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Hamzah Jamjoom: The Ego

On January 9, Busboys and Poets (Takoma) hosted a conversation between the Saudi filmmaker Hamzah Jamjoom and John Hanshaw, Founder of the Washington Film Institute. Born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Hamzah Jamjoom is a writer, director, and actor currently based in Chicago. From a young age, Hamzah exposed himself to the art of storytelling and decided to study computer graphics animation. His first big break was the successful IMAX feature film titled Arabia 3D, where he was part of both the cast and the crew. As he began to acquire some recognition for his work through short films and music videos, he decided to use his position as a filmmaker and storyteller from the Arabic world, to subvert existing narratives surrounding the Middle East and the Islamic world and explore the various conflicts faced by the artist’s “ego”.

The main topic of last evening’s conversation was the artist’s ego, and the tendency of the artist to always want to present the best version of himself. Jamjoom explores the human ego through his more recent and upcoming artistic endeavors, particularly a sci-fi series on religion and the ego titled ‘Balance’ that he recently completed. He tackled a variety on questions from the audience towards the end of the conversation. These questions ranged from his own religious views to his experience working with Maher Zain, one of the most popular contemporary musicians of the Islamic world, who has previously worked with American pop artists such as Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.  At a time when most of society is deeply polarized along religious and political lines, artists such as Hamzah Jamjoom are making a huge contribution towards achieving some sort of understanding and stability by portraying various religious and cultural backgrounds through alternative discourses that challenge negative stereotypes.

In order to cultivate empathy and cross-cultural understanding, it is of vital importance to continue engaging in dialogue with people holding religious and political views that are very different from our own.

The Power of Storytelling


ComeToMyVoice

On May 21, 2015, HasNa screened Hüseyin Karabey’s 2014 Turkish film, “Come to My Voice,” at the Avalon Theater in Washington, DC. It is a simple enough premise, but powerful in its ability to bring to light the realities of a typical Kurdish village’s unfortunate interactions with police through a storyline that seems at once natural and mythical. The stories within stories, local music, and tranquil mountainous landscapes are woven into the sad realities facing the villagers. Many elements struck me and will continue to linger in my mind, from the grandmother who, through her actions, teaches her granddaughter strength, courage, discretion, and kindness, to the respect and compassion with which the men and women of the village treat each other. In sharp contrast is the way in which the protagonists are barely treated as citizens within their own homeland, subjected to checkpoints and humiliation. Beyond the typical suspicion and threatening aggression in such scenarios, the reality of cultural oppression is also manifested when the officers make condescending remarks about the villagers’ Kurdish dialect, insisting that they speak in Turkish.

Karabey – both the director and writer – subtly adds complexity to characters in an absurd situation. The villagers in poverty, accused of harboring weapons, are forced to find guns they had never before sought in order to free some of their men from jail. As in any case of human interaction during any given conflict, across all time and space, there will always be a variety of individual behaviors. Of the dominant group asserting its power, some will play along and simply follow orders, others will abuse the system and use it for personal gain, and still others will follow their conscience and show compassion toward the oppressed. Because we see examples of all three behaviors, the film manages to show the humanity in soldiers who find themselves pressured to participate in oppression through a depiction of the system as the root problem, not any one group.

Through personalizing and storytelling, films and media have the power to both raise awareness and change perspectives. The Harmony Institute, a research center that studies the impact of media on individuals and society, acknowledges that impact could take many forms and is often difficult to measure. Nevertheless, the Institute’s studies have shown that character attachment creates a strong emotional experience, and that can make a story an effective means to contributing to social change.

Jonathan Gottschall, Ph.D., explores a unique theoretical perspective of the purpose and impact of storytelling: being able to relate to fictional characters can influence a given attitude more than typical factors such as one’s background and beliefs1,2. This is due to forming judgments about the characters in the same way as we would real people, which then ends up impacting generalizations on those groups or issues. Hence, in the case of Karabey’s film, anyone can relate to the bond between the grandmother and granddaughter and their determination to bring back their missing family member. Gottschall argues that the proliferation of American TV shows and films with likeable characters seems to be a large factor in drastic shifts in American public opinion regarding various groups. Gottschall even believes that fictional characters may effect social change as strongly as direct political action, and certainly more so than nonfiction, when people keep their critical guards up against something clearly meant to persuade them.

