Detox | Powering through the shortest month
 
 

WHAT’S UP?

First, we’d like to wish you a happy weekend. We can hardly believe the first week of February is already over, but we’re still holding on to our hopes that this year will be a good one (relatively, of course).

February is the shortest month of the year at only 28 days, but has a 29th day that comes only every four years (imagine the predicament of people born on this day). February is also the coldest month of the year. This year, it coincides with the Coptic month of Tubah; and you surely know what the cold of Tubah does to a young woman, as the age-old Arabic saying says: it turns her into a karkuba, which is Egyptian for a very, very old lady. February is also known as Shabatt in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, a name derived from the word shabata, which means “to beat up roughly.” This is, indeed, what the weather does to you in February. However, we’ve seen a bit of sun in recent days, and that is cause to be optimistic. 

The superstitious also believe that February brings along bad fortune, which stems from the belief that the cold may stop people from going about their business. That’s why Egyptians call it “Faarayer,” a play on the word faar, meaning poverty or bad fortune. And since we brought up fortune, here are astrologer Maggie Farah’s predictions for those born in the first half of the month.

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-This past week we lost beloved Egyptian movie star Nadia Lotfy: Mrs. Paula Mohamad Shafiq, who decided to name herself after the character played by Faten Hamama in the 1957 classic La Anam (Sleepless). Lotfy was born in 1937, and, in addition to her filmography, which is filled to the brim with Egyptian cinematic landmarks, she is widely respected for her commitment to several political issues, most importantly the Palestinian cause. 

Here, we say goodbye to Nadia/Paula and reminisce on her golden age through two interviews (the second of which is conducted by a young Mervat Amin, in her pre-acting days):

-Prior to Lotfy’s passing was the anniversary of Om Kalthoum’s death, who passed away on February 3rd, 1975. The most prominent Arab musical artist of all, who remains in people’s hearts to this day; affectionately known and revered as al-Sett, or The Lady. Where do we even begin? 

Let’s start by looking back at some stories of those who said “no” to the woman nobody dared to defy: composers who passed on working with her in her lifetime. At first, we doubted they even existed, but Talal Faisal writes in his novel Baleegh about Mohamad Fawzi eluding her when she sought to work with him. It’s true we can’t fully rely on the novel to be historically accurate, but the truth is Fawzi did not compose anything for Om Kalthoum in his lifetime. Rather, his young friend Baleegh Hamdi did, with the full support of the former composer/producer who was shunned by the Free Officers of the 1952 revolution, the masters of that era. Farid Al Atrash never composed anything for her either, neither did Mounir Morad, and both were among the most highly respected musicians of the time. Mohamad al-Barmi writes that it was intentional; they simply believed her voice did not suit their music.

We’re also thinking about listeners who have an aversion to Om Kalthoum, rare as they are. Even these few seldom maintain their position, however: they often eventually succumb to the beauty and power of her voice. For example, cinematic giant Youssef Chahine spent years immune to The Lady’s charm, but that ambivalence lasted only until he met her in person. When that happened, not only did he change his mind about her art, he actually wanted to make a film about her, a project entitled “Thouma” (a popular nickname for Om Kalthoum). In preparation, he had cinematographer Abdelaziz Fahmi, his frequent collaborator, film one of her concerts in technicolor (all other surviving Om Kalthoum concerts are in black and white), later using part of the footage in his 1982 film Haddouta Masreya (An Egyptian Story). 

Chahine talks of this unfinished project in an interview with football commentator Medhat Shalaby, who back then used to host the talk show Qasr al-Nogoum (Palace of the Stars): “I didn’t like her until I met her. When we met, she gave me a piece of her mind and I finally understood her. She’s an incredible woman; she was amazing … unmatched intelligence and funny as hell,” Chahine says.

We cannot talk about Om Kalthoum’s avid listeners without mentioning Samir Tahhan, one of her most famous fans, whom Lebanese author Hassan Dawoud writes about here.

