Arabs ‘crazy’ about British royals

Manager Fouad Fattah at Cafe Diana on Monday. (Photo by Anna Pukas)
Updated 24 April 2018
0

Arabs ‘crazy’ about British royals

  • Cafe Diana's owner Abdul Basset Daoud named his shop 30 years ago after the late Princess Diana 30, who lived across the road in Kensington Palace
  • People from the Middle East really respect the Queen and not just because she is old, says one Arab restaurant owner

LONDON:  The cakes are ready, the flowers are ordered and the drinks are on ice. At the Cafe Diana in London’s Notting Hill, all was in place for a celebration marking the birth of Britain’s newest royal, the baby boy born Monday  morning to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

“Of course, we’re having a party. We always do,” said manager Fouad Fattah.

The same was true a few kilometers away at the Fatoush restaurant, where manager Alaa William Chamas kept a watchful eye on the news headlines and a lookout for extra police traffic heading towards at St Mary’s Hospital, the venue for the royal birth. “We’re expecting a busy evening,”  he said. 

While an element of celebration might be expected at some British establishments,  Cafe Diana and Fatoush are Middle Eastern-owned and run. But they are embracing the latest royal event —  as well as the forthcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle next month —  with all the enthusiasm of the most ardent monarchists.

“Are Arab people interested in the British royal family? Are you kidding? They are crazy about them!” said Lebanese-born Fattah, 55, who throws a party for his customers on every notable royal occasion.

Royal neighbor 

Cafe Diana forged a very real link with the royal family 30 years ago,  when the owner, Abdul Basset Daoud, decided to name his cafe after his royal neighbor, the late Princess Diana, who lived across the road in Kensington Palace.

He put up the sign at around Christmas time in 1988 and to his amazement, she came in two weeks later. She had seen it as she drove out with her bodyguard and it had made her smile, she told him, so she decided to drop in for a coffee.

It was not her only visit. She came again a couple of weeks later and Basset Daoud asked her if he out up a photograph of her. She returned the next day with a black and white studio. Then she began dropping in regularly, sometimes alone and often with her sons for a full English breakfast.

“The boys loved it. We are not a five-star restaurant. This is just an ordinary  neighborhood coffee shop. She wanted the princes  to experience things like normal kids,” said Fatah. 

“She didn’t mind queuing like any other customer. She usually sat with her back to the room. The other customers did not realise who she was until she stood up and they got a real shock.” 

And that, he insists, is why Arabs love the British royals.

“It’s because we can see them. They are not far away from the people. When the Queen goes out, there are just two cars with her, not 200. If the Queen goes past and you wave at her,  she waves back. You can shout out to the royals and they just smile.”

The walls of the cafe are now covered in  photographs of the princess, both formal portraits and informal snaps with the staff, and letters thanking them for sending her flowers for her birthday. The last is dated July 1, 1997, just two months before she died.

“Everyone who comes here wants to talk about the royal family,” said Fattah. “There was a lady from Kuwait who came in recently and she was crying her eyes out. I gave her a cup of tea and asked what was wrong. She said, ‘I loved Diana so much’.”

 

Arab love

It is much the same at Fatoush, a popular Lebanese restaurant on Edgeware Road, in the heart of what has been dubbed “Arab Street.”

Chatting over coffee, manager Alaa William (“Yes, that really is my name”) Chamas was adamant. 

“Arab people LOVE the British royal family. If they are living here, they really care about them. If they are visiting, they just want to talk about how they visited Buckingham Palace,” he said.

“I’m not interested!” boomed an unseen voice from the kitchen. “Be quiet!”  Chamas boomed back. Having admonished his wayward employee, Chamas returned to his theme.

“When there is a wedding in the royal family, the public are invited to share it. Now there is a new baby and they share this with the people.

“People from the Middle East really respect the Queen and not just because she is old. Some other rulers are also old but nobody thinks much about them. In some places, the people fear their rulers. Here they see that the Queen is loved.”

At the nearby Simit Sarayi cafe, manager Mukhtar Mohamed agreed. “It’s because the British royal family seem so accessible. You can visit Buckingham Palace — actually look round where they live! Arab visitors who have been coming to London for years follow all the news about the royals and they buy every souvenir they can get their hands on. If it’s got a picture of the Queen or Diana or William and Kate  on it, they want it. With Prince Harry getting married in a few weeks, they are buying like crazy.”

Back at Cafe Diana, Fattah is recalling a poignant visit by Harry a few years after the death of his mother.

“He must have been about 16 or 17. He was with his uncle, Prince Andrew, and he had just been to the barber next door to get his hair cut. On the way back to the car, he put his head round the door of the cafe and said, ‘Hi.’ Then he looked at all the photos and smiled and left.”

In four weeks’ time, Prince Harry is getting married. Cue for another party? “Absolutely!”


Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Updated 25 May 2018
0

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

  • The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
  • Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades. 

Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.

It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.

At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.

The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.

With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.

“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.

The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.

While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable. 

“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.

Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.

Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.

These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.

Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.

Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.

“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.

The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.

Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.

In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”

Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.

“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.

In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.

The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.

“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”

“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.

“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”

For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”

The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.

The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.

 

The Saudi pavilion exhibition ‘Spaces in Between,’ above and top. (Valeria Mariani)