barbican concert: a baroque ensemble

i have to write about yesterday evening. amra and i decided to attend a #barbican #concert, by a canadian period-instrument, #baroque #ensemble: ‘#tafelmusik: love and betrayal.’ it moved seamlessly from dynamic instrumental works by #handel and #vivaldi to #opera. the absolutely astonishing canadian #soprano @karina_gauvin stunned with such moving performances that one forgot the world. 
when she sang handel’s ‘ah! mio cor’ something was unleashed inside of me and all the emotions i’ve been experiencing over the last few weeks came crashing down. the tears wouldn’t stop. i was afraid i’d start to cry uncontrollably, and was relieved when the concert shifted pace.

such is the power of brilliant #music

the concert took place at #miltoncourt concert hall, owned by the #guildhall school of music. what an incredible space. wood plays a central role in the hall’s design – sapele, which is often used for making instruments, produces both beautiful acoustics and aesthetics. even our clapping, which was constant and vigorous, acquired unparalleled resonance. 
it was one of the most unforgettable concerts of my life. thank you #london
@tafelmusikbocc @guildhallschool @barbicancentre

in this world

recently, i made my students watch michael winterbottom’s ‘in this world’ a hands-on, many times unscripted, documentary-style film that follows the arduous (and ultimately tragic) journey of two young men (jamal is only 15) who risk everything and travel from a refugee camp in pakistan to iran, to turkey, to trieste in italy to london. some parts of their journey are more harrowing than others, but one that’s particularly unforgettable is the long voyage on board a ship (from turkey to italy) during which they are locked along with others in a dark, suffocating, metallic container. most don’t make it out alive. 

we discussed the film in class and some of my students made such brilliant comments i have to share.

they were surprised by the corruption of the bureaucracy (officials had to be bribed at every checkpoint), the cultural and linguistic mosaic they didn’t expect (sometimes w/i the same country), and the rationing of food in refugee camps (they said they felt nauseated by comparing it to how much food is wasted here in the US). they couldn’t believe that jamal had such a good head on his shoulders at such a young age, yet they laughed at his jokes and his desire for the largest scoop of ice-cream – reminders that he was just a child after all. they talked about how billions are spent on war against some of the most vulnerable people and they also connected the fate of the two boys they got to know in the film to 9/11 and america’s response to it.

they made some out-of-the box connections, e.g. to the underground railroad – how people have always taken risks, journeyed, and secretly crossed borders to escape oppression and make better, safer lives for themselves and their families. they noticed how jamal and enayat were welcomed by kurdish villagers who helped them get to turkey, and thought about the generosity of a people who don’t have sovereignty themselves, but will do everything they can to get someone else ‘home.’ 

finally, they shared how refugees and immigrants (‘migrants’) are mostly invisibilized and how seeing them up close thru the film moved them in unexpected ways. we also read warsan shire’s poem ‘home’ and fady joudah’s ‘mimesis.’ rather than ask them to write an analytical essay on the film, which is what we usually do, i asked them to write about one leg of jamal’s journey in the first person, to tell me his thoughts and feelings but also details related to the situation he is caught in. i just read some of their responses and i’m blown away. i feel like we’ve hooked into something here. something profound.

Our own remarkable histories

I remember when Laila Lalami came to Rochester many years ago to read from her 2005 book, ‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits’. I’d been a fan of her writing since her days and so I went. During the Q&A someone asked her a question about how feminism evolved in North Africa by trying to understand its ties to western feminism, because how else would Moroccan women know about their rights? Laila was visibly annoyed and had to take a sip of water before she responded. I never forgot that question. This ridiculous notion that feminism is a western idea.i’m reading Urdu poet and writer Fahmida Riaz’s book, ‘Four Walls and a Black Veil,’ and in the foreword Aamir Hussein talks about how “poems such as ‘The Laughter of a Woman’ and ‘She is a Woman Impure’ celebrate femininity in ways that French feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray were to do. Just as Ismat Chughtai prefigured by several years Simone de Beauvoir’s theoretical configurations in ‘The Second Sex,’ so too Fahmida wrote fearlessly about blood, milk and the waters of birth before her western contemporaries began to formulate their theories of women’s writing as grounded in bodily experience, and most certainly before she could have been exposed to their writings.”I

I read Chughtai’s seminal, semi-autobiographical Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) in English, a translation by Tahira Naqvi, some years ago and was blown away by its power. In her foreword to the English translation, Naqvi writes, “it was Ismat Chughtai who, fearlessly and without reserve, initiated the practice of looking at women’s lives from a psychological standpoint. This brings me to the interesting parallels that one can see between ‘The First Phase’ in The Crooked Line and the section titled ‘The Formative Years: Childhood’ in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s pioneering work on female sexuality which appeared in 1949, four years after Chughtai’s novel. As a matter of fact, there are certain portions in Chughtai’s novel that seem to be fictionalised prefigurations of Beauvoir’s description and analysis of childhood playacting and fantasy; it seems as if Chughtai and Beauvoir were drawing on a common source. In both works, feminine experience is explored from childhood through puberty and adolescence to womanhood, these being the stages in the development of a sense of self that finally results in an acceptance of sexual impulses and subsequently leads to the awareness of a sexual identity.”

And of course, we can go back to ‘Sultana’s Dream’ a feminist utopia imagined and articulated by Rokeya Hossain, a writer and social reformer from Bengal.