-From Om Kolthoum, we move to the writings of Soliman Fayyad (1929-2015), whose birthday is today. The complete works of Fayyad were recently republished by Merit in a new edition. We also recommend reading Ihab el Mallah’s review of Fayyad’s most renowned work, Kitab al-Namima: Nubalaa wa Awbash (The Book of Gossip: The Noble and the Scoundrels, 1996), Nassar Abdallah’s piece on Fayyad’s biography, Ayyam Mugawer (Days of a Student), and Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sherif’s article on his novel Aswat (Voices).

-Moving on to our usual reading recommendations, Ma3azef published an article on the artistic relationship between composer and musician Yahia Khalil and Mohamad Mounir, written by Mahdi Mubarak. He looks back at Mounir’s beginnings and Khalil’s desire at that time to be the sole composer of his songs, a project abruptly ended by Mounir himself. We recommend listening to “Crescendo,” one of the most memorable products of this collaboration, from the 1981 album Shababeek, the tracks on which were fully composed by Khalil and arranged by his band: 

-February 1 was the 118th anniversary of the birth of American poet and social activist Langston Hughes, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. You can read some of Hughes’ poetry here, and we also recommend his defining essay, “The Negro Artist and the Radical Mountain,” in which he famously proclaimed: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” This approach created much controversy at the time, as Hughes was often criticized by other black intellectuals for painting an unattractive portrait of black lives in his work. Finish off with this thoughtful piece by art critic Hilton Als in The New Yorker, titled “The Elusive Langston Hughes” — where Als muses on the poet’s “reluctance to reveal himself” — as well as this previously undiscovered short story by Hughes, written circa 1961 and published for the first time in 2016, also on The New Yorker. 

-Meanwhile, February 3rd marked the 60th anniversary of Federico Fellini’s beloved classic La Dolce Vita, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimee, with an unforgettable appearance by Anita Ekberg. Here, Charles Bramesco looks back on the iconic film, dissecting the reasons why it has aged so gracefully: “La Dolce Vita remains the ravishing, existentially punishing experience that it’s always been because Fellini does a bang-up job selling us on sin. He gives in to his urges to cue up the film’s most famed sequence, the frolic in the Trevi fountain with the Swedish starlet portrayed by Anita Ekberg. At first, he resists her invitations to join her in the water, joining her in a symbolic concession to the flesh. His internal plight is understandable; it would take a titanium will to resist the dizzying mix of rushing water and blonde hair and black fabric. Glamour on that level seeps out of everything, from the chic costuming to the slinky dance moves and the gorgeous interior production design. With corrosion of the soul like this, who needs virtues?”

-The New York Review of Books recently shared a magnificently insightful piece from its archive, written by Italian master Italo Calvino in 1986, where he attempts to answer the recurrent question “Why read the classics?” by giving 14 different yet interrelated definitions of what a “classic” is. For example: “A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.” An unmissable read. 

WATCH

Sex Education, Season 2:

The series, which attracted a large audience after its first season premiered last year, takes place in a secondary school in a fictional English town. While the show first appears to be set in the 1980s given the decor, costume design and general mood, it actually takes place in modern times, which we know from the centrality of modern technology like smartphones. 

Otis (Asa Butterfield), the series’ protagonist, is a teen boy who is discovering his sexuality. His mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist, which is often a nightmare to Otis because of her tendency to interfere in private matters and insistence on talking about his sex life whenever she has the chance. We get to know many of Otis’ friends and classmates, including his openly gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), who is struggling to express his identity freely without being harmed. There is also Maeve (Emma Mackey), who develops an unlikely friendship with Otis (who in turn has a crazy crush on her) and advises him to start a therapy clinic at school to help other students with problems in their personal and sexual life.