As for the film, one turn of events, in particular, really moved me. When the granddaughter decides to take matters into her own hands in order to save another man in the family from danger, a powerful message of love and sacrifice arises. The message is all the more potent and tangible through the tacit understanding between the granddaughter and grandmother that they must take this risk. I can imagine that, whether one has heard nothing of Kurdish people, or only negative depictions, this part of the film would be moving and memorable.

In this ever more interconnected, globalized world, the power of storytelling can help us make sense of news, empathize with people from other cultures, and put a human face on issues to which we would otherwise have trouble relating. It can also make us re-evaluate issues that are familiar to us. Along the same lines, HasNa, through coordinating projects between conflicting communities in Turkey, Cyprus, and Armenia, puts a human face on neglected and misunderstood regions. HasNa’s focus on relatable human needs and desires – from agriculture and business to youth and female empowerment – is what leads to inspired members, progress, and peacebuilding. The impact of individual stories through collaboration is as noteworthy as the impact of the film’s stories, as evidenced by its People’s Choice Award at the Istanbul International Film Festival. There is hope that people everywhere are open to re-shaping their long-held views of socially and economically excluded populations.

HasNa is open to future screenings of this film. Please contact us if you would like to get involved in organizing an event.

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[1] Gottschall, J. (2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[2] Gottschall, J. (2012, Jun 20). The Power of Fake Gay (and Black) Friends [Web log post]. Retrieved May 29, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog

 

This blog post was contributed by Michelle “Zephyr” Williams, who is currently an intern at HasNa Inc.

Education: A Promising Journey

Istanbul

As the only city to reside on two continents, Europe and Asia; Istanbul is unique in the world. Everyday millions of people living in Istanbul commute from one continent to the other for work, school and fun. I was one of those commuters when I lived in Istanbul. My parents lived on the Asian side of the city, which we Istanbullus call the Anatolian side, and my school was on the European side. Sometimes I drove with my friends and crossed the Bosphorus bridge. Other times I took the ferry to get to the European side. For anyone who hasn’t seen Istanbul, the Bosphorus strait offers a stunning view like no other in the world. The blue Marmara sea, the white clouds watching the European and Anatolian coastline, beautiful buildings from different eras – Byzantines, Ottomans, Turks, and of course the noisy seagulls which fly right in front of you if you are taking the ferry… No wonder why Istanbul is one of the top ten cities to visit in the world. Just crossing the Bosphorus strait is enough to make your trip unforgettable. Yet, it is easy to forget how unique Istanbul is due to its location if you are crossing the Bosphorus bridge every day for years. We Istanbullus start to take the beauty of the city for granted after years of commuting from one continent to the other. Now that I live in the United States, I appreciate that view and what Istanbul symbolizes for many different civilizations more. I carefully breath in that sea smell when I ride the ferry every time I go back to Istanbul to visit my parents. In fact, I take the ferry back to back several times so I can only concentrate on the view and remind myself how unique this city is and how lucky I was to live in Istanbul for 24 years…

In many ways, Istanbul is a microcosm of Turkey. First, like Istanbul, Turkey lies between Europe and Asia and it has been the crossroads for many different civilizations for more than 2000 years. So many cultures have flourished there and so many other foreign cultures have influenced the way people have lived in Anatolia because it has been the crossroads between two continents. Similar to Istanbul, the beauty and strength of Turkey lies in its multi-cultural past and present. Second, approximately one out of four Turkish citizens resides in Istanbul. When you walk around Istanbul, you come across people from all parts of Turkey. With its almost 20 million population, Istanbul is a microcosm of Turkey where you can interact with people from the east, west, north and south of the country. Finally, the history of Istanbul is very old and multifaceted like the rest of Turkey. You come across archeological ruins and architecture from many different civilizations both in Istanbul and in the rest of Turkey. Sightseeing in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey is similar to being a time traveler. You can travel from the time of Hittites to the time of the ancient Greeks, the Lydians, the early Christians, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Seljuks, the Ottomans and the list goes on and on… It’s fascinating to travel in Turkey like it’s in Istanbul.

