As Ramadan is around the corner, I receive a lot of questions about the Muslim month of fasting on Twitter, Facebook and even in my mailbox, so I decided to re-publish this article with answers to some of the most commonly asked questions. Note that there are cultural differences between the way Ramadan is celebrated, and that some of these views are specific to a half-Egyptian being born in the Netherlands.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ‘September’ of the Islamic calendar – in other words, it’s the 9th month. It’s after the month of Sha’baan and before the month of Shawwal. The Islamic calendar is based on the moon, with the lunar crescent after a new moon indicating the first day of a new month. That means that Islamic months are 29 or 30 days, and as such, the month of Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, until the moon crescent is seen again after the next new moon. Note that that also means that Islamic months do not necessarily start on the same Gregorian day all around the world, nor that Islamic months last the same amount of time all around the world. It is currently the year 1439 in the Islamic calendar. As far as I know, the calendar isn’t used for much beyond establishing the dates of religious events, and most places in the Muslim world adhere to the Gregorian calendar.
OK, so it’s a month, but what is Ramadan?
Ramadan happens to be one of the holy months in Islam, and it’s by far the best known and most adhered to holy month among people worldwide. During Ramadan, a Muslim is expected to ‘fast’ between the dawn and sunset. Besides that, a Muslim is expected to support the poor and weak and to be at their best behavior. Fasting, known as ‘Sawm’, means complete abstinence from the consumption of any food, drink or sexual activity. This lasts for the entire 29 or 30 days of Ramadan. The meal prior to dawn is called Suhoor, and the meal has to be concluded before ‘the white thread of dawn is distinct from the darkness of night’ – which coincides with the time for the prayer of Fajr. Fast then continues until the Magreb prayer, which occurs when the disc of the sun has moved under the horizon fully.
And this year what dates are that? For me, Ramadan will start on the 15th or 16th of May, until the end of Ramadan, which also hasn’t been decided yet – but is expected to be on the 14th of June. Since it’s based on sightings of the moon crescent, it can be different per country, per community or even per Muslim. If the moon cannot be seen, we use science to determine what date to start on. I adhere to the Egyptian dates for Ramadan.
So from sunrise to sunset?
From Fajr to Magreb, so from the earliest break of dawn to the disc of the sun being under the horizon. Breaking the fast is called Iftar, and it translates to ‘breakfast’. Note that we break our fast at night, not in the morning.
And you can’t eat or drink until Iftar?
No food, no drink.
Not even water?
Not even water. Nothing.
But, isn’t that unhealthy?
Not really. Islam is actually extremely lenient when it comes to rules and health. In many cases, the cause of harm to your health is a good reason to be exempt from most rules. You’re exempt from fasting if you’re sick, on your period, pregnant, traveling or those before puberty or of old age. You’re supposed to catch up on days missed after the Ramadan for anything but the age exemptions.
But you travel between timezones all the time. Yeah, it’s a bit of a problem, because there are no clear rules for that. It’s generally considered OK to not fast while traveling, but for a few years that meant I would skip literally all of Ramadan. Instead, if the travel I do makes the fast unreasonably long, I opt to fast according to the times of the place I had my Fajr in.
OK, so sunrise-
Right, Fajr, at what time is that?
Where I’m at, in the Netherlands, Fajr occurs currently at about 3:13AM.
3AM? And when is sunse-Magreb? I mean Iftar. Magreb, where I’m at, occurs around 21:25PM.
That’s 18 hours of fast!
Yes. I’m in one of those places where it’s summer and relatively far from the equator. The time one needs to fast differs enormously depending on when Fajr and Magreb occur, the fast currently being less than 12 hours per day in Australia and almost day-round in Reykjavik.
So remember how Ramadan is a month based on the movements of the moon? The Islamic calendar is about 11 days shorter than our Gregorian calendar. That means that every year, the Ramadan moves forward into the year. When I was born, in 1988, it happened on the 18th of April. Since then, it has shifted to start in March, February, January, December, November… and now back to the end of May. It takes about 33 years for Ramadan to loop around the entire year. It just so happened to start not too far the longest day of the year here on the Northern Hemisphere, so it’s a bit rough. In a dozen years, Australia will have long days of fasting during Ramadan and it’ll be easier here.
But what about places further north than Reykjavik? Places where the sun-
-never sets? They get to adhere to the times in Mecca. The fast in Saudi Arabia is about 14 hours this Ramadan.
So this is a really tough Ramadan?
That’s not really how I would word that, but yes, this Ramadan on the Northern Hemisphere has very long days. This year is also different from last year in that the Ramadan has fully slipped before the summer solstice, meaning the days are getting longer as we go.
