Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

February 6th, 2014 17 comments

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Front Lawn

Recently I returned from my first trip to India. One of the highlights was the Jaipur Literature Festival, where I attended sessions with writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathon Frazen, Reza Aslan and Cheryl Strayed.

I traveled with members of my Dubai book club. We were six women—all excited to see what the Jaipur Lit Fest was all about and how it compared to the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

Map of India ~ Jaipur

Jaipur Literature Festival

This five-day festival is the largest of its kind in Asia and the world’s largest free literary festival. It’s held annually on the green grounds of Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. All of the sessions were outside, and because it was free, participants moved freely from session to session. TimeOut Delhi refers to the event as the Woodstock of World Literature.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ map of Diggi Palace

This literature fest had a very different feel from the Emirates Lit Fest in Dubai, which is more formal and held in conference rooms at the InterContinental Hotel. For me, this Jaipur event reminded me more of Folklife Festival in Seattle, where you find yourself sitting on the grass chatting with whomever is next to you.

This year’s Jaipur Lit Fest also featured Gloria Steinem, who was promoting her new collection of essays, as well as actor Irrfan Khan and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, plus a full catalogue of others. In past years, the Jaipur Lit Fest has hosted Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, and JM Coetzee.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Jhumpa Lahiri

For me, the biggest highlight was seeing one of my all-time favorite writers—Jhumpa Lahiri. Her first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, is a short story collection which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her novel The Namesake was made into a film, but my favorite is Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories and one novella.

At the Jaipur Lit Fest, Lahiri introduced her latest novel The Lowland, the story of two brothers, very close and very different, and set in Calcutta (Kolkata) with tensions swirling. She read from her new book and discussed how her own family’s experiences informed her latest work.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Jhumpa Lahiri reading The Lowland

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri described the feeling of “Absence of Place” and her own family’s feelings of dislocation after leaving India. That is, when one stops living in a place and moves away, that place takes on a surreal quality. Lahiri explained that she has always been aware of this longing since her childhood.

Meanwhile, Jhumpa Lahiri’s appearance attracted a huge crowd.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Crowds to see Jhumpa Lahiri

 

The Global Novel

The most thought-provoking panel I attended was the one entitled “The Global Novel,” featuring writers from five countries and four continents: Jonathon Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste and Xiaolu Guo.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Global Novel Panel

First of all, this panel was not thrilled with the idea of the English-language Global Novel. Jhumpa Lahiri argued that “global” was a commercial term, rather than an aesthetic term. She explained how she is distressed by too much emphasis on work written in English. She argued that other languages and cultures get lost.

Jonathon Frazen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, explained that the current trend is for less diversity in reading. He fears a “global mono-culture” where cultural differences will become a novelty.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Jonathon Frazen

The panel all agreed that American books are overly emphasized in the literary world, and as Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo stated, “American literature is massively over-rated.” The panel discussed how readers select books. Jim Crace described that overwhelming feeling: “In the bookshop you feel terrified by all the novels you’ll never read.”

Giving us some hope and direction, Jhumpa Lahiri explained that translation is the bridge that enables us to read across cultures. She advised writers to find their own voices and not think about trying to be “global.”

After listening to this panel, I’ve decided to challenge myself (and my book club) to shoot for more difficult and unusual books, more books from other countries, and especially more translated work. I’ll think twice before buying the latest American book that a big publisher is promoting. I’ll dig deeper, and always remember that the power is in the hands of the reader. 

Cheryl Strayed

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

What a pleasure to hear Cheryl Strayed discuss her memoir Wild, an Oprah book club pick, soon to be a movie starring Reece Witherspoon. It was terrific to see a writer from the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR) in Jaipur and one whose work I have admired.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed discussed the journey of memoir writing which she compared to “deep sea diving.” She explained that the process of writing helps one remember their story, gain insights and “taste life twice.” So much of writing, she explained, is making sense of being human.

