Interviewed by Tala Abdulhadi, posted on OC Magazine
Name: Fadi Zaghmout
Date of Birth: June 15th, 1978
Degree: MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking
Job: Information and Communication Technology Advisor
Currently Residing in: Amman/Jordan
Languages Spoken: Arabic and English
OC: How has your Creative Writing degree helped you develop as a writer?
FZ: The course had a critical thinking side where we read lots of critical essays. We had four main modules. I would say that the psychoanalysis module was my favourite. There is much to learn from Freud in terms of creative writing; ambivalence, the double, the uncanny, mourning and dealing with loss are some techniques I have developed. I also learned to cut down unnecessary words, and to focus on showing rather than telling.
OC: What inspired you to write Aroos Amman (Bride of Amman)?
FZ: Our heavy legacy of social values that is making our lives harder than it should be, as well as the social obsession in marriage and its effect on the lives of youth in Jordan.
I understand that marriage is a means to regulate sexuality, yet and while exaggerated in importance, the institution of marriage in Jordan is pretty limited. We have no civil marriage that recognises inter-religious, non-religious or same sex relationships. Women are expected to be virgins, and preferred to be young, along with so many other silly constraints. It also reinforces patriarchal society where it is expected that the man to provide a home and cater for all of the wedding expenses and post wedding daily financial responsibilities.
OC: Each character in Aroos Amman seems to have its own identity, socially speaking. How would you describe each narrator in terms of identity?
FZ: Laila is the achiever; a woman who plays it right, does what society expects from her and excels in it. Salma represents women who struggle with the social obsession with marriage. Hayat is a social victim who is forced to break out the social boundaries, whereas Rana is the contrary of Laila. She follows her heart rather than playing it by the rules. Ali represents individuals with two sides; one that is highly appreciated by society (being a man) and one that is highly condoned (his homosexual desires).
OC: The works of authors are always reflective of the writers’ own lives. Which character is most reflective of you? How is that?
FZ: I think there are different parts in each character where I somehow reflect myself. For example, I’d like to think that I am visible in the positivity, determination and honesty of Hayat, the rebellious and adventurous nature of Rana, and the activist social sensitivity of Salma.
OC: Why do you choose to write your novels in Arabic, but blog in both English and Arabic?
FZ: My blog tackles issues of gender and sexuality, and therefore gained more support from English reading audiences. When I read Arabic newspapers, especially local ones, I rarely see liberal voices that call for individual and sexual freedom. That is why I started using Arabic on my blog. I also realized that my English language is in not good as my Arabic. I can express myself much better in Arabic. I don’t think that I am capable of writing an entire book in English.
OC: What is the basis of your decision regarding which language to use when writing your novels?
FZ: I think it has to do more with my level of proficiency in the language. I am a native Arabic speaker and can express myself much better in Arabic. In addition to that, I am writing for an Arabic audience and publishing in an Arabic market.
OC: How did you come up with your latest short story It Was Just A Kiss? What messages were you aiming to send while writing it?
FZ: I had to deliver both a critical essay and a creative piece for my dissertation. For the critical part, I did a psychoanalysis read for the father/son relationship in two prose; The Kite Runner by Khaled Al Husseni, and When We Were Orphans by Ishiguro Kazuo, studying how a father figure affects the death drive of the son. I tackled the subject from a gender identity perspective.
The creative part had to be related. I thought of reflecting the father/son relationship into a mother/daughter one. Instead of a dominant manly father as in The Kite Runner, I came up with the character of this mother who is overly feminine.
OC: When should we expect your next novel?
FZ: I am hoping for a release date in September or October of this year (fingers crossed).
OC: Could you give us a brief description of your upcoming new work? Is it similar to any of your previous works in any way?
FZ: Sure I can. I would say it is different than Arous Amman. It tries to read a future where science can control the aging process and prevent dying from old age. On one hand, we have this huge shift in the paradigm of death while on the other hand we still have the same other variables that make us human beings. It is called Janna ‘Ala Al-ard (Heaven on Earth).
OC: If you had the choice of changing one thing about Jordanian society, what would it be?
FZ: I would heal the relationship between men and women.
OC: What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
FZ: I would advise aspiring writers to question everything around them; to deconstruct common truth, belief systems, social values; to be creative and bring us new stories that we haven’t heard before. That doesn’t mean writing a novel is an easy task. It requires discipline and dedication. There is no time to waste worrying about things. So just write, write, write, and worry later.
