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Musician Naseer Shamma seeks to rebuild Iraq through music, culture

War kept him away from his beloved homeland for decades. Now, virtuoso oud player Naseer Shamma hopes to help rebuild conflict-scarred Iraq through a series of concerts and other projects to support culture and education.

The audience at the Iraqi National Theater were on their feet, overcome with emotion as Shamma played a night of classics from the Iraqi songbook and modern compositions.

“We will work on lighting the stage, to get out of the darkness into the light,” he told the crowd, before kicking off the evening with, “Sabah El Kheir Ya Baghdad,” or, “Good Morning Baghdad.” Behind him, an orchestra, including young women musicians, played traditional instruments.

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The 59-year-old Shamma is considered a modern-day master of the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to a lute whose deep tones and swift-changing chords are central to Arabic music.

Born in the southern city of Kut and raised in a conservative family, he received his first oud lesson at the age of 11 and later graduated from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987.

He fled Iraq in 1993 during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and gained international fame, performing around the world and receiving dozens of awards. In Cairo, he founded the House of the Oud, a school dedicated to teaching the instrument to new generations.

Shamma, who currently lives in Berlin, returned to Iraq for the first time in 2012 to perform in a concert hosted by the Arab League. He said he was shocked and overwhelmed with sadness to see what had become of his country, which had fallen into non-ending cycles of war and sectarian blood-letting after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam.

“I found concrete T-walls surrounding Baghdad, I felt like I was walking inside a can, not a city,” Shamma told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to the blast walls that line many streets in Baghdad.

He returned several times since, most recently in 2017, when Iraq was torn apart in its battle with ISIS who had captured much of the north.

This was Shamma’s first time back to an Iraq relatively at peace, though wracked by economic crisis. The mood, he noted, had changed, the city is more relaxed and the audience more responsive.

“The audience’s artistic taste had changed as a result of wars, but last night it was similar to the audiences of the ‘80s. I felt as if it was in an international concert like one in Berlin,” Shamma said Friday after the first of four concerts he is holding in Baghdad this month.

The concert series, held under the slogan “Education First,” aims to highlight Iraq’s decaying education system, which has suffered under years of conflict, government negligence and corruption.

According to the World Bank, education levels in Iraq, once among the highest in the region, are now among the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa. Ticket sales will go toward renovating the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad.

“In Iraq there are still schools made of mud, and students don’t have desks, they sit on the floor,” Shamma said. “Education is the solution and answer for the future of Iraq.”

Shamma is known for using his fame to support humanitarian causes, Iraqi children and art. A few years ago, he led an initiative that rebuilt the destroyed infrastructure of 21 main squares in Baghdad. He is also a UNESCO peace ambassador.

Shamma said he hopes he can return to Iraq for good in the near future and fired off a list of projects he has in mind to support reconstruction.

He expressed his opposition to religious parties who try to silence art and political opponents and praised Iraqi youth who paid a high price for revolting against their corruption.

“The Iraqi people and Iraqi youth will not accept the hegemony of so-called religious parties. This is an open country where culture plays a very big role,” he said, advocating for separation of politics from religion.

Fatima Mohammed, a 55-year-old Iraqi woman, shivering from the cold as she emerged from the concert on an uncharacteristically icy January evening, said the event was a message to everyone that Baghdad will never die.

“I felt as I witnessed the women playing that Baghdad is fine and will return despite all the pain that we carry with us,” she said.

“I will come tomorrow also to listen to music, it gives me hope in life.”

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‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ by debut Libyan novelist wins top Arabic Fiction prize

‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ by Libyan debut novelist Mohamed Alnaas was announced on Sunday as the winner of the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), reported Emirates News Agency (WAM).
The award is for the best work of fiction published in Arabic between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.
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The novel, published by Rashm with support from the Libyan Arete Foundation, was named as this year’s winner by the judges chairman Shukri Mabkhout during a ceremony in Abu Dhabi that was also streamed online.
In addition to being awarded $50,000, funding will be provided for the English translation of ‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table,’ leading to a possiblee boost in book sales and international recognition for the writer Alnaas.
A further $50,000 prize money will be divided between five other shortlisted novelists>
The prize, is publicly funded by Abu Dhabi and was first launched in 2007. At 31, Alnaas is the youngest writer to win the prize and the first Libyan.

‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ was chosen from a shortlist of six novels by authors from Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman and, for the first time, the UAE. The shortlisted finalists Khalid Al Nassrallah, Tareq Imam, Reem Al Kamali, Bushra Khalfan and Mohsine Loukili will each receive $10,000.

