"We had to wake up
at 4.30 every morning. By 5.30 we were in the airplane ...
travelling. Then, get to the next site ... pick our bags, go
to the hotel room, wash our faces and out from 7 am to 7 pm on
rough rough roads ... it is really exhausting". Maha Gargash
is no dainty darling. If she was, she probably would not have
been the Director of Dubai TV's Arabesque programme or deserve
to be declared the Top woman employee at the Dubai Government
excellence awards for the year 2000
|Maha with her cameraman Yousef Salamah, out on
Jostling with the crowds in a hot Yemeni market filming the
local population buying the local drug called qat, walking
from dawn to dusk through the long and rough roads of Uganda
and Ethiopia for days on end documenting the history of these
ancient lands, their peoples and their cultures, and driving
beyond the urban to the harsher ends of the UAE's desert
landscape seeking out new stories, has become a way of life
for Maha and her tiny team of two.
All year long, the team travels extensively seeking out
untold stories of dying traditions, and documenting Arab
culture and heritage, transitional phases in local lifestyles
and, sometimes, a stubbornly unchanging past. Being part of a
small team, Maha often doubles up as researcher and
scriptwriter, does the voice over and edits the shots as well.
Schooled in Dubai during her formative years, Maha's
greatest advantage is that she is a native of Dubai and has
lived here for the most part of her life. That gives her
easier access to the most impenetrable part of the local
population -- the native Arab woman. Out of that emerged her
early documentaries An Invitation to a Wedding, which
gives an inside look into local weddings and preparations, and
Zena, which focuses on local women as in the past and
in the present. But now, she works full time on
Arabesque, a documentary series, which portrays life in
different Arab cultures, both home and abroad.
When she left for a college education to the United States
in 1980, Maha had dreamt of returning home as a journalist.
"But when I reached there, I changed my mind and decided no!
TV is more to my liking ... I became more interested in the
moving image and the combination of music and sound effects
than the written word although I end up writing a lot of
scripts ... but then, a TV script is very different from
print," she says. That, coupled with a fantastic professor,
who helped her discover where her talents lay, enabled her to
start afresh in television.
In 1994, she returned home, joined Dubai Television, worked
patiently on news and local programmes until she got the
opportunity to dig her hands into what she'd been itching to
do for many years -- documentaries.
Documentaries demanded extensive travel and commitment to
the project. The very nature of her work left her with no time
to settle down into married life -- at least, not yet. But
having a supportive family around has made things easy in a
region where women often get married early. "My family knows
that my work and career are important to me. So they are not
bothered as long as I am happy," says Maha. As the only
daughter among three brothers, one would presume that she must
have been pampered. "No," she says. Rather, "I was pushed to
strive for better things in life. So I became ambitious like
And ambition is
what has driven Maha Gargash to her current position.
WomenOne chats with the Director of the
Arabesque documentary series to find out more about her
work and what makes her tick.
|Reversing the lens on
My interest in television stems from the possibilities in
expression through the medium. It is a versatile tool for
articulation. One can be artistic, innovative,
straightforward, or completely unconventional.
How would you define your style?
Well ... depends on the stories. Some stories demand much
faster edits ... the way you cut it ... the way you chop it.
Some stories demand a slower style ... where you can take your
time ... like wild life stories ... people want to see the
animals ... so you have to huddle along with the elephants.
At the same time, I have tried to present a clear picture
of what I want to say through my programmes while maintaining
as much as possible my original stamp on the programme.
How would you define your role at Dubai TV?
Although I am employed as a Director in Dubai television,
more and more I find I am more than that. I am an
investigator, a scriptwriter, a researcher, a creator, a
translator, and a listener. I suppose all that goes into the
creation of a successful programme.
