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As Mideast boils over, AAM honors messengers of tolerance in TV, film

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As Mideast boils over, AAM honors messengers of tolerance in TV, film
From left: UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba; AAM Executive VP Esin Erkan; and AAM Founder and President Aaron Lobel attend America Abroad Media's 11th Annual Awards Dinner on Feb. 28 at the US Institute of Peace. (Photos by Tony Powell)

As Israel battles Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Middle East appears closer to all-out war than it has in decades, with the latest conflict threatening to involve not only the Palestinians but Iran, Syria, Yemen and possibly even Egypt.

Times like these require sensitivity, empathy and tolerance—all of which are now in dangerously short supply across the region.

America Abroad Media (AAM), a recognized leader that “champions global storytelling through the power of entertainment,” touched on those themes during its 11th annual awards dinner.

The gala event, held Feb. 28 at the US Institute of Peace, attracted 200 people—most of them paying $750 a plate to dine on ginger-roasted pear salad with pecan-crusted chèvre; chicken breast with fondant potatoes, and for dessert, candied ginger coins and dark chocolate truffles.

From left: Dana Farouki; filmmaker and honoree Nujoom Al Ghanem; and AAM Founder and President Aaron Lobel attend America Abroad Media’s 11th Annual Awards Dinner on Feb. 28 at the US Institute of Peace.

The master of ceremonies was Mimi Geerges, former host and executive producer of The Mimi Geerges Show on Sirius XM and PBS, and also guest host of Washington Journal on C-SPAN.

“We are meeting here during a time of deepest tragedy in the Middle East,” said James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. “These events have underscored the importance of the Middle East to the United States and the rest of the world. Yet even in such somber times, we can look to culture, the arts, media and education—and their many efforts to bridge national, ethnic and religious divides. These bearers of hope should be recognized and celebrated, because they have such a unique power to bring us all together.”

Among the guests: US special envoy Tim Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, Iraq and regional multiregional affairs, as well as Barbara Leaf, the assistant US secretary of state for Near East affairs, Also in attendance were the Washington-based ambassadors of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Norway and Uzbekistan.

“With empathy comes understanding, compassion, tolerance and the space to ask hard questions. Storytelling, whether in fiction , nonfiction, theater, dance or novels, matters because it is yours. Every once in a while, we find the answer,” said novelist and screenwriter Lea Ackerman, one of the event’s co-chairs. “This is what our honorees tonight excel at: asking the questions and finding the truths.”

Chris Isham and UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba attend America Abroad Media’s 11th Annual Awards Dinner on Feb. 28 at the US Institute of Peace.

AAM Founder and President Aaron Lobel noted that this marked the first time the US Institute for Peace hosted his organization’s annual dinner.

“Our focus is culture and storytelling. Current events only underscore the enormous need for films and TV series that emphasize our common humanity,” he said. “That’s AAM’s mission. That’s why we’re here tonight.”

Welsh-Egyptian screenwriter and director Sally El Hosaini was feted for her movie The Swimmers, which tells the story of two Syrian sisters—refugees who swam to freedom in Europe to escape the horrors of Syria’s 13-year-old civil war—and later competed as swimmers at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I’m really honored to be among you,” El Hosaini said in accepting her award. “The Swimmers is an inspirational, true-life story. They reminded me of me and my friends growing up in Egypt. Through them, I saw this opportunity to make heroes out of the type of modern, liberal Arab women who exist but rarely appear on our cinema screens. There’s more that unites us than divides us, and cinema has the power to build empathy and understanding. It humanizes others and allows the audience to look in someone else’s eyes and walk in someone else’s shoes until they’re no longer the ‘other.’”

From left: Huda Farouki; AAM Executive VP Esin Erkan; Kuwaiti Ambassador Al Zain Al Sabah; and Samia Farouki attend America Abroad Media’s 11th Annual Awards Dinner on Feb. 28 at the US Institute of Peace.

The 134-minute biographical sports drama, available on Netflix, received generally favorable reviews and an 83% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

“It’s such an important time for people to see the visibility of refugees,” El Hosaini explained. “Refugees are just regular people who have hopes and dreams, ordinary people like you and me who have had to make unimaginable choices—risking everything for safer, better lives. Awards like this encourage creatives to do their part. And I’m really touched that our film was chosen.”

Another filmmaker, Nujoom Al Ghanem of the United Arab Emirates, was honored by AAM foro her pioneering contributions to the UAE film industry. Her films—such as Near by Sky, Sharp Tools and Sounds of the Sea—“express the authentic facets and rhythms of Emirati society while also addressing universal themes such as women’s empowerment, climate change and the tensions between tradition and modernity,” said AAM.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) and former Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) attend America Abroad Media’s 11th Annual Awards Dinner on Feb. 28 at the US Institute of Peace.

Like other speakers before her, Al Ghanem decried the ongoing violence in Gaza.

“At this moment, we are seeing the most awful displacement in history. It is worth expressing our sadness and bitterness because of what’s happening in the Middle East,” she said. “My work talks about displacement. As a child, I felt I was displaced because I was taken from my mother and raised by my grandmother. Until today, that’s made me a nervous person. I’m so grateful that film and art have given me the freedom to express myself and all the feelings and emotions that I think are universal.”

She also expressed hope that moviegoers outside the Middle East would also come to learn about the UAE beyond the glitzy skyscrapers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“Our country is not only buildings. It also has extraordinary people. They have something very special, and I feel responsible to keep bringing more stories to light—and for people to see the real UAE and the real Arab world,” she said. “Hopefully with this recognition, I will be able to keep working independently.”

From left: Ambassadors Abdulla Al Khalifa of Bahrain; Motaz Zahran of Egypt; Ray Mahmood; and Khazar Ibrahim of Azerbaijan.

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.