Why wouldn’t you call it a ‘rough’ Ramadan?
Many muslims, even though they appreciate the challenge of fasting, consider the Ramadan to be festive. It’s a holiday, of sorts. 30 days of Christmas dinner with your family and friends, only you don’t get to eat during the day.
So can you wish people good luck?
Sure, although generally you’d say ‘Ramadan Kareem’ or ‘Ramadan Mubarak’, which means ‘a generous Ramadan’ or ‘a blessed Ramadan’. In a rather crude analogy, it’s like saying ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than saying ‘Good luck with the dishes’. Not that I’d compare the act of fasting to doing the dishes, it’s just that we focus on the positives of fasting and community.
But it’s a celebration?
Indeed. It’s a month of reflection, community, discipline and celebration. To me, it’s a month in which I get to have breakfasts with my parents and siblings – I grew up in a middle class family, and all of us would wake up and have breakfast at different times, but during Ramadan we all had meals together.
And the religious importance of it?
Nobody is 100% sure, but it’s generally accepted to be an act of cleansing, discipline and worship. There is a day later on in the month – generally considered to be in the last 10 days of Ramadan – that is named Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of values. It’s the night on which the first part of the Quran was relayed to the prophet, and prayer on that night is considered the most valuable prayer a Muslim can do. Since scholars disagree about when that night is, they’ve narrowed it down to nights on uneven days during the last ten days of Ramadan.
So what’s special about that night?
It’s said that any good deed during that night is worth more than that same activity during a thousand months. When I was a kid, my dad would take us to the mosque every single one of those nights to pray. It was awesome, because everybody would be there.
Do scholars disagree about a lot of things?
Actually, yeah. The times of prayer aren’t 100% agreed upon, nor the starting or ending days of the Ramadan. That’s fine though, Islam has always been a relatively decentralized religion. For all the talk of ‘religious leaders’ there is, the Imam is generally just the most literate person in a prayer.
OK. Is community a large part of Ramadan?
Oh yes, yes, absolutely. Community is a large part of the whole thing. Muslims during Ramadan all know what they’re all going through, so we help each other out. We’ll serve food to one another for free – even at restaurants, in Muslim countries mosques prepare large meals and generally try and make sure we all have food when Iftar happens. Poor people and beggars get bags of food from people better off, and in Egypt supermarkets sell bags full of dried foods at lower prices to give to the poor. I ordered a pizza earlier last year during Ramadan, and when I mentioned I wanted them delivered at 10:03PM for Iftar, the guy taking my order said he was fasting too and that he’d make sure the pizza was there at perfect temperature at exactly that moment, and he did. Or I’d walk into a restaurant, but ask for my meal to be brought out at a specific time, and they waived the costs for my dinner and brought off-menu traditional foods for Iftar.
I’ve traditionally always broken fast with a glass of milk with dates and cashew in it. The traditions regarding Iftar are different per culture, but dates seem to be pretty universal to it.
All of that sounds great.
Doesn’t it? Imagine your entire country doing that, lights in the mosques like Christmas lights everywhere, public life grinding to a halt with meals everywhere and being woken up by people in the streets with trumpets or the like for your morning meal.
So wasn’t there a celebration at the end?
Yeah, when the crescent of the new moon is seen at the end of Ramadan, it’s Eid al-Fitr, which literally translates to ‘Feast of breaking fast’. It’s always a bit exciting when it gets to the 29th day of Ramadan comes around, because if the crescent is seen, it means you don’t have to fast another day and it’s time to celebrate the end of Ramadan. If it isn’t seen, there’s an additional day of Ramadan before the month is over. Eid is a celebrational day during which Muslims are not allowed to fast. It includes a special prayer, celebrations, family visits and gifts for children. In many countries, the holidays surrounding Eid lasts for a few days. Any missed days are to be made up for after Eid is over.
Can I try?
If you want to in support of others, or out of curiosity, sure. You can find the times for fasting at www.islamicfinder.org – stop your breakfast at Fajr and fast until Magreb.
I vividly remember the first time I took my first uncertain steps into Yerba Buena park almost a decade ago, looking for direction and guidance in the early steps of my industry career. I equally vividly remember arriving at San Francisco International Airport, dazed and confused from the long flight, and uncertain of how to navigate this new country. I vividly remember sitting at a small diner alone late at night, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, halfway across the planet. But hey, at least the French Toast Croissant was pretty good.
