Theeb is off to the Oscars: Interviewing Producer Nadine Toukan


When they announced the short list of The Best Foreign Film for Oscars this year, a national euphoria hit Facebook. It was one of those moments, when everyone felt proud. “Theeb” reached the Oscars, a Jordanian film that has been gaining praise world wide, winning awards here and there and demonstrating how far the film industry in Jordan has gone.

We can make quality films, Nadine Toukan believed, and she delivered. Jordan’s film industry is still in its infantile stage. It was started merely 10 years ago with a governmental plan to establish “The Royal Film Commission”, which was part of a national strategic plan to create a creative industry that would build on the energy of the young population in the Kingdom. Nadine joined “The Royal Film Commission” at the time with a mandate to search and develop local talents in the film industry and she did an amazing job; Today there are hundreds of Jordanian talents carving their way in an industry that is yet to mature. Nadine didn’t only that, but also topped herself by showing everyone that it is possible to make a Jordanian film and pioneered the scene by producing the much loved “Captain Abu Raed” in 2008, followed up by “When Monaliza Smiled” in 2012, and finally the globally celebrated Oscar nominated “Theeb”.

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I am so proud of have the chance of interviewing Nadine and ask her the following:

Fadi: You are going to the Oscars! How does it feel?

 

Nadine: Theeb is off to the Oscars. And don’t forget the BAFTAs tomorrow in London. Exciting. Rewarding. Confusing. So what. How cool. A melange of many feelings, and a good time for deep reflection and taking stock. 

 

Fadi: You believed and you delivered. I remember that you once told me that what triggered you to produce “Captain Abu Raed” is that you wanted to show people in the film industry at the time that we can. Today, you are proving that we can’t only make films but we can also make quality films that can be admired worldwide. I would like to know more about what motivates you? was it your passion for storytelling or your love to your country and your people?

 

quotes3Nadine: I’m generally fed up with a few things: “We can’t, it won’t work, there’s no money, who cares…” Having our stories owned by others, and us almost always bothered at how they end up being told. Defeatist attitudes. Entitlement. Waiting for Godot. I’ve always lived to the tune of, “you want it, go will it into existence”. So in part, the power of imagination pull. Not driven by a major strategic plan, rather through a series of serendipitous events and situations.

 

 

Fadi: I have met you for few times only, but I have always read a side of you that I can’t help not to admire and point out, which is your willingness to help people realize their dreams. I don’t forget the time you tried to help me find a new job in order to be able to publish “The Bride of Amman”, and I remember when I first approached you for an interview on my blog, you wanted to give the spotlight to other people on the crew, like the first assistant director, Yanal Kassay.

 

quotes1Nadine: Listening to your plan for the book and that you needed a job, and reacting in trying to connect you with opportunities, is the result of my built in producer skills. That’s just how I’m wired. Filmmaking is one of the most collaborative industries. There’s no industry without the tribe. We’re used to having directors, actors, producers, and at times cinematographers, front it, but none of us would get far without line producers, ADs, PAs, coordinators, art directors, and the long list of people needed to be able to go the distance, including our generous backers and investors. It’s easy to get caught up in the hero syndrome. I find that scary, and it stops us from understanding through the necessary wider lens. In this industry, there are no heroes, there are heroic collaborations. On Theeb, Naji stood on the shoulders of giants to be able to direct the film this way. We are indebted to each and every single person who said yes at any given stage of this production. Theeb is possible thanks to many people who came together to raise the bar, and simply didn’t settle.

 

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Nadine Toukan with the star Jacir Eid

Fadi: Looking at Theeb’s cast, you gave the starring role to the young bedouin Jacir; that in itself is a fairytale story. You are taking this young man to the Oscars! How rewarding it is being the person behind the success of many others?

 

Nadine: Jacir owes this big break to his father, Eid, whose lazy planning led Bassel and Naji to find Jacir in front of their camera. And then there was magic. I don’t agree with the notion that anyone is behind the success of others. Rather, it’s our continuous motion, and intersections of people and their actions. Speaking of serendipity: One evening while camping at the Ammarin Bedouin Camp in Beidha, a visitor from the area stopped by and sat with us over tea and small talk. Half way through, he stood up and gave me a piece of his mind: “You, all of you with your cameras, the makers of these bedouin TV series we see on the satellites, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Year after year you make one series after the other about our bedouin culture and stories. None of them are accurate, we don’t live that way, nor speak that way, nor do we socialise the way you fantasise. Yet you keep making them about us. And here we are. Still alive. Still living here, but you never come by to do your research right, nor do you speak to us. And you still keep making those silly bedouin series”. While I had never been involved in any of these productions, I knew very well what he was referring to. It was painful, and a much needed wake up call. Representation was broken, and that had to stop.

 

Back between 2003-5, I served on the committee working on Jordan’s submission to the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity program, under the title: The Cultural Space of the Bedu in Petra and Wadi Rum. It was a challenging feat that ended up being proclaimed in 2005 and ratified in 2006. One of the recommendations of the action plan was to create programs that would support the communities in these areas own their culture and oral heritage in their own way, in their voice. Then one day, some of the least likely suspects collaborated on the making of Theeb. A story owned and performed by the community itself, simply because we were open to listening to the situations we found ourselves in, and decided to break free from anything that had been before us. We followed our instinct, and paid attention to opportunities that presented themselves to us. Then took a series of risks and leaps of faith.

