2018 has had its issues. Struggles across and beyond the Arab world continue. There are far too many tragedies in the world to count, and never ‘enough’ being done to fix them. But at a closer look at the things we might not have seen tells us that, in a lot of ways, things are looking up, or at least there are a few wins. So before the new year hits, we’ve decided to look back on how 2018 was a year of innovation, progress, and celebration for Arabs both within the region and in the diaspora.
1. Nadine Labaki's Capharnaüm won the festival circuit to the Oscar shortlist.
Capharnaüm, the Lebanese film billed as a ‘politically charged fable’, follows a Lebanese child who sues his parents for the life they’ve given him. A look at child poverty and crushed innocence, the film has earned Labaki 13 awards at international film festivals, including the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival. After nabbing the directorial darling her first Golden Globe nomination, it has most recently been shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Labaki is breaking glass ceilings as the first female director from Lebanon to receive the honour.
2. Spotify came to the Middle East.
After months of rumbling rumours, the world’s biggest music streaming platform launched in Egypt this November. With this arrival come over 40 million songs, 2 billion playlists and many, many more to come, all of which will be at the fingertips of millions here and across the region as it enters the massive Middle East market. The platform founded to fight piracy is rolling through the region, empowering artists and listeners as it goes.
3. MENA had its first ever dragon exit.
It’s been an incredible year for entrepreneurship in the region. In spite of bureaucracy, economic downturns, and – in the case of the thriving Palestinian startup scene – constant occupation, initiatives are popping up left and right and the potential of the MENA market is finally being realised by global giants. We’re making waves, perhaps none as big as our first ever dragon exit. On the 17th of September, MENA-based Venture Capital A15 successfully sold a 76 percent stake in its Egyptian-yet-UAE-based fintech startup TPAY to Africa’s leading private investment firm Helios Investment Partners, making it the first Dragon in the MENA region - a dragon being a company that returns an entire fund - a 'fund maker.’ "On a larger scale," says A15 CEO Fadi Antaki, pictured above, "such an exit is good for the ecosystem because it will possibly attract more investors to the region."
4. Saudi women finally got behind the wheel.
Saudi motorsport driver Aseel Al Hamad gets behind the wheel for the first time in her home country, courtesy of Jaguar.
On the 24th of June, Saudi Arabia finally lifted its notorious ban on women driving. Within 24 hours, more than 120,000 women applied for their drivers’ licenses, flooding the news and social media with pictures and videos of ‘celebratory rides’. The move comes in the wake of the kingdom’s Vision 2030, a plan to overhaul the economy and bring the nation into the future, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Though the joy of first drives, increased autonomy, and the progressive dissipation of Saudi Arabia’s antiquated guardianship system all warrant celebration, it’s worth noting that in May, during the ramp-up to this feminist victory, tens of prominent activists who had lobbied for the move for years were arrested. As of November, many remain imprisoned, with reports of physical and psychological abuse. But, hey, they can drive themselves home now at least?
5. Egyptian film Yomeddine competed for the Palm D'Or at Cannes Film Festival and made global waves.
A leper, a donkey, and an orphan. The next words are not 'walk into a bar’, but rather ‘make international waves with an endearing, radical portrayal of leprosy in Egypt’. Nadine Labaki wasn’t the only Arab director to shake things up in 2018. Abu Bakr Shawky burst onto the scene with his story of a Coptic leper and his orphaned apprentice embarking on a journey across the country. After being nominated for the Palm D'Or, and winning the François Chalais Prize at Cannes Film Festival, it was doubly honoured with the the Cinema for Humanity Audience Award and the El Gouna Gold Star for a Narrative Film at Gouna Film Festival in Egypt.
6. Saudi Arabia brought jazz and cinema into the kingdom.
Image used courtesy of Reuters.
It’s undoubtedly been a big year for Saudi Arabia, with the segregated society taking ever-more inclusive steps. The sight of women in abayas swaying to music in the country’s first ever jazz festival in February was followed by the first ever cinema screening in April. The first ever film to be screened in 35 years after the kingdom lifted its ban on cinemas last year was Black Panther. It’s probably not a coincidence that the film follows a young monarch of a fictional African jungle who transforms and modernises his nation, as Mohammad Bin Salman flows through his social and economic reforms, balancing unpopular subsidy cuts with more entertainment options and incremental social change.
