Standing the heat: Why being a high level chef and a woman in NYC is still surprisingly rare

Februrary 2016; reported at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

Sitting in the empty dining room of Okiway, a relatively new izakaya restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, before the weekly dinner service, Sara Antes had partially stuffed her auburn curls into a grey knit hat, adorned with the Momofuku peach logo. “It’s the only hat I could find,” she explained. Before her appointment as executive chef at Okiway, Antes had worked as sous chef at Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, where she said chef David Chang’s kitchen was “very high octane.” She nursed a mug of green tea. That afternoon, Antes was under the weather, but as an executive chef, she isn’t one to take sick days.

As she chatted, Antes periodically paused mid-sentence, cocking her ear toward the kitchen to make sure her staff was prepping properly for the evening, calling out a question, an instruction, or greeting the hostess and delivery staff as they filtered in.

If her presence was required in the kitchen, she gestured for me to follow, installing me safely in the small spaces between prep stations. Despite the interruptions, the conversation was unbroken as she checked on the mis en places, or deftly cleaved the length of a whole pork belly into neat portions.

“What are we listening to today?” she asked the dish washer, crouching down near his ear buds as she handed him the knife after portioning the pork belly. Then cheerfully, “Ah, something very angry.”

Antes is stern but intimate with her staff. There is a clear set of rules to follow in the back of the house, she explained, including never making a move without letting everyone else know. This means our conversation is punctuated with regular warnings of “behind,” or “passing through,” as she moves between stations in the narrow space, with something like a dancer’s grace and a general’s discipline. 

The cuisine Antes whips up at Okiway is elevated Japanese street food, heavy on cultural hybrids like miso clam chowder and wasabi guacamole. The menu seems to appeal to Bushwick’s affluent hipster crowd, who sit on bright colored stools to dine among Anime figurines in an otherwise minimalist setting.

Antes poured batter onto a smoking griddle as she whipped up a classic okonomiyaki, Okiway’s specialty dish. “Each one of these comes from a different region or city in Japan,” she explained. “This one is from Hiroshima.” The dish, which translates to “grilled as you like it,” is made of two crepe-thin round omelets, holding layers of noodles, scallions and a thick slice of the pork belly that Antes had portioned up earlier.

As a female executive chef in an all-male kitchen, Antes is well aware of the challenges of her profession. Indeed, in her level of seniority, she is used to being a woman in a largely male industry. She’s done the hard work, and commands respect, but she’s had to work hard to prove herself.

The back world of the restaurant business is notoriously hardcore, physically draining, and extreme – what Antes calls “contractive and expansive,” prompting its workforce to burn out often and rely on alcohol and other substances to unwind, or to keep going. In the back of the house, you work hard, and often party harder.

“I’ve done it all,” said Antes, referring to the more debaucherous side of the chef’s world. Getting into the business in her twenties, she used to party heavily, and she kept up with the boys. But eventually she found her immune system couldn’t take it, and was constantly falling sick. She has suffered from food allergies and a weak immune system for most of her life, she said, and finally decided to switch to a clean food diet and a strict exercise regime to keep herself healthy.

She is now in the midst of training to compete in a women’s body building contest – “It’s called the bikini category,” she said, wincing a little at the title – and said that beyond tasting her dishes to make sure they are made correctly, she steers clear of the greasy cheese, pork and mayonnaise-heavy fare of Okiway.

In high school, Antes was a dancer. A decade or so later, Antes exudes a playful guile – she likes to call people “cutie” and “sweetie” – but it’s combined with a level of authority and discipline that has taken years to develop.

When Antes graduated from high school in Rockland County, New York, at 17, she briefly attended SUNY Buffalo. “I was so young, I wasn’t focused, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. She dropped out after one semester. For several years she worked a series of retail jobs, including a stint in food distribution at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

In 2010, when she was 25, Antes decided to draw on her dancing background, and enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program in Costa Rica. She was “young and broke,” so she worked out a barter and cooked for the participants in exchange for attending the course. Returning to New York six months later, she enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute, an accelerated culinary program focusing on nutrition-conscious cooking.

“I’m an extreme person,” Antes explained. “I like things to be fast and difficult.” This seems to fit; Antes has worked in about five kitchens in the New York City area in as many years, moving from pastries and salads, to line cook, to head of the kitchen. But she also acknowledges that the most frustrating challenges of her career involve her identity as a woman, rather than the hard work she puts in daily.

The icon of the female chef and culinary master isn’t that new. We have Julia Childs, Martha Stewart; more recently, Nigella Lawson and Rachel Ray. But these women operate in a home kitchen, exuding the gracious hostess persona rather than the fast-paced world of commercial kitchens. More recently, the Anthony Bourdain movement, with shows like Parts Unknown, Mind of a Chef, and more recently Chef’s Table, has made both female and male chefs more visible. But the commercial kitchen is still something of a hidden frontier. In the absence of cameras and good lighting, and good script writing, the gender barrier for women who want to rise to the top is a very real thing, as evidenced by a Bloomberg report that said 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 chefs at top tier US restaurants are women.

“This industry is so slow to catch up,” Antes said. “It’s very male dominated. With its hierarchy and chain of command, it’s like the military.”

“When I was coming up, I wish that there had been more of us, to look up to,” Antes continued, referring to her own small circle of friends in the industry, made of three or four young female chefs, although only one is at the executive level like herself, who have faced similar challenges.

“There are just so many road blocks and obstacles” for women, Antes said, “which I believe is why more women don’t move from line cook to executive chef. There is not a lot of communication or support.”

