Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the bravest girl in yemen

Issue #3 of Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films, is at newsstands & bookstores now. While it also features the early work of Alexander Payne & Dennis Hopper, it's the documentary by Khadija al-Salami that will stay with you. Born in 1966 & said to be Yemen's first female filmmaker, al-Salami escaped an arranged marriage at age eleven when she attempted suicide, after which her mother helped Khadija obtain a divorce. The girl who had been criticized throughout her childhood for a rebellious personality went on to find work at a local television station, which enabled her at sixteen to afford secondary education in the United States (she eventually received a master's degree in communications); she has since made approximately twenty documentaries. Family relatives who once opposed her now say she is a role model for their daughters.

So it is no surprise that al-Salami would immediately connect to a thirteen-year-old girl she spotted one day in the streets of their hometown, Sana'a. In an interview with McSweeney's, the director explains that while touring a group of French journalists around the old city as part of her job at the Yemeni embassy in Paris, she noticed Nejmia, an unveiled teenager who freely roamed & played with the boys in the neighborhood. "Fortunately, I had my camera with me and started shooting spontaneously," al-Salami recalled. The result is "A Stranger in Her Own Country" (2005). At the beginning of the 29-minute chronicle, the filmmaker observes (in voiceover) that it is only in the last fifteen years that her city has taken on an austere air: the glittering dresses of the women have been replaced with "phantoms"--figures covered in black from head to foot. Although this is persistently cited as Moslem tradition, the veil actually dates from the Byzantine era & is not a creation of Islam, she says.

Nejmia, ponytailed, bright eyed & with an impish smile, says of her veiled compatriots, "They're crazy. I like fresh air." The film director follows the girl as she rides a bicycle (unheard of for a girl in al-Salami's day, & clearly unusual in the 21st century as well), plays soccer & field hockey, & fends off a continuous stream of insults from strangers with clever, bold comebacks. "Put on your veil," a man hisses as he slides past. "It's none of your business, you fundamentalist!" Nejmia shoots back with a confident grin. Joking aggression is the order of the day: after kidding good-naturedly with her, three men in a large group lounging on a street corner describe the particular methods they'd use to tie up Nejmia if she were their sister, including hanging her from her feet with an electrical cord. One of them asserts that women are a disgrace & "flawed from start to finish." Nejmia scores the winner, though: "Why don't you all get jobs? Why are you hanging out here day after day?" And like everyone who knows her, the men laugh--despite themselves, they admire her. In fact, one of the most heartening moments occurs when the imam of the Great Mosque appears on camera. Putting an affectionate arm around Nejmia, he declares, "This girl is the smartest in the neighborhood! She is worth five boys!" The imam does not interpret Islamic teachings to mean that women are the inferior gender. "Let her play," he says with kind authority, planting a kiss on the girl's forehead.

Seven months after the documentary was shot, Nejmia's father put a stop to the girl's education & ordered her to wear the veil. A year later, "A Stranger in Her Own Country" won the grand prize at the Beirut Film Festival. The president of Yemen heard the news & asked al-Salami to show him the film, after which he offered to pay for Nejmia's schooling. The girl went back to the classroom, & in November 2006 some Wholphin subscribers, similarly inspired by this courageous portrait, started a college fund for Nejmia (contact acquaintance@wholphindvd.com for more information).

Khadija al-Salami has since filmed the story of Amina al-Tuhaif, who was sentenced to death in 1999 after being unfairly convicted at the age of fourteen for murdering her husband, whom she'd been forced to marry two years before. She has been imprisoned for nine years. When "Amina" was screened at the Dubai 3rd international film festival last year, the place was mobbed, & hundreds of attendees could not get tickets.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

hepimiz hrant dink'iz

Hrant Dink, writer and editor of the bilingual newspaper Agos, was shot at close range & died in the street outside his office in Istanbul on January 19th. Identified by his father, who saw a video taken at the scene of the crime, 17-year-old Ogun Samast has confessed to the murder & says he is not sorry he did it. That a teenager would kill a man he'd never met can be attributed in part to Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, the first clause of which declares "A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic, or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years." Or it can get you three bullets to the neck.

