Sunday, May 8, 2016

Angry Birds with my Baby Birds

Why so angry?

If you are anything like our family then you too might also know a couple of crazy birdies in your nest addicted to the insane slingshooting of colorful bird-balls onto green pigs villages. In our case, papa-bird and his graceful daughter spent hours perfecting their aim and demolishing pig homes. 

But why? Why so angry, little birdies?

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Well my happy-angry crew and I were lucky enough to be invited to the premiere of Angry Birds The Movie yesterday at Reel Cinemas in City Walk 2 and the answer to that question was finally revealed.

Photo: R. Abouzeid
The red carpet treatment is always a blast and we got to pose with the stars of the film which was the highlight of my five year old's day. And let me tell you, she is not easily pleased. If you own one of those at home, you probably know they have very particular opinions on things and events and they are not easily impressed. But we were greeted with essentials which made all the difference: a pair of sunglasses and a micro coloring kit (so cool). She was sold. I mean, who does not like a funky pair of glasses, right?

Photo: R. Abouzeid

And bonus for mommy, the formidable photo booth by Fishfayce which transforms regular snaps into brilliant little flip books!

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Photo: R. Abouzeid

My talented daughter also seized the opportunity to release the artist within at the coloring tables which she categorically refused to leave before her chef-d'oeuvre was completed, not even to try face painting or Angry Birds Yoga which looked like so much fun. Seriously, those poses were brilliant!

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Armed with snacks and excitement, we entered the theater and took our seats. Pop corn, water and seat booster in places, we were ready.

Photo: TOH Public Relations

"The movie takes us to an island populated entirely by happy, flightless birds – or almost entirely. In this paradise, Red (Jason Sudeikis, We're the Millers, Horrible Bosses), a bird with a temper problem, speedy Chuck (Josh Gad in his first animated role since Frozen), and the volatile Bomb (Danny McBride, This is the End, Eastbound and Down) have always been outsiders. But when the island is visited by mysterious green piggies, it’s up to these unlikely outcasts to figure out what the pigs are up to."

Photo: TOH Public Relations
Turns out, those birds are not just furious because of their unfortunate disproportionate eyebrows. They happen to have good reasons! 

No spoilers here, you will have to head to the cinemas on May 12 and find out what those reasons are for yourself!

Photo: TOH Public Relations

The kids had loads of fun and we all had great laughs. The script is funny and appeals to audiences of all ages with not only jokes for the grown-ups but also a soundtrack that will take you back in time with remixes of oldies and classics.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Absolute bonus: the film is released in both English and Arabic and quite frankly, this is a refreshing change. Initiatives of the sort are a real need in the region and Arab audiences always welcome localized content. But so far, this has been very limited and mostly produced for television. Hopefully, more investments will follow that direction and bring Arab audiences the blockbusters they love in Arabic, simultaneously with the releases of original versions.

Photo: TOH Public Relations

Raya Abi Rached (Scoop With Raya, Arabs Got Talent), who features as the voice of Souka in the Arabic version (Mathilda in English), said: “It is hugely important to have these films localised. It happens in every big movie market in the world like Germany, France and Italy. They always have a localized performance for the local audience. This transformation will give Arab audiences a chance to engage more with the film alongside their English speaking counterparts.”

Mario Jr. Haddad, Vice President, Empire International Gulf adds: “Empire is honored to bring The Angry Birds Movie to the Middle-East in English and Arabic. We have made a strategic decision to invest in Arabic content and we believe that this is just the beginning of a major shift in the way that the local market consumes Hollywood made blockbusters,” he continued, “with more than 45% of the GCC population (excluding Saudi Arabia) being movie goers, there is a lot of room for growth and development.”

Photo: R. Abouzeid

About Rovio 
Rovio Entertainment Ltd. is a global entertainment media company. Headquartered in Finland and with studios across the world, Rovio is the creator of Angry Birds, the casual mobile game that changed an industry and became an international phenomenon. Today Angry Birds is not only the most downloaded game of all time, it is a renowned entertainment brand that has branched out into animation, books, licensing and more. The Angry Birds Movie is slated for release in the Middle-East on May 12th, 2016.

About Sony Pictures Entertainment 
Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) is a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary of Tokyo- based Sony Corporation. SPE's global operations encompass motion picture production, acquisition and distribution; television production, acquisition and distribution; television networks; digital content creation and distribution; operation of studio facilities; and development of new entertainment products, services and technologies.

About Empire International Gulf
Established and headquartered in Beirut since 1919, Empire International is a leading movie distributor in the Middle East. The company is the exclusive distributor for Sony Pictures Releasing International, 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks Animation titles in the region.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Going beyond April

Today is April 15, that means Autism Awareness Month is halfway through and in a couple of weeks, the word "Autism" will start to fade on our computer and mobile screens and consequently, in the lives of many. I am not trying to be dramatic for effect, but it is the reality. Autism Awareness Month is indeed coming to an end and soon, most lives will be free from that concern. 