 

Fadi: I watched “Theeb” at Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year, and had goose-bumps seeing the theatre full of people who all stood up at the end and clapped. Did you foresee its success?
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Nadine Toukan and Naji Abu Nowar

Nadine: A lot of hard, good work went into the film by a large group of extraordinary people. I knew we had something special. The backstory of which is even more special. When Bassel pitched the project to me back in 2010, it was “a bedouin short film”. I remember looking at him curiously, smiling, wondering where this may go. Then he said he had passed it on to Naji for script notes. Bigger smile. Two remarkably talented and interesting people were about to collaborate. The beginning of an excellent equation. And when we started making creative decisions on how we were going to approach the production, it was clear we had something authentic.

 

Fadi: As you know, the Jordanian film industry is still in its infantile stages. There are many challenges that we have to overcome. Having a Jordanian film showing in cinemas in other countries is a challenge in itself. How did you do that?

 

Nadine: Through expensive sales agents and distributors.

 

Fadi: What are the biggest challenges that you think is facing the Jordanian film industry?

 

Nadine: Writing. Waiting. Distribution.

 

Fadi: Making films usually requires big budgets. There are only few cinemas in Amman and I would say, like the publishing industry, distribution channels are limited. How did you overcome that? Did you make profits for “Theeb” yet?

 

Nadine: No. Sales agents and distributors take a huge cut for the work they do. We’ve had limited distribution. We are back in some theatres around the Arab world this month post the nominations, and we hope the long tail of the life of the production may eventually pay off. I think I’ve heard the questions: “Is it on YouTube or any of the torrents?” and “When will Hammoudeh be selling it?” more than: “When can I buy a cinema ticket?”

 

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Fadi: The Royal Film Commission has done an amazing job in training young Jordanian talents in the past decade and facilitating and help funding local films but it was hit by the global financial crisis and the tough situation that Jordan has been facing after the Arab Spring. It is still playing an active role in helping the industry but not as strong as it used to be. How do you see the RFC support for the industry?

 

 
quotes4Nadine: The RFC has done some excellent work over instances, but no where near enough. I say this as someone who once worked there when it first started, and say it with a lot of love. I don’t think the global financial crisis is a valid excuse. Sounds like a good cover. This is the time to be brave and aggressive, and think of new types of collaborations for growth. I’m grateful to the RFC for giving us a loan from a modest fund they had, to make Fadi Haddad’s feature, When Monaliza Smiled, the year we planned. That enabled us to get on with it without delays. It was produced on a shoestring budget, and ended up resonating with diverse local audiences. Prime Cinema, Amman, kept the film showing for over 9 weeks. The best kind of cinema partners a local film could hope for. Sometime ago, Ruba AlAyed (now with MBC) handled marketing for the RFC, and one of the slogan’s she worked within back then was: Anything’s possible in Jordan. I’d like them to deliver on that. It means getting unstuck. The RFC may have to step way out of its comfort zone, and radically change the way they’re doing the work.

 

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Nadine Toukan and Fadi Haddad

 

Fadi: You raised the bar so high, do you see other Jordanian films following Theeb’s steps and achieving such success in the near future?

 

Nadine: I hope they go ever further. No reason not to.

 

Fadi: What was your wildest dream at school?

 

Nadine: Depends what stage of school. I had many that changed a lot. Never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Still don’t. Next time we talk, ask me about my wildest dream tomorrow.

 

Fadi: What’s your next step after the Oscar?

 

Nadine: You mean after Theeb. Always on a quest towards identifying my next screen production. I’m also spending this year working with the Doha Film Institute on a wonderful program for emerging Qatari filmmakers. DFI is doing meaningful work, and in line with my own philosophies for the needs ahead for an Arab renaissance. It’s a place and program where a generation of Qataris are busting to see and tell things for themselves as they experiment with the cinematic arts. A beautiful exchange where I get to give of my experiences, and they give me of their dreams. What an honour.

 

Fadi: What’s your motto in life?

 

Nadine: Screw it. Let’s do this!

 

Fadi: Screw it. Let’s do this indeed! Let’s bring our stories to the world! Thank you Nadine.. best of luck tomorrow in the BAFTAs and later this month in the Oscars.. You make us proud! 

 

The Arab Observer interviews Mutasem Subeih: “Ana 197” and the issue of identity


If there is one measurement that would predict the success of a person in a certain field, it would be his/her passion. Mutasem Subeih is one of those people, who along with his writing and creative talent, shows a strong passion and perseverance towards carving a career as a writer. We met first time last year in Sharja’s book fair at the launch of “Janna Ala Al Ard”. He came to support me for my second book, and told me about his ambition (a work-in-progress at the time), a promising story titled “Ana 197” of a young man going through out of body experiences in his dreams.11079615_1066278080056966_42229702336390685_n-2

The book came out few months ago, and I had the chance to get my copy in a book signing Mutasem organized in Dubai. It was published by Arab Scientific Publishers who won Sheikh’s Zayed Award as the best Arab Publisher earlier in the year and it shows a beautiful cover of a man trapped in a bottle. The concept is creative, and the story is crafted well.