Reza Aslan

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Reza Aslan

I also attended a session with Reza Aslan, religious scholar and author of a long list of books on religion. He is a terrific and dynamic speaker, and I enjoyed listening to him. He was in a debate defending his latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Reza Aslan author & religious scholar

Zealot by Reza Aslan

I honesty wished he could have just talked about his book for the hour without him having to debate it with another scholar. We’ve already heard Reza Aslan defend his controversial book on Fox News and other news outlets. Oh well. It seems debates are part of the Jaipur Lit Fest program.

Other Highlights

I also attended panels entitled “Burdens of Identity” and “The Art of Biography.” My travel companions raved about the panel “Who will Rule the World?” Finally, I attended a creative writing workshop given by Anita Roy.

And of course, I visited the bookstore.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Book shop

I enjoyed wandering around the grounds of Diggi Palace, visiting the stalls, drinking masala chai, and soaking up the vibe at this inspiring and worthwhile event.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Diggi Palace

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~  Chai Tea Sellers

We are already planning our next visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my upcoming posts on the rest of my trip to India: the unique beauty of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.

Jaipur Literature Festival

Question: What are your impressions of the Jaipur Literature Festival? The Emirates Festival of Literature? Other lit events you have attended? 

Day Tripping in Tangier, Morocco

January 16th, 2014 7 comments

Tangier Medina View Kasbah

One of the highlights of my summer trip to Spain wasn’t in Spain at all, but rather during a day trip to Morocco. I had been to Morocco before, and I knew a ferry-ride-day-trip was not the ideal way to experience this colorful and exciting country. However, this is how many tourists get their glimpse of Morocco, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Just a Ferry Ride Away

Jason Bourne did it. Hoards of tourist do it. Friends have done it. Finally it was my turn to take the ferry from Spain to Morocco.

Surprising to me, the ferry was not very different from taking a Washington State Ferry. The smell and feel of the boat were the same. Even the snacks were the same—submarine sandwich, potato chips and a muffin. It was a short ride, just an hour or so, and we were there. Tangier, Morocco ~ ferry

Tangier

Strategically located on the narrow strait the separates Africa from Europe, Tangier is considered the gateway to Africa, as well as Morocco’s face to the world. Throughout history, Tangier has been controlled by an almost endless string of kingdoms and empires. In past decades, Tangier has been a gathering spot for beatniks, artists and writers, as well as a destination for the international jet set.

Tangier Map

Like most who visit Tangier by ferry, we did so with a group of tourists. We had a terrific guide, Mr. Hassan, a professor of history. He explained all about the Ville Nouvelle, the New City, and its glamorous heyday in the early 20th century. We got an overview of the city, the poorer areas, the wide boulevards, as well as the French Quarter and the Spanish neighborhood.

Tangier, Morocco ~

Even more exciting to me was the Medina, the walled old city. As soon as we approached the entrance, I got a chill up my spine and a skip in my step. How I love old Arab walled cities! And my husband and three children perked up as well, turning eager and absorbed in the sights around them.  

Tangier Medina Entrance

Inside the medina, we walked down winding alleys, past intricate doors, bakeries, vegetable souks and enticing trinkets. I loved it all! I even got a kick out of the relentless street hustlers who would not leave us alone the entire day, as we couldn’t help but chat with them. 

Tangier, Morocco ~ slippers

Tangier, Morocco ~ bowl hand of fatima

Tangier, Morocco ~ Bread

Tangier, Morocco ~ Vegetable Souk

Exploring the Medina

We were only in the Medina for an afternoon, but there was much to explore. For example, I stumbled upon this Café Baba, which I found out later was founded in 1943 and was a hippy hangout in the 1970s.

Tangier, Morocco ~ Cafe Baba

Here is the street where Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, jumped from rooftop to rooftop in the film The Bourne Ultimatum.

