Posted by Joshua on Sunday, October 3rd, 2010
Syrian Actress Tests Boundaries Again
By ROBERT F. WORTH, October 1, 2010, NYTimes
Igraa: Julien Goldstein for The New York Times
“My films criticized the double standard of the Eastern man. He studies in Europe, but he comes back East and returns to his old attitudes,” said Nihad Alaeddin.
NIHAD ALAEDDIN was once one of the great sirens of Syrian cinema. Working under the stage name Igraa, or Seduction, she embodied the openness and liberalism that reigned in the Arab world during the 1960s and ’70s, performing the region’s first cinematic nude scene and flippantly telling journalists that “we have to bring sex to the cinema because our audience is frustrated.”
Now, after 15 years of self-imposed seclusion, she has returned as a ferocious critic of the Islamist wave sweeping the Middle East, and her courage has drawn the admiration of a younger and more constrained generation of actors and filmmakers. A multipart documentary about her appeared on Syrian television last year, and a prominent Syrian director is now working on a film about her life.
Unlike many other actresses of her era, she refuses to apologize for any of her numerous risqué roles, and even defends her sexual freedom in a way that is almost unheard of in this increasingly conservative country.
“Men have this hypocrisy nowadays. If the girl wears a hijab she must be honest,” Igraa said in a voice ragged from chain-smoking, during a late-night interview at her Damascus apartment. Today’s Islamic conservatives, she said, are mostly “liars” who “criticize others but don’t truly believe themselves.”
“The whole issue of the hijab has become an excuse for hunting down other people,” she said.
She laughed and added, “This kind of talk could get me hanged.”
Igraa’s own family has been split by the Islamist trend. As a teenager in the late 1950s, she traveled with her older sister to Cairo, where an Egyptian impresario renamed them Seduction and Charm and made them a successful belly-dancing duo who toured Europe and Asia in daringly scanty outfits.
Then in the late 1970s the Islamic revival began, taking with it Igraa’s sister. She took the veil and became a conservative Muslim, discarded the name Charm, and now refuses to talk about her belly-dancing past, though the sisters remain on speaking terms.
As for Igraa, who still uses that name, she now lives mostly nocturnally, rising in midafternoon. Her apartment is a decaying museum of her own career, with dozens of pictures of her alongside bizarre collections of cheap trinkets and stuffed animals. In her late 60s, she still dresses like the precocious teenager she once was, with tight jeans, pancake makeup and a spectacularly bouffant wig hiding her gray hair. She married only eight years ago, to a man decades her junior, and has never had children.
Some critics say her new iconoclasm is just an effort to dignify what was little more than a career in soft-core porn. Igraa bristles at the notion. “I took off my clothes for a principle,” she said. “If I wanted to do it for money I could have done it in the dark and made a lot more.”
BORN in Damascus to a lower-middle-class family, she dropped out of school in the fifth grade and moved to Cairo at the age of 13. After training with the legendary Egyptian belly dancer Tahia Carioca, she danced with her sister for several years, and then began acting in television dramas. She went on to become a leading actress, screenwriter and director.
“There was a kind of bloom of freedom in those days,” said Nabil Maleh, a Syrian director who helped to make Igraa’s career.
Igraa’s breakthrough came in 1970 with the film “The Leopard,” widely considered to have established modern Syrian cinema at a time when Egypt dominated the business. During filming, the producers and director worried that the story — about a Robin Hood figure in the mountains of northern Syria — might not get the attention it deserved without some kind of lure. They asked Igraa, who played the protagonist’s wife, to do a nude scene. She surprised them by agreeing almost at once. By modern standards, the film is scarcely racy at all: a few glimpses of flesh during a muted love scene. But at the time, it was profoundly shocking.
“I felt like a suicide bomber when I was making this scene,” she recalled. “To do such a scene in Syria — I knew there would be criticism.”
There was criticism, but the film was a hit. People traveled in packed buses from remote towns to the movie theaters in Damascus and Aleppo. Igraa was defiant about her role, and when she was asked to blame the director and producer, she refused, saying they had done the scene with her full consent.
She went on to make dozens of other films, many of them tawdry affairs with a lot of bikini scenes and not much plot. But she also wrote 25 screenplays, and she casts her work as an effort to break down patriarchal attitudes toward women.