I had the chance to interview Mutasem and ask him the following:

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Fadi: I have experienced it myself, it is not easy to find a decent publisher for your first book, especially when you are a new writer. How did you manage to secure a publishing contract with the best publishing house in the Arab world?

quote2Mutasem: Indeed it’s quite a struggle to find a publisher as a new writer. However, I never gave up. I was persistent. I applied to somewhat 10 publishers and all of them refused publishing my book. Then luckily, three months later, ASP contacted me saying read and liked my book and hence approved to publish it.

 

Fadi: How was your experience with ASP? In terms of book quality, distribution, and publicity?  

Mutasem: I’ve had a pleasant experience with ASP up to date. They are genuine and have been helpful. I believe they are trying their best to help me get the publicity needed. They are also willing to participate my book in all upcoming book fairs in the region.

 Fadi: Why didn’t you publish your book with a Jordanian publisher?

quote3Mutasem: Unfortunately, Jordanian publishers didn’t believe in my book. I tried with two reputable Jordanian publishers, and yet both refused my book with invalid reasons, I believe. After ASP accepted to publish my book, one of them called back saying they were sorry that they have not actually read the book. They then mentioned that I could publish with them the book at any time. Of course, I have already have signed the contract with ASP back then. Six months later, I learned that the Jordanian publishers do not participate in all book fairs. For instance they have never participated in the Al-ayam Book that began in Bahrain on the 2nd of October.

Fadi: I know what it feels like holding the first copy of your book when it first arrives. It is quite an accomplishment. How did it feel?

Mutasem: Super exciting!  I cannot put it down in words. I’m very grateful.

Fadi: I read the book two months ago and loved the concept of it. The idea of coming out of your body and living the lives of others is intriguing. How did the idea come to you?

Mustasem: Funny enough,  I was actually playing this game on PlayStation and I was quite astound by the main character of the game. I found myself wondering what it would be like if my soul travelled into his body and lived by his experiences? How would that feel? The idea captivated me and triggered me to write about it.

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Fadi: There are interesting moments in the book where the soul of the main character argues with him. It fights with him, conspires on him, and terrifies him. The idea poses some important questions about identity, thus the name of the book has the pronoun “Ana”, correct? But what do you think really form our identities? Who am I? Am I my soul, my body, my nationality, my sexuality, my experiences, a sum of all of that? or what?

Mutasem: Precisely. You’ve summed it up pretty much! I think everyone has a different interpretation for that. Personally I think we are the sum of everything you mentioned combined.

Fadi: You have certainly wanted to explore the issue of identity in the book. There is another dimension where you tackle that in setting Malik (the main character) who is Jordanian in London. How did that helped you in shaping your story and developing the storyline?  

Mutasem: As you mentioned, Malik’s mother is Arab, his father is a mystery but he was born and raised in London.  Like many Arabs that live in the west, they find themselves lost between the east and west. Malik too is unsure where he stands, he goes on many journeys to discover who he really is physically mentally and spiritually..

Fadi: I liked the amount of the imaginations in the book where you can’t predict whose the next person Malik’s soul is gonna live in? That required a good research from your part taking us into different times and culture. But I can also see the issue of gender identity here, especially when Malik finds himself in a woman’s body. Knowing the importance and sensitivity of the matter to the Arab reader, you must have terrified your audience! What would you do if you wake up one day in a female body?  

quote4Mutasem: Funny that I have thought about this often! I always try to put myself in a woman’s shoe to try and see her perspective. I feel many women suffer vastly when trying to express their inner emotions and thoughts to men. I think it will be an embarking journey if I woke up in a woman’s body! They are so fragile emotionally and yet  so patient and they can be stronger than a mountain.

Fadi: I don’t think that women are fragile emotionally but anyway. The book has been out for several months now, how was the reactions to it?

Mustasem:  I’m quite grateful from all the feedback I am getting so far. It definitely is more than I ever expected. Ilhamdilah.

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Fadi: What did you do to promote it?

Mutasem: Its a struggle to promote books in the Arab world general.  However I have to admit that I am blessed to be working in the media field. My colleagues have generously helped me reach out my voice.

Fadi: Where is it available?

Mutasem: In Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, KSA, Bahrain, and soon in UAE and rest of GCC. It can also be found in every Arabic book fair.

Fadi: Are you working on your second book? What is it about?

Mutasem: I began writing a novel for a few months about the future. However I couldn’t presume with it as I felt there was so many unspoken issues are going on now.  So I am still working on the idea, but the idea revolves around a Jordanian girl suffering with endless obstacles in her hard life.

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Fadi: I love seeing Jordanian talents emerging in all creative fields. Unfortunately, we barely have established industries that support such talents and help refining them and lifting them. The publishing industry has never been strong in Jordan, same for Film, Drama, Art, etc. Yet, we see young Jordanians carving their way into these industries trying to position themselves and the country in the map of the Arabic world. How do you see the state of the industry in Jordan? and what do you advise writers who are looking into entering this field and publishing their first book?  

quote1Mutasem: Honestly, I see a bright future for our and the coming generations.  We are on the right track. We are trying our best to catch up with developed countries. We have so many hidden talents and I feel they are starting to raise their voices.  My advise for new writers, is never to give up on hope. If one is truly passionate about writing, then they will keep writing and never give up on getting it published.  The world is big enough, there’s so much room for new writers.

Fadi: Thank you Mutasem. I wish you the best of luck. And I look forward to reading more for you. It is always good to see a young Jordanian talent determined to succeed.. 