Fadi’s Top 5 Books:
Angels and Demons Dan Brown
The Pillars of the Earth Ken Follet
The Passion of New Year Eve Angela Carter
1984 George Orwell
The Kite Runner Khaled Al Husseni
Favorite Artist: Elissa
Favorite Movie: Halla’ La Wain
Favorite Dish: Fattet Makdoos
Favorite Author: Dan Brown
Dream Vacation: Seychelles Islands
Best Birthday Gift: A book with many white papers and a hard cover with my name on it to start writing my first novel.
Favorite Dessert: Knafeh
Guilty Pleasure: Bread
Most Embarrassing Incident: Once I was shopping and met an acquaintance. I said hi and we talked a bit. When I was ready to leave, I wanted to say goodbye. I approached him as he had his back to me. I poked his back, and he turned. He turned out to be someone else. I said bye and left!
Pet Peeve: Laziness
Your Biggest Fear: Death
I thought that writing my second book would be easier than writing my first. It turned out that it is not. It was much harder, I don’t know why. In my first, I used to think that whatever I write is good enough, but that changed with my second and I became more critical about my own work. Perhaps it has also to do with the nature of the two books, where the first addresses issues of gender and sexuality that I excel at and the second is more of a science fiction addressing issues of ageing, life & death, and human nature.
I know that many other writers prefer to keep their work till they finish it before they let anyone read a line of it, but I am not like that. I need continuous feedback when I write, the more the merrier. Thus, having supportive friends who takes on the journey with me is a priceless service they offer me. For that I would love to thank:
1. Ghadeer Janineh, Ayman Al Hmoud and Lubna Al-Shami reading my progress chapter by chapter and giving me your continuos support and feedback helped me so much. I loved Ghadeer and Ayman passion for the story, always excited to read more and pushing me to rush and finish chapters just to see your reactions guys! It was different for Lubna, because she is more critical. At some point, I came to think that if Lubna thinks it is good, then it means it is good! I appreciate your help Najeeb Mahfooz!
2. Yousef Al Nabulsi: is very hard to please, and I haven’t pleased him yet. I am thanking him not for his continuous support in reading the story chapter by chapter but for his hard reaction on the first run of the story that prompted me to rethink it, throw it away, and rewrite the whole thing. I hated him at first but then I realised that he wanted the best for me. Sometimes, we need a clapping hand to carry on, but we also need a slapping one to get back on the right track.
3. Rima Adeeb Soudah, Farah Kamal Zaghmout and Kamal Zaghmout: mother, little brother and dad. Thank you for reading the final version of the book and for going through it and catching all of my language mistakes. I would never have had this self confidence and believe in my abilities without your continuous love and support. I love you dearly.
4. Rami Nabulsi and Natasha Abbadi: my supportive best friends. I miss those thursday nights in your home in Amman talking about the book. Telling you what I wrote or have in mind for the following chapters and examine it against your critical minds.
5. Haitham Al Dawoud: though not much of a reader, the book needed a sense of style. I would never have gained the ability of describing my characters aesthetics without your influence on my life. It isn’t only reflected on the characters, but the writer himself! Thank you!
6. Fares H. Hassan: Fares is a brilliant writer himself. He is a rebel and honest with himself and with people around him. I loved his review of Aroos Amman and was happy for his Janna feedback. He helped me correct some instances and come up with the titles for chapters.
I am sure that I have missed many others. I would like to thank all of my family and friends. Without all the love in my life, I wouldn’t have finished this book.
يسرني دعوتكم لحضور حفل التوقيع روايتي الجديدة جنة على الارض في معرض الشارقة الدولي من الساعة ٥-٨ يوم الجمعة 7 نوفمبر
جنّة وجيهان وجمال وزيد، أبطال يعيشون صراعات تتعلّق بوقائع جديدة أنتجها التطوّر العلمي الهائل: البقاء في مرحلة الشباب الدائم، العودة إلى الطفولة مع محو الذاكرة من أجل صنع حياة جديدة. إعادة استنساخ لأحبّاء فُقدوا… ومسائل أخرى لن تكون جزءًا من الخيال، بل ستصبح قريبًا واقعًا لا مفرّ منه. تتصارع الرغبات وتتناحر الشخصيّات، لتؤكّد هذه الرواية أنّ الإنسان هو الإنسان، وأنّ الأجيال نفسها تشرب من الكأس نفسه.
حين يصبح العمر البشري بلا حدود… #الشباب_الدائم
When they mentioned the film and Naji, there was a silence that came over all of us. We weren’t sure if we’d heard correctly. And then we started yelling and cheering. It was an amazing moment.
