It may be one thing to land a cushy job at Dubai TV but it's quite another to be Director of the Arabesque series. When you meet Maha Gargash, you would have seen a UAE national woman, who has bravely stepped out of the archetypal woman's role into a profession that is tough yet very rewarding, writes Vijaya George. 

Maha with her cameraman Yousef Salamah, out on a shoot

"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

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, andZena, 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 them."

Reversing the lens on herself

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.

Why television?

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.

What is Arabesque all about?

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 programme.

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 profession?

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 rough.

In God's own country

Kerala was 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.

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 they dangerous?

No. Not with the animals. It's usually dangerous with people.

With people?

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 technologically.

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 balance.

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!