Willow Trees Don’t Weep: Interviewing Fadia Faqir


267927_251134238233496_6688446_nFadia Faqir is a national pride. She is one of the most successful Jordanian authors (if not the most). Her books were published in 19 countries and translated into 15 languages. She already has four published novels.  My Name is Salma”, which is perhaps the most known, and “Pillars of Salt” which got translated into fifteen languages.

In her writings we could see a needed close-up on the lives of Jordanian women. Stories she managed to bring out of this small country and echo to the world.

20763386I read her latest book “Willow Trees Don’t Weep” recently and was impressed with how well she managed to craft the storyline. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since she holds a Ph.D. in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of East Anglia and have been teaching that discipline at the University of Durham for many years now.

The book tells a story of a Jordanian young girl who goes on a mission to find her father who left home a long time ago to join the jihad fighters in Afghanistan. While the underline theme is a personal relationship between a father and his daughter, the book’s concern is much larger; it gives a needed perspective on the ramifications of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and its effects on our lives today. It shows the aftermath of the cold war and how it triggered the radicalisation of Arab societies. It takes us from Jordan to Afghanistan to the UK on a journey that depicts the lives of three nations affected by terrorism.

I had the chance to interview Fadia about her new book and asked her the following:

Fadi: When I first started reading the book, I was instantly hooked. It felt like another book of Khaled Al Husseini who is one of my favorite writers. Was it an intentional decision you made to follow his writing style? Were you influenced by his books? Or is it the way you crafted the book with such quality, following modern standards of storytelling that made it feel like Khaled’s books?

fadia1Fadia: I really like al-Husseini’s style, but I felt that the picture he drew in The Kite Runner, although beautiful, was not complete. Where were the so called ‘Arab Afghans’, jihadis from different parts of the Arab World, who joined the Taliban and fought against the Russians? Also if you look carefully my stance, perspective and vision are quite different from his. I don’t see the American invasion of Afghanistan as a liberation. It is simply an occupation and didn’t improve living conditions for ordinary Afghanis despite what is propagated in the mainstream media. The picture is far from rosy and the cycle of violence continues.

Fadi: Khaled Al Husseini saw a huge success telling the stories of Afghani people and the effect of the cold war and the soviet invasion of his country on their lives. I am happy to see someone else tackling the effect of that war on the lives of people in the region and the world at large. This is an important story that needs to be told. Where did the idea of this book come from? What motivated you to tell this story?

fadia2Fadia: When I heard that a young man from our neighbourhood in Amman ‘achieved martyrdom’ in Afghanistan in 1987 my fourth novel began germinating. I was puzzled by this piece of news. Why would a young man from Jordan travel all the way to Afghanistan to fight somebody else’s war? How could he leave his family and country behind and travel with the Taliban from one province to another, looking for Soviets and their supports? What happens to your loved ones when you prioritize the call to jihad, holy war, over them?

What about their women relatives who are left to fend for themselves, earn a living, and keep the household together? Their perspectives were mostly missing in everything I had heard or read.

More over the ramifications of the events in Afghanistan are far and wide. Difficult questions needed to be asked about the state of the world today and the only way you could tackle complex issues is through fiction.

Fadi: In my dissertation for the MA in Creative and Critical writing, I did a psychoanalysis read for the relationship between the father and the son in “The Kite Runner”. I was mainly interested in the effect of the father figure on the death drive of the son. For my creative piece, I reflected that into a relationship between a mother and her daughter. I could read the same in your book: Najwa has a strong mother’s figure that is doubled by her grandmother. I could see how these figures along with her concern about her identity fueled her journey into dangerous Afghanistan to look for her father. At the end of the book, you kill the father figure and pave the way for Najwa’s healing. Did you have this psychoanalysis dimension in mind while writing the story?

Fadia: No, I didn’t. This must have evolved unconsciously. There is a line I read somewhere, ‘Father die so I could be free to love you.’ And I wanted some of that in the novel. He does not literally die, but the myth of him does. So Najwa, like most of my heroines, manages to position herself within the historical web of events, and actualizes herself at the end of Willow Trees Don’t Weep. Like most of my novels it is a rite of passage and a narrative of initiation. Physical journeys from one country and continent to another are intertwined with internal ones. The odyssey humanizes and leads towards compassion for self and others and ultimately forgiveness.

Fadi: I enjoyed reading in particular about Najwa’s mother. Though she sounded depressed, but also showed a strong character. It needs courage for a Jordanian woman to stand firm and admit that she is not a believer. The character has even gone beyond that into showing disgust and strong rejection of anything that is related to religion (partly due to her husband disappearance for his religious cause). I am sure that there are many Jordanian women who could relate to this character. I know that even showing such women exist needs courage. Where you reluctant in writing her this way?

fadia3Fadia: No. There had to be a wide spectrum of characters in a novel that is partly about faith and the intra dialogue between Muslims themselves, which you rarely see represented in the mainstream media. The fundamentalists, true and moderate believers, seculars and the non-believers interact and debate issues. Najwa says that she is caught between her father’s magic, ie belief, and her mother’s science, ie secularism. She has to navigate a way through all of this and forge her own ethical code.

There are many secular people in our society and in many households in Amman the debates about belief or lack of it rage. This had to be aired. Give voice to the voiceless if you have a pen and can use it as you weave aesthetically pleasing fiction.