And that’s putting it mildly. In recent years, the press has taken note of the persistent gender gap in commercial kitchens, along with sometimes brutal challenges and routine sexual harassment that women regularly face in commercial kitchens. Thrillist published an article on “the horrors and degradations” experienced by New York City’s female chefs, from being called “sugar” and “honey” rather than “chef,” to being confined to the “pink dungeon” of the pastry station, while less qualified male colleagues moved up the chain. Author Tracie McMillan shared the dangers of sexual violence in an Applebee’s kitchen with the Daily Beast a few years ago, and NPR ran a story on how the industry is slow to change in women’s favor.

“It’s great to be young, attractive, etc. But, if you don’t show up in your chef’s coat, if you’re just trying to kick it, you’re not going to earn respect,” Antes said.

“Being a lady chef, I have to show the men that yes, I can carry that 50 lb bag of flour without help. So when I tell you to carry it, you know it’s because I’m your superior, not that I’m asking you to do it because I don’t want to, or think a girl shouldn’t have to.”

As with many things in the industry, being a woman in a position of authority has her walking a fine line. “I always have room for asking people about their day, developing personal relationships, just acting like I give a shit – because I do,” she said. But, she added, “It’s not a motherly thing.” That’s a common label her employers stick her with. “As girl chefs, we get ‘mean mommy’ a lot. Like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go be mean mommy now.’ Which, as a concept – I don’t think you would call a male chef your dad.”

The pitfalls of being understanding while commanding respect are everywhere, Antes acknowledged. “It’s not a friendship” – she is the boss, after all – “but an understanding. Having a safe place in a stressful environment is very important to me.”

For the past eight months, as executive chef at Okiway, Antes has worked a minimal 70 hours a week, six days a week, on her feet. “I do have to watch my temper all the time,” she admitted, “because I’m tired, all the time.”

At a quarter to six, it was time for Antes to get back to the kitchen in earnest. The tables were set, the stereo tuned to an appropriate electro indie tune, and the lights dimmed. Antes emerged from the basement, having traded her pink sweatshirt for a loose-fitting black chef’s coat, hair pulled back in a strict French braid. There were piles of radishes and leafy greens to chop, sashimi to prepare, a specials menu to finalize. Antes’ knife nearly whirred as she got to work on the vegetation, hardly slowing as she thanked me for stopping by, and turned to the night’s cooking in earnest. 

Nicky Nodjoumi: You and Me

March 2016; reported at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

At first sight, it is difficult to connect artist Nicki Nodjoumi the man with the violently bright, politically-charged canvases he creates.

Nodjoumi is on the petite side, with round spectacles, a healthy mop of greying hair, and an adorable, bulbous nose. His demeanor is that of a friendly elf, or a welcoming gnome: He beams warmly by way of greeting, even if you are fairly certain that he does not know who you are.

Although he has resided in Brooklyn for decades, Nodjoumi creates scenes almost exclusively on the subject of his native Iran. Consistently, Nodjoumi’s compositions verge on stomach-churning. Tension is rife in the uneasy postures of his subjects. Landscapes and backgrounds are bleak, while the people are frighteningly vibrant.

In early March, Nodjoumi sat before a small audience at Taymour Grahne gallery in Tribeca, the space owned by twenty-seven year-old Lebanese-Finnish curator of the same name, where his second show at the venue was taking place. He spoke softly, and slowly, with lengthy pauses. With the air of someone unaccustomed to holding the attention of an entire room, he had to be reminded to speak into the microphone, and preferred to face his interviewee, Bidoun magazine editor Negar Azimi, speaking directly to her as audience members strained forward on their folding chairs.

Nodjoumi’s work represents a very specific narrative in New York’s Iranian-American art world. This world hinges on the axes of exile, rebellion and a dark humor – all elements imbued in Nodjoumi’s merciless reimaginings of Iran’s political world. Born in Kermanshah in 1942, Nodjoumi earned his art degree in New York before returning to Tehran in the mid 1970s, where he was exiled for creating posters calling for the resignation of the Shah. He was exiled again when the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah’s regime.

Yet, Nodjoumi’s work is not intended to be retrospective. “I want my art to be of the moment,” he said that night, explaining that while he draws from Iran, the human struggle against oppression is something we all should be able to relate to.

The first part of “You and Me” is a collection of large oil paintings, showing men clad in suits. They look like government workers, and their heads are sometimes replaced with those of donkeys, rabbits, or bulls sprouting above neck ties. Sometimes the men are masked, as in “Men Descending the Staircase,” where said staircase is set against a stormy sky, and seven men carry spears. They look like the early stages of a mob assembling, on the hunt for something. Nodjoumi has replaced sections of clothing with a harlequin pattern, as if in spots the paint is peeled back to reveal another illustration, or to indicate a lurking alternate reality.

In “Obsession with Content” a gorilla trudges through a yellow swamp, steeped in sickly mustard hues. A puddle reflects distorted scenes of a burning city, unseen elsewhere. Strapped to the beast’s back, a stiff body is tied with a cat’s cradle rope, along with a wooden chair; the gorilla’s arms are outstretched like a hungry zombie, inches from a naked woman, who trails a red balloon behind her, seemingly oblivious to her pursuer. While men are consistently dressed in suits, women appear in glimpses, often unclothed, viewed from the rear in profile.

In another piece, “Internal Inspection,” the silhouette of a man in a fedora interrupts what looks like bombed-out ruins. In Grahne’s Instagram account, a caption reads, “Is this a film noir-like villain, walking away from his dastardly deed or a hero arriving to save the day amid the destruction? One never knows quite exactly what is happening in Nicky Nodjoumi’s paintings. There are subtle hints, but never a clear answer, leaving the viewer to decipher what is taking place before them.”