7. Jamal Khashoggi and persecuted journalists were named Time Person of the Year.
Diversifying economy, progressively desegregating society, and opening the door for entertainment aren’t the only reasons Saudi Arabia made headlines this year. The dark news of the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by assassins in the Saudi embassy in Turkey rocked the international community. The world turned on Mohammad Bin Salman, whom the CIA concluded had ordered his death. Because of this tragedy, international attention zeroed in on Saudi Arabia and journalists' rights around the world. Time Magazine is honouring Khashoggi, along with other persecuted journalists from the Philippines, the US, and Myanmar as ‘the Guardians of Truth.’ Karen Attiah, who had recruited Khashoggi for the Post, tweeted a thank you to Time with an adage she attributed to the late journalist: “Some depart to remain.” Though the world still mourns Khashoggi, his legacy and posthumous honour will help to ensure that tragedies like this do not happen again.
8. Tunisia moved closer and closer to gender equality.
Image used courtesy of AFP.
Last year, Tunisia made Arab history with a groundbreaking, far-reaching law that aimed at eliminating violence against women by forbidding physical, economic, and psychological abuse against women, outlawing harassment in public, and scrapping a loophole that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims. This year, the country moved even further in its progressive agenda when the cabinet approved a controversial law stipulating inheritance equality for men and women. It is now up to the parliament to draft and vote on the bill to bring it into force. Here’s hoping the rest of the Arab World follows the social, cultural, and legal example set by Tunisia, where local government elections this year resulted in 47% of seats going to women.
9. Five Middle Eastern countries made it to the World Cup.
Image used courtesy of TASS.
For a first in the competition’s 88-year history, five countries from the region qualified for the biggest sporting event in the world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Iran all made it to Russia this summer. Though we didn’t make it very far—not a single team advancing past the group stage—it was an incredible accomplishment, and an atmosphere of elation gripped communities across the region. And in stellar Arab fashion, we leaned on our tried-and-tested social media humour to dull the blow. We joked that FIFA stands for "Football is not for Arabs,” and twitter was flooded with jokes along the lines of “Arab countries can’t ever agree on anything, but we leave the World Cup together.”
10. Mohamed Salah. Just, Mohamed Salah.
The man. The legend. The footballer. The model. The meme. We can hardly remember a time before the 26-year old heartthrob was winning us over, sending Egypt to the World Cup for the first time since before he was even born, joining a national anti-drug campaign that resulted in a 400% increase in hotline calls, making a young Syrian refugee’s dream come true and our hearts melt, and serving as fodder for our ever-evolving social media obsession. The list of why we love Salah both on and off the pitch goes on, and on, and on. Most notably, however, he was named the CAF African Footballer of the Year, the BBC African Footballer of the Year, and three PFA Player of the Year awards.
11. Nadia Murad became the first Iraqi to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Image used courtesy of AFP.
In 2014, Nadia Murad was kidnapped from her home in Sinjar, Iraq and held by the Islamic State for three months. She was beaten, burned, and raped as a slave in the city of Mosul, until she escaped when her captor left the door unlocked. Since escaping ISIS territory, Murad has been an activist for women and children victimised by genocide. This year, she was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege for their work “to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” Murad is the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded a Nobel prize.
12. Arab women got the chance to change the face of US Congress.
During the hotly contested midterm congressional elections in the US, Arab and Muslim women made huge gains. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who arrived in the country as a refugee two decades ago, is the first Somali-American member. Rashida Tlaib, who won her seat in Detroit, Michigan, is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and already made history 10 years ago when she became the first Muslim woman to serve in the state legislature in 2008. Besides the first two Muslim women in congress, Lebanese-American Donna Shalala also flipped a historically Republican Miami congressional seat and is rejoining public service after serving in the Clinton administration back in the ‘90s. The women are joining (and building) a younger, more diverse, more social justice-oriented US Congress.