Jordan has many young talents who carved their expertise in the film industry in the past few years. Yanal Kassay worked on international productions including hollywood blockbusters such as The Mummy Returns and The Hurt Locker. He took on the challenge of bringing his skills into local production. The success of Theeb in Venice Festival this years may give us an idea about how far the Jordanian Film industry reached. It has only been a decade, but things are shaping up for a brighter future. I had the chance to interview Yanal and ask him about his experience in the film industry, his work on Theeb, and how he sees Jordan’s film industry going forward.
Fadi: Hi Yanal, you must be very excited about the big success of Theeb in Venice. We are all equally excited back in Jordan for the film and for the best director award for Naji Abu Nowar. Tell me more, where you there at the festival? did you expect this success? and what was your reaction when first new about the award?
Yanal: I’m extremely excited about the successes of Theeb so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it is received in the other festivals and screenings. We were there – I didn’t want to miss its global premier. We – the entire crew – put so much of ourselves into making this film. It was a true project of passion for a lot, if not all, of us.
As to whether we, or I, expected this success, it’s a difficult one to answer. I turned down a lucrative job on another film because I believed in Theeb – I believed in the producers and in Naji. I loved the story and their vision, and the fact that it really felt like a Jordanian project. I knew it was an ambitious film, I knew they had been working on developing it forever, and had even approached me long in advance of preproduction. And at the time I was telling people I had made my decision because I believed the film would do something no other Jordanian film had done. So in that regard, I expected it would be a success.
But you always wonder how that will translate, how it will be received. You stress out about it. And we were very stressed out up until the screening. Watching a film you put so much into, it’s difficult to be objective, so a lot of it comes down to the reaction of the audience to make you realize it was all worth it. But the reaction, the standing ovation, having the main cast there and seeing their reactions to all of it – that was all the success we needed. We were very proud at that moment. The audience surrounded the cast with a standing ovation. And then to see the utter joy and pride in the faces of these great guys who believed in and gave so much to the film, to see how touched they were by the reaction – that was overwhelming.
When we went to the award ceremony, we didn’t know what to expect, but we didn’t invest emotionally in a win, in that we didn’t want to get our hopes up, but it’s difficult – you can’t help but hope. When they mentioned the film and Naji, there was a silence that came over all of us. We weren’t sure if we’d heard correctly. And then we started yelling and cheering. It was an amazing moment. The screening, seeing many of the crew and the cast in Venice, the award ceremony – they were all such amazing moments.
Fadi: Yanal, you played the role of the 1st Assistant Director, and Associate Producer on Theeb. I am curious to know more about the production phase and your role. In brief, tell me: What does a 1st Assistant Director/Associate Producer do?
How long did the production take? How smoothly did it go? What were the challenges you faced to bring another Jordanian film up to life?
Yanal: It is difficult to describe what an assistant director or associate producer do in brief, partly because there’s nothing about the role that isn’t complicated. The relationship between an AD and the director is complicated, and it’s completely different from the relationship between an AD and a producer, which is also complicated. It is also difficult to explain because it is very project-based. A lot depends on the rest of the team, particularly the producers and directors, as well as on the experience-level of the rest of the crew.
A friend of mine once said that the AD department is like the nervous system of the film, and that’s not wrong. I basically have to know everything regarding the other departments. I knew the script by heart – Naji and I would almost have our own scene-based language on set, and how we intended to shoot it. I will decide what scenes we’re shooting when and I’ll know why (because you generally don’t shoot a film in sequential order). I’ll organize tech recess, make-up tests, I’ll know when actors are available, when locations are ready, I’ll look at weather and light changes throughout the shoot, holidays – all of that goes into scheduling. And budget, which is Diala, will play a heavy role in all of that too.
I also have to be able to make very quick decisions that will affect the rest of the shoot, because we have working hours to keep in mind, and a certain number of days in which we can shoot. So if the producers would come to me while filming and tell me that based on the edit so far, we need to fix something, then I might have to wrap the crew on the spot so that we can bring them out the next day. Certain things you can’t fix – sand storms are not very predictable, and when we shot at one of the wells, a storm suddenly hit and we were at risk of a flash flood – we had one of the Bedouins that was helping us specifically keep an eye on water levels on the upper rocks, and eventually we had to evacuate the entire crew on that day. And then we need to figure out how we can get that day back.
There are so many stories of challenges we faced, but we faced them as a team, and that’s what was important.