Sex Education resembles a number of other films and TV shows that focus on the lives of teens and their problems, but what accentuates it is its aesthetic specificity, which makes it feel like it takes place in a sort of fantasy world — Otis secretly holds his sessions with clients in the school’s abandoned bathroom, with its overgrowth of plants and dramatic lighting. At the same time, the show contains a lot of realistic elements; the problems that the characters face are many issues that concern us today like abortion, bullying, transphobia, etc. — and the writers treat them all with great thoughtfulness and sensitivity without projecting a sense of moral superiority.

Like his mother — the open and understanding therapist — Otis is much wiser than his age, the series is not judgemental. Although it does offer useful sexual advice for any teenager who watches the show (and parents for that matter), it is not overly preachy. It is the dramatic engine of the show and an essential part of its story and is always presented through comedic (and often moving) situations.

All of the main characters return for the series’ second season, which was released in full last month on Netflix, and contains even more complex scenarios that create further space for the characters to discover and learn even more about their relationships to their bodies, each other, and the world around them. 

Sex Education’s creators have stated that the use of the obvious 1980s aesthetic was a conscious choice, intended as an homage to director John Hughes, who was behind a number of classic 80s teen comedies including Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1987), which were essential to creating the high school movie genre in American cinema.

By virtue of the moment in which it was made, Sex Education addresses more complex topics with clearer political and social dimensions, but it shares key features with Hughes’ films (in both form and content): warmth, lightness, and characters that never fail to evoke empathy. 

You can watch both seasons of Sex Education on Netflix.


LISTEN

It’s time for Tafneeta, our playlist of the latest tracks that have caught our ears, curated by Ahmed al-Sabbagh for the first issue of Detox each month.

 

In this month’s edition, we pick some of the newest releases of the current year, including two new tracks by Shabjdeed and Al-Nather. “6rns” is a love song; the title refers to “trance,” the musical genre, even though there are no traces of that in the track itself. 

A few days before “6rns” came out, the track “Yabnel’Am,” from the collective album Electrosteen, was released. The album is an anthology of electronic music celebrating Palestinian heritage, with music from artists such as Sama, Julmud, Wala Sbait and Muqata’a

We also include an electro track by Egyptian music producer Molotof, with a faster rhythm than usual and recurrent synth beats, as well as a new collaboration he made with Sadat. 

Para Para” is a pop song with a hint of Maghrebi trap, by Egyptian artist DB Gad. The melody is catchy and the video is a clear departure from what we’re used to seeing in trap productions. 

And here’s a new song and video by Latvian-Canadian musician Katie Stelmanis, who is also a member of the electro-pop group Austra. The song relies heavily on Stelmanis’ modified voice, coupled with the cello and the violin in a subtle dance rhythm that fully appears later in the song, which ends on quieter synth notes. The video is directed by Canadian filmmaker Jasmin Mozaffari.  

We also have a song by Columbian musician Lido Pimienta, a lively cumbia number with a bass line unusual for that kind of Latin music, and a very cheerful video

There’s also a new track titled “Disappointed” by Stormzy, one of the biggest artists in grime music, an electro-dance genre that emerged in the UK in the early 2000s, which also draws inspiration from hip-hop. 

Then we move from disappointment to rage in Bukalthoum’s new song, where he hopes for a meteor to descend on earth and “burn everything” — a track noticeably different from the Syrian rapper’s recent releases. 

We also recommend a new song and video by Swedish musician Tov Lo, who was nominated for the Best Music Video award at the Grammys last week, as well as a new R’n’B track by Tyler, The Creator, whose album Igor also won the Best Rap Album award at the Grammys. 

SALAM

In conclusion, and in spite of February’s all-around bad rep, we want to draw your attention to one great thing happening during this month, and that is “Hibrayer,” a platform that has launched a call for Arab artists and calligraphers to make daily exercises in typography and post them online, accompanied by the hashtag #hibrayer (a sort of Egyptian Inktober; hibr is Arabic for ink, and in Arabic February is Febrayer). Each day a specific theme is set as a prompt for the artists. Follow the hashtag each day; some of those creations might bring you some solace amid the cold. 

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