These are the important parallels between Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. Now here’s how the rest of the country differs from Istanbul. The rest of Turkey is not as economically developed as Istanbul. In my opinion, the saddest thing in life is wasted potential. Every time I visit Istanbul and chat with people from all over the country who now live in Istanbul, they tell me that they migrated to Istanbul because they couldn’t realize their potential back in their own cities, towns or villages. There were simply not enough opportunities for education and jobs. According to OECD’s 2012 report, Turkey ranks third highest on a scale of income inequality among its 34 member countries. This situation is not unique to Turkey though. Like many other developing countries in the world, there is a big social and economic disparity between the major cities and the rest of the country. So neither Istanbul nor Turkey is unique in this sense. What’s relatively more unique is that given its geographic location, incredible history and multicultural strength, there might be much more untapped resources in Turkey and hence more wasted potential compared to other developing countries…

The good news is a lot has been going on in the past several decades to develop the rest of Turkey. Social and economic programs targeting different parts of Turkey have been designed and implemented by administration after administration for decades. Some administrations have been more successful than others of course but still the awareness that gives rise to such efforts is there. Ok, here is the bad news. These efforts need to be accelerated and not only the governments but the private sector and the non-profit sector have a responsibility to act towards this end. The rate of migration to Istanbul and other major cities is still outpacing the rate of social and economic development in the underdeveloped parts of Turkey. Furthermore, the political problems in the Middle East are sending more and more refugees to southeastern Turkey and creating a dire situation that needs to be addressed more urgently than ever!

As important as it is to provide food, shelter and other basic necessities to people who are in need, it is more meaningful to equip them with the tools that can help them realize their potential in the long run. That’s why the Nobel prize went to an extraordinary individual who committed her life to improving access to universal education. During her speech at the United Nations, Malala Yousafzai said that just one student, one teacher and one book is enough to make a change. Surely, change that comes through education is slower but let’s not forget that it’s the most promising way to fix social and economic disparity in the world. The more people have access to education, the more they can improve their socio-economic situation. The underdeveloped regions of Turkey which are also experiencing the flow of refugees from the Middle East are in need of education centers that can equip them with the tools to improve their well-being. Strategic educational programs such as training centers that give technical training can be effective for eradicating poverty, improving socio-economic levels and eventually giving rise to more stable political climate in the region as well. There is a strong link between economic well-being, democracy and security. It might be a tough journey but it’s a promising one. HasNa wants to contribute to this journey by helping young adults who want to gain new technical skills. We are currently in the process of collaborating with business owners, companies as well as regional NGOs to determine the skills that are mostly desired and marketable in the region. We invite everyone to join us in increasing access to education and jobs in whichever part of the developing world you are passionate about. Let’s all contribute to improving education and job training in the developing world even if it is one girl, one teenager, one refugee, one adult at a time…

Announcing HasNa’s Citizen Journalism Training Program

The ways we conduct journalism, activism, and storytelling have changed drastically in recent years.

HasNa’s Citizen Journalism Training Program—or “Gorilla Activism” as it is being called in Cyprus—is an 8-day workshop that began June 20th. The program was developed in conjunction with the Management Centre and Cyprus Community Media Centre in Cyprus to empower Cypriot youth with innovative and fun tools and skills to engage in citizen journalism and digital storytelling.

Biased journalism is a major influence in Cyprus and has furthered misunderstanding between the two communities. There is a growing need for news that is prepared by and for youth, using digital social networking as an effective media platform. This program trains young Cypriots on the techniques of digital storytelling and the principles of citizen journalism to enable them to produce bi-communal news stories and increase interaction between the communities.

Check back soon for more information on this exciting new program!

By Ciara Masterson

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