Art, Dubai Events, Middle East Culture

Learning Palestinian tatreez with Joanna Barakat

A few tomes on Palestinian embroidery are placed strategically across the long table. I open one of them, a page where a pink slip was used as a bookmark, the headline here reads – ‘Embroidery under military occupation’.  

It’s mid-afternoon and as I sit leafing through the book, the other chairs in the conference room of Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, slowly fill in with a diverse group of enthusiastic women, who like me had signed up a few days ago for this Palestinian tatreez embroidery workshop with artist Joanna Barakat.

Born in Jerusalem, Joanna’s family moved to the United States when she was only a year old. So, according to her tatreez (Arabic for embroidery) was part of her growing up years only in the form of nostalgia sewn on cushion covers at home. Yet for people in Palestine, tatreez was one of the finest art forms intrinsic to village life, passed on through generations. During war and displacement it took on a new meaning as women kept it alive in refugee camps. The creativity of the art form provided a calming effect to them. It was also used as a weapon against the occupation when embroiders stitched motifs of the Palestinian flag on clothes.

Joanna, who is also the co-founder of The Tatreez Circle in the UAE, begins her workshop with a presentation on tatreez styles across Palestine before 1948. Each region, it seems had a distinctive embroidery pattern. In Bethlehem embroiders used to follow a unique couching format. As the area had several traders and merchants, their embroidery styles reflected the influence they carried from their travels. The region was synonymous with heavy embroidery on long sleeves and geometric patterns woven on silk wedding dresses called Malak.

On the other hand Ramallah was well-known for the cross stitch embroidery pattern. Dresses from this region were sewn with a wine-red cross stitch. Jerusalem interestingly had both couching and cross-stitch tatreez patterns.

The designs depicted the socio-economic status of the people and the motifs they sewed were influenced by their daily life. Famous for their native oranges, embroiders in Jaffa, for instance, stitched orange blossom patterns. Natural dyes using indigo were woven on dresses to ward off the evil eye. The hems of long dresses worn by Bedouin women were stitched with dark blue embroidery. If they remarried they added bursts of red along with the blue to showcase joy back in their lives.

Post the historic Nakba in 1948, however, these distinct embroidery styles became a mishmash of patterns drawn from each region to become universally known as Palestinian tatreez.

This informative presentation was followed by the actual workshop that involved some real stitching and sewing. Each participant was given a kit with a needle, a meshed cloth and a tatreez pattern. The goal was to learn to sew a cypress tree motif from either — the Hebron style, Beersheba, Gaza, Ramallah or Jaffa areas.

Joanna showed us that to maintain an easy grip on the thread the length of the yarn should be only as long as one’s hand. She quickly measured a red thread and effortlessly put it through the needle and showed us a simple cross stitch pattern. We could choose a style we wanted to follow and stitch on.

Cypress tree embroidery motifs from different Palestinian cities

Only it wasn’t as easy as it looked. As women around me were sewing cypress trees with their nimble fingers I was still struggling to put the thread through the eye of the needle. Exasperated after a few failed attempts I took the assistance of the skilled lady next to me. Then funnily enough went on to sew a motif that nowhere resembled the ones synonymous to Palestine. Amused at her errant student Joanna readily offered to resew it so that I could start afresh. In reality the most fitting outcome of the workshop for me was not stitching the embroidery but going back richer with insights on the tradition and history of tatreez.

Art, Dubai Events, Interview

Connecting art and history

Sadaqar P Q (1)

Driving through the scenic roads of Fujairah on family holidays Sadaqat Pervaiz often stopped enroute to admire the historic Al Bidiya Mosque. The diminutive rock and mud structure known as the oldest existing house of worship in the emirates held a special place in his heart. Over the years he captured its rustic charm by clicking innumerable pictures till the artist in him decided to pay the ultimate ode to his muse with strokes of paint on a canvas.