Theeb took about 5 weeks to shoot. We could have used more, but there are budget issues to take into account, as well as crew availability and so on. About how smoothly it went, I mentioned before it was an ambitious project. It was going to be extremely tough because of that, but the crew made it all possible. The passion that went into the project by Naji, Basel Ghandour and Rupert Lloyd (producers) was infectious. Our executive producer (Nadine Touqan) and the co-producers (Laith Majali and Nasser Kalaji) were heavily involved too. The whole crew believed in the film, and made serious compromises in order to achieve that vision. We became a family. That happens a lot with filming crews, but Theeb was beyond. We lived in a camp together in tents and became very close. Even still, all of the crew that worked on Theeb is a family. And I like to think that everyone that didn’t work on it wished they did. It was that kind of job – incredibly tough, but so worth all of the sweat and blood that went into it.
Fadi: I checked your IMDB profile and realised you have impressive past record working on top notch international films. Your portoflio lists The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Fair Game (2010). How did you manage to secure roles in such big blockbusters and how did that help in shaping up your expertise and carve your skills to take on Theeb’s challenge? How do you compare Theeb to such big budget films? and how do you compare your experience working in a Jordanian film vs a Hollywood one?
Yanal: Personally, I loved working on Transformers because I’d never flown in a helicopter before, but that’s not what makes a film important. It’s not about having a huge budget. It’s more about having a story to tell and the need to tell it and making do with what you have to deliver the best film you can.
I wanted to work on a film that I could see being someone’s favorite movie. And as many attempts as there were, Naji’s passion for and knowledge of cinema was a natural draw for me. Now I primarily work on independent and Jordanian films. Theeb was the start of that. I’m proud of the work I’ve done on the big-name productions, but I like to think I’ve reached a point where I can choose to work on films that I love, with people who have a vision and who want to go somewhere with it.
When I started working in film, there wasn’t a huge industry in Jordan, but even then your performance on every film was likely to affect whether or not you got that next job. We do this job because we love it, but not everyone is cut out to work on a film. It might seem glamorous, but it really isn’t – it’s a lot of hard work. Grueling hours and sometimes intense weather conditions, and you have to keep going.
It’s also very difficult to have a life when you work in film. It takes up so much time and energy, and you rarely will see your friends who don’t work in the field – it’s difficult to explain to people that it really is a full-time job like no other. And then when you’re done with a project, you’re done – you become a family struggling together like that, and then often you won’t see some of those family members again. It’s not only physically and mentally hard work, but it can be emotionally exhausting as well.
Much of the work in the early days were on big foreign productions. In fact, I worked on The Mummy Returns back in 2000. But as it went on, more people in Jordan started thinking, “I can do that,” and so a real Jordanian industry started to blossom in parallel with a surge of foreign productions filming in Jordan.
But a lot of Jordanian films weren’t getting the top Jordanian crew – the crew that had sharpened their skills on the international productions. It’s still the case that some of our best crew will generally take the big-budget Hollywood job over the local production, and I can understand that. But I didn’t want to have learned the skills I learned on those projects and not use them to be part of something that could be great. Hopefully the success of Theeb will change people’s minds on that. It already has. It was a first for a lot of us and in a lot of ways – it was an opportunity for us to invest ourselves and our skills into something special and something ours.
Fadi: We have many young talents in Jordan. The Royal Film Commission has done a tremendous job in building the capacity of talented Jordanians in the field. We have seen few features in the past couple of years but the industry is yet to mature. How do you assess the state of the film industry in Jordan? What would you say are the major highlights of the past few years and the challenges ahead of us? and how much do you think Theeb’s success will help in pushing the industry forward?
Yanal: We’re still in a place right now I think where collaboration is key more than competition. A lot of people are guarded when it comes to their positions or the films they’re working on. I think we need to continue to build a strong crew and to talk to each other. If I think someone has the potential to be a great AD, I’ll try to pull them in that direction. My biggest competition have become my closest friends. And we protect each other.
At the same time, young filmmakers have to keep in mind that it’s a lot of hard work, and the more experienced you become, the more responsibilities you will have to take on, the more difficult the work becomes. A lot of people I meet now sell themselves as ADs who have no experience or aren’t very good. That doesn’t make Jordan look good when someone comes here looking for an AD and someone wants it but refuses to appreciate the work and years that goes into it. It takes more than a copy of Excel, a degree, or just one experience on a commercial before you can call yourself an assistant director.
In my mind, we also should be concerned about becoming a factory of film. Heart will always be important in the creation of great works – and the fewer powerful projects will do so much more for us than a slew of weak productions. My hope is that Theeb will put that in people’s minds, and will also inspire a lot more Jordanians to reach for something great and to make great cinema.
Fadi: The film hasn’t hit Jordan’s cinemas yet. We are too eager to watch it after this huge success. When do you expect it to be on the big screen?
