6 May 2014
My company Firehorse is featured in ArabAd, the monthly communications and business magazine. The special report is on the production industry in the MENA region.
My company Firehorse is featured in ArabAd, the monthly communications and business magazine. The special report is on the production industry in the MENA region.
Looking up at the stars, from my balcony overlooking a wintry Mediterranean sea, my heart smiles to see Orion looking down on me. The great Greek hunter, father of the biblical Nephilim, ancient Egyptian constellation of rebirth and the afterlife has been my winter companion these past twenty years. It seems fitting that the constellation is shining brightly in the sky on this last day of a defining year, a giant frozen Nimrod forever chasing the seven sisters across the dark void. I have often asked myself why this particular constellation calls to my senses and my intellect?
At the end of this year and end of this age, it occurs to me that the symbols of Orion are very relevant in my life as it has played out in 2012. The first part of the year I spent inventing an afterlife for myself. The life I wish to live after the end of this life and just like the Mayans meant by the end of an age, so I mean by the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, built on the ashes of my life experience. If anything, 2012 showed me that it is time to move into a new phase of being, working, living. But how does a middle-aged woman go about re-inventing her life?
I find that I, like most people, hold on to things tightly, things like experience, like success, like pain, like fear. So for a start, I had to let go and hope the fall did not break my neck. Then I had to decide on my path and no matter how murky, set about finding people to help me clear it. This I did with the aid of partners, friends and colleagues. I travelled and I met new people with exciting new ideas for an old analoguer like me, ideas which will allow me to re-invent myself in a brave new digital age. I know I am being deliberately vague but I can’t reveal my secrets just yet, though I can mysteriously say that the American bible belt is in my future and you can make of that what you will.
You are probably asking yourselves why re-invent your life? Surely the status-quo we all work so hard towards should not be messed with but I say to you that just when you want to sit and stretch on your laurels life has a way to shake things up making you move on to new and frightening places, with or without your permission. So like Orion, I spent six months hunting in the void and found the beginnings of a re-birth and vision which will shape my future and hopefully put food on the table at the same time.
In the last part of the year, I directed a biography documentary series on the life of one of Lebanon’s most famous war lords. Like the Nephilim this man was viewed by some as a god-like giant and by others as a harbinger of death and destruction. I feel oddly close to this man whose life was a tightrope walk between bloodshed and demise, living in a period of this country’s history which I did not experience first-hand. Working on the series it occurred to me that he, like Orion, was hunting for a solution to the many problems swamping his people, his country and his identity. I wonder sometimes if he is standing behind me while I edit his life into viewable chunks. His charismatic face calling out to me from the afterlife about his longings and his regret. Watching him in jerky black and white images or Polaroid coloured video I wonder what he would make of this digital age of ours and what he would make of me re-interpreting his life? I can see him waggling his finger and shaking his head in sorrow because here, in Lebanon, seemingly nothing changes, only time passes. But that sentiment is not absolute, things do change and in the retelling of a life cut short by assassination my protagonist is now like Orion stuck as a giant in the void of this country’s history. And it is so easy to get stuck in the quagmire that is the Middle East. Its problems stifling. Its vision short. Yet for all that my rebirth will be from here because no other place can invent and re-invent a stubborn hunter like Nimrod, a phalli-centric god like Osiris, a skirt chaser like Orion and little old me.
I wish you all a lovely happy New Year.
