questioning of sexual identity is highly forbidden publicly. Nouri Boudi, a Tunisian director, places the controversial character of Hachemi days before his wedding to a beautiful young woman, battling memories of his childhood involving an encounter with an older carpenter. His best friend, Farfat, becomes a topic of discussion in their town after his ‘manhood’ is questioned between wall graffiti and local gossip. Rih Essed highlights the undoing of Hachemi’s world after Farfat is banished from his father’s home. 

Nouri Bouzid challenges traditional masculine roles and identities with Man of Ashes, painting a subdued picture of a society of that time, however (and unfortunately), its relevance and message remains relevant and fitting 30 years later. Despite the backlash Bouzid received from the Muslim community for this film, ‘Man of Ashes’ screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.

  1. West Beirut – Beyrouth Al Gharbiyya – À l’abri les enfants (1998) dir. Ziad Doueiri

The 1998 film shows the civil war of ‘75 in Lebanon, separating the different religions of Beirut. Hundreds of movies have been made over the years capturing all different angles of the war. And through the eyes of Tarek, the war starts as a sort of adventure, a game of getting from the West to the East. And as he comes of age, the adventure quickly turns into a tragedy. Wandering the streets with his Super 8 Film camera and his friends, May, who wears a crucifix around her neck, and Omar, whos father forces to give up the theatre, rock and roll, and all things Hollywood in the name of Islam. Their indifferent teenage selves are affected by the ruins of war.

Doueiri later describes that the film is more autobiographical of his personal experience of Lebanon in the 1970s more than its a political statement regarding the events. This gives us an unfiltered insight on the lives of normal civilians during the crisis, proving highly educational in terms of the history of the disputes in that territory.

West Beirut can be viewed on Netflix.

  1. The Other – El Akhar (1999) dir. Yousef Chahine

It is no secret that Yousef Chahine is one of the most influential and talented directors of all time, with cinematic masterpieces like ‘Alexandria… Why?’ and ‘The Other’. Through many of his movies, he is constantly questioning the classist society of Egypt, and how class and money are constantly dividing millions of people every day. 

El Akhar follows a sappy love story that portrays a journalist with the will to expose corruption in her country, while she falls for the Americanised Adam returning from LA. The Other is over 20 years old, but could not be more relevant than ever. Societal structures in Egypt have never been more extreme, with everyone running after financial rest and striving to live the best. Chahine also explores aspects of terrorism and American-corruption through Adam’s family. 

‘The Other’ can be viewed on Netflix.

  1. 11’09″01 – Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image – September 11 (2002)

Following the tragic events of 9/11, eleven filmmakers from all around the world joined together to reflect on 9/11. Each director is given 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and 1 frame, the outcome proved truly striking and unique in its own. We always speak about the effect of 9/11 on the USA vs the effect 9/11 had on the view of the very generalised Arab world. 11’09″01 offers an individual and original take on the perception of this through the 11 different countries and provides a heart touching result. The tone varies, as do the locales. Most stories are about others coming to terms with the events of the day, but at least one confronts the viewer with tragedy and death.

  1. Divine Intervention – Yad Elehiya‎ (2002) dir. Elia Suleiman 

Two Palestinian lovers separated by checkpoints of Jerusalem and the West Bank, featuring brief interconnected sketches of their love. The genius of a director uses minimal dialogue in the slow pace of the film, with constant behavioral repetition of the characters. Through the many different films on the war-torn region, Divine captures black comedy with some of the heaviest political references that will likely slap some real good educational history in your face. The very real chronicles of love and pain reveal only a fraction of what really happens in Palestine. 

Of course, the film received heavy controversial claims from Foreign film festivals, however, was nominated in 2002 for an award at the Cannes Film Festival.

  1. Dreams – Ahlaam (2006) dir. Mohamed Al-Daradji 

This is one of those movies where during the production of it, the director was captured (twice) and tortured (twice) by the rival insurgents of Iran, and the film crew and cast were under fire from both the militia and the US troops. Just another one of those movies. 

Ahlaam follows three main characters and the events that took place during Sadaam Hussein’s rule. On his return from the US to Baghdad, Mohamed Al-Daradji witness’ psychiatric patients wandering the streets of Baghdad after the bombing of several hospitals. This sparks the breathtaking art that is Dreams. Brim-filled with emotionally striking scenes and raw acting, Ahlaam thoroughly portrays the Iraqi war in a civilian manner. The final shot of the film sends aggressive goosebumps to the viewer as Al-Daradji closes with a wide shot of one of the main characters gazing upon Baghdad post-bombing from a high building.

  1. Incendies (2010) dir. Denis Villeneuve 

A 2010 Canadian war thriller film, Incendies captivates the Lebanese Civil War through flashbacks from letters from a deceased mother. It isn’t explicitly stated that it is of the Civil War of Lebanon specificity, however many details of the film point to it, and further eludes to the movie being one about the prisoner Souha Bechara. The mother’s twin daughters travel back to the middle eastern country to fulfil her dying wishes, and incidentally, uncover their family’s history.  

