How a Religious Sect Landed Google in a Lawsuit

OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — In a tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a religious organization called the Fellowship of Friends has established an elaborate, 1,200-acre compound full of art and ornate architecture.

More than 200 miles away from the Fellowship’s base in Oregon House, Calif., the religious sect, which believes a higher consciousness can be achieved by embracing fine arts and culture, has also gained a foothold inside a business unit at Google.

Even in Google’s freewheeling office culture, which encourages employees to speak their own minds and pursue their own projects, the Fellowship’s presence in the business unit was unusual. As many as 12 Fellowship members and close relatives worked for the Google Developer Studio, or GDS, which produces videos showcasing the company’s technologies, according to a lawsuit filed by Kevin Lloyd, a 34-year-old former Google video producer.

critically acclaimed winery; and collected art from across the world, including more than $11 million in Chinese antiques.

Revelations.” Mr. Burton described Apollo as the seed of a new civilization that would emerge after a global apocalypse.

sold its collection of Chinese antiques at auction. In 2015, after its chief winemaker left the organization, its winery ceased production. The Fellowship’s president, Greg Holman, declined to comment for this article.

The Google Developer Studio is run by Peter Lubbers, a longtime member of the Fellowship of Friends. A July 2019 Fellowship directory, obtained by The Times, lists him as a member. Former members confirm that he joined the Fellowship after moving to the United States from the Netherlands.

At Google, he is a director, a role that is usually a rung below vice president in Google management and usually receives annual compensation in the high six figures or low seven figures.

Previously, Mr. Lubbers worked for the staffing company Kelly Services. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, won a similar suit against Kelly Services in 2008 on behalf of Lynn Noyes, who claimed that the company had failed to promote her because she was not a member of the Fellowship. A California court awarded Ms. Noyes $6.5 million in damages.

Ms. Noyes said in an interview that Mr. Lubbers was among a large contingent of Fellowship members from the Netherlands who worked for the company in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

At Kelly Services, Mr. Lubbers worked as a software developer before a stint at Oracle, the Silicon Valley software giant, according to his LinkedIn profile, which was recently deleted. He joined Google in 2012, initially working on a team that promoted Google technology to outside software developers. In 2014, he helped create G.D.S., which produced videos promoting Google developer tools.

Kelly Services declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Under Mr. Lubbers, the group brought in several other members of the Fellowship, including a video producer named Gabe Pannell. A 2015 photo posted to the internet by Mr. Pannell’s father shows Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, who is known as “The Teacher” or “Our Beloved Teacher” within the Fellowship. A caption on the photo, which was also recently deleted, calls Mr. Pannell a “new student.”

Echoing claims made in the lawsuit, Erik Johanson, a senior video producer who has worked for the Google Developer Studio since 2015 through ASG, said the team’s leadership abused the hiring system that brought workers in as contractors.

“They were able to further their own aims very rapidly because they could hire people with far less scrutiny and a far less rigorous on-boarding process than if these people were brought on as full-time employees,” he said. “It meant that no one was looking very closely when all these people were brought on from the foothills of the Sierras.”

Mr. Lloyd said that after applying for his job he had interviewed with Mr. Pannell twice, and that he had reported directly to Mr. Pannell when he joined a 25-person Bay Area video production team inside GDS in 2017. He soon noticed that nearly half this team, including Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell, came from Oregon House.

Google paid to have a state-of-the-art sound system installed in the Oregon House home of one Fellowship member who worked for the team as a sound designer, according to the suit. Mr. Lubbers disputed this claim in a phone interview, saying the equipment was old and would have been thrown out if the team had not sent it to the home.

The sound designer’s daughter also worked for the team as a set designer. Additional Fellowship members and their relatives were hired to staff Google events, including a photographer, a masseuse, Mr. Lubbers’s wife and his son, who worked as a DJ at company parties.

The company frequently served wine from Grant Marie, a winery in Oregon House run by a Fellowship member who previously managed the Fellowship’s winery, according to the suit and a person familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

“My personal religious beliefs are a deeply held private matter,” Mr. Lubbers said. “In all my years in tech, they have never played a role in hiring. I have always performed my role by bringing in the right talent for the situation — bringing in the right vendors for the jobs.”