“My films criticized the double standard of the Eastern man,” she said. “He studies in Europe, but he comes back East and returns to his old attitudes. If he could lock his wife and sister up, he would.”
To some younger filmmakers, her standing as an artist is less important than her defiance. In a country where artists are often forced to make compromises — with censors, or with religious orthodoxy — her honesty and steadfastness alone seem a virtue. Despite her controversial views, however, she has not suffered harassment or threats.
“She is very important because she is not a liar,” said Khaled Khalifa, a prominent novelist and television screenwriter. “She never regretted, she never apologized.” He added that in contemporary Syrian television and film “you can barely even show a kiss.”
Mr. Khalifa said he had tried to persuade Igraa to return to the screen, without success.
ODDLY, Igraa said she was a great admirer of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. She does not share his Islamist principles, but admires his honesty. “If he asked me to sacrifice my blood, I would,” she said.
Igraa said she would make another film if the role were right. For now, the Syrian director Omar Amiralai is making a film about her life, and she seems comfortable to play the provocateur.
Pointing to a huge movie still on her living-room wall that shows her younger self, head thrown back and eyes closed in what appears to be a moment of sensual abandon, she asked, “Guess what I’m doing in that picture?” The answer? Being stabbed to death by her husband. In the film, she played a woman who cheats on her husband and then returns to him, only to have him kill her.
Men usually think the still shows a moment of sexual climax, she said, with a bawdy smile. “Only women ever guess it right.”
Nawara Mahfoud contributed reporting.
Divorced! Divorced! Divorced! by Jida Malas
With three words, men in Muslim societies can permanently divorce their wives. Divorce in itself used to be taboo in Damascus but is becoming increasingly acceptable. Women emancipation is one reason for the increasing divorce rate in Damascus, so are emotional and sexual incompatibility.
One of the most striking features of modern societies has been the rapid growth of divorce. Damascene society is no exception. In Damascus, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, out of a total of 17,821 cases in Syria, there were 5036 cases of divorce in 2005. This is compared to 22,823 marriages in Damascus in the same year….
The ‘unspoken’ reason for divorce
All the previous reasons were what people talk about; what one hears on the streets of Damascus. What about what they don’t talk about? What about what remains taboo? This naturally is in reference to sexual reasons for divorce. According to sex specialists in the Arab world, the majority of Arabs are sexually ignorant, and considering that a marriage is almost totally based on the intimate relationship between man and women, it means that sex-related disorders might as well contribute in breaking marriages.
Sawsan notes, “My ex-husband couldn’t perform sexually. ….
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slightly reshuffled the cabinet on Sunday, replacing the ministers of culture and irrigation, the official SANA news agency reported.
It said Assad issued “a decree naming Riad Ismat minister of culture. Ismat previously headed Syrian state radio and television.
Georges Soumi is minister of irrigation. He is a Christian and not a Baathist. Like the Christian minister of expatriates who is from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Soumi is from the official opposition, only he is a communist.
SANA did not specify the reasons for the reshuffle, the seventh since Mohammed Naji Otri became prime minister in 2003.
Web Tastes Freedom Inside Syria, and It’s Bitter
By ROBERT F. WORTH, September 29, 2010, The New York Times
DAMASCUS, Syria — Earlier this month, a graphic video of teachers beating their young students appeared on Facebook. Although Facebook is officially banned here, the video quickly went viral, with Syrian bloggers stoking public anger until the story was picked up by the pan-Arab media.
Finally, the Education Ministry issued a statement saying the teachers had been reassigned to desk jobs. The episode was a rare example of the way Syrians using Facebook and blogs can win a tenuous measure of freedom within the country’s tightly controlled media scene, where any criticism of the government, however oblique, can lead to years in prison.
“We have a little bit of freedom,” said Khaled al-Ekhetyar, a 29-year-old journalist for a Web site whose business card shows a face with hands covering up the eyes and mouth. “We can say things that can’t be said in print.”
But that slim margin is threatened by an ever present fog of fear and intimidation, and some journalists fear that it could soon be snuffed out. A draft law regulating online media would clamp down on Syrian bloggers and other journalists, forcing them to register as syndicate members and submit their writing for review. Other Arab countries regularly jail journalists who express dissident views, but Syria may be the most restrictive of all.