13. Netflix put young, Arab comedians on a global stage.
This year, Netflix produced a mammoth standup comedy special titled Comedians of the World, featuring 47 comedians from 13 regions across the globe, including 4 Arabs. The world’s biggest streaming platform has been pouring money into the genre for years, producing standup specials for comedy’s biggest names: Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, and Ellen Degeneres. But now, they’re spotlighting young Arab talent. Ibraheem Alkhairallah (Saudi Arabia), Adi Khalefa (Palestine), Rawsan Hallak (Jordan), and Moayad Alnefaie (Saudi Arabia) feature in the special set to drop on New Year’s Eve. The production comes at the heels of Netflix’s original film Nappily Ever After by Saudi Arabia’s first ever female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour.
14. Lebanese artist Ali Cha’aban collaborated with Nike for shoes more exclusive than Kanye’s Yeezy’s.
Every year, Arab artists find new ways to shock, awe, and move. This year, Ali Cha’aban—the Lebanese artist whose medium is anything from graffiti, photography, rugs, and now sneaker design—was no exception. His collaboration with Nike caused a sneakerhead social media hysteria. With only 30 pairs of the special edition Epic React Flyknit shoes made, the shoes were quickly hailed as more exclusive (and thus, more coveted) than Kanye West and Adidas' Yeezy's, Rihanna's Puma collaboration and even the Holy Grail of collectable kicks — Air Jordans.
15. Arab art installations packed a social punch.
Image used courtesy of Avaaz.
And it’s not just global corporations that were forced to pay attention to Arab art this year. In May, 4500 pairs of shoes were laid out in front of Council of the European Union in the heart of Brussels to represent every Palestinian killed in the conflict over the last 10 years. The activist group Avaaz created the display to raise awareness and apply pressure on the EU to rein in Israel’s government violence. In Kuwait, the “Cemetery of Banned Books” was built by artist Mohammad Sharaf to protest the international book fair that banned more than 4300 books. Despite the installation being removed within a couple hours, the photos went viral and brought international attention to the issue.
16. Boiler Room showed us a different side of apartheid through Palestine’s underground music scene.
The global imaginary of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is saturated with settlements, barriers, checkpoints, clashes, and ‘terrorism’. Boiler Room’s newest documentary through their 4:3 platform shows a different side of the conflict, following the lives of Ramallah and Haifa-based Palestinian artists who both face a different set of obstacles in their respective hometowns, as they attempt to bridge movements despite state-imposed barriers and the almost non-existent freedom of movement. They jump the wall, build connections, party, and create a thriving underground electronic music scene despite the odds.
17. One Syrian woman brought together 77 entrepreneurs from across the war-torn country.
From 2011 to 2014, the city of Homs underwent a painful siege that completely upended its society, economy, and everyday life. But the city is recovering now, asserts Alaa Elsewid, freshly graduated food engineer who is taking it upon herself to encourage and inspire Syrian youth to rebuild her war-torn country. In June, Elsewid organised Startup Weekend in Homs, where 77 would-be entrepreneurs journeyed through uncertain roads across all corners of Syria – from the Northern seaside town of Lattakia, to Tartous, Aleppo, Hama, Deir Al-Zor and the capital, Damascus – to gather at the event, the first of its kind in the Southern city.
18. The Beirut marathon was turned into a feminist rally.
Image used courtesy of ABAAD.
Every year, the Beirut International Marathon attracts tens of thousands of people from across the country and the world. This year, the sporting event was taken over by women and activists who decided not to run, but instead break the silence and face the social stigma against rape, rape culture, and victim blaming. The day was part of Lebanese organisation ABAAD’s campaign #ShameOnWho, which sheds light on the persistent pandemic of blaming the victim, instead of the rapist. This is the third time ABAAD has taken over the marathon like this. In 2017, they marched for greater prosecution of incestuous rape. In 2016, their campaign was a flash mob to raise awareness against Article 522, which allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married the victim and which ABAAD successfully got repealed from the Lebanese penal code.