He said ASG, not Google, hired contractors for the GDS team, adding that it was fine for him to “encourage people to apply for those roles.” And he said that in recent years, the team has grown to more than 250 people, including part-time employees.

Mr. Pannell said in a phone interview that the team brought in workers from “a circle of trusted friends and families with extremely qualified backgrounds,” including graduates of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2017 and 2018, according to the suit, Mr. Pannell attended video shoots intoxicated and occasionally threw things at the presenter when he was unhappy with a performance. Mr. Pannell said that he did not remember the incidents and that they did not sound like something he would do. He also acknowledged that he’d had problems with alcohol and had sought help.

After seven months at Google, Mr. Pannell was made a full-time employee, according to the suit. He was later promoted to senior producer and then executive producer, according to his LinkedIn profile, which has also been deleted.

Mr. Lloyd brought much of this to the attention of a manager inside the team, he said. But he was repeatedly told not to pursue the matter because Mr. Lubbers was a powerful figure at Google and because Mr. Lloyd could lose his job, according to his lawsuit. He said he was fired in February 2021 and was not given a reason. Google, Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell said he had been fired for performance issues.

Ms. Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, argued that Google’s relationship with ASG allowed members of the Fellowship to join the company without being properly vetted. “This is one of the methods the Fellowship used in the Kelly case,” she said. “They can get through the door without the normal scrutiny.”

Mr. Lloyd is seeking damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, failure to prevent discrimination and the intentional infliction of emotion distress. But he said he worries that, by doing so much business with its members, Google fed money into the Fellowship of Friends.

“Once you become aware of this, you become responsible,” Mr. Lloyd said. “You can’t look away.”

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Little cheer for Russian beer lovers as sanctions bite

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June 6 (Reuters) – “Sorry, that was the last bottle of Czech beer we had,” said a waiter at a central Moscow restaurant, a month after Russia sent troops into Ukraine and the West imposed sweeping sanctions.

More than 100 days into what Russia calls a special military operation in Ukraine, foreign alcohol is still available in Moscow pubs, but the once ample reserves are dwindling.

“Some pubs accumulated large stocks when it all started. But, as far as I know, there have been no new deliveries ordered and confirmed after Feb. 24,” said Alexander Skripkin, who manages two bars in Moscow.

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Many foreign companies including leading Western brewer in the country Carlsberg (CARLb.CO), Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR) and Heineken(HEIN.AS), have suspended sales in Russia and shipping trade has plummeted.

That haspressured the economy and affected the habits of Russians used to a lavish selection of foreign-made alcohol.

“The beer situation is very cheerless,” said Anton, a 36-year-old IT expert who works for a state financial organisation in Moscow.

“Not to mention Paulaner, Pilsner Urquell and other tasty stuff, I’m not at all confident if Russian beer is here to stay. There are problems not only with beer imports but even with imports of hops,” he added.

Russian breweries depend heavily on imports of raw materials, such as hops.

“Complications with sending money to suppliers in Europe and America, as well as the disruption of supply chains, are now the two most difficult issues,” Russia’s association of beer producers said, citing Beer Resource, one of Russia’s largest distributors of raw materials for breweries.

In early March, Carlsberg, AB Inbev and Heineken halted the production and sale of their flagship beers in the country and they have since said they will sell their businesses there. read more

CARGO SHIPMENTS

The world’s biggest foreign container lines – including the top three MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM – have temporarily suspended cargo shipments to and from Russia, while European Union countries sharing borders with Russia and Belarus have barred cargo vehicles registered in those countries from entering.

“There is no Guinness any longer and it won’t return, at least for now,” a bartender at the White Hart, a large English-style pub in central Moscow next to the central bank, said. It used to sell the stout for 690 roubles ($10.83) per pint.

Diageo (DGE.L), which makes Smirnoff vodka and Guinness, began its own distribution in Russia in 2006 and once noted enormous growth potential in the country. It said in March it had suspended all exports to Russia as well as local manufacturing of its beers.

But Guinness, which has one-year shelf life when stored in kegs, was still available at two pubs nearby where bartenders said they were selling stocks with little hope they would be replenished any time soon.

“We have stocks that should be enough for half a year,” said a representative of beer importer Nice Beer based in a Moscow suburb.

Foreign-made strong alcohol could also become scarce.