But there is one thing families with Autism know for a fact: we have Autism all year round, all the time. No expiry date in sight. It is a reality we have to live with. 

Following April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day, all I could see on Facebook and Twitter were articles and blogs on Autism (which was amazing, emotional and inspiring all at once). I found myself scrolling frantically, attempting to filter those I thought were really worth sharing without spamming the friends who followed my posts on social media. Inevitably, I ended up jamming a million posts in only a couple of days and naturally, as time passed, fewer articles were showing and I had to actually search for new ones to be able to share at least one story a day.

So how do we keep the momentum going? 

How do we continue educating others and bettering society for all of us, not just the families affected by Autism?

An open-mind, an open heart
First and foremost we learn Empathy and we teach it. Just like any other skill, it can be taught, it can be learnt and it can be perfected. There is nothing weird about that, really. Ideally, humans should be able to feel with their peers and other creatures and know right from wrong. We expect these abilities to be innate. They really are not. Growing and bettering one's soul is just the same as developing our physical and intellectual competences. If good health implies a healthy mind in a healthy body, then Empathy is an exercise for the soul equally important to workouts that keep our bodies fit or intellectual stimulation and challenges that keep our minds sharp. We must seek it. We must enforce it. We must practice it. Being a responsible human being implies so much and it is not easy but it is a must. Responsibility towards our Earth, our peers and all living creatures will ensure our survival on this planet. We need to understand we are all connected and the pain of one is the pain of us all. Or at least it should be. In this way, ignoring others is betraying one's self and solidarity with one is solidarity with all, and with one's self. I am not speaking of religions or spirituality here (not that there is anything wrong with that) and nurturing one's soul is not a distant abstract concept. Empathy is real and universal to all.

Less judging, more acting
The ability to understand and share another person's pain is commendable but it is not enough. We must act too. So when we see a child (or an adult for that matter) literally exploding in one of those terrifying tantrums, or suddenly running away for no apparent reason, or expressing violence towards another or himself, let us refrain from judging. I hear it too often here in Dubai: "kids in this country are spoiled and their parents are not doing their job and setting boundaries". That is so unfair and absolutely not true on so many levels. Each human being is a different independent person. Children are not robots. The assumption that because a child is acting out of societal norms, it automatically means parents have failed and that child is "bad" is outrageous. Let us spare ourselves and others the waste of time that is blame. It is not conductive to positive change or constructive efforts. It simply dumps responsibility on others so we do not have to bother ourselves with the burden. But that burden is ours, all of us. Society is ours. And when society outcasts people because of their differences, it makes it harder for those individuals or families to help themselves. However, when we all feel it is our role to act and try to rectify a certain situation for the better, then things start to fall into place naturally and everyone's lives become easier. Condemnation and vilification are easy. Involvement on the other hand, is much trickier. Be present and be involved. For your own sake and that of others.  

Being involved and transforming our society into one that is more accepting and open-minded will lead to better integration of all its members. As parents of children with Special Needs, we are always actively looking for organizations and institutions that offer inclusive programs and policies. In academia, in sports, in arts. In Dubai, it is illegal for schools to reject students because they have special needs. That does not mean that it does not happen. But as parents you think, why would I want to force a school to accept my child when I know too well that they refuse to help him? Luckily we also have a wide array of mainstream nurseries and schools that offer integration within certain frameworks like shadow teachers assisting on site. That is definitely a blessing, but a costly one. Therapy, shadowing and schools tuitions are not covered by insurances and it can get quite expensive, very quickly. In my humble opinion, I think all institutions, public and private should be inclusive. It should be done in a proper way so that the child with special needs, the classmates and the school's staff and faculty all feel comfortable and can build, teach and learn efficiently. Ultimately, schools are like micro-societies where children learn how to behave within their communities. It is how they grow to become well adjusted, functioning adults. If we want our children with Autism or other special needs to be able to live happily as adults, they need to experience these micro-societies too and they need to learn how to navigate social situations. This understanding of communal behavior can only come from exposure to others. 

Special Needs Centers
Sometimes, special needs and disabilities can make integration difficult. Some children might pose dangers to themselves or to others and they need to be cared for by experts within specialized, safe environments where understanding and help are constants. These options are wonderful and allow children and even adults to discover talents and hobbies they enjoy and maybe even build skills that can lead them to become a little bit more independent, be it for daily tasks like eating or using the bathroom to more complex abilities like achieving a certain financial autonomy (some institutions even secure jobs and placements within suitable workplaces that welcome special needs). In that way, special needs centers are admirable. However, we need to always be careful and make sure the organizations we choose are indeed providing all of the above and more. 