The allure of portraying a slice of the bygone era through his art led him to paint a number of historical sites of the UAE. Curated as part of his Heritage Collection these paintings will be showcased in his upcoming solo art exhibition – Back to Basics – at Gallery 76 in Dubai International Art Centre from June 22 to 29, 2019. Forty incredible artworks from Sadaqat’s collection will be on display. Besides Al Bidiya five other heritage sites are part of the exhibition. These include the Al Bastakiya Mosque, which was first established at the end of the 19th century by textile and pearl merchants, the Al-Hayl Castle, once used as the headquarters for Fujairah’s ruling family, Al Jazirah Al Hamra — an old abandoned town in Ras Al Khaimah considered by experts to be one of the best places to study traditional coral-stone architecture, the Khor Kalba Village and the iconic RAF Sharjah

Al Hayl Castle
Al Hayl Castle

Well known as a celebrated landscape artist in his native Pakistan, Sadaqat has lived in the UAE for over two decades. A deep appreciation of the local culture and the untouched nature of the historical sites of the UAE inspired Sadaqat to paint them. “It was almost like stepping back in time and that feeling is what I hoped to convey through my paintings. There is no shortage of inspiration in the UAE as all the seven emirates have a wealth of historic sites.”

He believes in using art as a form of documentation to preserve culture and history. “History is a bridge to the past and art is a bridge to connecting with people. Both leave you feeling like you have learned something valuable with a new appreciation and outlook towards life,” says Sadaqat.

Photography is an integral part of his artistic process. “Often the journey begins when I hear about a site from someone or find it over the Internet. After I drive to the location, I carefully examine the details and take several shots of the forts and castles from different angles. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to most of the places do not have conditions that permit one to paint on site. So, the photos I click become the premise for most of my paintings,” he says.

Al Bastakiya Mosque
Al Bastakiya Mosque

Through his art he hopes to draw attention to the incredible historical restoration work done in the UAE. Most of all, he wants to ignite a desire in people to visit some of these locations, to learn more about them and then share their experiences.

Al Jazirah Al Hamra
Al Jazirah al Hamra

Born in 1956 in Wazirabad, Pakistan, Sadaqat grew up in an art inspired environment. His father, a government officer, was also a water colour artist. This early encouragement led him to pursue a formal art education in the National College of Arts in Lahore. Under the mentorship of a famous landscape artist Sadaqat developed a distinct personal style.

But family circumstances paved way for him to move to Sharjah in 1991. Soon after he took on the job of an art director at the Expo Centre in Sharjah. For the next 18 years he spear headed the formation of the company’s first art department. It was only when both his children completed their education he felt it was time to go back to art.

Water colours and oil paints are his preferred medium today. “Sometimes I like to experiment with charcoals, chalk and coloured paper. But most of my landscapes are in water colour and some of my portraits are in charcoal and chalk,” he points out.

Back to Basics is Sadaqat’s first solo exhibition in Dubai at DIAC from June 22 to 29, 2019.

Art, Interview

An insight into the art of Khalid Mezaina

Bold illustrations showcasing contemporary and culturally-inspired designs is the forte of Emirati artist Khalid Mezaina’s work. Centered around local traditions his art largely includes hand-drawn elements. He has a Bachelor’s degree in visual communication from American University of Sharjah and a Master’s in textiles from Rhode Island School of Design, USA. Khalid is an independent artist, illustrator and graphic designer, who has participated in several exhibitions and has some iconic projects to his credit. In 2016, he was commissioned by ADMAF (Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation) to create a series of illustrations called cafeterias of the UAE, depicting a slice of the vibrant shawarma shops and cafeteria culture in the emirates. At Jam Jar, in Al Serkal Avenue, he presented a project on talismans. With Sharjah Art Foundation he curated a workshop called Tapestries exploring the trends and history of tapestries in Sharjah’s old textile souk. From illustrating the walls of a music store in a mall to his  textile project on wearable capes Khalid’s artistic vision is diverse and deeply personal.

At the recent Ramadan Flow Talk series Khalid shared his work and his thoughts on what went behind their creation. Here is an excerpt from the interview he gave me for middleeastmasala.


What does art mean to you?

I think art is about having something to say and also speaking to anyone out there that shares the same sentiments as you.

How would you describe your style of work?

I would describe my style of work as illustrative. I illustrate things that I see, things that interest me or things that I would like to talk about.

Is there a common artistic thread that we can find in your designs?

I like to incorporate something hand drawn in all my work. Everything starts as a hand drawing which is then scanned and enhanced digitally. Be it an artwork for exhibition purpose, a design for a pattern layout, or work for a client — everything starts with a hand drawing in my sketchbook.

wind towers
Traditional Wind Towers

Do you feel it’s time we broke stereotypical representations of the region in art — for instance the overuse of lanterns and camels?