Warehouses are almost empty and restaurants are selling old stock, said Sergei Mironov, Moscow’s restaurant business ombudsman, state news agency RIA reported.

Russia President Vladimir Putin has said the sanctions will rebound on the West and provide new opportunities for Russian firms.

“Sometimes when you look at those who leave – thank God, perhaps? We will occupy their niches: our business, our production – it has already grown, and it will safely sit on the ground prepared by our partners,” Putin said on May 26. read more

With foreign alcohol flows drying up, bars and stores are considering locally-produced drinks.

“We’ve started looking for domestic alternatives to foreign beers and, as a result, the selection has changed drastically. Imported alcohol is now 20-50% more expensive, while local beers are slightly cheaper than imported ones used to be before Feb. 24,” Skripkin said.

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Reporting by Reuters, editing by Ed Osmond

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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‘They Are Gone, Vanished’: Missing Persons Haunt Ukrainian Village

In a Russian-occupied village, five men went off to feed cattle. Their relatives and neighbors are wondering what happened to them.


HUSARIVKA, Ukraine — The cows wouldn’t stop screaming.

Russian soldiers had occupied this remote village in eastern Ukraine for about two weeks and were using a farm as a base. But the animals at the farm hadn’t been fed. Their incessant bleating was wearing on both occupiers and townspeople.

A group of five residents from Husarivka, an unassuming agricultural village of around 1,000 people, went to tend the cattle.

They were never heard from again.

“My two nephews disappeared. They went to feed the cows on the farm,” said Svitlana Tarusyna, 70. “They are gone, vanished.”

What transpired in Husarivka has all the horrifying elements of the more widely publicized episodes involving Russian brutality: indiscriminate killings, abuse and torture taking place over the better part of a month.

considering applying for membership in the alliance. Dmitri A. Medvedev, Russia’s former president and prime minister, said Moscow would be forced to “seriously strengthen” its defenses in the Baltics if the two countries were to join.

The five men fed the cows and tended to their duties. But as they left, something on the farm exploded, residents recalled. Whether it was an artillery strike or an attempt at sabotage is unclear, but it seemed to contribute to their disappearance; Mr. Doroshenko stated that the Russians captured the men after the explosion. It is possible they were behind some type of attack on the Russian headquarters.

“They only got to the crossroad and were seized,” Mr. Doroshenko said.

Two other people near the farm also went missing that day, Mr. Doroshenko added. Roughly a week later, on March 24, a Russian sniper shot and killed Andriy Mashchenko as he rode home on his bicycle. He had been sheltering in a neighbor’s basement during an artillery barrage. He died on Peace Street.

Under heavy bombardment, the Russians retreated from Husarivka about two days later, and Ukrainian forces swept through afterward. The town’s casualty tally during the occupation: seven people missing, two killed by gunfire and at least two by shelling.

Evidence scattered around the town showed how artillery had ruled the day. Spent rockets lay in fields. Roofs were caved in. The rusted hulks of Russian vehicles were seemingly everywhere. In one armored personnel carrier, the corpse of what was presumed to be a Russian soldier remained, barely recognizable as someone’s son.

But as Ukrainian soldiers sifted through the battlefield wreckage after their victory, they found something on Petrusenko Street. It was in a backyard basement sealed shut by a rusted metal door.

“In this cellar the bodies were found,” said Olexiy, a chief investigator in the region who declined to provide his last name for security reasons. He gestured down into a soot-covered hole. “They were covered by car tires and burned,” he said.

“There is no way to tell the cause of their death,” he added, “We found three hands, two legs, three skulls.”

The bodies have yet to be identified, he said. Residents of Husarivka believe the three had been part of the group of five who disappeared. Images provided to The New York Times clearly showed that a rubber work boot was melted to the foot of one leg.

But hauntingly, no one knows for sure what happened to the five men. Many of the cows they went to feed ended up being killed by the shelling.

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Heineken to exit Russia at cost of around 400 million euros, article with image

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  • Heineken, Carlsberg to quit Russian market
  • InBev joint venture remains
  • Russia accounts for 10% of Carlsberg’s sales
  • Heineken seeks to transfer business but won’t profit from sale

AMSTERDAM/COPENHAGEN March 28 (Reuters) – Brewing giants Carlsberg (CARLb.CO) and Heineken (HEIN.AS) said on Monday they would quit Russia, joining an exodus of Western companies as pressure grows on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged international companies to turn their backs on the Russian market after the launch last month of what Moscow termed a “special military operation” against its neighbour. read more

For Carlsberg, the Western brewer most exposed to Russia, the exit would result in a “substantial non-cash impairment charge” this year, it said without providing further details.