Fadi: In all of your books, you show concern in women status in Jordan. Gender equality activism is not new in Jordan, much work has been put into this but yet things are not moving forward the way we aspire to see. We have seen good success in education where women makes more than half the graduates but we are yet to see this translated into economic participation and civil rights. What do you think is wrong? How can we tackle these issues?

Fadia: Jordanian society is male-dominated and had been for a long time. To tip the power in women’s favour requires social, legal, political etc. revolutions. This will take time and effort. The economic variable is so important, but women shy away from discussing property, earnings, inheritance with their partners and family members. Economic autonomy and independence is a perquisite for equality and equal opportunity. Oddly enough in some cases in Jordan, where domestic violence is rife, it is not leading to liberation. Male members of the family confiscate the earrings or women. However, education and economic independence are a must and then other things would follow.

fadia4The ceiling in Jordan is made of fire-proof glass and women need to keep chipping at it to break it. And every step towards gender equality taken by any woman anywhere in Jordan will push the boundaries farther. The personal is political and is our starting point.

One more observation: women themselves are mostly divided and do not support each other. In Britain things began to change when ‘The Old Girls’ Network’ was born and women began organizing themselves and truly supporting each other.

Fadi: It is a beautiful relationship you built between Najwa and her father, especially towards the end of the book where many things gets revealed. You dedicate the book to your own father Ahmad al-Faqir. It is a touching gesture. As they say there is a woman behind every great man, but I also think that there is also a loving father behind every great woman. How did he shape the woman you are today? What influence did he have on your character and literary career?

Fadia: My father taught me how to read and how to read between the lines for I rarely saw him without a book in his hands. He encouraged me to study history and emphasized the importance of understanding its movement in it’s totally and explained how events are interconnected. We disagree on some things, but our conversation never stopped.

His pursuit of freedom and justice inspired my writings, although our world visions are different. Despite the fact that he sometimes disagreed with my choices he stood by me through thick and thin and never stopped loving me or I him.

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Fadi: There is a good part of the book that talks about Afghanistan war with detailed scenes from battles ground. I assume that required much research from your side. Does living in the UK make it easier for you to access that information? When talking about historical incidents, do you think that Arabic authors are in disadvantage here in terms of the breadth of information they can access?

fadia5Fadia: A colossal amount of research went into the novel, but the reader is supposed to only see the tip of the iceberg. Since it began germinating in 1987 I hadn’t stopped searching for information. I collected material, watched documentaries, and monitored the press for twenty-seven years. My interest in the Afghanistan, its people, and the invasion is like a program that is always running in the background of the PC of my mind, an obsession, if you like.

Unlike some Arab authors access to books here in the UK is easy and their price is normally reasonable especially if you buy them secondhand. So yes some Arab authors who don’t have the facts at their fingertips are at a disadvantage. But the internet is changing all of that if you they have an unhindered and uncensored access to it.

Fadi: Do you have plans to translate “Willow Tree Don’t Weep” to Arabic?

63611_184340641579523_5515078_nFadia: As you know I don’t translate my books although I oversee closely my translations into Arabic. I worked really hard on the translation of My Name is Salma because it was the first time my writing appeared in Arabic and it had to be perfect. It isn’t, but the Arabic text is close enough to the original. I do hope that Willow Trees Don’t Weep will catch the eye of an Arab publisher soon.

Fadi: Why did you choose to write this one in English?

Fadia: After writing in English for thirty-one years it has become as Conrad said, ‘a capability’. These days I wake up and write in whatever language comes first and English is normally my morning visitor. I am not sure after living outside Jordan all these years my Arabic would be good enough to draw the kind of world my fiction conveys. Funnily enough social networks have improved my Arabic and widened my contact with the Arab world. I am also planning to partly move to Amman. So watch this space.

Fadi: How do you see the state of the Arab world today? I feel that we hit a rock bottom with terrorism and that we are yet to see a u-turn. People today are more aware of the dangers that comes from religious extremism. Do you feel a positive change is anywhere in the near future?

Fadia: Unfortunately I don’t envisage a positive change soon and because of that I am suffering from post-Arab Spring depression. Its symptoms: silence, self-examination and searching for ways forward. 

fadia6When the educational systems and institutions were attacked and slowly destroyed by regimes afraid of an educated dissident the seeds for extremism were sown. Katatib and religious schools, where mostly Wahabi dogma is taught, began spreading. And the elite bear some of the responsibility for that because difficult questions about religion and its relation to politics were either dodged or never discussed openly. For true enlightenment to take place intellectuals must apply reason and discuss the role of traditional institutions in society openly. But alas that pivotal moment had passed. So the damage is done and it’s going to take a long time and much effort to reverse the tide in the Arab World towards liberal, democratic and tolerant societies.

Fadi: Have you started working on your next book?

Fadia: Yes, and the working title is ‘Catherine and Omar’. The second draft is almost finished, but it requires a few edits. A female British archeologist arrives in Jordan and joins an excavation in Petra. This cross-cultural encounter proves to be life-changing for her and some people around her.  It is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but there isn’t much laughter in me these days because of the events in our region.

Fadi: What do you advise young Jordanian ambitious writers?

Fadia: I recently stayed in Amman for a while and I could see how much it has changed. East Amman, where native Jordanians, immigrants, asylum seekers jostle for work and live side by side, is in a state of flux. This miasmic shift needs young writers, like you, to chronicle it. Indian and Latin American fiction comes to mind. And I am looking forward to reading something similar to Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia in Arabic and with a clear Jordanian flavor.