There is a common tendency to appropriate or recycle stereotypical visuals to depict the region. For it to be less predictable, I think the challenge is figuring out a way to use these common motifs and imagery in a fresh way. I personally do not mind the use of certain imagery that is a direct representation of the culture or region we’re in. I just think what makes something stand out is not copying something that’s already been done before.

How do you represent iconic cultural motifs of the Emirates through your art?

I create work that represents my experiences of belonging to the Emirates. I try to create visuals that are contemporary and relevant to the times so that my work does not look redundant or appear to be similar to what something someone has seen before. Artists do tend to fall in this trap where they use certain motifs the same way. I hope my use of cultural motifs represent a different perspective that is based on my understanding of what it means to be from the Emirates, which can be a unique take compared to others.

Shops in the emirates

Take us through the journey of documenting the designing of the ‘cafeterias of the UAE’ project that you did for Abu Dhabi Music and Art foundation in 2016. ‘Cafeterias of the UAE’ was an illustration series for ADMAF’s 2016 exhibition ‘Portrait of a Nation’. The exhibit showcased different perspectives of the United Arab Emirates through the works of the selected artists. I thought a perfect idea to represent the Emirates was through the cafeterias found all over the country. Emiratis, expats and everyone in between flock to these cafeterias daily for an affordable sandwich, a humorously titled juice, or a plastic cup of sugared, steaming hot chai. These cafeterias are iconic structures in the UAE’s cultural and urban landscape. The final result was a series of six illustrated cafeterias that caught my attention as I drove around finding them.

Cafeterias of the UAE

What are your favourite cafeterias in town — any childhood memories that make them special?

I do not have a favourite cafeteria. But the word cafeteria instantly brings a flood of memories from high school and university days, when my friends and I would walk or drive to one close by after classes, to get a quick (affordable) bite to eat and chat together.

What are your current projects?

In the lead up to summer, I am trying to take things easy. It has been a year since I moved back home after completing my master’s and I have been mainly occupied with commissioned work and client based projects. Now I would like to be playful in the studio to experiment and work on projects for myself. I am currently completing a couple of client based illustrations including a mini comic with a friend. I am also scheduled to teach a series of workshops for young creatives at Tashkeel and Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.

Lastly, what do you want people to take away from your art?

Honestly, at the end of the day, I hope the audience would relate to my work in some way. I hope it would make people connect to the stories or narratives conveyed through them, they would relate to the messages shared, and feel happy and positive.

Khalid blogs at His brand Krossbreed has a range of t-shirts, prints and stationary.

Dubai Food, Glorious Food, Memories, Outdoors

Savouring Arabic sweets at Al Samadi

“Two overjoyed kids in a candy store!” that’s what we transformed into as we pushed open the glass door of Al Samadi sweet shop in Deira. Surrounded by trays full of sweet treats in all hues, oozing appetizing aromas, it was overwhelming to make an appropriate choice to begin our sugary adventure. So, we hopped from one end of the store to the other, curiously absorbing each colourful detail of the Middle eastern delicacies on display, asking the patient Filipina shop attendant for their names, toppings and ingredients. This conversation opened a window to the several unique Arabic desserts I had never heard of, let alone tasted.

Now here I have to confess that I have never been a big fan of baklava and kunafa, the most common Arabic desserts laid out in iftar meals and in Middle eastern restaurant menus. But I have enjoyed eating milk based puddings — Umm Ali and Mahalabia. That is why we started our culinary trip at Al Samadi — with the familiar bowl of Mahalabia — only this one was covered generously with sliced pistachios, slivers of almonds, topped with cream and cherry and looked more like the pastry version of Mahalabia.


Creamy and crunchy, we savoured each spoonful of the milk dessert made by boiling corn starch mixed with flavoured milk. Interestingly the dessert gets its name from a seventh century Arab general called Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra . The general was served the milk pudding by his Persian cook and he liked it so much that he named it after himself. It is today a popular dessert in all the Middle Eastern countries. My first memory of eating Mahalabia was in a street shop in Cairo, a much simpler version topped only with powdered cardamom and pistachios.

The bowl of Mahalabia was accompanied by a cream filled Ghraybeh. These melt in the mouth Middle eastern butter cookies are a staple all year around, but at Al Samadi, the shortbread came with a rich filling of cream, making it a mix of crumbly and sweet squishy when eaten. Well-known in the middle east Ghraybeh has a string of variant pronunciations and diverse ingredients — in Iran it is called qurabiye and is made with almond flour, sugar, egg whites, margarine and pistachios. In Morocco it is made with semolina and goes by the name Ghoriba. It is also an equally popular tea time snack and dessert in Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Greece. This Lebanese version was filled with cream, unique to the country called kashta or ashta. Made by boiling milk with a tinge of rose or orange blossom, kashta is a local delicacy and used as a filling for many other desserts. At al Samadi most of the sweets, specially made for Ramadan, were filled with kashta.