In this way, the vivid tension of Nodjoumi’s work is apparent, even without prior knowledge of Iran’s complex cultural and political realities.

The Q and A sessions ended, and Nodjoumi obliged Grahne by beaming into a camera lens, before finding his way to more familiar territory, where he could receive and return hugs and kisses among friends. The talk was over, and his art was loud enough. 

 Photo courtesy of Taymour Grahne Gallery. Paintings by Nicky Nodjoumi, as part of his show "You and Me." 

Photo courtesy of Taymour Grahne Gallery. Paintings by Nicky Nodjoumi, as part of his show "You and Me." 

Harlem STRIVE grads build grit as well as resumés

July 2015; reported at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, covering the East Harlem/Community Board 11 beat.

Like many of her peers, East Harlem resident Reniesha McKenzie, 23, has struggled with more than just finding a job. Just five weeks ago, her confidence was painfully low, she said.  She thought she could never have a career.

Since then, McKenzie has enrolled in a job training program at STRIVE, an employment center founded in 1984 by two New York bankers, Sam Hartwell and Tom Rodman, and an East Harlem resident and social worker, Rob Carmona. STRIVE’s mission is to encourage a culture of employed and empowered residents, using what its organizers call a “tough love, no excuses approach to job readiness.” Besides job placement and skills development, the center offers group workshops to improve fatherhood and co-ed parenting, along with support groups for women and youths, where participants meet regularly to discuss everyday problems and how to cope with them.

“We learn a lot about ourselves. We start with the heart, with us. My confidence level is up here now,” said McKenzie as she gestured high. She first heard about STRIVE through her church. On this day she sat forward excitedly as she discussed her plan to get her master’s degree in social work and to pursue a career as a marriage counselor.

STRIVE’s doors are open to anyone seeking help, unemployed or not. The idea is to help people look beyond just landing a job. STRIVE’s instructors encourage participants to set their sites on a long-lasting career. Those who apply and are accepted into training programs must first go through a three to five week course called “Attitudinal and Job Readiness training,” referred to as “core.” The organization estimates a 70 percent success rate from training participants: people who find and keep jobs during a two-year follow-up period.

In 2012, the New York City Food Policy Center reported that East Harlem ranked 13 poorest of New York’s 59 community districts, and 44 percent of East Harlem’s children lived in poverty. A 2012 study put out by the NYC Coalition and the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative reported that 38 percent of residents in the East Harlem area live below the poverty line and only 13 percent of those over age 25 hold a college degree.

“It’s the difference between a job and a career,” Latisha Smith, director of training at STRIVE, explained. Earlier in the day, she said this phrase repeatedly to a group participating in a pilot program with Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.

The program offers 18- to 24-year-old participants a condensed, one-week version of STRIVE’s core training before starting them on a summer internship. The interns receive a weekly $100 stipend for going door-to-door, verifying addresses for zip codes in East Harlem and the South Bronx. The information will be recorded on mobile phones and tablets, and used as data by MAPSCorps, a Chicago-based nonprofit that documents community health issues such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease.

Moya Brown, Coordinator of Health Education at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, addressed the interns. “What are you guys interested in? What are you passionate about?” Aside from learning professional skills, the program encourages participants to get to know their community in a new way, and to engage in positive, goal-oriented activities. In one core training classroom, students stood up and introduced themselves to the class when addressing the room, every time.

In a STRIVE classroom, wearing unprofessional attire or being late warrants a fine. Hands in pockets cost a student $.25 per hand. Rajiyah Smalls was told to add a quarter to the penalty jar when instructor Darnell Hill spied her nodded off during his presentation. Smalls, 26, lives in a shelter with her two children. She says she wants to be an actress.

“You really never know what a person has been through when they come here. People are abused, molested,” Smith said. “We teach that you need to be right with yourself before you can be successful at work.” 

 Image courtesy of  CBS News . A STRIVE participant practices a strong handshake with instructor Darnell Hill.   

Image courtesy of CBS News. A STRIVE participant practices a strong handshake with instructor Darnell Hill.


Against the odds, young Egyptians push for climate action

Original article published in The Thomson Reuters Foundation

Political worries come first in polluted Cairo, but a network of young campaigners are trying to shift attitudes and galvanise action on climate change

CAIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In this fast-growing city of 6.7 million people, roads littered with garbage are a common sight. Cairo’s poor drainage systems produce contaminated pools of stagnant water, and the main thoroughfares are jammed with cars emitting thick, black clouds of diesel exhaust.

The Egyptian capital even has a slum nicknamed Manshiyat Naser (Garbage City), located at its highest point, in the suburb of Moqattam. Here, impoverished residents build their homes atop waste, and recycle rubbish to earn a living.

Even as concern over the environment and climate change mounts at a global level, many Egyptians feel they face more pressing political woes.

For the past two years, they have been preoccupied with the political turmoil sparked by the 2011 overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak and his repressive government.

“We are still trying to figure out our own revolution. People don’t know what laws to follow. How can we believe that picking up…garbage is going to help with our problems?” asks Ahmed Hassan, an accountant who lives in the central Cairo neighborhood of Dokki.

Critics blame decades of neglect by the government for Egypt’s high levels of pollution and environmental degradation, which they fear are contributing to climate change.

Egypt’s geography makes it vulnerable to sea-level rise linked to global warming, with a large part of its population and industry - including tourism - located in the Nile Delta, where land is subsiding.

