Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 September 2006
Issue No. 811
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Experiencing the Middle East

Amira El-Nakeeb explores the first Middle East festival in Denmark

A hall of mirrors

TRYING to accommodate different tastes and attract as large an audience as possible, the "Images of the Middle East" festivities included open-air films, poetry readings and seminars with writers in the Middle East. The idea was to keep it simple to attract the average Dane and encourage them to explore new territories, "so that, when you go shopping, you realise something is going on in your town", as Michael Irving Jensen, festival director, puts it, "and you just drift to the activities, which are all free."

Among the performing artists was the Palestinian singer, lyricist and composer Rim Banna, who had a very successful show in the city of Odense. The performer wore a traditional Palestinian gown, something, Banna said, that touched her heart: "when I go on stage wearing this, I feel that I am carrying every inch of Palestine with me."

Egyptian artist Fathi Salama's concert at the Copenhagen Jazz House was sold-out -- a huge success. Combining jazz with oriental heritage, Salama was joined by the heavenly voice of Algerian singer Karima Nait. What made the evening even more exciting was the performance of the famous Danish hip hopper originally from Egypt, Zaki Youssef. He put the audience in a state of trance when he performed a fusion piece with Salama using human beat boxing. "I felt something historical was going on here," said the 20-year-old Dane Nikolaj Dreyer, who could relate to the tunes, while 25-year-old Cina Black called the music "phenomenal".

Although the Tunisian oriental dancer Leila Haddad did not command a full house, her ensemble from Upper Egypt drew in the crowd with its traditional oriental instruments. "Through my dance I want to demonstrate the free expression of Arab women," said Haddad, who only dances in theaters. "I am like a militant. I fought my way to enter theatres and break the link between oriental dancing and cheap prostitution." She seemed to have hit a chord with the crowd, too, as Ivelish Ericsson, a Dane who has been working with the UN in Cairo for the last three years, declared that she has never seen oriental dancing as beautiful as this: "When I saw her come on stage, she was moving so gracefully I had goose pumps."

The music of Tunisian jazz artist Anouar Braham and his band made as much of an impact but along different lines. "I think I was a little bit disappointed, I did not expect the music to be so very melancholic," said 25-year-old David Drerder, while Christeen Sorensen found it "sad, yet sensual. It makes you reflect."

On the other hand The Yacoubian Building, Egypt's biggest cinematic production this year, was almost as much of a hit at the festival as it has been in Egypt -- so much so that its screening period was extended by two days. Youssef Nabil, the New York-based Egyptian photographer who had an exhibition in the festival, thought "the film brought out all that Egyptian society is whispering about". And such taboo breaking was just as exciting in Denmark.

Anne Nybu, a 27-year-old Danish university student familiar with Arabic movies, thought it was different from what she was used to, "it was a great experience for me watching a movie with such high technical standards. Although I cannot relate to these specific problems, because I have different problems of my own, I can still relate to the feelings of the characters and how they are trying to manage their lives."

Another major success was the Natasha Atlas concert. Born in Belgium with family links in Egypt, Morocco and Palestine, Atlas felt at home in Vega, where the concert was held. As a gesture of solidarity with Lebanon, Atlas sang for the Lebanese icon, Fairouz.

Hip hopper Clotaire K and Algerian rai icon Cheb Mammi -- who performed at opening of the festival -- held the crowd in thrall, as did the Turkish Sivan Perwer.

The Lebanese puppet theatre left a large number of children giggling.

As for movie lovers, they can look forward to many films from different countries, Mustafa El-Aqqad's Al-Resala (The Message) and Hany Abu Assad's Paradise Now among them.

According to Anne Rasmus, who works in the dialogue programme and the educational programme of the festival, "we have developed web-based material about the Middle East, where different countries are introduced focussing on gender, identity, space, and generations."

The DCCD also published an anthology called The Bridge-Literary Images from the Middle East on the occasion of the festival, which includes stories and extracts by, among many others, Alaa El-Aswani, Mourid Barghouti, Yassin Adnan and Fareed Ramadan.

The programme in full is on

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