Here they look appetizing as toppings on kunafas and inside qatayefs (the d-shaped folded desserts in the picture). Qatayefs, I discovered, are specially made during Ramadan in many Arab countries. They can have various fillings — including unsalted cheese or an assortment of nuts, are usually fried and coated with sugar syrup or drizzled with powdered sugar.

The kunafa, of course, is more well-known and comes in several shapes and colours. A historic sweet delicacy from the Levant region it is made with  phyllo pastry dough and also with semolina. Layered with cheese, cream and nuts kunafas are soaked in sugar syrup. At Al Samadi there were trays full of kunafas, pictured above is the popular bird’s nest (also called osh al bulbul) kunafa filled with ashta and topped with nuts. For this a stringy version of the kunafa dough is used. And for that bright orange colour confectioners add food dye in the kunafas.

In this sweet paradise the most delicious of all desserts turned out to be the mafruka.


Very similar to the kunafa the mafruka is a Lebanese dessert made with crushed pistachio dough, clotted cream and semolina. It was buttery soft, moist and heavenly.

A visit to an arabic sweet shop is incomplete without tasting the baklava. So iconic is the baklava to the Middle East that its origin and invention is widely debated and claimed by several nations in the region.


The crunchy sweet treat is made by layering phyllo pastry dough and chopped nuts, drenched in a sticky sugar syrup. It is typically prepared in large trays and then sliced into different shapes. For the baklava lover Al Samadi has quite a wide range — one of their most popular is the bukaj baklava — it looks like a purse or a parcel (bukaj in Arabic) and is stuffed with pistachios, pine nuts or cashews. The Borma baklava is cylindrical in shape and is made with stringy kunafa dough and nuts. Cashews crushed inside phyllo dough shaped as fingers are called Asabi and chopped pistachios sandwiched between layers of kunafa dough become Basma.

There is quite a staggering variety of Arabic desserts at Al Samadi. There is enough to try one sweet every day of the month, spoken like a true dessert fan. Originally established in Lebanon in 1872 the store today has branches in Ukraine, UK and in the UAE. We hope to come back soon for more luscious times.

Books, Uncategorized

Writing historical fiction at DubaiLitFest


Two writers based in Dubai. Their books — historical fiction — set in diverse eras — one in 1930s Germany and the other in 16th century Turkey and England. How did they conceive these intriguing plots from a past they had not lived in — what were their points of reference, their inspiration and their writing process? As part of a talk at the Emirates Literature Festival the writers gave the audience an insight into researching and writing gripping historical fiction.

Film producer Daniela Tully’s debut novel Hotel on Shadow Lake is based on a mysterious disappearance and family secrets that date back to New York in 1910s and Germany in 1930s. The book is inspired by a personal experience involving a letter received by Daniela’s grandmother from her twin brother after the fall of the Berlin Wall 46 years after he had sent it. Rehan Khan’s book, the first of the Tudor Turk trilogy, is titled The Chronicles of Will Ryde and Awa Maryam al Jameel. Set in Istanbul in 1591 the story revolves around the theft of Moses’ precious staff from the Topkapi Palace. It is Rehan’s third book following the Tasburai series of novels. Continue reading “Writing historical fiction at DubaiLitFest”