The North African country is also expected to suffer from water scarcity in the future, as regional demand increases for the waters of the Nile River. Food security could come under threat too, if more extreme temperatures and soil salinity hurt grain yields.


Some young activists have decided it is time to shift attitudes and galvanise action to tackle these serious but little-understood climate risks.

A group of them teamed up to form the Egypt National Climate Change Coalition last November. Like many popular social campaigns that have sprung up in Egypt in the past few years, they have used Facebook as a platform to broadcast their work and events.

Waleed Mahmoud Mansour, a young environmentalist in the climate coalition, says Egypt must overcome three main obstacles to achieving a more environmentally sound future.

First is the problem of semantics. “(There is) no legal stand for sustainable development in our new constitution since the word ‘sustainable’ was replaced by ‘exponential development’,” Mansour explains. This weakens the basis for any future environmental legislation, he says.

Second, the government lacks knowledge and expertise on environmental protection, as well as money to finance it, Mansour says.

Third, there is a wider problem of “societal ignorance” when it comes to climate change and environmental reform. This could be a major barrier to the fledgling coalition’s ambitions, the young activist warns.

For Lama El Hatow, one of the group’s founders, the key to overcoming legal and social barriers is to link up with others tackling the same issues.

“Some of us have been working in the field of climate change for years…but independent of one another and often clueless of what the other is doing,” she says. Climate change affects many sectors including water, agriculture, transport, energy, urban development and biodiversity, she adds. 

To help bring civil society groups, businesses and others working in the field together, El Hatow arranged for the coalition to host jointly with the German Embassy the Cairo Climate Talks (CCT), a monthly forum that explores solutions to climate problems.

At each session, an environmental initiative is presented to the CCT panel, ranging from urban recycling to marine preservation. The aim is to build a springboard for national reform.

The coalition eventually plans to start pushing for policy and reform across the Middle East and North Africa, in the hope that the region will strengthen its influence in global climate change discussions.


Coalition members know they face an uphill climb, as Egypt continues to wrestle with a volatile political transition.

The initial wave of protests in January 2011 did lead to rallying efforts to clean up the streets, among many other reforms. But this early surge of environmental fervour seems to have dwindled.

Soraya El Hag, a 26-year-old studying public policy at the American University in Cairo, says there is a lot of advertising on national TV encouraging Egyptians to be thrifty with energy. But in a country where most people are poorly served by outdated power supply networks, enthusiasm for environmental reforms remains limited, she admits.

Climate change and renewable energy are rarely a top priority for the quarter of Egyptians who live below the poverty line and struggle with unemployment, hunger and a lack of education.

“There are clean-up campaigns…but it is mainly young people who are interested in helping out,” says El Hag, who plans to take part in one such initiative in Sinai in September.

Like many others, she acknowledges there is a long way to go. “In terms of pollution, there are still more laws to be formed and implemented,” she says.

From 2008 to 2012, Egypt did have a national-level strategy on climate change: the Climate Change Risk Management Programme. It targeted issues related to water scarcity, agriculture, coastal zones and energy efficiency.

With a $4 million budget, ministries partnered with U.N. bodies on public awareness campaigns, initiatives to make farming more sustainable and a push to issue carbon market credits, for example.

Egyptian officials have also been working on a formal action plan for climate change mitigation, for submission to the United Nations.

But activists question the level of government commitment to tackling climate change, when policy makers have failed for years to provide basic environmental services such as garbage collection, clean water and regular electricity supplies.


Moving beyond household energy efficiency and neighborhood clean-ups will clearly take time.

But whether or not Egyptians know and care about climate change, it may become harder for them to ignore the impact of rising temperatures. Summers appear to be getting harsher, while Egypt’s winters are turning milder and wetter.

“In the past five years I have noticed [a] difference in climate,” says El Hag. “August is hotter than ever. The winter is now warmer and it rained twice in May last year, which usually doesn't happen in Egypt.”

Original article published in Alertnet Climate, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Anecdotal evidence supports this. In the past year, there was a reported increase in the number of fires caused by cooling units overheating, for example.

The climate coalition hopes to launch a national initiative on which all its members can cooperate. One big idea is to launch a Zero Carbon Egypt campaign, but this is still under discussion.

Whatever the group decides to do, Mansour believes it must focus on raising public awareness of the need for environmental reform.

“The coalition…faces many challenges, particularly because of the societal perception of the notion of climate change. And that is the awareness component we are trying to tackle,” he says.

But founding member El Hatow believes that pressure from civil society groups is already starting to make a difference. “[We are] creating new avenues for change and essentially helping fill the gaps,” she says.

Egypt’s Revolution, Squared

Original article published in The Majalla

Disillusionment seems to be the only victor in Oscar-nominated documentary The Square

Nominated last week for an Oscar for Best Documentary, The Square (El Midan) skillfully captures the cacophonous state of Egypt’s upheaval. Filmed by Jehane Noujaim, creator of the 2004 documentary Control RoomThe Square chronicles the popular protests in Egypt from 2011 to 2013.

After doing the festival rounds last year, the film was released to a wide international audience on Netflix on January 17, 2014—a few days after Egypt’s vote in a referendum on the state’s constitution. It was the third such vote in as many years and within weeks of the three-year anniversary of the January 25 uprisings. Noujaim reportedly had to re-edit the film numerous times as Egypt’s murky political future continued, and indeed continues, to shift.

The Square follows a group of revolutionaries from a patchwork of Egyptian society. One, Ahmed Hassan, from Cairo’s working-class neighborhood of Shobra, epitomizes Egypt’s large population of able-yet-underemployed youth. He is forced to support himself through odd jobs, despite his education. Having worked since he was eight years old, he paid his school fees by selling lemons on the street.