Also it will be great if a Jordanian literary agency is established to represent, defend and promote local writers.

If I were younger I would look carefully at self-publishing on the internet. Digital books opened up possibilities for authors everywhere and Jordanian ones are no exception. It is hard at the beginning but if you establish a cyber footprint you will be in charge of your own brand, earnings and future.

To conclude the closer a writer moves to him/herself and their own voice the more international they become. This journey towards self, distinct style, and unique vision is life-long and arduous, but the rewards are many. Some readers prefer authentic and sincere narratives with a distinct cultural flavor and Jordan is a fertile ground for that kind of writing.

Fadi: Thank you Fadia, as you said, we have many stories that deserve to be told, and have Jordanian talents that are up to bring these stories to life. Keep on impressing us. 

Alef’s brotherhood aims for a better arab world in 2030: Interviewing Tarek Abdo


Alef is by far my favourite book club in Amman, I believe that I am their favourite author too. I had three great sessions with them last year; at the beginning of the year we discussed “Aroos Amman” (The Bride of Amman) and had a successful public open discussion about homosexuality. Later in the year, they organised a book conference and invited me to present my new book “Janna Ala Al Ard”. A week after that, they hosted me for a first thorough discussion around the concepts of longevity, life and death and other philosophical matters I presented in the book.

Tarek Abdo

Tarek Abdo

Tarek Abdo is the founder of Alef. He is one of those young Jordanians who believe that change can happen and that it is within our hands to overturn the course of events that plagued our societies in the past few decades. He is set on a mission to change the Arab world into a better one.

Alef is not just another book club, it is a social movement that started a change and will make a change. I had the chance to talk to Tarek and asked him the following questions:

Fadi: Hi Tarek, as I said in the introduction, Alef is more than a book club, it is more of a social movement. In your words, you call it a brotherhood. Tell us more about Alef, what is it exactly? How did it start? And what’s your vision for it?

Tarek: Alef club is a non-profit service organization with a stated vision “A better arab world in 2030”, it is a secular organization open to all persons regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, or political preference.

tarek2Established in 2012 and organized multiple local events, and three conferences, in addition to special boot camp trainings, the members of ALEF club are known as “A” member.

Members meet every week to discuss books, movies or other subjects. Such social events help us realize our vision.

Alef’s primary motto is “Read to lead”.

Alef brotherhood it is a secret group of leaders that serve and organize our events, 
if you want to know more about them you have to become a member first.

Fadi: In the conference you explained the name Alef. Why Alef? Is it the first letter of the Arabic Alphabets?

Tarek: Yes Alef is the first letter of all alphabet languages. The letter aleph looks like the human being body however if you take a look on our logo you will see the fusion between the human entity and the letter aleph.

Alef logo

Alef logo

Fadi: We are also intrigued to know about Tarek Abdo. How old are you? What did you study? What are you currently doing? And what are your plans for the near future?

Tarek: I am 24 years old, finished my bachelor’s studies in Marketing from 
Amman Al-Ahliyya University and planning to pursue a master’s degree in Business administration. I am also working on my dream project “a public speaking academy”.

My next step in the next year is to grow with Alef and go global, starting from Dubai, Cairo and Morocco.

Fadi: Growing a book club must be a challenge in the Arab world. In my 3 sessions with you guys, I noticed a wide reach that I haven’t noticed in other book clubs. How do you reach out to people? Who are your audience? How many other people help you? What obstacles did you face in growing this book club?

tarek1Tarek: hehe this is one of our secrets Fadi. In the Arab world, the book has a nerdy stamp; readers are usually known as nerdy and boring. Here in Alef we break this wall, we carry the book to the entertainment department, we are cool readers, we do a lot of crazy things, we ask the forbidden questions, and we try to find an answer to it. We actually want to start the change .

Fadi: I have always said that what we need to do in order to revive the culture of reading in the arab world is bringing the cool factor to the books, thanks for helping in doing that! 



Do you see the popularity of the book growing among youth in Jordan? What do you think are the factors that still standing against a mainstream reading culture?

Tarek: I think yes the reading habit started to grow between the youth, because the main factor against this culture is the forbidden questions.

Nowadays there are a lot of young leaders who make the right decision to start asking. They seek the right answers where they can find it best – the book

Fadi: I really enjoyed most of the speaking sessions at the conference. It is an annual conference, right? Tell us more about it? Where did the idea come from? What do you intend to achieve with it? Is it easy to find support/funds for such important cultural activities?

Tarek: First of all, I would like to thank you Fadi for coming to our conference, This idea came from our team after 4 months of starting the club. We thought about a new step for Alef and looked into mass media. We decided on a yearly event to be a speech conference about reading culture and it actually worked.

me at Alef conference

me at Alef conference

Honestly it’s very difficult to organize such event, because there are little companies who are interested in supporting the reading audience in Jordan, but our team has found the way to persuade some companies and it also worked.

We also got the full support from Princess Sumayya University in the last conference.

Fadi: How successful was the conference this year? Give us numbers.

– 225 attendance (133 positive feed backs / 5 negative)
– 10 speakers (2 authors, 2 Writers, 2 book clubs founders, 4 Alef Members)
– 3 sponsorships
– 15 volunteers
– 15 social media volunteers
– 4 coordinators
– 25 trending the hashtag of the conference on twitter
– More than 100 signed copy sold for Fadi Zaghmout new book “janna ala al ard”

with Alef's team

with Alef’s team

Fadi: Haha, you helped me sell many books in the conference, thank you for that!