Red yarn reverie — Chiharu Shiota at Jameel Art Centre

An interlacing web of red threads crisscrossing across a room, tied around an old wooden boat — aptly titled ‘Departure’– is one of the most bewitching art exhibits at the Jameel Art Centre in Dubai. In her signature style Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota weaves a vision in red igniting myriads of emotions in her viewers. Silent and awe-struck, each one of one of us in the room felt at once connected and transported into the stunning mess of tangled threads staring at us.
Located on the second floor in one of the art rooms, most visitors are caught unaware by the aesthetic brilliance surrounding this room full of thread. In the centre are two pieces of an old broken dhow, emanating out of its sides and engulfing the whole room are strings of bright red yarn.
The stunning installation was created using around 12,000 balls of yarn by Shiota. She was aided by a team of 10 volunteers and it took her two weeks to complete. The project will be part of the Jameel Art centre till May 2019, said Dawn Ross, manager, collections, during an art room talk I attended.
Born in Osaka, Japan in 1972, Shiota now lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Today she is well-known world over for her large-scale installations created using threads and ordinary objects such as shoes, keys, boats, windows, dresses and suitcases. She says ordinary everyday objects help her to connect to people’s memories and unlike a canvas there are no limitations of space with threads.
One of her iconic projects is Dialogue from DNA (2004) designed in Poland and then recreated in Germany and Japan. As part of the project she invited people to donate shoes with memories attached to them. People donated thousands of old shoes for the exhibit — some of those who had died, others from their first dates, weddings and family trips. With four miles of red yarn tied to 400 shoes Shiota connected them all from a single point. For yet another of her famous projects — Key in the Hand (2015) at the Venice Art Biennale she used 50,000 personal keys tied around red threads, hanging in a room over two ancient boats.
In Departure, Shiota, has used two old boats sourced locally in Dubai. She says, the boat is a symbol of memories and emotions attached to people in the emirate. Colour Red is a metaphor for relationships. The thread creates a sea of human connections and through Departure she wanted to depict how we are all connected in one way or the other.

Continue reading “Red yarn reverie — Chiharu Shiota at Jameel Art Centre”


A bee farm in Montenegro

On a driving holiday through scenic Montenegro in the spring of 2018 we were pleasantly surprised to know the existence of a bee farm deep in the hills. The timing couldn’t be more opportune… as we were returning from a disappointing boat ride on Lake Skadar. The old boatman had been unable to steer the boat through stubborn weeds and we had to cut short the trip.

Interestingly, all we had for reference, to go to bee farm were a couple of lines in a guide book. The directions in it said take the R16 to Rijeka Crnojevica (yes… the names are as exotic as the land), shortly before the village following the signposted country road to Gornji Ceklin to Farm Vukmirovic.

What followed was a winding drive through remote mountain roads, miles and miles of lush green valleys and not a soul in sight. Not surprisingly, we lost our way more than once navigating steep slopes and reaching some dead ends. It was proving to be a wild goose chase when we finally spotted a wine shack with a kindly lady selling home made wines and honey on a derelict country road. Relieved, the car windows were quickly rolled down to ask her if all this produce was from Farm Vukmirovic. In a smattering of broken English she spoke about another farm and told us to go further into what seemed to be yet another narrow grassy road, of course, we felt obliged to buy some of her fare.

We drove up even higher where the landscape loomed in front giving us an aerial view of the eastern side of the lake. A few kilometers down that road we seemed to have reached the highway back to Budva, but then we spotted a signpost that read “Honey Tales and Trails, Vanarija Vukmirovic”.

As the car slowed down and took a turn towards the farm the sight of a large wooden honey barrel and dipper nestled amidst a bush of red roses greeted us. Walking on a cobbled path under an umbrella of wine leaves towards a red cottage surrounded by bright petunias sprouting out of wine bottles — this farm felt out of a kid’s picture book.


Inside the cottage was the lady of the house, who did not look too happy to see a bunch of unannounced travellers. When we expressed our desire to see the winery and bee hives, she conveyed to us that her son who manages the farm was out of town, so all she can show us are the bottles of wine and honey that are on sale.

After that long car drive this bit of news was truly disappointing. Seeing a sea of gloomy faces staring at her, I guess she took pity on us and called her husband, a tall vintner and bee keeper, who led us into a dark winery with bottles of home made wines and honey.


We were given spoons of honey to taste and sips of wine to sample. They came in all flavours and colours. After the customary purchase, we went to see the bees.

Being away from the house, we walked to the bee shed. Suddenly a bee which did not take to us very kindly buzzed over the husband’s head. He tried to fight it but eventually was bitten in the little finger of his hand. The farmer quickly came to his rescue and uprooted some herbs to rub on the sting. He later explained through sign language that the best remedy to save oneself from a bee sting was to hunch down and cover one’s head rather than try to fight it off as if you were shooing away a fly.


This was our first visit to an apiary, although we did not get a complete tour and understanding of how a bee farm works, it was still a small insight into honey production, especially for my young son. The highlight, of course, was the adventurous drive through quaint hills and the honey, that we relished for days back home.