In Hassan, Noujaim has found an impassioned narrator who takes viewers through a gamut of emotions—elation, rage, mourning and disillusionment. On January 25, 2011, Hassan joined the masses filled with anticipation after growing up in an Egypt where, he tells the viewer, “there was no hope for a better future.” During the initial eighteen days in Tahrir Square, he reminisces: “We were all present; we were one hand.”

A second man is British-raised Khalid Abdullah, who comes from three generations of exiles fighting corruption and oppression in Egypt. In the film, he quickly becomes an articulate spokesman for the uprisings. There is also Magdy Ashour, a mild-mannered father of four and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has spent the majority of his life facing periodical imprisonment and torture at the hands of the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak—a common practice in the cat-and-mouse relationship between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s various ruling parties.

Supporting characters include Aida El-Kashef, a filmmaker and activist who collaborated with Noujaim on her 2007 We’re watching you. There is also a shaggy intellectual named Pierre Sioufi, as well as Ramy Essam, a stalwart of the Tahrir protests. He was the musician who turned slogans into rallying songs but suffered severe beatings, torture by electric shock, and imprisonment during forcible clearings of the square. Human rights lawyer Ragia Omran appears during some of the film’s darkest moments, when the army attempts to dissuade families from procuring the autopsy reports of slain relatives in order to cover up deaths at the hands of the army.

The film also shows moments of triumph, such as when people found themselves in Tahrir Square standing side-by-side with those of different classes, religions and affiliations, all facing the same threats: the secret police, the beatings and the verbal abuse. The announcement of Mubarak’s ouster is shown being met with elation, hysteria and disbelief.

Ensuing scenes are more sobering, and bring a sense of impending doom as the viewer calculates what will come after the short-lived utopia of Tahrir has disintegrated. This is manifested in shots that capture the raw, heart-stopping grief of bereaved parents over the death of their son at the hands of the army. There is also rage as rocks are thrown at police shields, and more horror as the camera pans over a pile of corpses following footage of rampant attacks by army tanks on crowds. The camera pausing briefly on the ghoulish, open-eyed face of a man whose skull has been crushed by the tires of a tank. “It was a war, not a revolution,” says Hassan.

As The Square progresses, internal splits and schisms continue to develop, and this is reflected in the development of the friendship between Hassan and Magdy. Politically opposed by default, the two men form a fast bond through their mutual desire for change, but the course of the uprisings and growing party tensions cause them to eventually drift apart.

“I want to come and stand with you because this revolution was for a principal, not for blood, and what I have been worried about is going to start happening, that we are going to start killing one another,” says Hassan before the two men go their separate ways.

The narrative of their relationship serves as a poignant plot line, and also makes the important point that Egypt’s uprisings cannot be analyzed through party alliances and politics alone. These human connections are juxtaposed with interviews with majors and generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Those army leaders smugly derail questions with their own versions of events, denying that live ammunition was used or that tanks were rammed into the crowds or that imprisonment and torture happened, while also dismissing the integrity of those protesting.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the documentary is what happens once the credits roll and the current state of affairs is revealed.

In a recent radio segment, Egyptian journalist and blogger Sarah Carr, who describes present-day Egypt as a “situation crawling with corruption and abuse,” likens the contemporary political predicament to a state of “loop-de-loops” circling a power drain but ultimately controlled by the very hands of those in power.

Despite the unavoidable political debates, Noujaim is deliberate in her focus on Tahrir Square. The purpose of the documentary is not to explain the ever-complicated web of regime tensions, political alliances, civil strife and social schisms, but to make visible the people who continue to strive for change.

One of the strongest impressions one gets from watching The Square is the extent to which Egypt continues to grapple with the daunting task of reconciling the popular power realized by the uprisings and harnessing that power to achieve a better future. If the country’s current state is any indication, the prospect of change and true revolution remain elusive. As one man puts it in theThe Square: “We’re like someone who did really well in an exam, then forgot to write their name on the exam, so you have no idea who it belongs to.”

It is this reality that infuses the triumphant moments of The Square with hope, but also renders them the most heartbreaking.

  Chris Hemsworth and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the nominees for Best Documentary at the 86th Academy Awards Nominations Announcement on January 16, 2014, in Beverly Hills, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Chris Hemsworth and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the nominees for Best Documentary at the 86th Academy Awards Nominations Announcement on January 16, 2014, in Beverly Hills, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Arab Art's Social Adjustment

Original article published in The Majalla

Over the past few years, a sharper lens has been focused on the Arab world’s contemporary arts and culture sectors. But as they have continued to grow across the region they have faced a common challenge: limited access to sustainable support and adequate funding infrastructure. The issue inspired long-time Dubai-based communications and media professional, Vida Rizq, along with her husband Lotfi Bencheikh, to come up with a new way of providing support to this burgeoning creative scene.

In July of 2012 they launched Aflamnah, the first crowdfunding platform dedicated to creative ventures in the Arab world. “When we did our research, [we found that] 85 percent of projects don’t get offered the money and opportunities they need—and the ones that do, don’t get all the money they need. There are projects that simply never see the light of day,” Rizq told The Majalla.

Aflamnah, based in Dubai, is a startup with a core advisory board comprised of professionals in the legal, media, finance, and arts fields. It was designed as a participatory funding model to encourage public engagement in creative endeavors.

