Thursday, October 21, 2010

Arabian nights at the movies

I love movies. Many of my most fond and vivid childhood memories relate to them in some way. Examples: 1) the electrifying thrill when my dad came home from work with an undisclosed VHS tape in hand and put it into our brand new VCR…Return of the Jedi…the sonic explosion of John Williams’ score almost put me into cardiac arrest; 2) realizing even at the tender age of twelve that Nick and Nora Charles (of Thin Man fame) were just about the coolest couple ever to grace the movie screen; and 3) watching the Oscars every year with my family as we enjoyed grilled hotdogs, heavily buttered popcorn, and movie candy (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for me).

Well, just as fine dining is a scarce commodity here in Abu Dhabi (see Shannon’s merciless entry here), so are quality films. Movie theaters are ubiquitous to be sure, but typical offerings are Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters rather than the more cinematically adventurous and thought-provoking films I have come to appreciate in adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for movies meant primarily to entertain or whisk you away from your troubles, but I believe there is also a time and place for movies which challenge you emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

So I am thrilled to say that we are currently in the middle of the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival! Alhamdulillah (Arabic for “thanks be to God”)! This week literally hundreds of independent films from all over the world are being shown in a number of different venues, including the seven-star hotel of hotels, the Emirates Palace, where the red carpet opening ceremonies were held (Julianne Moore, Adrien Brody, and Clive Owen were in attendance!).

Just before the opening credits at the Marina Mall Theaters

Two nights ago, I attended the screening of a number of short films made by Emirati and Qatari students which provided some fascinating insights into the culture here in the Gulf. One film, Second Wife, explored the love so many Emirati men have for their cars, even to the point that some fall into significant debt. Shannon wrote about this fascinating phenomenon in a previous blog entry. Personally, I think this near obsession with the fast and the furious stems from the Bedouin code which highly values courage (hamasa) and manliness (muruwa).

Another Emirati film explored a further reason many Emirati men steep themselves in debt: the dowries that they pay to their bride’s family. The Dowry showed that even though the late Sheikh Zayed (the UAE’s first president) established a fund for dowries to avoid this very thing, “bride wars” and the impossibly high expectations for extravagant weddings which have resulted are creating some social stresses as newlywed couples find themselves in debt from the get-go.

I was impressed with the way in which a few of the films fearlessly tackled some real hot-button issues here in the Gulf. Am Arab looked at the degree to which students in the UAE are learning English at the expense of Arabic, and to such an extent that most graduate from university here with a better knowledge of formal English than formal Arabic. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true! In the English classes that I teach I have high-performing students who are afraid that they’ll fail their Arabic courses. They have no problem speaking in their own dialect of Arabic, but they struggle with reading and writing in classical Quranic Arabic. A debate has been going on here for a while between those who say that the students need to be well versed in English in order to compete in the global marketplace and those who believe more emphasis on Arabic is required to preserve cultural identity, especially in a country where the Emiratis constitute just 20 percent of the population.

I was particularly interested in one of the Qatari documentaries, Lady of the Rosary, which examined Qataris’ perceptions of a Catholic Church on the outskirts of Doha. My interest was piqued because of the recent Ground Zero mosque controversy in New York which grabbed so many headlines a few months ago. Of course, a Catholic Church on the Arabian Peninsula, home to the centers of Islam, Mecca and Medina, is bound to encounter some criticism, but I was surprised by the number of those who believed that Christians in Doha have every right to worship as they desire. For many, their “Golden Rule” like logic was simple: countries with majority-Christian populations provide places for us to worship as Muslims so then we should provide places for them to worship according to their own faith. Of course there were those who opposed the church’s placement in Doha, but they were in the definite minority of those interviewed.

I realize that everything presented in the documentary was anecdotal and not based on scientific polling, but it was still refreshing to hear these voices. And I can say that here in the UAE, I have felt free to worship as a Christian. In fact, Sheikh Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has pledged a very generous donation to help pay for our church compound’s renovations!

Overall, I must say that I was impressed with the documentaries. Many of them were pleasing to the eye, ear, and mind. So far, so good. This evening, Shannon and I will be seeing Miral, a multigenerational saga directed by Julian Schnabel (director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) about four Arab women living in Jerusalem from the late 1940s to present. Perhaps I’ll have a word or two to say about that, but until then, the majlis is closed.


  1. Funny - I don't know why, but I assumed at the beginning that this blog was posted by Shannon. I was thinking - Wow, the Ingersolls had the same movie nights as we did.What a coincidence! Wait a minute.... The Thin Man? What are the odds? And then a little light came on. This is Sam speaking!I'm so glad you had such great memories of "Houston Night at the Movies." There's a documentary showing now, "Waiting for Superman," about the state of education in America today.Been getting a lot of buzz.I'm determined to see it before it slips away.So glad you're getting a good film fix. Much love and fellow movie buff, Mom

  2. Sam, I enjoyed this post! No Netflix there either, I imagine...