Books, Festivals, Sharjah

Nandita Das on Manto at SIBF2018


“Who among all of you had never heard the name Manto before today?”, asked Indian actress and film maker Nandita Das to a room full of audience. Several hands went up and a discerning smile curled up at the corners of her mouth as she nodded her head. Perhaps when Nandita decided to make a film on the life of famous Urdu author Manto almost six years ago she would not have known that she would inadvertently become an ambassador of his work and beliefs to modern day readers and cine goers.

Saadat Hasan Manto was born in 1912 in Ludhiana, Punjab and later moved to Lahore, after the partition. Remarkably even though he died at the very young age of 42 he left behind a legacy of around 300 literary works including short stories, plays and essays. Manto was known to be mercurial, outspoken, an alcoholic and was tried for obscenity six times. His writings centered around partition, political corruption, drug addiction, prostitutes, sexual slavery of women among other socio-political issues of his times.

According to Nandita Manto was admired for his unabashed truthfulness that brought a rare sensitivity in his writings, a deep concern for people living on the margins as well as an unprecedented empathetic gaze for women’s issues. “Through his writing he talked about caste, religion, gender and human behaviour.  I feel he is deeply relevant today because we are grappling with all these issues. We see artists silenced by authorities, by the moral police, or by the censor board and at times they themselves chose to not express their true feelings. That’s why I wanted to tell the story of Manto, who celebrated free-spiritedness, especially now,” she said.

An acclaimed actress, Nandita has to her credit several honours and awards. Manto is her second directorial venture. Starring the talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the movie traces the struggles in the life of the writer between the years 1946 to 1948, the time around which India gained independence. Due to the partition Manto who lived in Bombay, India was forced to move to Lahore, Pakistan. Nandita spent close to six years making the film, and started collecting research material a few years before that. To know the real Manto she spent time with his three daughters who live in Pakistan.

During the talk Nandita spoke about spreading the idea of Mantoiyyat or Mantoness. “It is the desire to be more honest. Mantoiyyat is that feeling that gives confidence to be strong about your convictions, which in turn gives the person courage to stand up for their beliefs. Manto wrote the truth about what was happening in the society even though every time he did he got into trouble with the law.”

Close to the end of the talk Nandita was joined on the stage by her eight year old son who also played a small part in the movie. In a Facebook post she wrote later that ‘her son was probably the only eight year old who had heard so much about Manto, and that it is never too early to hear about the importance of honesty, convictions and courage’.










Island of the Colour Blind

picislandPingelap, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean is lush with natural colours — azure blue waters, green palms and white sandy beaches. But the biggest irony is that almost 10 per cent of Pingelap’s inhabitants are colourblind. They suffer from achromatopsia, a condition that makes people sensitive to light, results in poor vision and inability to distinguish colours. Legend has it that a typhoon swept over Pingelap in the 18th century  and wiped away most of its residents. The only survivor was the king, who suffered from achromatopsia. He passed the gene to the island’s future generations, earning the atoll the name ‘Island of the Colourblind’.

When Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde, first heard of Pingelap, she was deeply fascinated by the island’s unique residents. She spent a month in Pingelap and neighbouring Pohnpei in 2015 to understand the Pingelapese sense of colour. Curious to let people know how colourblinds perceive colour she experimented with infrared and shot in monochrome on her digital camera. The result was an eerie burst of light. Sanne compiled her research and presented them in a photobook titled Island of the Colorblind.


Sanne’s book is part of the ongoing Photo Book exhibition at Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai, that runs till August 31, 2018. Contemporary photographers from North Africa, Middle East and South Asia are exhibiting in the show. At a talk organised by GPP Sanne shared her experiences of photographing the Pingelapese.


“The sun need not be yellow, it can be purple. I wanted people to see different perceptions of the world we live in. I conducted my research by shooting in black and white to see how the achromatics see the tropical environment in shades of black and white. In my pics I focus on their eyes and head. I also invited Belgian and Dutch achromats to paint on my black and white images, to showcase different perspectives.” Who would have thought there is an entire island where people see the world in shades of grey! An interesting talk and a revelation for me.



Memoir to Movie: Cheryl Strayed and Saroo Brierley

cheryl saroo

I am a fan of books being made into movies, yet I always make sure to read the book first and then see its cinematic adaptation. That’s because I am a true bookworm who loves to smell and savour the story, relish the lives of characters and the lush setting of a book one page at a time.

A movie adaptation most often has brought alive the characters I had imagined in my head yet at times they have totally ruined the fun by giving a certain face and look to the heroes of a book that was in complete contrast to what I had thought them to be.