Most of the Syrian media is still owned by the state. Privately owned media outlets became legal in 2001, as the socialist economy slowly began to liberalize following the accession of President Bashar al-Assad. But much of the sector is owned by members of the Syrian “oligarchy” — relatives of Mr. Assad and other top government officials. All of it is subject to intimidation and heavy-handed control.
“The first level is censorship,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, the founder of All4Syria.info, the independent Web site where Mr. Ekhetyar works. “The second level is when they send you statements and force you to publish them.” Like many other journalists and dissidents, Mr. Abdel Nour has left the country and now lives abroad.
The basic “red lines” are well known: no criticism of the president and his family or the security services, no touching delicate issues like Syria’s Kurdish minority or the Alawites, a religious minority to which Mr. Assad belongs. Foreign journalists who violate these rules are regularly banned from the country (a fact that constrains coverage of Syria in this and other newspapers).
But the exact extent of what is forbidden is left deliberately unclear, and that vagueness encourages fear and self-censorship, many journalists here say. A 19-year-old female high school student and blogger, Tal al-Mallohi, was arrested late last year and remains in prison. Her blog had encouraged the Syrian government to do more for the Palestinians, but it scarcely amounted to real criticism, and the authorities have not given any reason for her detention. A number of bloggers have been arrested for expressing views deemed critical of the Syrian government or even other Arab governments, under longstanding laws that criminalize “weakening national sentiment” and other broadly defined offenses.
Others have been jailed for jokes. One blogger, Osama Kario, wrote a parody in 2007 of the famous “three Arab No’s” refusing any concession to Israel (no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel). His version: “No electricity, no water, no Internet.” He was jailed for 28 days, and when he emerged he stopped blogging and would not speak to fellow journalists about his experience.
Television and radio journalists have made some tentative efforts to push the limits in the past few years, with mixed success. D.J.’s like Honey Sayed, who hosts a popular show called “Good Morning Syria” on Madina FM, often explore sensitive social issues like homosexuality and child abuse. Last year Orient TV, a new station owned by an independent Syrian businessman, began broadcasting from Dubai and quickly gained a large audience with its imaginative documentaries. But a few months later the station’s Damascus office was abruptly shut down, with no explanation given.
One Web site, All4Syria.info, has managed to survive since 2004 with a revolving staff of about half a dozen writers based in Syria. Earlier this year it published an interview with three political dissidents on their release from prison, something no other Syrian outlet dared to do.
“The Internet in Syria is a bit like the samizdat publications were under the Soviet Union,” said Mohammad Ali Abdallah, whose brother Omar Ali Abdallah was sentenced to five years in prison in 2006 for contributing to an Internet forum that was deemed seditious by the authorities.
Last year, some of Syria’s new, privately owned radio stations joined bloggers in criticizing a proposed revision of Syria’s personal status law that would have made it legal for men to marry girls as young as 13 years old. Under pressure, lawmakers abandoned the proposal.
But individual successes do not always make for broader progress, because of fear.
“Even when someone successfully crosses a line, everyone is still afraid, they don’t build on it,” Mr. Ekhetyar said. “They think maybe it was a coincidence.”
Many online journalists use pseudonyms, he added, a practice that may be safer but erodes their credibility and leaves them in a fearful solitude where they cannot develop professional standards. Facebook has been an important outlet for political and social frustrations, but it, too, is often used with furtive anonymity.
And it is impossible to tell how many Syrians are paying attention. Asked who his audience was, Mr. Ekhetyar paused and said with a weary smile, “My friends and the secret police.”
That may be why the Syrian authorities, despite the official ban on Facebook, YouTube, and many other Internet venues, do not seem too frightened of them. Most Syrian government officials, including the president, have their own Facebook pages. Walk into almost any of the many Internet cafes in Damascus, and the manager will show you how to log on to Facebook or other banned sites. Foreign proxy server numbers are traded among young people like baseball cards.
On a recent evening in the tumultuous Bab Touma section of Damascus’s Old City, 26-year-old Berj Agop was among a crowd of young people at the SpotNet Internet Cafe, many of them casually surfing sites that are officially banned.
“I saw the video of the teacher beating the student,” he said. “It’s a victory for sure; without Facebook no one would have known about that incident.”
But nearby, another young man who gave his name only as Taym offered a different view.
“The Internet is like a baby’s lollipop for the young,” he said. “It entertains him and makes him forget his problems, it’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ — I dream of such a world, a better world.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Damascus.