Almost a decade later, I arrive for my eighth GDC in Emeryville by train, at the tail end of Train Jam 2018. My wife, fellow game developer and event organizer Adriel Wallick, had spent the better half of the year prior organizing the event. The jam was pretty much as perfect as one could hope for – carrying approximately 350 game developers the full 2,500 miles or 4,000 kilometers from Chicago Union Station to the Game Developers Conference. During those 50-ish hours, more than 80 games were created, several documentary crews shot video, and countless friendships were formed or strengthened. Above all, the gorgeous views and lovely Amtrak crew were a welcome introduction to what would be an incredibly hectic week – something that was emphasized when my job as official Train Jam Group Photo photographer went less than smoothly. As the group has grown to more than 300 people, the only way to capture everybody in a single shot is through a drone – and I happen to carry one with me on most trips. My DJI Mavic Air sadly had issues getting a compass reading with the rails and trains around, and it took me several comical minutes to find a interference-free take-off spot.
The results, however, were worth it:
During this years’ Game Developers’ Conference, I had the honor of receiving the industry’s Ambassador Award, and the privilege of assisting a group of eight developers with coming to the conference from all around the world – six of whom would speak at the #1reasontobe panel, and meeting, consulting, and advising dozens -if not hundreds- of my peers, heroes, and fans.
#1reasontobe was my immediate focus, as the visa issues that have been extensively documented meant that my final speaker was only confirmed two days before the conference started, and I am extremely thankful for GDC’s financial support, for UBM allowing me to use some of their resources, and for Irina Moraru’s and Lual Mayen’s willingness to prepare a presentation despite being back-up-back-up speakers. The panel was on Thursday, which meant the first few days were focused on my other immediate goals for the weeks, as I was pretty certain between the award ceremony and the panel, my Wednesday and Thursday would be exhausting, and my Friday would be recovery.
I spent most of the early days of the event working to consolidate some of my projects and moving them away from myself to create time and opportunity to work on new projects myself. Maintenance of distribute() – my key distribution service – will be handed over to a capable team that is aligned in keeping it free, effective, and updated. It is likely presskit() will see integrations into more platforms beyond IndieDB, and the project will be receiving more common updates from those partners thanks to that.
The other focus was a resurrection of gamedev.world as a new project – something I hope to talk about somewhere in the near future. In short, the new project will require some sponsorships, and almost every single one of my meetings has left me extremely hopeful. I’m also extremely happy to have spoken to Global Game Jam, Gabriel Del Santo, Leaf Corcoran, and Sarah Elmaleh about the new and exciting future of the project.
Finally, some of my GDC was focused on re-introducing Vlambeer to the powers that be. While I sincerely hope the studio hasn’t faded from the collective memory of the games world, it seemed like a good idea to talk to platforms, engine creators, and press about the immediate plans for our future. As my co-founder Jan Willem wraps up work on Kitty Calis’ title Minit, we are excited to get back to making some good ol’ games together.
In the dozens of meetings that I did take, I learned about many new and exciting things, and I look forward to seeing where they end up. I spent considerable time talking to individual developers about their issues and projects as I ran around San Francisco, and it never ceases to amaze me just how much imagination, creativity, and determination this industry produces. Each and every developer I spoke to is a force to be reckoned with in some way, and while I wish I had time to talk to way more of you, I was already overbooked to the point of any delay causing a cascade throughout the day. I sincerely apologize to those of you whose meetings with me fell through, and my schedule for this week, the week after GDC, is filled with calls to make up for those.
On Tuesday, I took a little stop to watch Adriel present at the Indie Soapbox, and was proud of her strong talk about re-evaluating plans, and not getting stuck in the expectations you set for yourself years ago.
Wednesday was award day, and the day mostly started with me learning that my trusty travel suit steamer had broken. After a short panic, my dear friend Lisa Brown found me a new one, and after some long overdue meetings I ran to Moscone center for the first full #1reasontobe panel rehearsal. After personally meeting my speakers, we spent an hour watching each others’ talks, finding places to improve, trim, and focus each message according to the speakers’ wishes. After that, we discussed the optimal flow for the panel, and placed the talks in a specific order.
Preparing the panel with the final speakers was delightful, as each brought a message that perfectly encapsulated themselves, their local challenges and opportunities, and their communities. One of the biggest delights of the year is working on the talks with the speakers, finding the essence, cutting out distractions, and helping them deliver a talk that they’re proud of. While most of the talks had minor modifications, some of the talks had entire segments rewritten on that very last day.
After the rehearsals, I sped back to the indie hostel that I’ve stayed in every visit to GDC so far, steamed my tux, and learned that I do not know how to tie a bowtie. After fruitless attempts at help from several friends, Ryan Greene managed to help me out on the streets of San Francisco. I showed up at the Independent Games Festival awards just minutes late, and was happy to celebrate the many winners there. While my exhausting with Americana mythology is reaching a peak, I was incredibly happy and thankful to see Night In The Woods win the Seumas McNally Grand Prize – the game reflects an incredible range of important standards in the independent games scene, both in terms of sincerity, vulnerability, and quality of vision. The fact that the execution was way up there didn’t hurt, either.