Books and their screen adaptations will always be part of a timeless debate. But what happens when a book you wrote on your own life is adapted for the big screen. Would you be able to look at it objectively, agree with the way the actors portrayed you and the director showcased your life? Authors Cheryl Strayed of ‘Wild’ fame and Saroo Brierley on whose life the movie ‘Lion’ was made shared their views in an interesting talk titled From Memoir to Movie at the recently concluded Emirates Literature Festival 2018.

Both their stories are incredible and awe-inspiring. There is Cheryl, who at the age of 26, heartbroken by her mother’s death from cancer, embarked on a 1,100 mile hike along the arduous Pacific Crest Trail in the US. She was a complete novice with no prior experience of hiking, she carried no phone, very less money and only a backpack.

The Pacific Crest trail is 4279 km long and its mostly dotted with forest and mountainous terrain. The hike had been a journey of self-discovery that resulted in her hugely successful book ‘Wild’ published in 2012. American actress Reese Witherspoon acted and produced the cinematic adaptation of ‘Wild’ in 2014 and went on to win Academy Award nominations for her role as Cheryl.

Saroo Brierley too had a compelling story to tell in his memoir titled A Long Way Home published in 2013. Born in the Indian city of Khandwa, Saroo only aged five got separated from his family at a train station. Lost and helpless wandering on the streets of Calcutta he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple. After 25 years living in Australia through Google Earth Saroo was able to trace his family in India. His emotional journey and reunion with his birth mother was portrayed in the movie ‘Lion’ by actor Dev Patel who played the role of Saroo. The movie was a commercial success and a favourite at the Academy Awards as well.

Cheryl says the stakes are high when your memoir is being made into a movie. “I
trusted Reese, and she seemed really honest and it turned out to be a very collaborative process.” In fact in an earlier interview Cheryl has said that when Wild was being published in 2012 she had sent an advance copy to Reese and in the hope of receiving a positive call from Reese she had even lit a candle in her bedroom. Indeed three days later she did receive that call. “During the making of Wild I was on the sets almost every day and even did a cameo as a pickup truck driver in one of the scenes.”

Although there was no role for Saroo, a surprise awaited him at the end of the movie– a link to the documentary Homeward Bound on his real struggle to find his mom and snapshots of Saroo’s adopted and biological families.

Both Cheryl and Saroo were able to see the movies very objectively, although Saroo did admit, “If I had directed the movie it would have been very different”. And therein lies the truth that each person’s perspective is unique. Cheryl sums it the best when she says, “I told myself that I was only the writer of the book and this movie is an interpretation of my creation.” They were both extremely appreciative of the actors who essayed their roles, Saroo was especially impressed by Sunny Pawar, the young Indian actor who played his childhood role.

Their memoirs being made into movies meant immense public attention, Red Carpet welcome at film festivals, hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers and of course numerous clicks and selfies. How did they handle all this attention? “For me it was like visiting a foreign land called Hollywood,” Cheryl says brightly. Wild was nominated in various categories at all the prestigious awards in Hollywood including the Oscars, Golden Globe, People’s Choice Awards among others. Lion too was nominated at the Academy awards, the British Academy awards, the Australian Academy of Cinema Awards. Saroo attended all the award functions, often accompanied by his mom Sue and dad John. “My mom and Nicole Kidman had so many conversations that they became like soul sisters.”

On writing memoirs Saroo and Cheryl had some valuable advice for the audience. The topmost aspect of writing a memoir is the decision to share not only your own life with others but also private details about your family members. Before writing A Long Way Home Saroo discussed this aspect with his parents, who gave him the go-ahead. “There was so much positivity in the story for humanity that we all felt compelled to write this book to give hope to others,” says Saroo.

Cheryl admits being extremely honest in her book and her siblings were supportive of her writing. “I had a great mum but not a great dad. I wrote to seek the truth. I had to write about his violence and abuse, of course he was enraged.”

Cheryl wrote Wild 17 years after that inspiring trek and it took Saroo 25 years to trace his birth mother. Delving into one’s memory and retrieving incidents and events that shaped the journey can look like a daunting task. Cheryl’s advice to memoir writers is to just begin the writing process. “Write what you don’t remember, exercise your memory muscle and it will all come out.” Saroo used to listen to music to delve into the deepest corners of his memory recalling his early days. He too says, “Just put pen to paper.”