And as a society we need to remember that these centers are not an easy way to alleviate guilt and relieve ourselves from responsibility. It is not because these centers provide a safe, constructive environment to people with special needs that we are no longer responsible for being supportive in mainstream places and situations. 

Special needs are not annoyances that interrupts our daily lives. The solution is not to just place these people in specialized centers. They spend a great deal of their day there but at the end of the day, they get out to the "outside world" and they have to face, well, us. 

Special needs are realities of our daily lives. We cannot dismiss them. We cannot avoid them. We must learn to open up to them and to the wonderful array of possibilities and potential they can bring to our world. 

This is how we go beyond April. This is how we push further than just a single month a year. Educating, raising awareness and dedicating a day or a month is truly commendable but it is only a stepping stone to inspire, stimulate and cultivate new ways of thinking and acting and hopefully on the long run, create new policies and behaviors. 

This testimonial was written for Mums Like Us.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016


Jad turned four a few weeks ago. In a day, all media around us will start talking about Autism and featuring stories of other children and adults and families living "on the spectrum". Because incidentally, Jad's birthday is closely followed by Autism Awareness Month/Day.

It is good. It helps. We need more awareness and we need to educate people because there is still so much to be done for our society to be truly whole and equal. Integration should not be a particular effort we are praised for.  Integration of all people, all kinds of people, should be the natural order of things in our modern, informed world. It is not though. And this is why Autism Awareness is so important.

But every time I want to write objectively on what Autism is and what it means and maybe how and what to do, I just freeze.

All I can think about right now is Jad is four. Jad is growing. He is absolutely beautiful. But he is growing. And as much as it brings me joy and pride to see him grow into a loving, fantastic little boy, to me right now, it also means, another year has passed and Jad remains non verbal.

Of course the reasonable part of me has accepted that Jad may never be fully verbal, or not at all. I have read enough to understand that this is a possibility.

It is a good thing I am typing right now because usually, at this point of the conversation my voice is already breaking and burning tears are rolling down my cheeks even though I truly do not mean to cry. So I guess I am grateful for that other part of me.

The mommy part that still hopes in spite of all the reasoning. It is timid. It does its praying on the inside,  in silence. Maybe it doesn't want to jinx it. I don't know. But that part hangs on to that story of a few children who finally said their first words at eight. Eight is a good number. I like it. It is arbitrary. It means nothing from a scientific standpoint. But I like it. It gives us time. It gives us another four whole years. Who knows what could happen in four years, right?

And then there is the reality. Not the pessimistic me. Not the hopeful me. Just the every day me. The one who lives with Jad in every moment of his life.

That me is sad today.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a sad person. Jad gives me joy a thousand times a day.

But still, if I have to sum up and rate my day in one word, the rating would be "sad" for today.

I can't help but play that one afternoon over and over again in my mind. We walked by the marina at Festival City and there was this awesome set up of games and food stands for kids. Mia insisted on playing mini-golf so her dad took her while Jad and I stayed on the improvised wooden stairs that served as benches in front of a small stage. He loved it. He was free to run along while I could be at peace knowing the space for this freedom was well defined within actual wooden borders. All he did was run back and forth on one bench. Over and over and over again. He seemed happy. He was laughing and "saying things". I don't know what. Not words. Just sounds. But I was relieved he seemed and sounded content. And then he suddenly stopped. He just sat there, staring in the distance, babbling calmly now, almost whispering to himself. So I looked to see what might have caught his attention. I couldn't tell. I asked him and of course that was silly. He had no way of telling me and I had no indication  he had even understood my question. Still I touched his hand and asked again. He just continued his babbling as he released his little hand from under my fingers. And my heart broke.  I stared at him in silence while he babbled staring in the distance. And I fought the tears because you don't want to break down and cry in front of your children. Or an entire crowd of strangers for that matter. I just kept on doing the only thing I could do. I watched him talking to himself in his little bubble and I just prayed. I just prayed he was happy.  I wanted so badly to know what he was feeling in that moment because as a parent, all you want is for your kids to be happy and to be able to be there should they need you. And for lack of better options like, I don't know, read his mind or something, I just sat on that silly bench praying he knew I was there and hoping he didn't need more than that in that moment. And hopefully, that he was happy or at the very least not sad.

All this talk about me and my feelings. While I know it is not about me. But I guess today I need to let some of it out because it is stuck in my throat and I am suffocating. Tomorrow is another day and things will be better.

Jad may be the one on the spectrum but our entire family has autism. And if there is one thing people can take from this testimonial, it is this. Be kind and understanding to families with special needs. We run out of patience with the world because patience is a luxury we need to save for our difficult moments at home. Give us space. Give us understanding. And most importantly, love our children. Because the one fear we have is to one day leave this world and abandon our children at the mercy of a tough and often cold society.

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