Tangier, Morocco ~ In the footsteps of jason bourne

Finally, we had a terrific meal at Restaurant Hamadi. We ate harira soup, kebabs, and couscous. The setting was sumptuous and we were entertained by live musicians.

Tangier, Morocco ~ Restaurant Hamadi

The Kasbah

Within the Medina is the Kasbah, the medieval part of the city. Located behind stout walls, the Kasbah is on the highest point of the city with a scenic overlook toward the Strait of Gibraltar.

Tangier, Morocco ~ kasbah wall

Famous People Connected to Tangier

Here a just a few:

Ibn Battuta

Tangier,  Ibn Battuta

Born in 1304 in the bustling port city of Tangier, Ibn Battuta was the greatest traveler of the medieval ages. He traversed most of the known world at that time, spending 30 years crisscrossing the Muslim World. He carefully documented his journeys, which can be read in Travels of Ibn Battutah, written by Ibn Battuta himself (edited by Tim Mackintosh).  

Here in Dubai, Ibn Battuta is especially famous, as we have a shopping mall named after him, the Ibn Battuta Mall. The six courts of the mall are named after the various places he traveled: China, Persia, Andalucía, Egypt, India, and Tunisia.

You can read more about Ibn Battuta’s travels in Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh. 

Henri Matisse

The Casbah Gate, Henri Matisse

Of the many artists who passed through Tangier, Henri Matisse is perhaps the most famous. This French impressionist called Tangier a ‘painter’s paradise.” He completed dozens of canvases and sketches during his time in Tangier.

According to our tour guide, Henri Matisse was particularly inspired by this green door to a mosque, which served as a subject for his work.  Tangier, Morocco ~ Henri Matisse Door

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering SkyAn American author, Paul Bowles is one of the best known foreign writers who lived in and wrote about Tangier. He is most known for his book The Sheltering Sky, written in 1949 and later made into a film. His other works include Let It Come Down (1952), a thriller set in Tangier, as well as The Spider’s House set in 1950s Fèz. Paul Bowles died in Tangier at the age of 88.

A Terrific Tangier Day

I can understand how Tangier has inspired so many. Meanwhile, our day in the city was a memorable one. We visited a lot of touristy sites on our tour, and I would have preferred more time wandering the Medina. Still, it was a terrific day, and there was something exciting for everyone, including my youngest son.

Tangier, Morocco ~ Camel Ride

As for me, the day wasn’t complete without Moroccan mint tea.

Tangier, Morocco ~ mint tea

Our family spent a leisurely time partaking in Tangier’s café culture. Here are the two of us, my Palestinian husband and I enjoying the moment.

Cafe Culture in Tangier, Morocco

I found Tangier to be worn-out but friendly, rough around the edges, but full of secrets, both quaint and cosmopolitan. Not typically Moroccan, nor European, nor even African, Tangier is a cultural mix of all three. These were just my first impressions. I look forward to visiting Tangier again, and exploring more.

Tangier Vintage Travel Poster

Question: What is your favorite city in Morocco?

Dubai Film Festival 2013 ~ My Roundup

December 15th, 2013 3 comments

Can you believe—the Dubai International Film Festival is already ten years old!

After a week of attending films at the DIFF, I’m now reflecting on what I saw. With 174 films from around the world, all so diverse, it was hard to decide what to see. Here are the highlights of what I did see—my favorite Arab films from this year’s Dubai Film Festival 2013:

 

Rock the CasbahRock the Casbah

I attended one gala screening this year and this was it: Rock the Casbah, a Moroccan-French film set in upper-class Tangiers, Morocco, a family saga with a touch of magical realism.  

With lush scenery and talented actors, it was hard to resist this film set within a gorgeous Tangiers villa and garden. It tells the story of four generations coping with the death of their patriarch and the family secrets which follow. Dealing with this aftermath is a mother and her three very different adult daughters, all with challenges of their own. A story with a Kite Runner twist, this film addresses difficult themes such as adultery, suicide and incest.  