Accepting state funding, grants or other private funding opportunities can often leave an artist or innovator incumbent to the requirements of the donor. Aflamnah’s crowdfunding model, therefore, may well be a game-changer and, many hope, an indication of a greater cultural shift. The idea, according to Rizq, is to encourage people to invest, no matter how small the amount, in the future and vitality of their own creative cultures. The crowdfunding model promotes not only the engagement of the public, but a sense of shared responsibility and a network of support on the civil society level.

“We say this all the time: ‘There’s no shame in giving small amounts—the real shame is in not participating. We are saying, ‘Please take part,’ instead of placing emphasis on the amount of money given.”

Rizq is firm in her emphasis on building up a culture of support rather than merely providing funds where they are needed. This also means that, as a small and relatively new startup, Aflamnah needs to earn peoples’ trust. To this end, Aflamnah has been proactive about partnering with high profile organizations and brands to establish a trusted public image for participants and funders. “We never wanted trust to be an issue,” said Rizq. “Which is why we asked for [major brands such as Arab TV channel MBC and the Dubai International Film Festival] to morally support our projects . . . In this part of the world, it legitimizes us.”

“Arab projects tend to get lost,” continued Rizq, speaking of the world’s limited focus on contemporary Arab projects in the creative field. “We want to tell different stories, to change the stereotypes of the Arab world. This year the Oscars had three Arab films nominated. [This] demonstrates an interest [in the region], but there is still a dearth of stories being told.”

While crowdfunding is a common model in other parts of the world—take widely known platforms Kickstarter and Indiegogo, for instance—the concept has not yet impacted the Arab world—until now. Since its launch in 2012, Aflamnah has funded 70 projects in the region and raised 300,000 US dollars, going from an initial two projects a month to its current six projects a month.

Past Aflamnah-funded projects include Bilbaal, a social network created by Dana Salloum and Rasha Kashkoush which connects people with Palestinian nonprofit organizations across the globe; Champ of the Camp, a documentary film by Mahmoud Kaabour that explores a singing competition in the labor community in Dubai; and The Brain that Sings by Emirati filmmaker Amal Al-Agroobi that documents the lives of two young autistic boys, and was created to raise awareness of the condition in the UAE. The award-winning film, When I Saw You, by Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, was one of Aflamnah’s launch projects.

In April this year, at the recent Middle East Film and Comic Con, Aflamnah hosted a live crowdfunding event—the first of its kind in the region—with Dubai-based photographer Martin Beck. His photography exhibition We Can be Heroes marks one of Aflamnah’s recent successes. The event attracted nearly 200 supporters who made donations on the spot, switching from the virtual realm to face-to-face interaction.

In March, Aflamnah teamed up with MBC’s corporate social responsibility chapter, MBC Amal, to hold a crowdfunding workshop in Egypt, at the British Council in Cairo. The event was led by Emirati filmmaker and director Nawaf Al-Janahi, who used the Aflamnah platform to successfully raise funds for his project, the Emirati Cinema Campaign, an initiative that educates people on the UAE’s rich, yet underrepresented, cinema culture.

An upcoming crowdfunding workshop is being planned to take place in Saudi Arabia. “The workshops are very hands-on,” reflected Rizq. “We don’t glamorize crowdfunding; we need people to see what it really takes.

As a first in the region, Aflamnah’s approach to crowdfunding is significantly hands-on. Each project that comes across the virtual desk is carefully reviewed not only to make sure it fulfills all requirements, but also to ascertain if it is strong enough. Once the submission is approved, constructive feedback is given. “People often underestimate the amount of time it takes to put a campaign together. We tell people all the time: ‘It’s a full-time job.’”

Establishing a break-out market in Dubai and across the Arab world has also required some adjustments from the traditional crowdfunding model: Aflamnah allows participants to take home all of the funds raised, regardless of their target fundraising goal.

“We are not an all-or-nothing platform,” explained Rizq. “We found in our research that people felt the risk was too great to put so much effort and commitment [into a campaign]. From the viewpoint of creative people, some money still brings them closer to their goals.”

In terms of Aflamnah’s future goals, Rizq believes that “the education [of the public regarding crowdfunding] still needs a push.” Along with more projects, she would also like to see more corporations and brands brought in to fund projects they support. Aflamnah’s plans also include tapping into new sectors, such as gaming and technology. “What’s interesting is the number of ‘invisible’ projects that come alive; the number of projects that don’t fit into [traditional] categories. People can make a difference if they believe in it. The creative field is built up of normal people . . . We don’t do that alone. That’s social change, evolution,” she says.

  Nawaf Al-Janahi, accompanied by filmmaker Khalid Al-Mahmood, tours the UAE to raise awareness for his Emirati Cinema Campaign, one of the projects successfully funded through Aflamnah’s crowdfunding platform in 2014. (Courtesy of Aflamnah)

Nawaf Al-Janahi, accompanied by filmmaker Khalid Al-Mahmood, tours the UAE to raise awareness for his Emirati Cinema Campaign, one of the projects successfully funded through Aflamnah’s crowdfunding platform in 2014. (Courtesy of Aflamnah)

Gender politics and art in Algeria: Amina Zoubir

Original post in ArteNews

I first sat down to chat with Amina Zoubir, an up-and-coming Algerian mixed-media artist, on a blustery late March afternoon in New York where we discussed the inspiration behind her latest film series titled Take your place (Prend ta place) and the responsibility she feels in representing Algeria to the wider world. Later, while on the move between Paris and Brussels, she shared her thoughts on art, religion and the growing pains of a region in a new era.