Another movie exposing the scenes of a war-torn Lebanon sheds additional light on the country’s recent tangled religious history and deeply-rooted hatred battling endured love through generations.

  1. 18 days – Tamantashar Yom (2011)

Ahmed Helmy is everyone’s favourite star, but have you seen the very real anthology film portraying the 18 days of the revolution of the 25th of January? 10 different filmmakers shoot 10 separate films with no budget quickly trying to capture the revolution before it slips away. 

18 days never actually screened in Egyptian cinema, and only appeared six years later after getting leaked. The urgency and rawness this concept was made in make the film an extremely close to heart representation of the downfall of the oppressive regime. The film screened in the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. 

18 days can be viewed on youtube.

  1. Where Do We Go Now? – Halla’ La Wayn (2012) dir. Nadine Labaki 

Yet another film picturing the harsh divide and hostility between religions in Lebanon. Nadine Labaki, a renowned director, actress, and activist places a group of Lebanese women attempting to soothe religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in a small village. 

Halla’ la Wayn is as light-hearted as it is true to its story. It quickly became the highest-grossing Arabic film until Labaki released another film in 2018. 

Where Do We Go Now can be viewed on Netflix.

  1. Karama Has No Walls (2012) dir. Sara Ishaq

I can’t remember The Yemeni Revolution of 2011 being addressed in any type of platform before I actively searched for movies by Yemeni directors. This film follows the gruesome massacre of March 2011, later named the Friday of Karama (Dignity). This 26-minute documentary highlights the extremity of human rights violations that took place in Yemen (and are still very very present as of 2020). The film follows two cameramen and two fathers retelling the story, moving away from the incident as a collection of statistics and news reports. 

Sara Ishaq had captured live footage from the Friday and decided that the only way to showcase her country’s horror is to turn the shaky footage into a short expression of freedom and art. The film was later nominated in the Academy Awards.

  1. Clash – Eshtebak (2013) dir. Mohamed Diab 

Perhaps a slightly brighter look on post-revolution movies, Diab sets the entire film in the back of a police van, containing various members from different political, religious and societal classes. The film depicts the now ‘modern’ Egypt and was constantly reviewed as heartbreaking with brilliance. With a little bit of humanity, a lot of chaos and cruelty, Clash presents a kick-in-the-gut to its viewers. 

The moral complexity of this film has left many viewers in awe, leading it to a few nominations in the Un Certain Regard as well as the award for Best Film at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

  1. Suleima (2014) dir. Jalal Maghout

A short 15-minute animation follows a real-life-story of a Damascus woman in the Syrian revolution, who had left her husband that disapproved of her activism. After getting arrested and detained twice, Suleima claims, “I’d rather die than see someone arrested without trying to help”. 

An extremely powerful motion-picture captures the trails of a woman of strong-will and action.

  1. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait – Maa-a Al Fida (2014) dir. Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan

One of the most compelling movies about the Syrian Civil War, Silvered is a collection of videos from “1001 Syrians” shot through camera-phones and uploaded to the internet.

Pure violence, and acts of horror corner every frame of the movie. The wrenching movie also hints at Ossama Mohammeds own struggle facing his country in terrors from his own forced exile in Paris. It’s safe to say that the film’s artistic integrity is as coarse and crude as it could get.

  1. In Mansourah, You Separated Us (2019) dir. Dorothée-Myriam Kellou

Set in Algeria, You Separated Us tells the story of the director’s father returning to Mansourah for the first time since the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). In the documentary, Malek (the father) and his daughter are back in his childhood home, after being displaced by French soldiers along with 2 million other Algerians. They both try to imagine what had happened and think of a reason why the world had been so silent about this all those years. 

The documentary also features a number of testimonies from Algerians that survived in Mansourah, and the piercing authenticity of the film will haunt you.

  1. Talking About Trees (2019) dir. Suhaib Gasmelbari

In an attempt to revive the graceful cinema of Sudan, the four friends of the “Sudanese Film Club” draw attention to Sudanese film culture. The retired filmmakers aim to reopen an outdoor cinema in the city of Omdurman in response to decades of censorship by the state. 

The documentary’s exquisite aesthetic appeal casts a vast spotlight on the revolution that recently took place in Sudan, which had been extensively covered in terms of awareness, however, the personal and intimate details of Trees projects emotional creativity that isn’t widely found.

  1. Abou Leila (2019) dir. Amin Sidi-Boumedine 

An agonising picture of the blood-curdling civil war in Algeria in the 1990s, Abou Leila is extremely intellectually exhausting. The character’s intentions are constantly questioned at different parts of the film as Sidi-Boumedine creates realistic and aggressively imperfect character portraits.

In search of a terrorist named ‘Abou Leila’, two childhood best friends cross the wide desert together. The director claims his goal is to get under the viewer’s skin, not through the actual storyline, but through the excruciating mental health of his characters. The fractured psyches of the main character, S, vaguely tells a story of war, violence, and terror in extreme flashes.

In a world that picks the easy option of turning a blind eye in a slightly difficult situation, many of these movies and their messages go unheard and are completely under-represented in most film festivals. But their stories are just as important as the next grievous American film battling racism or gender inequality.

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