Unique story

‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ is a unique story based in Libya. In the closed society of his village, Milad strives to live up to the definition of ideal masculinity, as his society views it. However, after all his best efforts, he fails to be ‘a man,’ and after meeting his sweetheart and wife-to-be, Zeinab, decides to forget about this definition and be himself.
Living at home, he performs the tasks which his society reserves for women, while Zeinab works and supports the family. Milad is unaware of how he is mocked in the village until his nephew breaks it to him. ‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ questions static ideas of gender and champions the individual in the face of destructive ideas adopted by the majority.
Tunisian novelist, academic and previous IPAF winner (The Italian, 2015) Shukri Mabkhout, Chair of the 2022 Judges, said: “The winning novel is written in the form of confessions of personal experience. Its plethora of detail is deftly unified by a gripping narrative. This offers a deep and meticulous critique of prevailing concepts of masculinity and femininity and the division of work between men and women, and the effect of these on both a psychological and social level. It falls into the category of novels which question cultural norms about gender. However, it is embedded in its local Arab context and steers away from any ideological treatment of the issues, as such a treatment would be contrary to the way in which fiction can present multiple points of view.”
Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said: “‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ is the captivating story of one man, Milad, who ponders on his life as it unfolds in an outwardly fractured but seamlessly braided continuum at the subterranean level. The narrative carries the reader effortlessly through Milad’s journey, with its many twists and turns, revealing his alienation from the norms of a society that values a manly interpretation of masculinity.”
“Never affected, the language of the novel is an excellent testimony to the malleability of the high register of the Arabic language and its ability to deal with intimate matters of the body and soul with naturalness and ease. Sometimes wistful, but always lyrical, the narrative succeeds in evoking a conflicted cultural fabric that fuses time with place in a Libyan milieu that speaks to and for Arabs everywhere,” Prof. Suleiman added.

First novel

Mohamed Alnaas is a short story writer and journalist from Libya, born in 1991. He obtained a BA in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tripoli in 2014, and his short story collection ‘Blue Blood’ was published in 2020.
‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’ (2021) was written in just six months during lockdown, says Alnaas, and whilst Tripoli was under bombardment.
He says writing the book was his “refuge from insanity” amidst the news of COVID-19 pandemic and war.

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Saudi airline flyadeal hails first flight with all-female crew

An airline in Saudi Arabia has completed the country’s first flight with an all-female crew, officials said Saturday, describing it as a milestone for women’s empowerment in the kingdom.

The flight operated by flyadeal, budget subsidiary of flag carrier Saudia, was from the capital Riyadh to the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on Thursday, flyadeal spokesman Emad Iskandarani said.

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The “majority” of the seven-member crew were Saudi women, including the first officer, but not the captain, who was a foreign woman, Iskandarani said.

Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority, which confirmed flyadeal’s announcement Saturday, has touted expanding roles for women in the aviation sector in recent years.

In 2019, the authority announced the first flight with a female Saudi co-pilot.

Saudi officials are trying to engineer a rapid expansion of the aviation sector that would turn the kingdom into a global travel hub.

Goals include more than tripling annual traffic to 330 million passengers by the end of the decade, drawing $100 billion in investments to the sector by 2030, establishing a new national flag carrier, constructing a new “mega airport” in Riyadh and moving up to five million tonnes of cargo each year.

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Thailand to lift curbs on nightlife from June

Thailand will allow night clubs and karaoke bars to resume regular hours starting in June, a senior official said on Friday, dropping most of its remaining pandemic restrictions as daily infections decline.

Thailand’s nightlife is a major attraction for tourists, but most entertainment venues have been shuttered or faced a strict curfew since the pandemic began, with some bars forced to convert to restaurants to stay in business.

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The government hopes the latest easing of restrictions will help revive the Southeast Asian country’s battered tourism sector, a key growth engine that accounted for about 12 percent of the economy before the pandemic.

Thailand is targeting five to 15 million arrivals this year.

“Entertainment venues, pubs, and massage parlors and others may open until midnight after June,” said Taweesin Visanuyothin, a spokesman for the government’s COVID-19 taskforce, told a news conference.

“These businesses should take a universal prevention approach … staff must have received booster doses and take antigen tests every seven days,” Taweesin added.

Starting June 1, Thailand will also drop a requirement for unvaccinated travelers to quarantine. They will either have to take an test on arrival or show a negative COVID-19 test before departure, he said.

From January to mid-May, Thailand received 1.01 million arrivals. There were 427,000 tourists for all of last year.

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