A powerful ode to a long-lost golden age

Updated 19 September 2018
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A powerful ode to a long-lost golden age

ABU DHABI: There’s a scene in Wael Koudaih and Randa Mirza’s audio-visual collaboration “Love & Revenge” that takes its lead from Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso.” A series of censored kisses stitched together to music, it epitomizes much of what the show tries to achieve. A sense of tenderness.   
 
“It talks to human emotions,” says Mirza of “Love & Revenge.” “It talks to people in a way that is away from political agendas. The Arab world is rich in culture, in meaning, in love. There’s happiness and human relationships. All of this is completely ignored when the Arab world is only seen through the prism of fundamentalism and politics.” 
 
An emotive and powerful ode to a long-lost golden age, Love & Revenge has been touring Europe and the Middle East for the past few years. Now it is set to make its New York University Abu Dhabi debut on Sept. 12-13, following two successful performances at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in May. 
 
A fusion of electro pop music and cinema from the Arab world, it is the first collaboration between Koudaih, a former Arabic hip-hop trailblazer, and Mirza, a Lebanese visual artist. Both live between Lebanon and France.  
 
Driven by a keen sense of nostalgia, Koudaih’s modifications of classic Arabic songs accompany Mirza’s edited film sequences. There’s Samia Gamal and Leila Mourad, Sabah and Taheyya Kariokka. “All are set,” says Koudaih, “to the patterns and aesthetics of today’s music.” 
 
In one sequence, for example, selected scenes have been taken from Hussein Kamal’s 1969 film “Abi foq Al-Shagara,” starring Egyptian actors Abdel Halim Hafez and Nadia Lutfi. As their love affair unfolds on screen, Koudaih’s remix of Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s “Ya Msafer Wahdak,” sung by Nagat Al-Saghira, is used to accentuate the emotions of Mirza’s edited scenes. 
 
“The whole idea was to try and find a concept for each song,” says Mirza, who watched more than 100 films as part of her research. “To try to understand what the music is conveying, what it is saying, and find ways for the visuals to enhance it or to let it flow. 
 
“When I watched the films I was waiting for a particular scene. A particular shot. And if I found an interesting scene I would start cutting the scenes that I liked, constructing my own sequence database. From this I would choose stuff in order to create meaning and to create a story that would run with the music. 
 
“It was a playful process. I would run a song continuously and start using my database to see how the meaning would change with the music. What emotions could I feel? When did it work? When did it click?” 
 
As well as Mirza and Koudaih, the live performances include Mehdi Haddab, an Algerian electronic oud player, and Julien Perraudeau, a French musician who has created his own set-up out of a collection of small keyboards.  
 
“The archive is crazy,” says Koudaih, who is better known by his stage name Rayess Bek. “When you dig inside these movies —  inside these songs —  it’s unbelievable. You can see and hear the society, but you can also understand the taboos, the limits of that society, and the complexity of the people. And we wanted to focus —  not only, but mainly —  on the image of the Arab woman in cinema, because it’s an important topic that’s still relevant today.” 
 
“The representation of women in these movies is very intriguing,” adds Mirza, who first met Koudaih at university in Beirut. “At first sight you have the reaction that the Arab world was freer in the 20th century – more than it is today – and what was possible in the media is not possible anymore. But if you look closer at this representation you understand that it has always been an objectifying representation. You have a lot of women in bikinis, you have a lot of women being seductive on screen, wearing very light clothes and showing their female charms in front of the camera. But the reality in these movies is that all the dancers are considered bad women.  
 
“At the end of the movies the woman who cheats on her husband, drinks, dances or sings, dies. There is not a single film in which a woman is empowered. Even the films that tried to be a bit feminist had a very limited view of feminism. A woman could choose the husband she wanted, but of course the goal of a woman should always be marriage; to be always protected by a man. And this is problematic. Very problematic, because we’re still there somehow. Women are not complete individuals, free to be whoever they want and to have as equal a role in society as men.” 
 
The title of the project takes its name from Youssef Wahbi’s 1944 film “Gharam wa Intiqam” (love and revenge), which is famous as the last movie to star the Syrian Druze princess Asmahan.

Blessed with a powerful voice and an exceptional vocal range, Asmahan’s formidable character, glamor and onscreen persona helped turn her into a cultural icon. It also ensured she was shadowed by controversy, dying in mysterious circumstances before the film was finished.

The film’s ending was subsequently changed to mirror Asmahan’s passing, with art mirroring life. It is Koudaih’s mid-tempo, beat heavy reinterpretation of Asmahan’s “Emta Hataraf” that is arguably the project’s standout track. 
 