At the Game Developers Choice Awards, I was awarded the Ambassador Award from the hands of my dear friend Poria Torkan. An Iranian-born who lived most of his life in the Netherlands, he – like me – is a child of two cultures, and non-white. His career in games started at Guerrilla Games in Amsterdam, and eventually took him to Bungie, out in the Pacific Northwest. During his time at Bungie, he was contacted by my now-wife, Adriel, who asked him to implement a little surprise for me in the original Destiny. Poria’s work ethic, his tenacity, and his kindness are an inspiration, and I am incredibly thankful for his kind words.
I was incredibly fortunate and thankful that my parents and sister could make it out to the ceremony, and although my brother was not able to attend, he was watching the ceremony live, and his presence was no lesser for it. I cannot overstate my appreciation for the award. I will carry the overwhelming thankfulness walking onto the stage for decades to come.
My full statement for the ceremony was:
My name is Rami Ismail, one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer, and I am thankful.
I am thankful to my parents, who have -each in their own way- inspired me to be driven, humble, and curious. Their presence here tonight means the world to me.
I am thankful for my siblings, who have instilled in me playfulness, a sense of responsibility, and a kindness towards others. I am thankful towards my family and friends, who -despite many not understanding what it is I do- have always supported me following my passions.
I am thankful for those who created and worked in this medium and industry long before I was part of it, for creating a medium that I fell in love with decades ago, for nurturing a culture of sharing and self-improvement, and for working on improving this industry tiny step by tiny step. I will try to uphold those values, and I will try to improve upon that which you would not, or could not.
I am thankful to everyone who took a chance on me, and there are many of you from my early childhood until just today. I am fully aware that I am very far from perfect, and that many of you have worked hard to support me, teach me, correct me, work around -or with- my idiosyncrasies, and help me do what I do.
I am thankful to my co-founder, Jan Willem, who -despite our well-documented differences- has always been a person I’m thankful to work with, and who has without exception and reservation supported me using Vlambeer’s time, brand, and resources to help other developers, and pushes me to stand up for what I believe is right.
I am thankful to my wife, Adriel, who I met through games, who proposed to me through games, and who has through support and example shown me what it means to be a gracious, considerate, and inspiring human first, and a hard-working, generous, and responsible creator second. Her generosity and thoughtfulness are a daily inspiration.
I am thankful for the passionate players around the world – those that support this medium with their passion, their kindness, their constructive criticism, their curiosity, and their love for this medium and its creators. Your enthusiasm is an inspiration, a goal to work towards, and a reward all at once.
I am thankful for the designers, programmers, artists, musicians, actors, sound designers, writers, QA, localizers, platforms, publishers, press, critics, content creators, marketeers, investors, producers, and other people that touch games on their way from the tiniest concept to the curious input and hearts of a player. You are all part of what allows this medium to flourish, and this medium is better for having you be part of it.
I am thankful for the event organizers, community organizers, teachers and professors, government employees, archivists, activists, researchers, and other passionate people sacrificing a part of their life towards helping this industry and community connect and grow. Without your passion and efforts, I would not be able to visit your communities, or learn from your cities, cultures, and countries unique stories, challenges, and opportunities.
I am thankful for those that work and fight to democratize this medium, to stand against toxicity and injustice, despite the hatred, anger, and lack of support they so often face. Your belief that this medium can be more makes our medium safer, more representative, more accessible, and more inclusive to those of any sex, race, gender, sexuality, ideology, heritage, history, language, country, culture, disability, socio-economic reality, age, or situation.
I am thankful to those of you who participate in this medium despite feeling or being treated as different, or out-of-place. I am thankful to those of you who participate in this medium and would want to be here in this room, but could not be here due to their financial, geographical, or political realities. Your work adds perspective to our medium, and your work will continue to make our medium stronger, richer, and more representative.
I am thankful for those of you who are now taking their first step into our medium, or who dream of one day being part of it. As a medium, as an industry, as a people, we have our challenges and problems. We have our disagreements and controversies. Throughout all of human history, certain people have created ways to be playful, ways to be curious, and ways to learn, and you well might choose to take that torch forward into the future. If you do, I hope you will try to improve upon that which we here today will not, or can not.
Being an ambassador of something can only be a point of pride if you believe that that which you represent is valuable. Throughout my life, I have seen games give people joy, wonder, curiosity, expression, education, friendship, and love through both play and creation. So the overwhelming pride I feel in receiving this award comes not from the award itself, or from the title implied in it. The pride I feel comes from the idea that I could be an ambassador for you, the work you do, and the value it adds to lives current, past, and future.