Rokeya Hossain was born in 1880, Ismat Chughtai in 1915, and Fahmida Riaz in 1946. All three women were Muslim and Brown (South Asian). This is just a small bit of history (literature), so much more can be found in the non-white, non-western world. And confining ourselves to what’s written only, is egregiously short-sighted – so much is passed down through stories and diverse oral traditions.

I hope that my daughter and all the brilliant young women I consider to be my daughters, sisters and friends, will read these women and learn their own remarkable histories.

gentleman jack

i’m loving ‘gentleman jack,’ a show based on the diaries of ’19th century landowner anne lister who returns to her home to transform its fate – and with plans to marry a woman.’ written by the brilliant sally wainwright, the main character is played with dynamism and sensitivity by suranne jones who injects her own spunk into the entire project. still left thinking why LGBT actors don’t get cast in LGBT roles. such roles are few and far between, and i’m sure LGBT actors do exist.

reminds me of how i saw The Orphan of Zhao by the royal shakespeare company, when i took a class in theater. all the main characters were played by white actors. when asian actors complained, they were told that the casting was based on merit, to which an asian actor remarked how sad it was that asian actors were not even good enough to play themselves.

Lessons of the Hour: a review

My review of Lessons of the Hour, a video installation by British artist Isaac Julien, inspired by the life of Frederick Douglass, on view at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester until May 12th.

‘Although I agree that photographs of brutalized bodies, especially when they belong to oppressed communities, dehumanize and normalize further violence, prioritizing sanitized visuals over rougher, less agreeable sounds and images can also be tricky. It takes away a lot of the discomfort that real talk might induce in an audience. It makes art easier to digest, but one has to question its message, its gloss, its commercial invincibility.’ More here.

my review: capernaum

‘capernaum’ is a hectic, brutal, relentless journey into the slums of beirut and the lives of its inhabitants. it reminded me of ‘dirty pretty things,’ a film about the underground world of illegal immigration, set in london, in which chiwetel ejiofor’s performance blew me away. ‘capernaum’ too has its share of stunning performances, especially by children including the film’s remarkable protagonist zain al rafeea, a syrian refugee, and boluwatife treasure bankole who delivers the most unbelievable performance by a toddler in film, ever. shot with documentary style realism, the film addresses poverty and violence head-on, thru the lens of those who are the most vulnerable.

however, the final message of the film is unsettling. many times, in films that expose the pathos of poverty, there’s a speech at the end, something to leave the viewers with, a resolution of the tragedy they just witnessed. we saw ken loach’s ‘i, daniel blake’ recently and he follows the same convention. but whereas loach’s films humanize the poor and are strongly critical of the systems that produce and sustain poverty, nadine labaki’s ‘capernaum’ ends with a patronizing scolding, a decree to the poor not to produce so many children.

although 12-year-old zain is a compelling character, his parents are shown as dickensian villains, selfish, heartless and irresponsibly fertile. rather than question the system that produces such people, labaki is satisfied with this skin-deep portrayal.

in interviews labaki has said that the film is universal and that it ends with a challenge to audiences to confront their complicity. yet the connections to imperial wars (the mass dislocation and humanitarian crises they produce) and their impact on neighboring countries in the middle east, already struggling with their economies, are missing from the film. that context would have been a brave, and much needed, addition.



Laura Chekow:
Interesting…. I will have to marinate on this as I was very impressed by the director’s dedication to the vulnerabilities of the characters without adding gratuitous drama, adrenaline, or even heroism, particularly (the latter being a tendency among overly enthusiastic storytellers who can’t seem to restrain themselves from heavy-hand syndrome). I absolutely thought of “Dirty Pretty Things” as well. And my friend and I laughed over the thought that the infant in this film definitely deserved an Oscar nod for Supporting role!

Mara Ahmed:
Yet there is constant drama, as zain moves from one hellish situation to the next. it’s become a kind of genre. apart from dirty pretty things, i also thought of slum dog millionaire and films shot in favelas or the french banlieues. some of these are more stylized than capernaum, but always there’s this fast paced, compressed, shockingly violent almost frenzied visual drive-thru/overview of what is perceived as the very hectic and brutal lives of marginalized people. i wish these films would take time to tell us more complete, well-rounded, deeper stories. just witnessing the grittiness is not enough. these stories need to be anchored in the politics and socio-economic realities that make them possible. otherwise it’s a kind of consumption.

there is straightforward moralizing in the film – court scenes are always used as a platform. but i wish that rather than lectures on how hard poverty is (the mother and father both make speeches) this message was embodied in the lives we are shown, which could have been more multidimensional. decontextualization is a political act.

and of course, the central lecture on good parenting and birth control is so patronizing, so problematic. i cannot believe that more people didn’t react to it.

Late Afternoon

we watched oscar-nominated, animated shorts last night and i fell in love with this animated film from ireland. the writer-director, louise bagnall, explains how she wanted to explore the different stages of a woman’s life and the idea that identity is so dependent on memories. it moved me to tears. i was able to find the entire 10 minutes-long animation on youtube. here it is.

my review: cold war

like dr zhivago, cold war too is a love story stretched to the limit by its when and where. but polish writer-director pawel pawlikowski can streamline drama with such beautiful precision, that we are left with a jewel. a perfect piece of visual music. i agree with reviewer a. a. dowd when he describes the film as “a haunted romantic epic in miniature, like a novel written with the careful, precise economy of a short story. tracking the ups and downs of a tumultuous love affair against seismic shifts in the cultural landscape, it condenses 15 years of plot and history—spread out across four countries situated on the fault line of the 20th century—into a spare, elegant 89 minutes.” his earlier film, ida is equally excellent.