“Our success has really been based on partnerships from the very beginning.” Bill Gates
As I walked up onto the stage of the large auditorium at the Congre Istanbul Merkezi (Istanbul Congress Center), with my partner of twelve years, Najat Rizk, to collect our AllWorld Network Arabia 500 medals, I was reminded of Bill Gates’ quote about partnerships and success. In our case a truer word could not have been spoken. In no way is the next thought logical or business like but our partnership has an ingredient which to me is akin to magic. Laugh it up if you must but I tell you there is a secret ingredient which made itself known from the first instance. Anne Habibi, one of the co-founders of the AllWorld network, referred to us as the ‘Dynamic Duo’ of the Arab production world. Thanks Anne, you know we are going to be arguing for the rest of the week as to who is Batman and who is Robin? Almost from that first instance there was a synergy between us but it was not necessarily a given. Two women, two film-makers, two ambitions but we shared the same vision, wanted to climb the same mountain, are almost exactly the same age and interestingly, I had named the company for my horoscope and it turned out it was one she shared – so we are both Firehorses. And if you know anything about Firehorses then you know that after the blinkers are off the relationship should go downhill fast. But not for us. I have had other partners, good ones, successful ones but no one like Najat and for her no one like me. Coincidence? Serendipity? Who knows but I do know that though we could have had success solo, together, the lows have not been lonely and getting to the highs has been an adventure worthy of a television documentary. Who would have thought, two women living in a predominantly patriarchal society, would face it head on while making films on Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Israel’s relationship with Hezbollah, among others and come through it with their reputations made as serious film-makers, setting the stage for Firehorse to become one of the premier production companies in the Arab world for Factual Entertainment. What makes our double act so special? Is it that Najat is a doer and I am a writer? Could it be that her knowledge and love of regional politics and my love of history and of story structure make for one strong film? Is she Robert De Nero to my Martin Scorsese? Too American. Am I David Lean to her Alec Guinness? Too British. Is she Johnny Depp to my Tim Burton? Too weird. We come from different backgrounds, different countries and types of upbringing. She is a child of war torn Beirut, growing up dodging rockets while going to school and inhaling the politics of the middle east with her packed lunch. I grew up in London in the 1980’s. New Wave music, big shoulder pads and whether Boy George was gay or asexual were the landmarks of my childhood. I remember staying home from school when the IRA put a bomb in letterbox. I remember walking past the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 and wondering what the police were doing surrounding the building and closing all the roads (ok – give me a break I was…young) but that is the extent of violent politics affecting my childhood. My biggest angst was surviving the Opus Dei elements at my school instead of surviving to see another day. So not the same childhood. Not the same early adulthood either but interestingly she did geography and geo-politics at university and I did archaeology and history. Then she became a producer and I became a writer-director and that is where we came together. We have never competed for each other’s positions either while making a film or within our company. In the end I guess I am Mouna to her Najat and that has worked for us over, above and through all the times and different moods that colour our relationship. Looking back at the last twelve years and what made our partnership so special (aside from the magical ingredient) was trust. Trust encompasses so many elements; love, respect, friendship to name a few and whether we are talking films, formats, strategy or having a screaming match, we never lost site of our baby. Firehorse. We created it as film-makers. We are evolving it as creative entrepreneurs. I think I have just coined a new term? Do I get another entrepreneurship medal for that? Pretty please. Finally, as we receive our AllWorld Network medals for being part of the Arabia 500, I would like to thank Anne Habibi and Deidre Coyle the co-founders of AllWorld for a wonderful three days in Istanbul for networking, for learning, for sharing and for a little reflection on the meaning of entrepreneurship, business partnership and extending your hand in friendship and business to people and countries never before on our radar. Namely Pakistan here we come. Hope you are ready for us Firehorses. PS: I am definitely Batman to Najat’s Robin. I am taller. You cannot have a short Batman to a tall Robin – it aesthetically wrong. Ok I am also older…by a few minutes… so that makes me Batman. And finally Batman does not have a Frenchy accent! Yes, I am Batman to her Robin. Too right.
Second Global Entrepreneur Summit
‘Cash flow is more important than your mother.’ quote by Professor Kenneth Morse
What makes a tired, jaded and somewhat disheartened Arab woman entrepreneur sit up, take notice and regain her enthusiasm? It could be the fact that the sessions today, at the Second Global Entrepreneur Summit and AllWord Network, were extremely interesting and enlightening. Could be the enthusiasm of other business men and women, could be that we are being actively feted by government ministers, Harvard professors and Venture Capitalists. Could be the story of the Saudi woman who won the AllWorld Network number one start up and got up to accept her prize in front of 500 Saudi men who gave her a standing ovation. Could be all of these things.
But while listening to Professor Kenneth Morse, ex MIT, ex Harvard, expound on the fire in the gut of entrepreneurs and their inexhaustible drive to achieve their dream, even when every one around them is telling them to give it up. I remembered.
I remembered those gut aching, joyous days when Najat and I shared a small desk, one computer, a telephone, in a two by four room convinced that we were the Arab world’s answer to David Attenborough. We were going to make documentaries that were going to blow Arab broadcaster’s socks off. We had a company, we had a vision but we didn’t have a business plan, or a strategy, we had no capital, hell we had no money. VC’s were not beating a path to our door. In fact I can safely say I had no idea what venture capital was and wouldn’t have believed we could be eligible for it. Finance, though needed to survive, was not something we actively pursued. In hindsight it seems crazy.