Amina supports the ideas of sociologist Fatima Oussedik, who stated that “a country that does not recognize women’s rights has no chance of creating democracy.” Amina uses her work to push gender norms in Algeria, where “male violence has been perpetuated by several factors such as the code de la famille, introduced in 1984, the rural exodus, lack of education…Sex education and civic rules are no longer taught in schools. In Algerian society, urban development is a kind of transformation based on a collective pain.” Amina says she hopes to portray the collective struggle of women in Algeria through her own story.

The properties of public space are recurring themes in Amina’s art, where she constantly experiments with the audience’s responses to her actions, whether standing in the midst of Manhattan’s Time Square in traditional Algerian dress, or donning a bride’s white veil in a Paris gallery opening. Intervening in public spaces is a common theme in the recent project by curator Yasmina Reggad, who presented the Spring 2013 ArteEast Virtual Gallery with Economy of Hope [working title] with the works of Algerian artists Amina Menia and Mohamed Bourouissa. Amina Zoubir is critical of the limitations of the Algerian contemporary art scene, stating that “the relationship to art is almost non-existent in Algerian society; there is a certain reluctance towards artwork that threatens traditions.”

 Image courtesy of Amina Zoubir

Image courtesy of Amina Zoubir

Istanbul’s Open-Air Studio

Original article published in The Majalla

“Every time I go back, whole neighborhoods are different,” says Beyza Boyacioglu.

Boyacioglu, a Turkish filmmaker trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York, was discussing the shifting landscapes of her home city of Istanbul from a New York sublet in Brooklyn, where she was accompanying the tour of her recent documentary film.

The film, Toñita’s, was created by Boyacioglu and fellow filmmaker Sebastian Diaz. It deals with themes of cultural preservation amid a rapidly changing urban environment, gentrification and urban renewal, as it tells the story of the last existing Puerto Rican social club in Brooklyn’s historically Hispanic neighborhood of Williamsburg’s South Side, or “Los Sures,” as its Latino residents call it.

Although the theme is an American one, a similar one arises when Boyacioglu speaks of her hometown, Istanbul, where urban renewal projects have been sweeping the city with increasing speed and force for the past few years.

“The issue of urban renewal has been a really hot topic in Turkey for [some time] . . . It exploded at the Gezi protests, but it started much earlier,” says Boyacioglu.

Last fall, the organizers of the Istanbul Biennial stated that the art exhibition strove to capitalize on “the notion of the public domain as a political forum” as an answer to Istanbul’s rapidly reinvented skyline. In an attempt to draw artists into the conversation and to promote a platform on which to engage arts in the city’s public space, the fair set out with an ambitious plan of exhibitions in public spaces. But the Biennial was eclipsed by the Gezi Park protests that broke out in late May 2013.

Following the protests, biennial organizers decided to move exhibitions from public spaces slated for demolition into galleries, resulting in a lost opportunity—at least in Boyacioglu’s opinion: she described it as a “safe choice.”

Boyacioglu and Diaz chronicle the story of Toñita, the matron of the private Puerto Rican social club where she hosts nightly community gatherings filled with music, food and games of dominoes. The impending end of an era hangs heavy on the screen, even among the upbeat soundtrack and vital sense of community. Gentrification, skyrocketing rents and the aggressive construction of high rises and shopping centers threaten what little is left of Williamsburg’s Caribbean community. Toñita and her club are the anchor that hold it down—but it is clear that it won’t be that way forever.

Equally, in Turkey, the same cultural pressures that threaten Toñita’s “happen to neighborhoods, especially in Istanbul,” says Boyacioglu.

After a June 7 screening of Toñita’s in Istanbul at Documentarist 2014, Boyacioglu spoke to friends after the viewing: “They said, ‘We wish people made more films like this here, because it’s happening to so many neighborhoods in Istanbul.’ And, I think it’s happening even worse there.”

Urban renewal has ushered in a new era of arts activism and civil society movements in Istanbul. Squatting communities, where social activism meets public art space, are on the rise. Youth gather to occupy spaces declared untenable and no longer useful, slated for tearing down to make space for new structures. “They have screenings . . . They are building a community. I don’t know any other place like [them],” said Boyacioglu of one such community.

In Istanbul, the important conversations in the arts take into account the site of works with equal—if not greater—importance as that of the art itself. This is mainly due to the fact that these sites exist under imminent threat, as relics of history routinely obliterated, to be replaced by something new.

Boyacioglu lists some of the cultural landmarks that have recently been demolished or closed down: “Emek movie theater, a really old, beautiful, historic building—they tore it down to build a shopping mall. There’s another one [in Taksim] that they tore down, same story.”

She explains that there was another theater in the same area that also faced closure: “An organization, Architecture for All . . . started a social media campaign [to save the theater] and started a community, and they also renovated inside the movie theater . . . and I think they raised money to get digital projection. So that movie theater survived.”

Collectives such as Architecture for All (Herkes İçin Mimarlık) have been gathering momentum over the past few years, cultivating a growing cultural movement in resistance to Turkey’s ongoing urban renewal projects.

Online initiatives in English and Turkish, What’s happening in Taksim? and #occupygezi architecture, have since focused on repurposing urban landscapes in a different way—one that gives value to existing spaces and structures.

As for Boyacioglu, she hopes to try her craft in Istanbul one day, but not just yet:

“I wanted to design a place [to focus] specifically on Istanbul. The time is right—right now people really want to create communities.

“I had the idea of starting a documentary [film] center in Turkey,” she said, initially inspired by last year’s Gezi protests. “[It] created a very dynamic youth movement. Now, people are very active, in Istanbul especially. I’ve never seen anything like that [there] . . . Everyone wants to do something.”

