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!

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“Theeb” a quality Jordanian production, in par of “Gravity” and “Life of Pie”


Time flies by fast, I wanted to write this film review almost two months ago after watching the film in Abu Dhabi’s film festival end of October but didn’t have the chance.

I remember that we arrived late to a big hall full of people at the luxurious Emirates Palace on Abu Dhabi. We were rushing despite of my awe of the place with walls tinted with gold, we had no time for that, we wanted to catch the film. But we were not the only ones who were late, the parking lot, elevator, and stairs were full of other Jordanians rushing with us to reach the hall. I was thinking to myself, typical Jordanians, we are always late!

Once we entered the hall and got to our seats, we were mesmerised by the stunning scenery of wadi rum. We missed the first 15 minutes, but something about the image quality on screen captured out attention immediately. Few seconds later and I felt amused by the Jordanian Beduin strong accent which felt familiar and weird at the same time. Later on, I felt myself getting attached to little Theeb and following his adventure in the wilderness of Jordan’s beautiful desert.

To be honest with you, the film felt slow, but that was totally fine because of the scenery that fills the gaps when there is no action.  I do understand that the story was initially written as a short film and could see that now that it is stretched into a full feature. I’d personally classify “Theeb” in the same category of last year’s Sandra Bullock “Gravity” and 2012 Ang Lee film “Life of Pie”. Theeb doesn’t fall short in quality of these hollywood blockbusters and that explains its huge success in international film festivals around the world. The film is done with quality unprecedented in Jordanian cinema. It shows how far we reached with Jordanian talents maturing experience over the past few years. It makes sense knowing that some of the cast members have worked on blockbuster hollywood movies before (Read my interview with Yanal Kassay, first assistant director of Theeb).

The story of Theeb is in par of “Gravity” and “Life of Pie” as well. A human story that has a subtle message. Unlike Sandra Bullock, little Theeb wasn’t lost in space, trying to find his way to earth, and unlike Pi Patel, he wasn’t stranded with a Tiger on a boat floating across the ocean, but his journey was not easier, and his struggle to save his own life was even harsher, not because of the difficult terrain of Wadi Rum, but because of cruelty of his fellow species that often tops the cruelty of nature.

At the end of the film we all stood up in awe and pride, clapping, happy to watch such a quality Jordanian production. Jordan’s film industry is yet to mature, but Theeb is definitely a big step forward.

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.