So how did we make it with no money to speak of, other than that earned on projects in an ad hoc way? We had an idea. One based on my love of history and Najat’s knowledge of the region. Something no one had done before. A series of documentary programmes on the religions of the Arab world. Through Najat’s contacts at the time we met the head of Al Jazeera television. He loved the idea for the new documentary channel Al Jazeera was launching and asked us to develop the series. Of course, like most Arab broadcasters, development fees were and are unheard of and of course were not forthcoming.
We spent a year developing the project, researching, writing treatments, working on budgets, living on peanuts. You could have sent a rocket to Mars and brought it back on the energy we had. Finally the series was ready to unveil to the powers that be at Al Jazeera. Off we went, borrowing money to travel to Doha. They loved it. Wanted it. Started the contractual process. We went back to Beirut to wait. And wait. And then war broke out.
The Second Gulf war started and a few months in, the Americans were very unhappy with the way Al Jazeera was portraying the events in Baghdad. Putting pressure on the Qatari government, the American administration had the head of Al Jazeera removed from his post. Had they but known what this would mean to two woman sitting in a tiny office in Jounieh in Lebanon, I am sure President Bush would have had second thoughts about the whole matter.
Oh. My. God. Please replace the man in Munch’s Scream with me and Najat and you’ll get some idea of our initial reaction.
Once we recovered from the melt down you would have thought that that was that. But hell no! We could see the potential, the business, the success, the money and we had the bit between our teeth. We were entrepreneurs and did not know it.
For six months Al Jazeera put us off telling us that the contract was being written, it was in the legal department, in finance, in HR, they lost it, they found it, they moved premises and lost it again. One bright morning, we decided as a last ditch effort to borrow more money and go to Doha and search the Al Jazeera offices ourselves, if necessary, for the contract.
Arriving in Doha, we make our way to the Al Jazeera Documentary offices for a meeting with the new head of channel. The previous day we had arranged with his assistant, who knew and liked Najat and I to look for the contract. She did. And God bless that woman she found it and had it ready for her boss’s signature.
Now the contract was for a 15 part documentary series of the religions (and sects) of the Arab world and we had budgeted for that. The budget took into consideration among other things, five crew (director, producer, camera man, sound engineer and assistant producer) travelling to 15 countries and staying approximately three weeks in each country for the filming. That description alone should give you a clue about the size of budget I am talking about – large and for broadcasters outsourcing factual entertainment (a rarity in those days) – very large. The head of the channel solemnly read the contract which I believe he had not actually seen before the day we arrived in Qatar. He very slowly took out a pen, while Najat and I sat like statues too afraid to move lest he change his mind. Whereupon he said ‘I would like to make one change.’ We looked nervously at each other and at him but said nothing. He said ‘I wish to remove a word and then I will sign the budget.’ We were numb. He scratched the word out. As the contract was in Arabic and upside down I was unsure which word was struck-through. Najat clutched my hand. He said I think for this budget we can take out the word Arab. Hmmm….My brain scrambled to re-arrange the title of the series. The Religions Of The World… Not …Arab World. The budget was made for the Arab world not the world. What? How? Is he kidding I thought? One look at Najat told me, no, he was not kidding. If we wanted this contract then we had to accept this condition though no way in hell was that budget going to cover the world! The world required a much, much larger budget!
To cut a long story short. We accepted the contract. We accepted to give the broadcaster a letter of credit and a guarantee for 25% of the money. How we got the bank to accept this is another story. We accepted things we had no idea of. No one had done this before. We are still accepting things that should not be. There are no adequate safeguards in place for companies like ours in the Arab world and maybe there never will be. But having said all that – wow – what a time it was for us and is for us now in this region. That series, did not make us rich but it did put us on the map. Work followed and apart from a few glitches, such as invasions and skirmishes, we have grown into the company we are today.
I believe over the last decade I have matured into an entrepreneur even if I was not born one and today I am no longer tired even though the battles facing pan-Arab entrepreneurship seem only to get tougher. I am no longer tired as I recognise and feel again the gut aching enthusiasm for what I do.