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The company holds a 27% share of the local market through its ownership of the country’s biggest brewer, Baltika.

“We have taken the difficult and immediate decision to seek a full disposal of our business in Russia, which we believe is the right thing to do in the current environment,” Carlsberg said. “Upon completion we will have no presence in Russia.”

The company’s shares, which have fallen by roughly a quarter since the start of the invasion, traded 4.2% higher on Monday, heading for their best day since November 2020.

Heineken, the third largest brewer in Russia, earlier said it was aiming for an “orderly transfer” of its local business, which accounts for just 2% of total sales, reducing its operations during a transition period to minimise the risk of nationalisation.

The Dutch brewer expects to book related charges of around 400 million euros ($438 million) and said it would guarantee the salaries of its 1,800 employees in Russia until the end of the year.

“We have concluded that Heineken’s ownership of the business in Russia is no longer sustainable nor viable,” the company said in a statement, adding that it would not profit from any transfer of ownership.

Its shares were up 0.3% by 1423 GMT.

Carlsberg last year generated 10% of its total revenue and 6% of its operating profit in Russia, where it has eight breweries and 8,400 employees. It took full control of Baltika in 2008 but has faced sluggish sales amid a sanction-hit economy and regulations to curb alcohol abuse.

“The announcement that Carlsberg will leave Russia should help to clear the air and removes the overhang risk,” Jefferies analysts wrote in a research note.

The Danish brewer’s non-current assets in Russia stood at 19.2 billion Danish crowns ($2.83 billion) at the end of 2021, amounting to around 15% of total assets or 44% of its total equity, its annual report showed.

Russia’s second largest brewer is a joint venture owned by Turkey’s Anadolu Efes (AEFES.IS) and Belgium’s InBev (ABI.BR).

InBev said earlier in March it would stop selling Bud beer in Russia and forego profits from the joint venture, which has 11 breweries and 3,500 employees in the country.

($1 = 0.9125 euros)

($1 = 6.7802 Danish crowns)

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Reporting by Sarah Morland, Philip Blenkinsop, Toby Sterling, Stine Jacobsen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; editing by John Stonestreet, Kirsten Donovan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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On Patrol: 12 Days With a Taliban Police Unit in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — A young Taliban fighter with a pair of handcuffs dangling from his finger warily watched the stream of approaching cars as he stood in front of a set of steel barricades.

Friday prayers would begin soon at the Sakhi Shah-e Mardan shrine and mosque, a holy Shiite site in central Kabul that he was guarding.

There had been two bombings of Shiite mosques in Afghanistan by the Islamic State in recent months, killing dozens, and this 18-year-old Taliban fighter, Mohammad Khalid Omer, wasn’t taking any chances.

He and his police unit of five other fighters, colloquially known as the Sakhi unit after the shrine they defend, represents the Taliban’s vanguard in their newest struggle after the group’s stunning takeover of the country in August: They won the war, but can they secure the peace in a multiethnic country racked by more than 40 years of violence?

economic hardships gripping their countrymen, with the same threat of Islamic State attacks and with the raucous, puzzling, winding streets and back alleys of Kabul, a city of about 4.5 million people that they are practically strangers to.

The Sakhi unit lives full time next to the shrine in a small concrete room painted bright green with a single electric heater. Steel bunk beds line the walls. The only decoration is a single poster of the sacred Kaaba in Mecca.

the Taliban’s interim government, composed almost entirely of Pashtun hard-liners who are emblematic of the movement’s harsh rule in the 1990s, and who are perceived as anti-Hazara.

As he spoke in the unit’s cramped barracks, a small speaker often played “taranas,” the spoken prayer songs, without musical accompaniment, popular with the Talibs.

One of the group’s favorites was a song about losing one’s comrades, and the tragedy of youth lost. In a high thin voice, the singer intones, “O death, you break and kill our hearts.”

On a fall day last year as the Sakhi unit looked on, families gathered on the tiled terraces around the shrine, drinking tea and sharing food.