Like a number of prominent literary figures in Turkey, Hrant Dink was brought to court for ostensibly violating Article 301. At a human-rights conference in 2002, he objected to his country's national anthem, particularly the line "Please smile upon my heroic race"--for as an Armenian minority, Dink felt the emphasis on race to be discriminatory. Although he was acquitted, he & four other journalists were later charged for having penned criticism of the decision to ban a 2005 academic conference on the mass killings of Armenians in 1915. To say that Turkey does not recognize the Armenian genocide is a huge understatement; it has spent considerable energy denying that a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing occurred & maintains that the 1.5 million Armenians who died were "one of the tragic consequences of war." The United States considers Turkey an ally & therefore does not use the word genocide to describe the horrors perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the last century; twice the Bush administration has disavowed resolutions on this issue.

In Turkey, over sixty cases--most concerning the Armenian genocide--have been filed against writers, activists, & journalists, the most prominent of which is that of Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, author of "Istanbul" (Knopf, 2005) and "Snow" (Knopf, 2004). In 2005 Pamuk was retroactively indicted for remarks made in "Das Magazin," a Swiss weekly supplement: "Thirty thousand Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands [Turkey] and nobody dares talk about it," he said. (Four months later, Article 301 was adopted by the Turkish government.) Publisher Ragip Zarakolu found trouble by printing "objectionable" books, including George Jerjian's "History Will Free All of Us: Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation." This week's New York Times Book Review (which went to press before Hrant Dink's murder) contains a feature on Elif Shafak's novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul" (Viking, 2007), which "recently led to a suit by the right-wing attorney Kemal Kerincsiz, who declared that Shafak's Armenian characters were 'insulting Turkishness' by referring to the 'millions' of Armenians 'massacred' by 'Turkish butchers' who 'then contentedly denied it all.'" According to the Times, Kerincsiz opposes Turkey's bid to join the European Union and is well aware that applying his country's censorship laws helps his cause. The Times reviewer, Lorraine Adams, presciently remarked that in comparison to Pamuk & Shafak, "there has been decidedly less clamor about the suits brought against Turkish-Armenian journalists."

With Hrant Dink's death, however, that is no longer the case. An estimated 100,000 mourners (the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet put the figure at "possibly up to 200,000") turned out for the funeral procession on Tuesday, many carrying placards that read "We are all Hrant Dink" and "We are all Armenians." Archbishop Mesrob Mutafayan, who spoke during the service, noted "It is mystical that [Dink's] funeral turned into an occasion where Armenian and Turkish officials gathered together." The New York Times also quoted the archbishop of the Armenian Church of America as saying that Dink's "soul will be in peace when he sees that his assassination created some positive steps between two countries." Certainly the emotional outpouring of Turkish citizens in response to the murder of their fellow patriot is an encouraging development; however, the sinister nature of nationalism continues to fester. Six additional suspects have been brought into custody in recent days, and one of them, Yasin Hayal (a militant convicted in 2004 for bombing a McDonald's), chillingly yelled, "Orhan Pamuk needs to wise up!" as he was being led by police into a courtroom in Istanbul.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

elegies, haiku, & pork

A stellar duo of writers showed up at the Strand bookstore in New York City Thursday night. Colson Whitehead & Kevin Young, former Harvard classmates who have already published nine books between them, read from their latest work to a packed room. Young, whose just-issued poetry collection, "For the Confederate Dead" (Knopf, 2007) references the famous "For the Union Dead," explained to the crowd that his middle name is Lowell & that he'd always intended to address this via writing one day. The book contains elegies to Gwendolyn Brooks, Phyllis Wheatley, & Young's friend & author Philippe Wamba, who died in an automobile accident in Kenya at age 31; "April in Paris" describes Lionel Hampton's last weekend in concert in Paris. Young started off, however, with a black binder that held new poems such as "Ode to Pork" & "I Walk the Line" (of the latter he complained, "The trouble with movies is that they often steal the best lines"). The poet's trademarked wordplay did not take long to surface: "I am the African-American sheep in the family," he intoned in mock seriousness during one piece.