I am thankful for those who support you, for those who encourage you, and for those who believe in you, because I am thankful for you. All of you, you are why I am proud right now, and that pride I feel can only exist because I am proud of you.
After my speech, I watched Tim Schafer receive a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement award. Tim gave a powerful and vulnerable speech expressing a similar sentiment of thankfulness in the personable way that is so unique to Tim. I caught him backstage for a moment immediately after, and while he was clearly back to his usual jokes, he was also still clearly struck by the emotions of the moment. As the night crawled to a close, I switched back to my usual outfit style, and went straight to that.party.
On Thursday, my mother insisted on seeing the Walk Tall, My Friends: Giving Life to AI-Buddies in ‘Final Fantasy XV’ session. GDC was gracious enough to grant her access to this one panel, letting her learn some of the technicalities behind the first game she ever played.
This years’ #1reasontobe featured Columbian Carlos Rocha, Filipino Javi Almirante, Romanian Irina Moraru, Lebanese Lara Noujaim, Jordanian-Palestinian Samer Abbas, and Malagasy Matthieu Rabehaja. Most of the speakers were in one form or another a back-up for someone whose visa was rejected, which led to my opening statements being prepared in a file called AngryArabOnStage.docx. My frustration with, and disappointment in the American immigration services knows no bounds – and as an industry event with supposedly global reach, the current situation should at least register as highly problematic.
My statement focused on redefining the word global, and the often misguided view of the phrase Western people tend to have. Using a photograph of the GDC ‘where are you from’ map as a source, I filtered every color but the red of the stickers attendants could place to identify where they were visiting from. Without the context of the map, the red dots are difficult to recognize as a world map, immediately proving that the Game Developers’ Conference is far from global, and that the map is an indicator of from where developers can visit the event.
Welcome to #1reasontobe 2018, my name is Rami Ismail and I’m one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer, and it is my honor to be your host for this phenomenal panel.
#1reasontobe started originally as a hashtag called #1reasonwhy in 2012, a viral collection of women’s voices speaking up about why many women felt unwelcome in the industry. Also legendary writer Rhianna Pratchet then created #1reasontobe, to showcase why those women that are and remained in games stayed despite those realities
At every GDC after that, legendary designer Brenda Romero and equally legendary critic Leigh Alexander hosted the #1reasontobe panel – a panel featuring the voices of female creators. After a few years, they handed the panel to me, in the hopes that I would find a different focus for the panels’ idea of giving a voice to those not heard, ignored, or invisible.
For this panel, I try and select one speaker that has never been to GDC from each non-Western territory in the world: South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia & The Pacific, and the Middle East. GDC and Vlambeer cooperate to prepare a visa invitation letter, pay for the hotels and flights, and work with the speakers to ensure they feel comfortable and safe speaking their mind on this stage. Hearing the stories of the opportunities and friendships that have grown out of the visit to GDC is one of the most heartwarming moments I experience each year. Seeing the responses of the audience, your response to new knowledge and perspective, is heartwarming.
Not a single part of #1reasontobe has ever been a negative experience, except for one: a failure to secure a visa.
This year, I had three visas rejected, which led to having to assemble three back-up speakers. Of those three back-up speakers, two more visas were rejected, leading to two more back-up speakers. Of the six speakers here today, eleven were invited. In 2015, Brenda and Leigh placed an empty chair on the stage during the #1reasontobe panel, to symbolize every woman that has been silenced and harassed out of the industry. Just to represent every speaker that was invited here today, but could not be here due to this administrations’ policies, I would need a table.
Every year, I advice, support, and encourage many developers from developer associations and communities I collaborate through navigating the Western visa processes – for GDC, for PAX, and many more events and initiatives. Every year, there are a few rejections – it was four of them throughout 2016, six during 2017, and this year, I’ve already seen eleven rejections, and we haven’t even made it to the second quarter of the year.
In organizing this, I had the honor of inviting five amazing speakers, amazing developers with amazing stories, and I had the privilege seeing their excitement and hope at going to GDC, their worries about collecting all the appropriate paperwork, their giddiness at selecting their flights and making a reservation on the booking, and then seeing the crushing disappointment as an informal letter told them to not bother.
For most, no reason is given. No appeal is accepted. There is no one to speak to, because all communication is via paperwork, or front-offices. Several of them didn’t even get to go for an interview to assess their ‘threat’ to the United States of America.