Some cautiously eyed the Talibs patrolling the site, and one group of young men rushed to put out their cigarettes as they approached. The Taliban generally frown on smoking, and the unit has at times physically punished smokers.

Another day, two teenage boys came to the shrine, brazenly strolling with their two girlfriends. They were confronted by the Sakhi unit, who asked what they were doing. Unsatisfied with their answers, the Talibs dragged the boys into their bunk room to answer for the transgression. In conservative Afghanistan, such public consorting is taboo, doubly so in a holy site under Taliban guard.

Inside their room, there was an argument among the Sakhi unit about how to handle the two boys: good cop versus bad cop. Hekmatullah Sahel, one of the more experienced members of the unit, disagreed with his comrades. He pushed for a verbal lashing rather than a physical one. He was overruled.

When the teenagers were finally allowed to leave, shaken by the beating they had just received, Mr. Sahel called out to the boys, telling them to come back again — but without their girlfriends.

The episode was a reminder to the shrine’s visitors that the Taliban fighters, while generally friendly, could still revert to the tactics that defined their religious hard-line rule in the 1990s.

For the group of six fighters, contending with flirting teenagers was just another indicator that their days of fighting a guerrilla war were over. Now they spend their time preoccupied by more quotidian policing considerations, like spotting possible bootleggers (alcohol in Afghanistan is banned), finding fuel for their unit’s pickup and wondering whether their commander will grant them leave for the weekend.

Mr. Omer had joined the unit only months before. “I joined the Islamic Emirate because I had a great desire to serve my religion and country,” he said.

But to some Talibs, Mr. Omer is what is derisively called a “21-er” — a fighter who only joined the movement in 2021, as victory loomed. This new generation of Talibs bring new expectations with them, chief among them the desire for a salary.

They and most other rank-and-file fighters have never received a salary from the movement. Despite seizing billions in American-supplied weapons and matériel, the Taliban are still far from being well equipped. Fighters are dependent on their commanders for basic supplies, and they have to scrounge for anything extra.

Mr. Sahel, at 28, is older than most of his comrades, slower to excite and more restrained. He spent four years studying at a university, working the whole time as a clandestine operative for the movement. “None of my classmates knew that I was in the Taliban,” he said. He graduated with a degree in physics and math education, but returned to the fight.

Relieved the war is over, he and his comrades still miss the sense of purpose it provided. “We are happy that our country was liberated and we are currently living in peace,” he said, but added, “we are very sad for our friends who were martyred.”

Every few weeks, the men are allowed to visit their families back in Wardak for two days. On a crisp morning in November, Mr. Inqayad sat in his home in the Masjid Gardena valley, a beautiful collection of orchards and fields hemmed in by mountain peaks.

He explained that many families in the area had lost sons to the fighting, and estimated that 80 percent of the families in the area were Taliban supporters.

Mr. Inqayad attended school until the seventh grade, but had to drop out. Religious studies filled in some gaps. He joined the Taliban at 15.

Recently married, he faces new challenges now that the movement is in power. The only potential breadwinner in his family, he needs a salary to support his wife, mother and sisters, but so far he has not been drawing one.

Back in Kabul, the Sakhi unit loaded up for a night patrol, bundling up to combat the cold wind that blows incessantly from the mountains ringing the city.

Mr. Omer rode in the bed of the unit’s truck, a machine gun resting on his lap and bands of ammunition wrapped around his neck like party beads.

But there was little to warrant the heavy weaponry meant for suppressing enemy troops. Their area of responsibility was quiet, and the men seemed bored as they spun around the city as packs of street dogs chased and snapped at the tires of passing cars.

Sami Sahak contributed reporting.

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A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power

CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.

But then the lyrics take a radical turn.

“If you leave me,” blasts/explodes/shouts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”

The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.

The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.

arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.

But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.

Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.

Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.

DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.

Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize immoral behavior on the internet.

The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.

YouTube.

He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.

“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”

Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.

They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.

Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.

Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.

“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”

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As Other Arab States Falter, Saudi Arabia Seeks to Become a Cultural Hub

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A pregnant Saudi woman, far from home, finds herself stalked by inner and outer demons. A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends, menaced by the internet’s insatiable appetite for content and more mysterious dangers, try to escape a dark forest. At a wedding, the mother of the bride panics when her daughter disappears with all of their guests waiting downstairs.