Colson Whitehead, lean, tall, & severe while Young is plump, of average height, & given to frequent smiles, nevertheless opened with a dryly hilarious essay proposing an alternate use for the Empire State Building: storage for all the fiction writers, with demarcated floors for realists, those undergoing a sophomore slump, & huge successes like John Grisham. "A loud alarm goes off every couple of hours or so to warn you when someone starts a new literary journal," he read. And the poets? They're in Madison Square Garden--"where else would they all fit?" "Apex Hides the Hurt" (Doubleday, 2006; Anchor paperback, 2007), Whitehead's third novel, tells the story of a nomenclature consultant--one who can create the perfect name for a product--& is composed of clipped, clever sentences that expertly reflect its protagonist. He (ironically unidentified throughout) is hired to settle a dispute in a Midwestern town called Winthrop. Is the name good enough, or should it be changed to New Prospera (as suggested by a white software tycoon) or revert to the original Freedom, chosen by the former slaves who founded the town?

In the question & answer session that followed the reading, the authors spoke on topics ranging from inspiration to adaptation (Young's "Black Maria" is being staged, & Whitehead's "The Intuitionist" has been optioned "several times, but no one's been able to figure out how to film it yet"), but they also gently elbowed each other as encouragement to share personal reminiscences, a number of which ended with "and then we got drunk." Finally, a big revelation: Colson Whitehead composes haiku. At the audience's request, he grinned slightly & recited one about... "Little House on the Prairie."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

boatyard suite

Thursday, January 04, 2007

numas then & now

Happy new year to all who adhere to the Gregorian calendar. Celebrating in January is a relatively recent tradition; the ancient Roman calendar consisted of only ten months with the year starting March 1st, which is why the Latin roots of November & December, the last months of the year in our modern method of timekeeping, mean ninth & tenth, respectively. Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added the months of January & February around 700 B.C., & under Julius Caesar’s reign the new year moved from March to January. Many folks still celebrate in March, however: in Iran, norouz (“new day”) occurs at the moment of the vernal equinox & marks the beginning of twelve days of festivities—there is much visiting among families & friends, and of course a lot of food. Although norouz is a traditional Iranian holiday, it is also observed in many other countries, including India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Albania, Azerbaijan, Turkey, & Kazakhstan.

Being a Westerner, I went to a new year’s eve party December 31st, & found myself in a charmingly appointed house formerly owned by a sea captain. The guests sat talking in an intimate, lively circle, & welcomed a newcomer. Suddenly our host announced it was time for everyone to practice the numa numa dance; while I was trying to decipher this odd order she rushed over to her laptop & called up youtube—specifically a video in which a doughy white man has recorded himself lipsynching & gesticulating to a pop song. These forms of self-expression can be highly entertaining (even if vapid; & I did admire the large fellow’s eyebrow control); however, with much of our everyday lives inundated with various electronic input, the times we gather with friends should be an opportunity to put aside the gadgetry & do some old-fashioned listening. To learn more about these real human beings who are beside us during this temporary, precious life.

Needless to say, everyone but yr. correspondent enthusiastically obeyed the injunction to imitate the numa numa moves. On these occasions I always hope to convey my enjoyment while simultaneously holding firm to my conviction to not follow the crowd. A few days later it was gratifying to discover an article by anthropologist & essayist Roger Sandall on the subject of herd mentality (view the entire piece at http://www.culturecult.com/sandall_dec06.htm).

“I once attended an event at the Sydney Opera House where some 2500 people had gathered. A Danish percussion group were performing and they wanted the crowd to participate. Their leader stood and gave orders—clap, shout, stand, pat your knees—and 2500 men and women obeyed his commands. I myself declined to take part, but the elderly woman beside me, with shining eyes, followed every movement as though she had been waiting eighty years for instructions. She would have stood on her head if they asked.”

The audience behavior Sandall witnessed is far from uncommon: it happens at sporting events, where adult fans gladly pound out primitive rhythms on command or repeat simple, shouted phrases suitable for kindergartners; & it also occurs in corporate meetings, where it seems to take on more sinister overtones. So for this new year, consider stepping outside the herd sometime. But not because I told you so.