This film by Leila Marrakchi features the talent of Omar Sharif (the patriarch), Palestinian Hiam Abbass (the matriarch), and Lebanese Nadine Labaki, as one of the sisters. Rock the Casbah won Special Mention at the DIFF, and I recommend it to anyone who likes sprawling family dramas.  

 

May in SummerMay in Summer

I was looking forward to this film by Palestinian-American Cherien Dabis, the filmmaker who brought us Amreeka, one of my favorite Arab-American films ever.

Dabis’ latest film May in Summer, which had its debut at the DIFF, is set in Amman, Jordan and tells the story of May who has returned to her hometown Amman for her wedding. A story of expat culture clash, May in Summer explores an expat’s return to her conservative Jordanian home and to her Christian mother who disapproves of her daughter’s choice to marry a Muslim man.

While this film did not move me in the way that Amreeka did, I still found much to enjoy—the dynamics between the three sisters, the American father, played by Bill Pullman who has a “foreign fetish” according to one of his daughters. I also enjoyed the many scenes of Amman neighborhoods. If you have any connection to Jordan, I recommend this film.

Meanwhile, two of Dabis’ upcoming projects are set in the West Bank—a comedy and a drama. More films to watch for!

 

HomelandHomeland

I had moderate expectations for Homeland (Né Quelque Part), an Algerian-French-Moroccan film set in Algeria. But this is often how it works at film festivals: my husband and I laughed from beginning to end in this light-hearted but insightful immigrant story.

Homeland tells the story of Farid, a young North African man who has lived in France his entire life. When his father falls ill and sends him to Algeria, it’s his first time visiting his country of origin. With universal themes, Homeland is a film any immigrant or expat can relate to.

After the screening, film-maker Mohamed Hamidi and lead actor Tewfik Jallab answered questions and explained that it was their first feature film. When you take that into consideration, the film impresses me even more.

 

Wooden HandWooden Hand

I saw four short films from Arab countries, all featuring children, and Wooden Hand (Peau de Colle) was my favorite.

Wooden Hand, a Tunisian-French film tells the story of five-year-old Amira who is humiliated by her strict and misguided Qur’an teacher. What follows is the story of a resourceful child who refuses to return to Qur’an class, and she makes this happen by gluing her hand to a chair.

What I loved most about this story is the visual aspect—the quietly beautiful but exasperated mother, the scenes at the mosque, and the mother’s little red truck driving through the streets of Tunis.

My two children saw this film with me and we all enjoyed this story. If it ever comes your way, I recommend it.

 Best Arab Feature Winners 2013 & 2012

OmarOmar

Omar, set in Occupied Palestine, won top honors at DIFF this year, including Best Arab Feature, as well as Best Director for Hany Abu Assad, the director behind Paradise Now.

This Palestinian drama/thriller was filmed in Nablus and Nazareth. At the DIFF, it had a very limited showing, and I was unable to see it this time around, but it’s now at the top of films-to-see list.

Omar was well-received at the Cannes Film Festival, and is Palestine’s official submission for to the Oscars 2014 best foreign language category.

 

Wadjda Wadjda

This film out of Saudi Arabia was featured in last year’s Dubai Film Festival 2012 and won top honors, including Best Arab Feature film.  

Wadjda is the story of a girl in Saudi Arabia who dreams of owning a bicycle like the boys in her neighborhood. This film by Saudi film-maker Haifaa Al Mansour illuminates the lives of girls and women in Saudi Arabia.

I’m including it here because I recently saw this film, and I recommend it.  Not only did I enjoy it, but my husband and two kids did as well.

 

Looking Ahead to DIFF 2014

The Dubai Film Festival takes place in December each year. My advice is: Get your tickets early! I recommend buying tickets the day they go on sale. It’s worth it every year to see these unique and often amazing films and also hear from the filmmakers and actors.  

Question: What was your favorite film of the Dubai Film Festival?