Arabesque all about?
|Shooting wildlife in
The programme consists of three or four features -- of
about 12 minutes each -- in an episode. It deals with a range
of subjects including art, environment, nature, tourism,
animals, social subjects and personality profiles. Some 50
stories are needed to make up the full 13 episodes of the
All episodes are done in both Arabic and English. So, 13
Arabic and 13 English. We do 50% Arab region, or rather 40%
local and 10% Arab and the other 50% is from the rest of the
world. We like to stress a lot on local stories because we
speak the language ... we are local ... we can relate to the
people better. So, we try and find dying cultures or people
who are isolated, or something you don't see here because it
has become so modern here that we have lost touch with what it
used to be.
What do you do when you are not working?
Well ... it's usually reading or daydreaming or playing the
piano or singing. I studied Opera at the University. I'm also
a Black Belt in Karate but I have an injured knee at the
moment. So, now I'm trying to learn to ride horses.
What do you think is your greatest strength in this
The fact that I am bilingual and quite comfortable with
both Arabic and English. So, I can understand the sometimes
very difficult accents of remote regions and relate to their
way of thinking.
What are you working on currently?
We just went to Ethiopia. So part one will be a historical
background of Addis Ababa and the history of Ethiopia. Of
course, we just filmed for 5 days. It's not enough if we are
going to do a proper Ethiopia story. We'll need a full month
to cover the whole thing.
Tell us one of your favourite stories.
Actually, there are many! They are all interesting because
we see different things. And they are all good and bad in
their own ways. Ethiopia was very fantastic in terms of so
much material and stories and subjects but very difficult and
beautiful. Ayurveda was very interesting. It was one of those
stories that we decided to do when we got there. We went to
this very old factory in Trivandrum, which had these really
old machines. The family's been around for a 100 years. It was
a fantastic factory. That, was a good story.
|In God's own
Do you find it limiting that you film for so many days
and have to condense it to 11 or 12 minutes? How do you manage
to bring out the essence then?
Well, that is the art of TV scriptwriting. You have to say
a lot with few words. Ethiopia's history, for instance, goes
back to 3000 years ago and we have to condense it.
You have filmed animals at close range in Africa. Are
No. Not with the animals. It's usually dangerous with
Well ... not danger danger. I mean, once we did a story on
the qats -- the plants that the Yemeni population takes like a
drug. It's very expensive and one of the major problems in
their economy because people are spending so much money on
buying it and living poor as a result. We did a story on that.
We went filming in the market where they sell it. Because it's
a drug, they get withdrawal symptoms if they don't take it.
So, by 12 o'clock midday, our driver was like all flustered
and said, 'I need to go and buy it.' There are these huge
bushels in the marketplace. The people just sit there and chew
it like a cow. They store it at the side of their mouth and
swallow the juice slowly and it gives them that energy. We
were filming that. Someone at the market thought we were
making fun of them and the police came and arrested our
cameraman. But luckily, we managed to get out of it.
Did your education abroad help?
Yes! Because you broaden your horizons, you see new things
and you are exposed to new mediums.
But you were sure you would come back home?
Yaah! Somehow I knew it. If you don't come back, give your
input ... if everybody does that, then what's the point?
Moreover, I like to live here. Here, we are very close to the
family. It's difficult to uproot yourself and give up
everything you believe in. If you live in an American society,
it's a very different society -- one that swallows you up. If
you want to fit in, you have to become americanised. You
cannot keep your identity and be happy there because the whole
framework ... the whole system is like that. They all have the
same kind of lifestyle ... same type of high school,
university, the same input. So it is limiting ... you don't
get the individualism that you get in other parts of the
world. In Europe, you would get individualism. People live
very happily as an Arab in Paris. They can be Arab and stay
Arab. But you cannot do that in America. On the other side,
there are various opportunities there. It is advanced
Do you think you missed out on that bit there?
No. Because in the end you want to do something with your
skills and be happy as well and I think I have achieved that
Most people eventually hope to do a dream project. Do
you have one?
Yes! It would be nice to do a good budget feature film -- a
local production on an international scale. Right now, there
is no film industry here. I want to set it just before the oil
and how it was before and after. Technical skills, we can
always bring from abroad but what we need is local talent like
a good scriptwriter and Arab actors. That will be the day!
Would you like to respond to this article? Click here!
Lubna Al Qasimi