In one of the sessions at the conference you introduced Alef’s debate club. It reminds me of the debate you hosted for me earlier in the year around homosexuality. One thing that I admire about Alef is that you don’t shy of discussing any issue. You are always ready to talk about any topic no matter how sensitive it is culturally, religiously or politically. I see that a formula of success and a needed breath of air in the country. Tell us more about the debate club. When will it start? Do you have any policy in regards of topics planned to be discussed?

Tarek: It will be one of the most important achievements this year, it’s a world class club which discusses everything with no limits, and we call it ASPRDC: ALEF, SEX, POLITICS, RELIGION, DEBATE, CLUB, with a slogan says: “We Talk Up to the Sky”. But it needs more time because of the security approvals and other operational issues we expect to launch it on 1st of July 2015.

Fadi: I know what you are a big fan of Paulo Coelho. Did he help implanting the seed of believing in yourself and what you could achieve in your heart? Which of his books is your favourite? Any favourite quote for him?

tarek3Tarek: Oh, Paulo Coelho inspired me when I was down and flooded in fail and doubt, then one of my close friends recommended the alchemist novel to me. I found myself in that novel, I felt like I was Santiago, and Coelho was talking to me, it was such a miracle! Coelho was my guide to the road of success, his books makes me a better person, who loves life, and understand why I’m here.

“and when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” That’s my favourite quote!

Tarek Abdo as the Alchemist

Tarek Abdo as the Alchemist

Fadi: That’s one of my favourite quotes too. Paulo Coelho has been a big inspiration for me as well. He planted in us seeds of dreaming big. It actually works for those who believe in themselves.

Who is your favourite Arab author? And favourite Arabic book?

Tarek: Najeeb Mahfooth, “Awlad Haretna or the Children of Gebelawi”

Fadi: What’s next for Alef?

Tarek; The Alchemist Trip 
reading the Alchemist Novel in:

1- The desert of Rum, Jordan
2- The pyramid of Giza, Egypt
3- Dubai Desert safari, UAE
4- Sahara Desert, Morocco

Stay tuned for more craziness reading ideas.

The Alchemist reading in wadi rum

The Alchemist reading in wadi rum

Fadi: You have already done the first reading of the Alchemist in wadi rum. How was it? tell me about the whole experience 


Tarek: hmmm it was an amazing experience. It’s one of our event types called novel stimulation witch is living the same atmosphere for the novel, which will makes the reader understand the message. It brings more inspiration and a chance to think and meditate about the idea of the book,

In wadi rum we followed santiago’s journey in check points reading stations and we put the readers in the same process that Santiago followed in the book (crossing the desert, stealing,  being kidnapped, finding real alchemists, learning the desert language, finding his destiny, and going back to his own treasure)

In addition to the spiritual and learning processes, we had fun. Wish you will be with us next time.

Fadi: I hope so! Thank you Tarek! I look forward for that. Best of luck to you and to Alef. Drastic times calls for drastic actions, with so many arab youth falling for religious extremist ideologies, it is good to see others with such passion to stand up and force a change. Alef might be what the arab world needs today. Best of luck!

Let’s talk about success stories: Interviewing Eman Hylooz


We are used to hearing inspiring success stories of people who dream big and achieve their dreams. Jordan has many young energetic talents, young men and women who dream big. I have started a series of interviews to highlight and support Jordanian young talents, my focus was the film and video production industry but I also realised that there are other stories that need to be told as well.

Abjjad is the biggest community for Arab readers, the website hosts pages for more than 120K Arabic books, 12K+ book reviews and more than 60K registered users.

Eman Hylooz, Abjjad’s founder, quit her job as a Marketing & Knowledge Management Senior Officer at KPMG 2.5 years ago to pursue her dream. She believed in herself, in the country’s promise to young digital entrepreneurs, and in the wide limitless promise of the internet. With a dream to create the biggest and only network for anything related to Arabic books Eman set herself up onto one hell of a journey.

1976900_10154998587600529_5282153144855872836_n copyIn 2011 World Economic Forum, I listened to Osama Fayyad, the chairman of Oasis500 (a seed investment company for the ICT sector in Jordan), telling the audience a story about how King Abdullah dared him to copy the success of Maktoob and create another 500 hundred success stories. At that time, I am sure that many of us had doubts, but today, we can witness many success stories growing through that Royal challenge. Three years down the road, and in spite of the turmoil in the region, Abjjad, is definitely shaping up to be one. Osama Fayyad must be proud.

I ran into Eman at Sharjah’s book fair in November and asked her the following:

FZ: Eman, it is good to catch up with you, you have been running around like a bee from one publisher to another, what are you up to?

EH: Good to catch with you too dear! Yes I have been meeting and talking to more than 200 publishers in the book fair all around the Arabic region! We are introducing a new product for the publishers, where each one of them can have his own page on Abjjad. They can sell their digital books on the platform too as Abjjad’s readers have been asking for this since the debut of the website. We decided it is time to launch this product and we did!

FZ: How many publishers where you able to sign with?

EH: We currently have digital books from 19 publishers and in the final talks with more than 40 publishers.

FZ: Do you think this is the best business model for Abjjad? how do you see it affecting the Arabic literature scene?