These were just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom’s huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.

The Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world. Over the past century, while the name Saudi Arabia conjured little more than oil, desert and Islam, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons where blockbuster movies were made, chart-topping songs were recorded and books that got intellectuals talking hit the shelves.

to promote pro-government themes.

In many ways, the region’s cultural mantle is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is spending lavishly to seize it.

At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers D.J.-ed at dance parties.

All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.

CineWaves.

Although Saudi Arabia’s population is about a fifth of Egypt’s, the Saudis are more affluent and wired, making them more likely to pay for streaming services and movie tickets. At about $18, a ticket in Saudi theaters is among the most expensive in the world.

But the kingdom only allowed cinemas to reopen only in 2018 after a 35-year ban. Before that, Saudis escaped to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to go to theaters.

Now, the country has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market in the world, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030, Mr. Abdulmajeed said.

Film Clinic, a Cairo-based production company.

Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works, and an Egyptian “Hangover”-style comedy, “Wa’afet Reggala” (“A Stand Worthy of Men”), was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters.

Saudi productions may also continue to draw acting, writing and directing talent from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — and will most likely need to do so to reach non-Saudi audiences, said Rebecca Joubin, an Arab studies professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

“With Saudi opening up, they say in Egypt that it’s saving Egypt’s movie industry,” said Marwan Mokbel, an Egyptian who co-wrote “Junoon,” the Saudi horror film about the vlogger that premiered at the Jeddah festival.

Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart.

That has created a big market for Arabic-language content.

Netflix has produced Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian-Lebanese shows, with varying degrees of success, and just announced the release of its first Arabic-language feature film, “Perfect Strangers.”

Syrian and Lebanese studios that used to depend on gulf financiers — who, they complained, often forced them to water down their artistic ambitions by nixing political themes — are also turning to web series and Netflix for new funding and wider audiences.

a hip alternative to the somnolent broadcast television. Mohammad Makki recalled dodging the police, guerrilla style, to film the first season of his show “Takki,” about a group of Saudi friends navigating Saudi social constraints, a decade ago. Then, it was a low-budget YouTube series. Now, it is a Netflix hit.

“We grew up dying to go to the cinema,” he said, “and now it’s two blocks from my house.”

Saudi women in the industry faced even greater challenges.

When “Wadjda” (2012), the first Saudi feature directed by a woman, was filmed, Haifaa al-Mansour, the director, was barred from mixing in public with male crew members. She worked instead from the back of a van, communicating with the actors via walkie-talkie.

“I’m still in shock,” said Ahd Kamel, who played a conservative teacher in “Wadjda,” which portrays a rebellious young Saudi girl who desperately wants a bicycle, as she walked through the festival. “It’s surreal.”

As a young actress in New York, Ms. Kamel hid her career from her family, knowing they, and Saudi society, would not approve of a woman acting. Now, she said, her family pesters her for festival tickets, and she is preparing to direct a new film to be shot in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi political, religious and cultural sensitivities are still factors, of course.

Marvel’s big-budget “Eternals” was not released in Saudi Arabia — or in Qatar, Kuwait or Egypt — because of gay romantic scenes. Several of the non-Saudi films screened at the Jeddah festival, however, included gay scenes, nudity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian and actor, said officials had told him future films should avoid touching directly on God or politics.

Sumaya Rida, an actress in the festival movies “Junoon” and “Rupture,” said the films aimed to portray Saudi couples realistically while avoiding onscreen physical affection.

But the filmmakers said they were just happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.

“I don’t intend to provoke to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease. Cinema doesn’t have to be didactic,” said Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film the festival is funding. “It comes naturally. We’ve been so good at working around things for so long.”

Vivian Yee reported from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Nada Rashwan from Cairo.

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Omicron Is Turning Europe’s Busy Season Silent

“You could feel Christmas was coming,” Amanda Whiteside, a manager at Gordon’s Wine Bar in London, said of the crowds and buzz. “And then it was gone.”

Throughout Britain and in other parts of Europe, new government restrictions combined with heightened anxiety over the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus have drastically reduced business at restaurants, pubs, event venues and stores, prompting urgent calls for additional government assistance.

In Britain, the government responded Tuesday, announcing 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) in aid for the hospitality industry, with one-time grants of £6,000 and rebates for employees’ sick leave.

The additional assistance was promised as a fresh wave of anxiety over the economy washes over the region. In France, government ministers announced Tuesday additional aid up to 12 million euros for travel agencies, events, caterers and indoor leisure companies that suffer big operating losses this month.

Spain, the government has scheduled an emergency meeting with regional leaders on Wednesday to discuss whether to adopt new restrictions. Italy’s government is meeting on Thursday.

“We are in a different phase now where lockdown will be potentially more costly,” said Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Up until now, we’ve been used to lockdowns followed by support from the government. I think that will be the case as well, but support will be more conditional, less comprehensive than before.”

Britain recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Europe over the last seven days, according to the World Health Organization.

On Monday, organizations representing more than 100,000 businesses around the country sent an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, demanding more tax relief and grants to tide them over.

new requirements that customers must show proof of vaccination or recent recovery. And in the Netherlands, where the government announced a lockdown over the weekend, calls to the nation’s business registry asking for help climbed past 400 on Monday — seven times the number logged the previous Monday.

known as Plan B, on Dec. 8 as a response to Omicron, cancellations have been rolling in and foot traffic has disappeared in some areas.

At Gordon’s Wine Bar, it was common to find every table in its cavelike cellar and on its outdoor patio full and a long line of customers waiting. Then Plan B was put in place.

The drop-off, said Ms. Whiteside, the administrative manager, “was very dramatic.”

Customers thinned out, and several staff members got Covid, she said. Gordon’s is now offering only outside service, and Ms. Whiteside estimates that sales are down 25 percent.

Half a mile away, in Soho, the Coach and Horses pub was similarly contending with fewer customers and sick staff. Last week, business was off by a third, while on Monday it fell “off the edge of a cliff,” said Alison Ross, the manager.

Kaasbar Utrecht, is shuttered, and $100,000 at the cafe. Plans to rebuild a nightclub he owns that was burned in a fire in January have been postponed. He has had to let go most of his 80-person staff and is now trying to make money selling mulled wine in the streets and cheese packages door to door.

Mr. Waseq said that because he opened his business after the pandemic began and did not have 2019 sales to use as a benchmark comparison, he was not eligible for government assistance.

Ron Sinnige, a spokesman for the national business registry, the Kamer van Koophandel, said the agency was flooded with calls this week asking about financial assistance, advice or liquidating their operations. Some were seeking guidance on how to qualify as an essential business — could a clothing store sell candy and soda, could a beauty salon offer postsurgical massages or list Botox injections as a medical procedure?

The questions were a sign of people’s creativity and despair, Mr. Sinnige said. “As opposed to previous lockdowns, people are really at the end of their financial flexibility and emotional flexibility,” he said.

France has canceled a menu of year-end celebrations and barred tourists from Britain, a blow to the ski industry.

On Tuesday, the Swedish government imposed some new restrictions that included allowing only seated customers to be served in restaurants and bars.

Ireland imposed an early curfew of 8 p.m. on restaurants and bars that began on Monday, while limiting attendance at events.

In Denmark, restaurants and bars must cut off serving alcohol after 10 p.m., and a slate of venues and event spaces including ​​theaters, museums, zoos, concert halls and Tivoli, Copenhagen’s landmark amusement park, have been closed.

Switzerland’s restrictions that bar unvaccinated people from going to restaurants, gyms and museums are expected to last until Jan. 24.

In Germany, the check-in process at stores, which requires stopping everyone at the door and asking to see vaccination certification and an ID, was deterring shoppers at what would normally be the busiest time of the year, the German Trade Association said.

Retailers surveyed by the group reported a 37 percent drop in sales from Christmas 2019.

“After months of lockdowns, the restrictions are once again bringing many retailers to the edge of their existence,” said Stefan Genth, head of the Trade Association.

A court in the northern state of Lower Saxony last week threw out the restrictions there, after the Woolworth department store chain challenged them on grounds that they were not fairly applied and that requiring shoppers to wear masks provided sufficient protection. The ruling on Thursday raised hopes that other states would follow its lead, giving a final boost to last-minute shoppers.

“Last weekend was better, but overall the shopping season has been more than depressing,” said Mark Alexander Krack, head of the Lower Saxony Trade Association.

Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.

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