Boyacioglu is aware that creating public art—and obtaining the space in which to do so—will face its share of challenges in Istanbul.

The next Istanbul Biennial, to be held in the fall of 2015, could be a telling gauge of how far Istanbul’s artistic activism has come. For now, the struggle between civil society and state continues.

 Image:  The metal fence of a construction site is transformed into an art installation by dozens of handwritten notes on the landmark Taksim Square in central Istanbul on June 14, 2013. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Image: The metal fence of a construction site is transformed into an art installation by dozens of handwritten notes on the landmark Taksim Square in central Istanbul on June 14, 2013. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Unwitting Ambassadors

Original article published in The Majalla

Recently, while attending a conference in New York focused on art and social change, an Egyptian artist remarked: “We have to make art about Tahrir, or the revolution, to get noticed.” This was offered up as a joke, and drew knowing laughter from the audience in attendance—but some of those among the crowd could detect a subtle, yet sobering, edge.

“How many more projects do we need to see with titles like ‘Voices of the Arab Youth?’” asked yet another artist in attendance.

Uprisings, protests and politics—in notoriously varied nature and form—have come to characterize the Middle East for an international audience. Thus they have also come to characterize the Middle Eastern artist, which has been particularly evident over this past year.

The uprisings that first erupted in 2011 have created a landslide effect in the Middle Eastern arts and creative communities. First, it gave way to a welcome wave of international exposure for artists across the region which carried contemporary artists, musicians, filmmakers and others to the forefront of a growing and popular international arts scene. International sales—the universal indicator of commercial success—of contemporary Middle East art boomed.

But after the initial rush, artists from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) risked finding themselves pigeonholed by the politics their regions have come to be known for. Revolution, uprisings and struggles for new political and social realities have produced a new, less obvious, challenge for Middle East artists around the world: How do we make our voices heard outside the obvious political sphere? Must we always speak in a language that relates our work to protest, politics and revolution?

In the wake of Egypt’s January 25 uprisings in 2011, Ahmed El-Attar, the Egyptian theater director, playwright and founder of Studio Emad Eddin Foundation, responded to questions in an interview with Mark Ball, artistic director of the London International Festival of Theatre, by saying: “My problem with art and the revolution is . . . I don’t think I’m personally capable of representing the revolution, and I doubt that anyone can.” He added, “The revolution is a concept. It’s not just about that particular circumstance.”

In the post-uprisings era, the dilemma of an imposed revolutionary or Arab Spring identity is particular—though not limited—to independent and emerging artists who rely on international support in some form, and whose success hinges on recognition and commissions in the international arts sector.

The catch is that, while the political climate opened up a valuable arena for political artists in and from the region, whose contributions have served as an invaluable barometer of culture and politics, revolution politics does not characterize all Middle East artists or, more importantly, all that they have to offer. The stereotype of the politically focused artist has therefore been both a triumph and a burden born by MENA artists.

Of course, issues of imposed identities and stereotypes are far from new for the MENA artist. In 2009, well before the Arab Spring was introduced into popular vernacular, art commentary blog Art Threat posited that “there is a prevailing Western myth that the Middle East can only be represented in traditional political terms, and that necessarily all expressions derived thereof must be seen through this lens.”

The arts sector and creative communities in the MENA region are particularly complex, and they are made no less complex by the upheavals that have plagued the region in recent years. The failure of the international community to grasp the complexities and nuances that characterize different regions, people and political dilemmas now appears to be holding artists back, particularly as it relates to funding opportunities.

With the first major eruption of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, media attention was trained on images painted by graffiti artists and activists, from Egypt’s vibrant military-constructed walls sealing off protests on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo, to colorful manifestos in Yemen and Libya. The signage of the revolutions became a study in and of itself.

But the complexity deepened in the months, then years, following the toppling of Tunisia’s regime, Egypt’s two ousted presidents, and the continuous, scarring tragedies in Syria that are now spilling into Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. With an international community increasingly at a loss for a characterization of a region, which in reality is far from homogenous, artists often find themselves becoming stand-in ambassadors for their states.

Artists are intrinsically powerful commentators on the societies in which they live. Art and politics are barely separable. What is problematic, however, is that what began as an empowering outlet through which to give voice to strong political messages has now come to limit the creative expression of the very people who were originally championed for breaking the mold.

Speaking to artists who view themselves as deeply political, the issue seems to be that the politics involved is far more complex, far-reaching and nuanced than audiences—especially international ones—care to see or support.

People are far more than the conflict that they endure. Art can cast an ironic glare on the intersection of humor and grief without including mention of the revolution or the Arab Spring. But, will it sell? This is the question that creates both anxiety and agitation among emerging and independent MENA artists.

In an article this month in the Canadian publication Reorient, sound artist Asma Ghanem explored themes of sonic art and representation through interviews with six musicians from the Levant, during which one of the artists, Sary Moussa, reflected: “We cannot confine everyone that is experimenting with music and who happens to be an Arab in the same category . . . We still have to admit that our cultural identity is ever-changing and not necessarily related to one single geographical reference.” Perhaps this also needs to be iterated for cultural and political reference.

As seductive as a revolution sounds, the political reality is that most countries remain in states of upheaval and transition. While artists, writers and scholars are often the torch-bearers of social change, this has also placed limitations on the movements and creative parameters of a field that is defined by its very lack of constrictions.

 Image:  A December 11, 2012 photo shows Egyptian soldiers stand in front of a graffiti on the walls of the Presidential Palace in Cairo. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Image: A December 11, 2012 photo shows Egyptian soldiers stand in front of a graffiti on the walls of the Presidential Palace in Cairo. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)