EH: The best thing is to introduce digital books inside Abjjad’s network, Abjjad1which will help in having Arabic copy righted digital content. This is something that has been missing in the region. This will definitely affect the Arabic literature scene dramatically, as there are millions of Arabic online users from all over the world who cannot reach to the Arabic literature because of living in different countries with limited access to Arabic books.

I believe there is a huge invisible segment of Arabic readers available online that publishers cannot reach via book fairs or paper books distribution among the Arabic book shops.

FZ: When I met you two years ago, you were just starting. Lots have changed since then, and Abjjad grew to be a huge success. How was the journey? Tell me more about Abjjad’s success I am eager to know.

EH: Oh… The journey =) It was very exciting sometimes and very harsh other times! Running an online business is crazy! As you need to be really fast to be able to compete. In addition to that, you need to seek investors and convince them to believe in you and invest in the online business field which is well known to be very risky!

I have been through a lot of experiences that made me tougher and more focused to reach the goal. Abjjad was only an idea in my head 2.5 years ago, now it is getting more than 700,000 page views every month and 200,000 visitors. As a company Abjjad has reached a valuation of $1 Million. Abjjad is ranked 3,864 in Egypt, 5,647 in Saudi Arabic, and 2,850 in Algeria. Abjjad is now recognized to be officially a book rating system by Google. It has a global rank of 88,525. Abjjad was able to get an investment of $240,000 from 45 investors all over the world, part of the investment was done through an online crowd investment campaign, where we got 134% over funded in 88 days!

TamimAlManasir

FZ: I am sure that only few people know you took a huge risk in quitting your full time job and investing your savings in Abjjad. You had no backup plan. I remember when you started you told me that you either succeed or succeed. You left yourself with no options to run away from achieving your goal. How did that go? How did it help in pushing you more and more and energize you to do all the hard work that got you here?

EH: This was a very hard phase, and keeps getting harder along the way! It pushed my limits in a very surprising way, whenever I get some flash back of some certain challenges I have been through, I still feel surprised of how did I survive?! It made me know myself better, and discovered that my abilities and much bigger than I thought.

FZ: I know that Oasis500 have been giving you much help and support but it was mainly your hard work that made this platform a success. Tell me more about your beginnings, how did Oasis500 help?

EH: Oasis 500 helped A LOT! When Abjjad was only an idea in my head, they helped me sculpturing it to show the business model behind it, test the market, and measure the potential growth. Afterwards, they helped in giving in cash and in seed investment where Abjjad became real and a potential product where I can grow it and seek for further investment. They provided mentorship and introduced me to a huge network that I would have never reached without them!

After 1.5 years, they actually reinvested again in Abjjad and helped me close my first round of investment too!

FZ: You know I am a big supporter for women rights and gender equality. When I see a young woman this successful my heart blossoms with happiness. I know that gender consideration was there in the beginning in Oasis500 strategy of supporting young entrepreneurs. But as a woman, how do you think it affected your journey with Abjjad. Did you face any challenges because of your gender? How did you tackle that?

Abjjad2EH: Hmmm… I get this question all the time, and I really have a problem answering it ☺ I believe that an entrepreneur life is full with so many challenges, your gender will never make it easier or harder, we share the very same headache! But to be fair, the programs that tackle women entrepreneurs are growing, and maybe this is adding some benefits to me in terms of getting some sort of sponsorships to attend global events, or some more highlighting in the media. Otherwise, I cannot see the big difference. I would add to this my own findings in this specific area, which really would create more challenges I believe is the marital status, because being an entrepreneur means barely seeing your family, so I really cannot imagine how hard it would be to have kids for example. This might create a huge difference.

FZ: What’s next for Abjjad?

EH: We are working on introducing the digital books, which means having more publisher on board, with more ebooks, which will need more technical work in terms of having mobile applications for those ebooks, and having Abjjad functioning well on the different kind of tablets and smart phones. This is 2015’s big step ☺

FZ: I know the sky is the limit, but what’s your vision for Abjjad?

EH: To be the biggest and only network for anything related to Arabic books! Combining all the readers, writers, publishers, and digital books in one place!

FZ:  Following one’s passion is a great thing, having a successful business must be very satisfying, topping that with a noble cause (building an Arab reading community) is something out of this world. How do you feel about that?

EH: When you say it this way, it makes me feel very proud! Yet, it scares me whenever Abjjad gets bigger every day, as that adds more and more responsibilities to meet people’s expectations! Books are great, and working for this cause makes the journey worth taking!

FZ: Amen to that Eman Hylooz, we are so proud of you.. wishing you and Abjjad all the luck in 2015 and beyond. Arabic literature has a future champion, a daring young woman entrepreneur. 

Behind the White Veil: Interview with Fadi Zaghmout


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

The Arab Observer interviews Yanal Kassay


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.

Theeb Film Poster

Theeb Film Poster

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.

Quote1As 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.

Yanal Kassay on set

Yanal Kassay on set

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.

Yanal Kassay on set

Yanal Kassay on set

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.

Quote2Theeb 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.

Quote3I 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.

Theeb, a local production

Theeb, a local production

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?

Quote4Yanal: 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.

Yanal Kassay with the director Naji Abu Nuwwar

Yanal Kassay with the director Naji Abu Nowar

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.

Yanal Kassay on set

Yanal Kassay on set

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.