One of my speakers was told no non-immigrant visa applications from their country are accepted, and wasn’t even allowed to hand in their application. Another speaker spend so much time in the process, that by the time they went for the interview, their name had changed due to their wedding. They were not allowed to amend paperwork. One was told that their lack of a ‘stable job’ and ‘partner or children’ made them a risk for overstaying, describing the situation uncountable indies find themselves in around the world as cause for rejection.
All but one of them asked me to not identify them or their country, and I will respect their wishes.
What I will tell you is that my heart broke every single time I got the message that one of my speakers had been rejected. These developers had stories and passions and perspectives and games that are worth sharing on this very stage, but they will not get to now. They had opportunities here to speak to press and likeminded developers, forge friendships, chase opportunities, but they will not get to now.
Instead, they got a mark on their file that said their visa had been rejected, something that they’ll be required to mention every time they apply for a new one. Instead, they plead with me to not reveal their names and identities, so as to not cause a industry or media ruckus that they fear might make them into a martyr, and making it even harder for them to re-apply in the future. Instead, they apologized to me, TO ME, for making my work organizing this panel harder – as if they had done something wrong by existing, as if finding a new speaker was somehow a bigger burden on me that their rejection from the heart of our industry was for them.
I’m going to tell you a few scenarios. Listen carefully to each of these, and count how many apply to you.
How many of you here today got married in the last year, or otherwise had a change of name, first or last name?
How many of you do not own a house?
How many of you have a criminal record, or have used drugs in their lifetime?
How many of you are independent, entrepreneurs, or do otherwise not have a stable job?
How many of you are here on a grant, or otherwise are supported financially for being here?
How many of you are not married or engaged?
How many of you do not have children?
How many of you are nervous during important interviews or interrogations, or have never
been in an interrogation but think it sounds like you’d be nervous?
How many of you have ever made a typo on an official government form?
How many of you have a first name that starts with V, F, Y, X, Q, or U? You represent about 3% of the US population, or in other words, the 3% of the world that was born into countries that were affected by Executive Order 13769 – an order that might’ve been rescinded – but that doesn’t mean visa applications from those countries are not rejected in enormous proportions.
Pick a number between 1 and 5. If it’s 4, count this question as applying to you. You will represent those who just get a random rejection, which seems to be about 20% of the rejections I work with.
Now please, raise your hand if even a single one of these applied to you. Raise your hand. Keep it there, and take look around. You have all fulfilled, in one way or multiple, a proven reason to bar your entry from the United States of America as a threat for overstaying or for security. You, like the speakers who could not be here today, might very well not be here if you needed a visa.
Imagine this room without those with their hands raised. This is how welcoming the country at the heart of our industry is to the world.
I do not want you to think of our amazing speakers tonight as a ‘backup’, or a ‘replacement’. There are so many phenomenal stories left to be told around the world that I could have speakers rejected for years without running out of stories that deserve to be told. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you what we missed out on today. It is worth fighting for, for those of us who face barriers so enormous that they could not even make it into the country this room is in. The cost of this panel for me wasn’t the money, or organisational time – the cost of this panel was making six amazing people excited and happy just to see their dreams shattered with an impersonal letter handed to them through a little window, some before their application was even considered beyond a look through their personal information. The cost of this panel is every single person rejected from this country. The cost of this panel is that we get to be here, and they do not. And like those of you who just raised their hand, they deserve to be here.
The #1ReasonToBe panel is off to a devastating start. Everyone with a hand raised fulfills one or more of the reasons that speakers who were supposed to be at this panel had their visas rejected. pic.twitter.com/CVduIEwjOU
Carlos Rocha, a back-up speaker helpfully suggested by Extra Credits’ creator James Portnow, delivered a direct talk about the opportunity of networking at an event, and his wishes to bring that same opportunity to the community in his home country of Columbia. Lara Noujaim gave an impassioned talk about her home country of Lebanon, and aired her frustrations with the Western media depiction of it before delivering a hopeful statement about games’ ability to connect us all – to see what we have in common, rather than what divides us. Irina Moraru spoke about focusing on growing talent in countries with a limited talent pool, and eloquently discussed the harmful effects of communism on Romanians entrepreneurial mentality.
Young Javi Almirante was a replacement for “Fillipino industry mother” Gwen Foster, who had her visa rejected for no apparent reason. It was tremendous seeing him fill the shoes of someone who has been critical to his career, and the slide in which he admitted to feeling guilty about taking her place on the stage was heart-wrenching. His message of hope in the face of historical colonialism was powerful and succinct, and delivered with humor and humility.
Samer Abbas -an old Joranian-Palestinian friend that has impressed me throughout my career with his selfless work on bringing together a divided Arab world through game development- focused on his journey of repeatedly being distracted from his dream to be a game designer to instead fix community issues. His conclusion was that seeing the positive impact his work had in the community means he would not change a thing about his choices, despite being bitter about foregoing his dreams.
Finally, Matthieu Rabehaja delivered -with noticeable effort- an English-spoken message of perserverance in making games on the island of Madagascar. He spoke on the economical realities of the country, and the technical and economical difficulties of making games – but convinced the audience that his passion and determination would see him overcome both with his existing release, GazKar, and an upcoming game based on local culture and history, Dahalo.
I will update this blog post with the video of the panel when it goes live, but suffice to say that my pride in seeing each speaker deliver a sincere, confident, and highly informative talk is without compare. Spending time with them both before the talk and afterwards, as we fielded numerous interviews, was delightful.
Sometimes, we’d trail off during an interview question, and spend time talking about our home cultures, the language and cultures, the jokes and curses, little phrases and sounds, and hopes and dreams. A notable memory was when Carlos interrupting an interviewer that asked what our group would suggest Americans do about the visa situation in the United States, exasperatedly pointing out that Americans technically refers to a continent of people, not a nation – a continent that ironically includes himself as a Columbian.
“There’s a joke in Columbia, that sees Captain America answer the phone to a Columbian asking him to return a stolen bag in Columbia. When Captain America asks ‘why are you calling me, I’m Captain America’, they respond ‘Si, si! Columbia! America!’. If that would ever happen, Captain America would start calling themselves Captain USA.”
I might add that after a few days of seeing Lara, Samer, and 2017 #1reasontobe speaker Rasheed Abueideh, I found myself using a lot more Arabic expressions, sounds, and gestures. Our group of speakers, Rasheed Abueideh, and Gabriel Dal Santo – whose flight we also managed to sponsor – said our farewells on Thursday night in Café Mason, laughing as old friends in the half-good diner that has become my usual 3AM breakfast hangout.
At least that French Toast Croissant is still really good.
When I was a kid dreaming of being a game developer, I hoped that in the future I’d be joining a large studio and working on a blockbuster title. Things didn’t quite pan out that way. After leaving university with a fellow student, I am now the co-founder of my own company, Vlambeer, renowned for successful game releases such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing.
I was born in the Netherlands, the son of an Egyptian immigrant and a Dutch mother, and was raised as a proud Muslim. For the past years, much of my travel to the United States has led to secondary selection, investigation, or interrogation. For all 100 flights I took in 2014, I jokingly created a website that kept track of whether my boarding passes were marked for “random checks” before even reaching airport security. For many of the 1.6 billion Muslims across the world, whether they’re born in the western world or not, this is a recognisable issue with air travel. Many of my Muslim friends calculate an extra 30 minute delay for boarding and transfers.
The video game industry is one of the world’s most important creative sectors, generating $90bn a year in revenue, more than either movies and music – and it is strongly US-centric. While large game development pockets exist in the UK, north-western Europe and Asia, most of the largest companies, industry events, and industry press are centred around the coasts of the United States. For most developers around the world, their shot at success lays at the yearly Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, by far the largest gathering of industry professionals and knowledge in the world.
My studio has diverted significant resources towards helping fellow and aspiring game developers in emergent territories around the world. I often travel to speak to students, help coordinate communities, and guide opportunities for developers with potential. I spent a few days in 2015 researching what the relative costs to visit the Game Developers Conference would be. The results were shocking – for an Iranian game developer, going to GDC was the equivalent of £4,000. For someone from the Central African Republic with an average salary, the costs were the Western equivalent a staggering £120,000. For many enthusiasts around the world, visiting the Game Developers Conference is something they can afford maybe once or twice in their life – if at all.
When Donald Trump signed the executive order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries without any prior warning, the scene at many US airports was one of chaos and confusion. Muslims who boarded their plane in their country of departure with a valid visa and no reason to be turned back landed in violation of an order that didn’t exist when they boarded. Many Muslims were unnecessarily and illegally detained, or coerced to sign away their green cards. Muslims from countries not even on the list were turned away.
As one of the few visible Muslims in the games industry, I frequently talk about my experiences on the road with fellow Muslim developers who are flying to the US for the first time. In the wake of the executive order, many that spent years of their savings on the trip to San Francisco have learned that they won’t be allowed into the country any more. Even if they’d be allowed into the US, many are afraid of anti-Muslim sentiment from a population that can elect a president like Donald Trump, especially in the country with the highest homicide rate with guns in the Western world.
Many other Muslim game developers that live in the US – or even non-Muslims who only hold dual citizenship with a majority-Muslim country they’ve rarely if ever visited – are now stuck in the United States with no way to visit family or friends abroad. With many highly talented engineers coming from Middle Eastern countries, this not only limits the available talent pool, but also effectively prohibits travel for many workers in the US games industry.
Some game companies have started to speak up, with smaller studios taking the lead over the weekend. Mobile games company Dots placed a message at the start of its popular Dots games that allows players to donate to the ACLU for their opposition of the Muslim Ban. Other independent developers, including my own studio, donated parts or all of their revenue to the ACLU for a specific amount of time, raising tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Just today, larger studios and game developers have started to release statements criticising the executive order, reminding gamers around the world (and there are 1.2 billion of them) that the games that they love are made by people of all races, religions, and nationalities – including Libyans, Somalians, Yemenites, Iraqi’s, Iranians, Sudanese, and Syrians.
When I started travelling on my own back in 2010, my mother would frequently check in to see whether I was safe. After many years of travel, she stopped doing that unless I visited countries the Dutch government had a negative travel advisory for, often countries that are unstable, at war, or at risk of terrorist attacks. For the first time in years, she messaged me last week to check in whether I was safe, because I was in the US.
Last week, I visited Tel Aviv to speak at GameIS, an independent games event run by a group of indies and volunteers from the Israeli games industry. It was a phenomenal event, filled with inspiring, aspiring and creative individuals. The event felt vibrant, and was full of interesting projects.
Since my visit to Israel, I’ve had a few disappointed people from around the world reach out to me regarding the visit. People have pointed out that I should’ve taken note of the BDS Movement, an international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israeli businesses and end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with International Law.
Global politics are inherently intricate and complicated, and while I am against Israel’s economical and frequently violent oppression of the Palestinian people and state, I am not against Israel or the Israelis per se. I am against the politics of Israel, just as I am against many of the global politics of the United States, but also those of many other countries.
So to those questioning my visit to Tel Aviv, I just want to emphasize that in a pursuit to make the world more just and fair, I refuse to dismiss or limit my support to creative individuals with no or little say in these matters. In my visit to Tel Aviv, I found many of the developers to be progressive and open-minded, and frustrated by the political situation.
I was born a third culture kid, too Dutch to be Egyptian, and too Egyptian to be Dutch, and the games industry is the first ‘country’ I’ve felt I belong to. I believe in the power of creativity and games to bring people together, and just like no one can help being born in Palestine, nobody can help being born in Israel.
If anything, I hope to visit Palestine and the independent creators making beautiful games there sometime soon. I hope to continue supporting game development in all forms in the Middle East, and the rest of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and everywhere else. In the meanwhile, I will continue to voice my discontent with the political situation of Israel regarding Palestine, but I will not stop supporting the Israeli individuals and studios dedicating their lives to making beautiful games.
My idea of distance as a person raised primarily in the Netherlands is entirely not applicable to the majority of countries in the world. Travel two hours as the bird flies, from my apartment, in any direction and you’d better know German, French, English, or whatever the fish near the coast of Norway speak. My inherent understanding of distance is that two hours of driving is far, and my mother used to pack lunch boxes for a huge undertaking like that.
The Netherlands, regardless, house almost 20 million people – making the country incredibly dense. The distance between most cities can easily be traversed by bike in the time of a normal driving commute in many countries. To many Dutch people, the Middle Of Nowhere is a place that takes more than 20 minutes to reach by bike from a major city, small villages that have limited access to the public transport system.
So even though I’ve driven across the US multiple times now, I am still fascinated by the real Middle Of Nowhere. There’s nothing. No human settlements, nothing beyond the roads and powerlines and the occasional advertisement. At night, you can drive for hours without encountering a single soul. You can see the stars against the deepest dark.
Someone built these roads through the Middle Of Nowhere just recently. I wonder if that was scary or lonely.
I was curious about a giant, red, X-shaped monument we drove by on our trip to Los Angeles. Situated on the Mexican side of the border near El Paso/Juarez, the construction easily grabbed our gaze. I spent some time researching the monument, but couldn’t find much information beyond that it was made by Sebastián and controversial for its excessive costs. It’s apparently named ‘La Equis’ or simply ‘Monument X’, and the artistic statement behind the monument is almost impossible to establish through the internet. Some say the ‘X’ symbolizes the creation myth of the Five Suns. Some say it’s a reference to the diverse genetic background of the Mexican people. Sebastián himself is said to have said it’s a reference to many things, but also that it refers to president Benito Juárez, who changed the official spelling of Méjico to Mexico.
That last notion fascinated me, because I’ve been told both spellings are still being used today across the planet. Searching for that just gave me a whole lot of ‘Mexico o Méjico’, and the Wikipedia page for Benito Juárez warns me that a lot of his life’s story might have been exaggerated by the then-ruling elite.