Yanal: It’s difficult to explain to people why it has to hit the festival circuit first, but it’s for the best. I’m not the one to ask. I’m very excited to see how it is received. I’ll be in the back of the audience at more than one screening.
More than any other screening, I’m looking forward to the one that brings it to Jordan.
Fadi: It is also participating in Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year which is happening next week. Theeb’s showing is going to be on October 26 and October 28. I will be in Abu Dhabi in that period and will make sure to attend the film and write my own review. How important are such film festivals to the success of a new film?
Yanal: Hugely important. The amount of people I’ve met in Jordan who have heard about it is overwhelming. For such a tiny project with such huge ambitions, the word-of-mouth news about it is so great. I’m happy that before it comes home, it gets the proper appreciation abroad, so that by the time it gets here people know it’s hopefully worth watching, and remember that it’s ours.
If you are in the UAE during the Abu Dhabi film festival, don’t miss the chance of watching this great film. Book your ticket now.
Queen Rania sums it up in this short interview with Becky Anderson. Extremism has been eating us up for few decades now. It is no longer about our image in the west but more about protecting of what is remaining of our countries and societies. We need all to stand up and think.
Posted originally on Bayt’s blog.
I hated composition assignments at school. I was never good in languages classes like I was good in math or science. When I wrote something down, I used to make sure no one reads it, and when that happened, I would die of embarrassment.
I felt more comfortable with numbers than letters. Numbers didn’t entail self-expression; they didn’t push me out of my comfort zone as a shy kid. I also had an interest in arts. Drawing was my subtle way of self-expression at that age.
Things changed with time.
I studied Computer Science at college as a natural consequence of my scientific interest and the popularity of the field at the time. It wasn’t my first choice though; I wanted to study architecture thinking it would satisfy my interest in both numbers and arts. If you live in Jordan then you must know the Jordanian system of universities’ admission. Despite getting 92.8% in the Tawjihi (Jordanian High School degree), I didn’t meet the requirement of studying Architecture that year (1996), which was set at 95% at the University of Jordan. So Computer Science emerged as a second option, and I found myself searching for an artistic side to that discipline. I found it in the colorful pages of the web. And so, trying to avoid sticking to becoming a programmer, I worked hard to become a web designer, but I also fell short because I had no Graphic Design background. I ended up being a User Interface (UI) developer for many years after that.
I enjoyed the first few years of working as a UI developer. The combination of HTML code snippets with Photoshop slicing and Style Sheets coloring met my interests in logic and design. But it didn’t satisfy me completely. Maybe it had to do with the nature of the business of the company I worked for at the time. There was no emphasize on creativity, the design had a secondary priority, and thus I ended up feeling like I was doing a soulless job. A couple of years down the road, I was desperate to break off and look for something else!
Working online helped me explore my writing and communication skills. As part of my job as a UI developer, I had the internet open to discussing and debating issues that mattered. I used Yahoo Message Boards at the time to debate a TV series I used to love (not telling you which one it was). I became more comfortable in expressing myself with words. I felt that my background in Computer Science helped me in shaping logical arguments. And soon, letters started to appeal to me, and language started to become dearer to my heart than numbers.
I launched my own blog in 2006 and started expressing myself like I never had before. I had so much to say and didn’t shy from that. Language wasn’t my strongest asset, but I made up for that by being genuine and original in the ideas I wanted to communicate. With time, my writing skills improved and so did my way of thinking. Suddenly, it became apparent to me that language is larger than numbers, and that thinking is bigger than logic. Playing with letters became much more fulfilling than playing with numbers, and coming up with an original idea started to make me happier than solving a mathematical equation.
After that, I decided to switch from Web Design into Social Media where I could do more writing and communication than coding and coloring. I was also able to collect my ideas and write my first novel “Aroos Amman” (The Bride of Amman) which witnessed success since it saw the light in 2012. The passion of connecting with people grew within me and I found myself longing to write more and more and shape myself into a fiction writer. I got a scholarship and went back to school. I did an MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking at the University of Sussex in the UK and graduated with a Merit.
(During the signing of my first book, Aroos Amman)
Today, I am waiting for the release of my second book “Janna Ala Al Ard” (Heaven on Earth), a science fiction story that builds on all the things I love: science, philosophy, exploration, language, logic, design, communication, achievement, and creativity.
I guess it came with age. At 36 years old now, I find myself passionate about many different things in life. I have more appetite for exploration and a much bigger arsenal of skills to portray things the way I want them to be.
My tumultuous career taught me that we may not always get exactly what we want, but, with time we learn to broaden our horizon and pick up whatever falls in our paths. We just have to keep on marching.