“You know, there is one thing that has really fascinated me with this project,” says Koudaih. “At the end of our shows we always ask the crowd to come on stage and dance. In London and in Abu Dhabi we had veiled women who came up on stage and were dancing like crazy.”
 
Maybe this is a big part of its success. The fact that it provides a happy, upbeat and danceable view of the Arab world. 
 
“We played in Tunis and the people were crazy,” says Koudaih. “We were sold out. It’s not because we are stars. We’re not. I think it’s because this area of the Arab world is missing. This golden age, this freedom, this music. People miss this.” 


Stolen Picasso unearthed by ‘Indiana Jones of art’

Updated 26 March 2019
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Stolen Picasso unearthed by ‘Indiana Jones of art’

  • The 1938 masterpiece entitled ‘Portrait of Dora Maar’, also known as ‘Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)’, was handed to an insurance company earlier this month
  • Arthur Brand won world fame in 2015 after finding ‘Hitler’s Horses’

THE HAGUE: A Dutch art detective dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the Art World” has struck again, finding a Picasso painting worth €25 million stolen from a Saudi sheikh’s yacht on the French Riviera in 1999.
Arthur Brand said he had handed back the 1938 masterpiece entitled “Portrait of Dora Maar,” also known as “Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)” to an insurance company earlier this month.
The discovery of the rare portrait of Maar, one of Pablo Picasso’s most influential mistresses, is the culmination of a four-year investigation into the burglary on the luxury yacht Coral Island, as she lay anchored in Antibes.
Two decades after its theft and with no clues to its whereabouts, the French police were stumped — and the portrait, which once hung in the Spanish master’s home until his death in 1973, was feared lost forever.
But after a four-year trail which led through the Dutch criminal underworld, two intermediaries turned up on Brand’s Amsterdam doorstep 10 days ago with the missing picture.
“They had the Picasso, now valued at €25 million wrapped in a sheet and black rubbish bags with them,” Brand said.
It was yet another success for Brand, who hit the headlines last year for returning a stolen 1,600-year-old mosaic to Cyprus.
He won world fame in 2015 after finding “Hitler’s Horses,” two bronze statues made by Nazi sculptor Joseph Thorak — a discovery about which he had a book out earlier this month.
The theft of the Picasso, valued at around seven million dollars at the time, baffled French police, sent the super-rich scurrying to update boat security and prompted the offer of a big reward.
In 2015, Brand first got wind that a “Picasso stolen from a ship” was doing the rounds in the Netherlands, although “at that stage I didn’t know which one exactly.”
It turned out that the painting had entered the criminal circuit, where it circled for many years “often being used as collateral, popping up in a drug deal here, four years later in an arms deal there,” said.
It took several years and a few dead ends before pinning down that it was actually the Picasso stolen from a Saudi billionaire’s yacht as the mega-cruiser was being refurbished, Brand said.
Brand put out word on the street that he was looking for “Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)” and in early March he struck gold.
“Two representatives of a Dutch businessman contacted me, saying their client had the painting. He was at his wits’ end,” said Brand.
“He thought the Picasso was part of a legitimate deal. It turns out the deal was legitimate — the method of payment was not,” Brand laughed.
Brand called the Dutch and French police — who had since closed the case — and who said they would not prosecute the current owner.
“Since the original theft, the painting must have changed hands at least 10 times,” said Brand.
Brand said he had to act quickly, otherwise the painting may have disappeared back into the underworld.
“I told the intermediaries, it’s now or never, because the painting is probably in a very bad state... We have to act as soon as we can.”
Then, just over a week ago, Brand’s doorbell rang at his modest apartment in Amsterdam, and the intermediaries were there with the painting.
After unwrapping it, “I hung the Picasso on my wall for a night, thereby making my apartment one of the most expensive in Amsterdam for a day,” Brand laughed.
The following day, a Picasso expert from New York’s Pace Gallery flew in to verify its authenticity at a high-security warehouse in Amsterdam.
Also present was retired British detective Dick Ellis, founder of Scotland Yard’s art and antiquities squad, representing an unnamed insurance company.
“There is no doubt that this is the stolen Picasso,” Ellis, who now runs a London-based art risk consultancy business, said.
Ellis is famous for recovering many stolen artworks including Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” lifted from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994.
“It’s not only the public interest to recover stolen works of art,” he said. “You are also reducing the amount of collateral that is circling the black market and funds criminality.”
“Buste de Femme” is back in possession of the insurance company, which now had to decide the next steps, Brand and Ellis said.