Arabic Cinema comes to London

A preview of the most ambitious season of Arab film ever to be shown in the UK.

Later this week, the Institute of Contemporary Arts will play host to ‘Safar: A Journey through Popular Arab Cinema’, a series of screenings which has been described as the most ambitious season of Arab film ever to be shown in the UK.

The week-long event, which is presented by the Arab British Centre in partnership with the Dubai International Film Festival, will take place from the 21 – 27 September and will showcase films from a fifty year period, including both re-mastered classics and exciting new releases. From literary adaptations such as The Yacoubian Building to subversive comedies like Terrorism and the Kebab; from the hit road musical Bosta to brand-new films featuring contemporary stars, the festival aims to make itself accessible to a new British audience whilst still constituting a treat for connoisseurs of world cinema. Some of the films on the programme have never been shown in the UK before and every screening will be introduced by a relevant speaker, such the BBC’s former Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, or Egyptian screen icon Hussein Fahmy. The festival will kick off on Friday 21 September with the ‘Friday Forum’, in which experts from the academic world will join film industry leaders to debate the past, present and future of Arabic cinema as a cultural form.

The festival endeavours to avoid politics and cultural stereotypes, preferring instead to offer audiences a flavour of the true culture, traditions and heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, whilst inviting them to consider the role of film in conveying social histories. With so many Arab countries in the midst of restructuring themselves politically and socially, it is more important than ever to give these films a platform in the UK right now.

The New Statesman’s Cultural Capital blog will be running interviews with the directors, actors and curators of ‘Safar’ throughout the festival.

The following highlights constitute a preview of what you can expect from the week:


The first post-Civil war musical made in Lebanon and a box office record-breaker, Bosta was submitted as the official Lebanese entry in the 79th Academy Awards in the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category.

“Watch Out for Zouzou”

A sensual film made before the demise of cultural liberalism, Watch Out for Zouzou is perhaps the best-known film of tragic Egyptian screen icon Soad Hosni (the “Marilyn Monroe of Arabic cinema”). Zouzou (Hosni) is a student who has paid her way through college by belly-dancing in her mother's troupe. She has kept this fact a secret, but has decided to give up dancing because she has fallen in love with her college professor. The Professor breaks off his own engagement but not before his fiancée discovers Zouzou’s secret.

“The Yacoubian Building”

The most expensive Egyptian film of its time and based on the hugely popular novel of the same name, The Yacoubian Building is a scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society since the coup d’état of 1952.

“Stray Bullet”

A hotly-anticipated new release starring actress Nadine Labaki.

Philippe Aractingi directing his box office smash-hit, Bosta. Photograph: Getty Images
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood