Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tina Gharavi's BAFTA-nominated 'I Am Nasrine' screened in Notting Hill

feature film on Iranian refugee siblings shown at Gate Cinema
Susannah Tarbush 

Micsha Sadeghi as Nasrine

I'd been hoping to see Tina Gharavi's feature film I Am Nasrine ever since I heard about it at the opening in February of the Last of the Dictionary Men exhibition on the Yemenis of South Shields, held at the Mosaic Rooms in London. This touring exhibition was conceived and executed by Iran-born filmmaker  Gharavi, who trained as a painter in USA and studied cinema in France.

My chance to see the BAFTA-nominated film - written, directed and produced by Gharavi -  came a few days ago at a special screening at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, West London. The screening was introduced by economist Susie Symes, Chair of 19 Princelet Street - the East London-based Museum of Immigration and Diversity, the only such museum in Britain (in a nice touch 19 Princelet Street gave members of the audience on arrival Middle Eastern sweets from Edgware Road).

After the screening Symes chaired an on-stage Q and A session with two of the film's stars  -  Shiraz Haq who plays Iranian refugee Ali (Nasrine's brother), and Steven Hooper who portrays Gypsy traveller Leigh.

I Am Nasrine is the first feature film of  Bridge + Tunnel, the award-winning production company founded by Gharavi in 1998 in the north-eastern English city of Newcastle to support "unheard voices, untold stories".  Bridge + Tunnel, of which Gharavi is the creative director, has produced a string of acclaimed documentaries and short dramas, and has several other feature films and documentaries in development. I Am Nasrine had the distinction earlier this year of being on the BAFTA Film Awards 2013 five-film shortlist for 'Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer'.

Tina Gharavi

Patron of the project to make I Am Nasrine was actor Ben Kingsley who wrote a letter of support for "an important and much-needed film." The film has attracted considerable high-profile interest and praise, including from critic Jason Solomons who wrote about it in The Observer under the heading "The Other Argo" (a reference to Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning 2012 film Argo which centres on a phoney American film crew in post-revolutionary Iran on a secret mission to rescue American hostages from their embassy).

I Am Nasrine is relatively short, at 93 minutes, but has a wide scope  and its story unfolds with admirable economy and surprising developments. Nasrine and Ali are the children of a comfortably-off Tehran family. Nasrine is hauled in by the police after she is seen riding with a boy on the pillion of his motorcycle. The policemen's interrogation of Nasrine morphs into sexual violation. Nasrine's saying "I Am Nasrine!" is her defiant assertion of her strength in the face of this attempt to crush her. Micsha Sadeghi, with her eloquent facial expressions, gives a powerful, sensitive performance as Nasrine.

Realising that things are likely to get even worse for his daughter, Nasrine's father decides that she must leave Iran for safety abroad, and he arranges for people-traffickers to transport her and Ali to the UK. They reach there with other illegals in the back of a lorry, and claim political asylum. While their asylum claim is considered they are accommodated in a flat on a  run-down council estate in the Tyneside area of north-east England. 

 actors Steven Hooper (left) and Shiraz Haq answer questions after the screening

While Nasrine is a free spirit and open to her new surroundings Ali is a buttoned-up, watchful character, aware of the burden of responsibility for his sister. He and Nasrine have to renegotiate their relationship as they come to terms with their new surroundings. They face problems as Muslim immigrants living in a deprived area, especially after the 9/11 attacks in the USA.

One might expect a relentlessly downbeat story of alienated and desperate asylum seekers in the UK,  but Gharavi's film is a nuanced mixture of light and shade. It is a non-stereotypical film with surprising turns. It gives a strong flavour of life in Tyneside, an area with a distinctive character and scenery. Nasrine is befriended by a spirited Gypsy Traveller girl Nichole (played by Nichole Hall) who rides around in a horse and cart. They first meet when Nichole comes to Nasrine's aid and reprimands some men who are harassing her. Nasrine is warmly accepted into Nichole's family, who live in an encampment of caravans. As an outsider herself Nasrine seems to find an affinity with a marginal group reviled by some other parts of society.

 Shiraz Haq as Ali

The scenes in which Nasrine learns to groom and ride horses, finding a sense of release and freedom, are some of the most beautiful in the film. One scene is set at the famous Appleby Horse Fair  which is held for a week in June every year in the Cumbrian village of Appleby-in-Westmorland. It is attended by thousands of Gypsies and Travellers. In the scene Nasrine and Nichole ride a horse through the river.

Nasrine and the tall, softly-spoken, Traveller Leigh are drawn to each other, but her ordeal in Iran at the hands of the police carries over into her new life in England and she fends off Leigh's physical advances at a certain point. At the same time, over-protective Ali is wary of Nasrine's friendship with the Travellers, and tries to come down heavily on her budding relationship with Leigh. But she points out to Ali that he has he has sexual identity issues of his own to grapple with. He begins to unfreeze and realises he is free to explore new possibilities. The film packs an increasing emotional punch, and some scenes are likely to have viewers reaching for their hankies (OK, I admit I was among them).

Steven Hooper as Leigh

Ali is part of the immigrant workers' sub-culture, working first in a car wash and then - when the carwash  hurriedly closes down in the face of  official checks for illegal immigrants - in a fast food takeaway.  The film captures both the constant anxiety of the immigrant workers and their camaraderie.  When Nichole and Nasrine dress up and put on makeup for a night on the town, and go to visit Ali at the takeaway, Ali is angry at what he sees as his sister's shamefulness. But his co-workers behind the counter defuse the situation, defending Nasrine and teasing Ali for his almost regimental restraint.

Nasrine and Leigh at the seaside

The cast give authentic, natural performances. Asked during the Q and A session whether shooting  had started with a complete script, or whether there was development and improvisation while the film was being made, Haq said it had started out with a 30-page script rather than the 90 or so pages that might have been expected. Much of the dialogue and characterisation emerged during the making of the film. Haq said that on occasion Ghiravi had asked him to stay silent during certain shots, and once he saw the film he had understood why. His expressions say a lot without words.

Haq described how he and the others involved in the shooting of the Tehran scenes had travelled to Iran and worked covertly, with the risk of discovery constantly present. Gharavi  had used her resourcefulness to get the footage out of Iran.

Seeing the actors in "real life" one realised how fully they had developed and inhaibted their on-screen characters. They described the processes through which they arrived at their characterisations. Both had needed to master accents: Haq, who was born and brought up in England  had to learn to speak in English with Ali's Iranian accent, and Hooper  needed to speak in Leigh's Geordie accent. 

Haq told how once he had started to learn the Iranian accent he would go to parts of London such as Kilburn where many Iranians live and work. Once he wasmore  confident of the accent, he put on old clothes and went to other parts of London, masquerading as a recent immigrant and asking directions  in heavily accented English "because I needed to feel like a refugee".  The experience really did  make him feel small, and low, he said.

Hooper joined the cast at a fairly late stage, and had little time to prepare a Geordie accent in advance. For the first day's filming, " I had to learn it in a couple of minutes; I spoke to some Geordies and they gave me advice. After that, it was a  case of trying to talk with the accent constantly day after day on set, and off set, asking the people I was working with 'is this right?', and 'how would you say it?''" They advised him that one of the most important things was not to force the Geordie accent in a stereotyped way but to be natural. "They said  Byker Grove [a TV youth series set in Newcastle] was not a good example" because its characters have exaggerated  "wahey man"-type exaggerated Geordie accents. 

For his role as Leigh, Hooper had needed to feel comfortable within the Traveller community, and he spent time with the Traveller family who took part in the film. In addition, "the producer took me to a local farm where I learned to ride horses, and a horse and cart.. I would spend time with the horses just touching them, because I'd not worked with animals before or been near them and horses pick up very easily on how you're feeling. If you're nervous, you make the horse nervous and it becomes a potentially dangerous situation." 

The two actors spoke warmly of the genuine immigrants they had met who, as non-professional actors, had roles in the film.

Nichole (Nichole Hall) and Nasrine (Micsha Sadeghi)

It is to be hoped that I Am Nasrine will reach the wide audience it deserves. It has been on a UK tour, of which the Gate Notting Hill was a venue. The tour's the final screening will take place tomorrow in the Centuria Building of Teesside University, Middlesbrough,  at 18.30 (doors open at 17.30).

In the USA the film will be screened at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson in Baltimore on 24 October. The film returns to the north of England on 8 December when it will be shown at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick. 

I Am Nasrine has yet to be screened on a UK TV channel. Film programmers at channels such as Channel 4, Film Four, BBC2 or BBC4 should definitely consider showing it. Not only is the film compelling, with excellent performances, but it addresses vital issues of today including migration, identity, various kinds of bigotry, Traveller life, and the North-South divide in England.   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

second issue of Beirut-based city journal Portal 9 focuses on the square

Portal 9 editor-in-chief Fadi Tofeili and his team probe the significance of the city square in the Arab region and beyond
by Susannah Tarbush 

The squares of Arab cities and towns have been constantly in the news over the past two and half years as places and symbols of demonstrations, uprisings and revolutions.

 It is therefore highly appropriate that the Beirut-based journal on urbanism and the city, Portal 9 (in Arabic Al-Bawwaba al-Tasi’a), has chosen The Square (al-Sahat) as the theme of its recently-published second issue.

In his editorial essay "The Square" introducing the second issue, Portal 9’s editor-in-chief, the Lebanese writer, poet and translator Fadi Tofeili, explores the roots and history of the two main Arabic terms for square - sahat and midan. He looks at the ways in which the ideas associated with these two words intersect in various ways with what has happened over the past two and a half years in the squares of cities and towns across the Arab region. The diverse movements unsettled a long period of stagnation. “The crowds of activists, like water over the earth, gravitated toward the squares and open spaces and breathed new life into the original meanings of sahat and midan.”

Fadi Tofeili Editor-in-Chief of Portal 9

Portal 9 is backed by Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central Districtand is published twice a year by Solidere Management Services. Its name was inspired by the historical gates of Beirut. In the 19th century the walls of Beirut had seven gates. With the growth of the city an eighth was added. Portal 9 is an imaginary opening into the city, “a gateway to endless possibilities.”

When the first issue of Portal 9 appeared in early 2013 it was immediately clear [as reported on this blog] that here was an original, exciting new kind of publication, dedicated to "Stories and Critical Writing About the City". The theme of that first issue was The Imagined. The second issue of Portal 9 has sustained and built on the quality of the first.

Each issue of the journal consists of separate Arabic and English editions, which are sold together and fit sugly side by side within a durable sleeve made of card, on one side of which is the Arabic cover words and images and words and on the other side the English. The journal’s articles are in-depth, and well-informed, yet highly readable. The journal is beautifully designed and the text is interspersed with copious high-standard photographs, drawings, maps and plans. It is a journal that readers will want to keep, and is set to to be a collector’s item.

Editor-in-chief Fadi Tofeili was born in Beirut in 1973. Asked about Portal 9’s aims and philosophy he says: “We hope to make Portal 9 a platform for city thoughts, histories, studies, and writings. A publication that deals with unwritten and oral stories and transforms them to documents and texts.” He adds: “Its ambition is to be a think tank that may produce multidisciplinary products and publications.”

The second issue of Portal 9 contains a variety of articles and stories inspired by squares and other public spaces that became vital areas of dissent, in the Arab world and elsewhere.

There are articles on Tahrir Square, on public spaces in Tunisia, on Martyr’s Square in Algiers, on the battle for Belgrade’s Streets, and on the gap between Casablanca city centre and its slums as seen in the novels of Muhammed Zafzaf. From Yemeni journalist Jamal Jubran there is the essay "Sanaa’s Walls and the Myth of Security".(Jubran is also a contributor to the recent I B Tauris anthology of essays Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus.)

The creative writing section includes a powerful short story by Tofeili entitled "Bones". It also has a moving essay-memoir by Syrian novelist and activist Khaled Khalifa who is originally from Aleppo, entitled “In Search of a Tahrir Square”, translated into English by Maia Tabet.

Like other contributors, Khalifa was specially commissioned by Portal 9 to write his essay. “Every piece in Portal 9 is a commissioned piece written exclusively for our journal and dealing with the theme of the issue,” Tofeili says.

Portal 9’s creative writing section contains a piece by Mario Sabino, editor-in-chief of Brazil’s most influential weekly, Veja, in which he reflects on the square on which he lives - Place du Palais Bourbon in Paris. 

The new issue of Portal 9 has a lively interview, conducted by Todd Reisz, with the outspoken veteran Egyptian architect and urban planner Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf, under the title "Plans the Earth Swallows". And there is an extensive photo essay by Ziyah Gafic on the architect Oscar Niemeyer and his designs for the Brazilian capital Brasilia, built from nothing in the 1950s.

One of the journal’s attractive features is the folded, removable, inserts placed in its pages like small treasures, each one individually designed. Tofeili says: “The inserts in Portal 9 are part of its identity. They give spaces for different styles in approaching our themes and topics. These ideas are related to our multidisciplinary backgrounds as a team of writers, editors, designers, and artists.”

There are four different inserts in the second issue, two in the English edition and two in the Arabic. In the English edition is Palestinian-Jordanian artist and architect Saba Innab’s folded insert “Disco”– on how radical Italian architects in the 1960s deserted the public space as a site of experimentation in favour of the underground city: they built discos.

One of the two inserts in the Arabic edition is by George Arbid, Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut. On the basis of old documents he recently discovered, he compares the three competing design projects for the National Museum of Antiquities and Fine Arts in Beirut in the competition of 1928.

Tofeili attaches much value to the research of old documents and other archival material. “Photographs, objects, old newspapers articles, and keepsakes from personal archives are always sources of fascination, so we seek them,” he says. “They are great sources of knowledge about a place and its inhabitants, and they merit special consideration in print and publications.

Formulating the presentation of these important sources, with academic research and creative writing pieces, makes a very special identity for Portal 9.”

What kind of readership is Portal 9 aimed at? Tofeili says an idea of the type of readers can be “concluded from the map of our contributors in the first and second issues. Because what we aimed for as contributors mirrors what we have in mind as the audience.

“We had young writers, in their early 20s, publishing their first writings, and we had professional researchers, academicians, novelists, journalists, photographers, a taxi driver, artists, historians, and critics. This circle of contributors includes a wide range of audience, interested in reading stories, research texts, and images as well.”

He adds that the Arabic and English bilingualism of the journal ”widens the map of contributors and audience, which lends diversity to Portal 9. It gives us incentives to look for new possibilities with each theme of the journal.”

The English and Arabic editions of Portal do not contain exactly the same contents in the two languages. The photographs illustrations in the two editions are different. Some articles appear in only one of the printed editions, but the translation into the other language can be found on the journal’s website. And the website recently added two videos supplementing articles in the new issue of the printed journal.

Tofeili says the project to launch Portal 9 started as an informal conversation around two years ago between him and his friend Nathalie Elmir, who is now creative director of the journal.

Portal 9's Creative Director Nathalie El-Mir

 “Our common interest in publications drew us together,” he says. “I was a freelance writer and translator with years of experience in newspapers, and Nathalie was a designer producing publications for Solidere. She had received several communication design awards, such as the notable German Design Council Gold Award for a corporate annual report.”

Their initial conversations “investigated how to re-engage people with their city center in Beirut – which has endured intense and devastating experiences of war and division – and how to re-involve them in their city’s existing public realms.”

They then held “a brainstorming workshop which included an architect, urban planner, novelist, photographer, publisher, artist, journalist, academic, theatre director, and designer, from Lebanon and abroad. “

The three-day workshop took place in Beirut city centre – “the location of the Solidere Multidisciplinary Design Department, and also the ‘kitchen’ of Portal 9. We discussed the structure of the journal and its possibilities.”

The workshop resulted in the formation of a team of editors based in Beirut and abroad. Editor-in-chief Tofeili and the managing editor Eyad Houssami are based in Beirut. The editor-at-large Malu Halasa, a curator and a writer of books on Middle Eastern visual culture, is based in London. 

The journal’s reviews and critique editor is Egyptian-born Omar Kholeif, a curator, writer and editor who was based in Liverpool in the North of England but now works in London. The urbanography editor, architect and writer Todd Reisz, who is a visiting assistant professor in Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture.

Tofeili’s academic background is interior architecture, which he studied in the Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University. While studying, he started to write for An-Nahar newspaper’s literary supplement Al Molhak. He wrote poetry, essays on city and urban issues, and reviews and critique pieces.

After graduating from the Institute of Fine Arts he worked for a year as a designer in an architecture studio in Beirut. “But I didn’t like what I was doing. So I decided to make a major shift in my career... and found myself involved completely in writing”

His first professional position as a journalist was as a reporter in Assafir newspaper. Then, in 1999, he joined the team of novelist Hassan Daoud who was establishing the cultural supplement, Nawafez, of the then new Al-Mustaqbal newspaper.

“My experience in Nawafez was a great opportunity in writing, editing, and translation,” Tofeili says. In addition to Hassan Daoud, the team included the prominent poet and translator Bassam Hajjar (1955-2009); poet and journalist Youssef Bazzi, and the anthropologist Chawky Douwayhi. “The result was a very significant weekly supplement that covered a wide range of culture.” He spent ten years at Nawafez, gaining major experience as a writer.

 “During that period I decided to continue my studies. I did an MA in American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I focused on metropolitan America, as I was fascinated by the American metropolis.” At the same time he continued to send weekly articles from Amsterdam to Al-Mustaqbal.

Three books of his poetry have been published: Aw Akthar (2000), Hal Jarahta Yadak? Hal Jarahta Khaddak? (2008) and Shajara Baydaa' Touhawelo t'tayaran (2010).

In addition Tofeili translated several books including the novel Shame in the Blood (Aa'ron fi Al Solalaby) by Japanese writer Tetsuo Miura, and the classic study The Myths of the Cherokee (Al Hikayat al Shaa'biyya Li Kabilat Al Cheeroke), in three parts, by the American anthropologist James Mooney.

The inclusion of Tofeili’s short story "Bones" in the second issue of Portal 9 prompts the question, has he written other fiction? “Yes, I do write fiction,” he says. “I am trying to finish a book which is a collection of stories linked with a thread of characters and certain places in Beirut. It is a sort of novel – but I don’t call it a novel yet!”

The theme of the third issue of Portal 9 is to be Fiction. “It will contain a novella, and many other stories.” Tofeili says. The journal welcomes submissions of new writing in English and Arabic: the Portal 9 website provides a form for submissions, and a downloadable PDF of an eight-page style sheet.

Copies of Portal 9 can be ordered via the journal’s website, which links to stockist AntoineOnline. The journal is distributed to book stores and subscribers in the Arab countries by COLIDI. The international distributor is Amsterdam-based Idea Books which distributes the journal in the EU, US and Australasia. It is hoped that in the future it may also be possible to distribute Portal 9 via Amazon.

As editor-in-chief of a journal devoted to studies and writing on the city, which are Tofeili’s five favourite cities? He names: 1-Beirut 2-Amsterdam 3-Istanbul 4-New York 5-Berlin “The reasons for the first 3 are very personal,” he says. “I favour them because I know them very well, or because they are very nostalgic to me.” His choice of New York is “because of cosmopolitanism.” As for Berlin, “it is because of art, culture - and tragic historical lessons.”
[a version of this article appeared in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat newspaper on 25 August 2013]

Friday, August 09, 2013

Sarah al-Hamad's book 'sun bread and sticky toffee' elevates the date to star status


Kuwaiti writer and home cook Sarah Al-Hamad, a long time resident of London, broke new ground in Middle Eastern cookery writing with the publication in 2008 of her first book  Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf (review in Banipal magazine). Al-Hamad revealed a fascinating cuisine in which Indian, Persian and Turkish influences mingle with the traditional Bedouin diet of dates and dairy products.

Now with her second book, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere, Al-Hamad has elevated the traditional Gulf staple food, the date, to star status. The new book is, like the first, published by Interlink Publishing of Northampton, Massachusetts. And like the first book, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee is beautifully and imaginatively produced. Its many striking pictures include photographs taken by Al-Hamad in date-producing locations across the globe.

Sarah Al-Hamad at the launch of Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee

At the launch of her book at the Mosaic Rooms in London, Al-Hamad gave an entertaining slideshow on her "date trail" through the world of dates and date desserts. "My love affair with the humble date goes back to my childhood in the Gulf; you can say it's in my DNA. And growing up surrounded by palm trees helped."

Her interest in dates was reignited some three years ago by the English dessert sticky toffee pudding, of which a main ingredient is dates.

Al-Hamad wanted to know how, when and why this "quintessentially English" dessert came to have dates as its crucial ingredient. "That's what spurred me on and sent me off on this three-year journey of recipe testing, researching, talking to people and travelling."

Al-Hamad's version of sticky toffee pudding

Dried fruits entered the medieval kitchen in England kitchen around the 15th century when the first ships travelled from North Africa to England carrying dried nuts and fruits. "Medieval cookbooks from that time have recipes, especially custards and pies, that contain dried fruit and marry them with meats because in those days they considered that optimal health was attained by mixing cooling and warming foods."

As dates were considered cooling they would be mixed with meats like mutton or pigeon to create a wholesome recipe. "And so, thanks to trade, dried fruits were brought into the UK, and I think improved the British diet immeasurably"

Cartmel, a small town in Cumbria, England, claims to be the "home of the sticky toffee pudding". When Al-Hamad visited the town she found a lot of sticky toffee puddings being made and sold for consumption locally or abroad. But Cartmel is far from being the only place in England that claims to be home to the sticky toffee pudding. "I couldn't actually pinpoint where the dessert originates from," Al-Hamad said. "You can't help but imagine it being eaten at sumptuous banquets hundreds of years ago - but in fact the dessert first appeared on menus in the 20th century."

Al-Hamad's version of the pudding, Sticky Sponge Cake with a Toffee Sauce: King of Dates Pudding, is named after the medjool date. This  large, fleshy, and sweet date, with its irresistible toffee notes, is regarded as "the king of dates".

The recipes in Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee are divided into five sections: breads and spreads; cookies, brownies and slices; date cakes; puddings, fudges and custards; and ice cream, milkshakes and stuffed dates. Each section includes a photo spread on a particular place of interest on Al-Hamad's "date trail".

With the date having been an important part of Middle Eastern diets since antiquity, Al-Hamad provides frequent historical references. In some cases she devises a modern interpretation of an ancient recipe. For example Pineapple Palace Cake: Upside-down in Babylon, topped with an attractive pattern of sliced dates and pineapple, is a lighter version of the rich palace cake that the Babylonians would make for the gods.

Al-Hamad's Sun Bread: Date, Spice and Honey Loaf is a "dense, fragrant, sweet bread", inspired by the ancient recipe from Upper Egypt. The ancient Egyptians, like the Mesopotamians, used wheat, barley or corn as a base for bread, and for special occasions added dates, spices, honey and seeds. Al-Hamad suggests her Sun Bread be eaten for breakfast "slathered with cream cheese, or any time with a cup of tea."

an amateur's rendering of Sun Bread: Date, Spice and Honey Loaf

I had a go at making Sun Bread, using a cake tin rather than the bread tin specified in the recipe. The recipe includes generous amounts of chopped dates, almonds, eggs and honey and 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. The quantity of spices seemed disconcertingly large, but their presence proved subtle rather than overpowering.

Sun Bread gets its rise from the whites of six eggs beaten into soft peaks. The bread rose nicely, with the crust having a slightly honeyed gloss, and had a pleasing texture, something between a cake and a bread, with the crunch of almonds and succulence of dates. Al-Hamad says the Sun Cake keeps for days. However, it is so delicious that it is unlikely to survive for long in most households.

At the launch of Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee guests had the chance to sample three different types of date, as well as some of the goodies from the book including Desert Date Balls, Pinwheel Date Shortbread, and Bejewelled Haroset: Date, Walnut and Apricot Spread.

Desert Energy Balls [pictured below], or Hais, are an ancient sweetmeat for which Al-Baghdadi gave a recipe in his 1226 cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh. They consist of a paste of dates, almonds, pistachios and vegetable oil shaped into balls (or other shapes) and rolled in toasted sesame seeds, desiccated coconut or chopped pistachios.


The decorative and moreish Pinwheel Date Shortbreads are made by spreading a date and pistachio mixture on a rich pastry, rolling it up into a long sausage shape and slicing into biscuit shapes ready for baking.

Pinwheel Date Shortbreads

Haroset, the fruit and nut paste eaten by Jews at Passover, symbolises the mortar used by slaves in Egypt. While the Ashkenazi version is traditionally basic, with apples and walnuts, the Sephardi version is - depending on local ingredients - likely  to be sumptuous, with the addition of dates, chestnuts, almonds, figs and raisins.

The trajectory of Al-Hamad's date trail was partly determined by the feasibility of visiting particular date-producing countries. "There are many other date-tastic places that I wasn't really able to visit," she said. Saudi Arabia is today's premier date centre, but was not easily accessible, so she went instead to the UAE. Nor was it practicable to do a research trip to Iraq, which was for much of the 20th century the world's 's leading date centre. The city of Basra in particular was famed for its extensive date plantations and the high quality of its dates. But decades of war, occupation and repression have devastated Iraq's date plantations and date production is only a fraction of what it once was.

Al-Hamad began her date trail in the indigenous home of the date, the Arabian Peninsula. In her slideshow there were pictures of Gulf date shops with their great mounds and displays of dates. People tend to buy dates in large quantities, especially before the month of fasting in Ramadan. Dates are customarily eaten as the first food to break the fast, and they are often given as charity.

The book includes a recipe for tamriya, a typical Khaliji date dessert in which dates are cooked with flour and vegetable oil. She calls her tamriya Desert Date Fudge, and finishes it off with slivered pistachio or chopped walnuts or almonds.

In the Gulf Al-Hamad came across date-flavoured flatbread, baked by Afghan bakers, and delicious with sharp white cheese. Another Gulf date bread is the Parsi dish Kajoor ni-ghari: Coconut and Date Stuffed Naans. 

honeyed barhi dates

In the UAE Al-Hamad went to the Date Festival in the Liwa Oasis green belt of villages and date plantations on the edge of the Empty Quarter. "In the Gulf they say the date has 360 uses, and when I  went to Liwa I understood why." In addition to the profusion of fresh dates on show, Al-Hamad found women weaving palm baskets, fans and mats. There were palm offshoots for sale, and palm-leaf houses to admire.

In Spain Al-Hamad visited Europe's largest date plantation in Elche, a half-hour drive from Alicante. In its heyday in Moorish times, in the 10th or 11th centuries Elche had about 1 million palm trees.  Today the number has dwindled to a quarter of a million and the Palmeral of Elche is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"One of the interesting things for me is that in the kitchen the Spanish did not really absorb the date although it grows very well there," Al-Hamad said. "There was a bit of distancing themselves I think, historically." They do have pan-fried almond-stuffed dates, and  Elche makes a date liqueur. Elche is also world famous for the snack Delicias de Elche - almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon - although Al-Hamad did not find it on menus in the town.

The Mediterranean region is peppered with date palms, and there is evidence that  dates were eaten up and down the Mediterranean. Roman soldiers battling the Persians ate dates, and inspired by an Italian classic Al-Hamad has a recipe for the stunning-looking Ruby Polenta Cake: Date and Polenta Cake with Pomegranate Syrup, topped with pomegranate seeds.

Al-Hamad's date trail concluded with a visit to New World date cultivation, in California. The 1920s date boom in California came about after the medjool date variety was struck down in North Africa by a disease. The US Department of Agriculture was asked to help, and it took 11 healthy offshoots to Nevada and planted them out to see how they would do. They thrived, and grew into the newest date producing centre. Al-Hamad was interested to find that date producers in California still use the traditional Arabic words to describe different stages of maturity of the date.

Southern California's Coachella Valley is the home of the date palm in the USA.  At the valley's heart is the town of Indio which hosts the National Date Festival every February. Al-Hamad says that no visit to the valley is complete without a stop at the Shields Date Garden, which started in 1924. A quirky 15-minute film The Romance and Sex Life of the Date "playing here since the 1950s, sets the mood as the garden's signature 'blonde' and 'brunette' dates are sampled and a deliciously refreshing date shake is enjoyed."Al-Hamad's recipe for Highway Date Shakes starts involves blending dates, milk, and ice cream or frozen yoghurt, and adding adds sesame seeds, coffee powder or smooth peanut butter.

One of  the most moving things Al-Hamad found during her research was that "the date palm is very human:  there's a female and a male, only the female bears fruit - the  pollen is gathered from the male tree and sprinkled onto the female tree - and they have an almost human average life span of 75 years. They have  little baby offshoots that are then planted and grow into adult palm trees. They are very sociable, they like to be in company, they can overheat, they can grow sick."
by Susannah Tarbush

Sunday, August 04, 2013

arab new trends issues call for exhibitors for the souq @ nour festival

press release from Arab New Trends:

14 November - 1 December 2013

a call for exhibitors for London's very first pop-up Arab Arts and Crafts Boutique

The event is part of the Nour Festival of Arts, which will deliver dazzling contemporary artistic talent from the Middle East and North Africa to London audiences during October-November 2013.
A Borough-wide event, the festival partners include the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ismaili Centre, the Mosaic Rooms, Al-Manaar: the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, The Tabernacle, the Arab British Centre, Qatar UK Year of Culture, the London MENA Film Festival and us, Arab New Trends Ltd.

The Nour Festival of Arts aims to:

- reflect and celebrate the arts and culture of contemporary Middle Eastern and North African regions

- promote film, literature, music, visual arts, fashion, dance, crafts

- demonstrate artistic excellence and work that is thought-provoking and challenging

The Nour Festival is coordinated by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and reflects the Council’s commitment to bring the very best international contemporary arts and culture to the borough. Nour – which means ‘light’ or ‘illumination’– sets out to explore contemporary culture from across the region. The festival was inaugurated at Leighton House Museum in 2010, a building that is recognized as being an international symbol of east meeting west.

The Event producer: Founded in 2009 by Maxime Duda, Arab New Trends Ltd is a cultural consulting company specialized in creating, marketing and producing Arts and Culture projects in link with or dedicated to artists, creators and Arts adventurers in the Arab World and the Middle East.

The Event: London will host its very first pop-up Arab Arts and Crafts Boutique, Al Souk @ Nour Festival, for 2 weeks in buzzing Notting Hill.

Right in the heart of one of London’s most fashionable district, we will present the very best and upcoming artists, designers and craftsmen from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Unique pieces, design object, exhibitions of art and photographic works shown for the first time in the UK.

Conceived of as a combination of an art exhibition and one of those free open-air markets that are so typical of the Arab World, Al Souk @ Nour Festival will be bustling with the sounds of the streets of Cairo, Beirut, Aleppo and Marrakech, with a selection of the very best in design, fashion, jewelry, visual art, photography, music, literature, illustrated books, furniture and stationery.

We will handpick all the artists and designers who will present new works in London, with a vast range of pieces and prices perfect for everyone’s wallet.

Al Souk @ Nour Festival will take place between November 14th and December 1st in two of Notting Hill’s most reputed Art galleries :

West Bank Gallery (14-21 November) and The Tabernacle W11 (25 November - 1 December)

Al Souk @ Nour Festival will provide a huge exposure to all the artists who will be invited to share our space:
- Through the Festival programme, distributed throughout London during 3 months. (Sept-Nov 2013)

- With the special brochure of the Souk that we will print in September 2013 (20 000 brochures)

- Thanks to our extensive e-promo on Facebook, Tweeter, Instagram, Tumblr and on the Festival website

- Along with our numerous local Institutional and Arts partners in the UK and London (Shubbak Festival, RBKC, Arab British Center, Embassies, etc...)

- Through the 2 galleries that will host the Souk (25 000 followers and arts and crafts buyers).

- A large press and media campaign will be led in Art specialist media, Arab specialized press and all UK and worldwide lifestyle media.

- This event is a unique opportunity for you to get a broader exposure in the UK, and particularly in London and the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, reputed for its large Arab Diaspora.


- Design (objects, jewelry, modern crafts)
- Fashion (couture and high street)
- Furniture design (home appliance, small furniture, lighting, textile)
- visual art (painting, collage, mixed media, photography, sculpture)
- music (preferably via a music label / distributor)
- literature (illustrated books, comics, art books, novels)
- Stationery (calligraphy, notebooks, etc)

What are we looking for:
● Be contemporary: we aim at showcasing the best in contemporary design from the region. We do not aim at promoting folkloric objects.
● Have a “regional twist”: we are looking for unique pieces, that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world and are representative of the perception of Arts and Crafts in the Arab World.
● Be realistic: Please make sure that all the pieces you want to propose us can easily be carried/sent to London in November.
●Be unique: propose us your most original pieces: we are exhibiting in 2 Art Galleries, we want you to be bold!

To all designers, artists and companies interested to join us on this project, please email:
- Your CV/ brief about your work
- Links to any relevant website, with pictures
- A price list of the pieces you would wish to exhibit. (in USD or Euros)
to: or

Applications will be accepted until August 31st 2013 but the first candidacies will be considered in priority, so feel free to just drop an email and ask any question you might have and contact us asap