Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture
Cirque du Soleil in Riyadh. (Arab News)
Updated 25 September 2018

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture
  • Cirque du Soleil created a spectacular show in Riyadh
  • They paid tribute to Saudi culture and heritage

RIYADH: The circus — a place that is almost synonymous with joy and delight. Since time immemorial, circuses have been places of celebration and glee, and few as much as the premier name in the industry: Cirque du Soleil.

The show has had a devoted fan in me since 2006, when I attended a performance of their production “Quidam” and my definition of the word “circus” was turned upside-down. Their unique approach to art, performance, costumes and music has secured their status as a household name and a benchmark for all other circus shows to be measured against.

On Sunday night, Saudi Arabia’s National Day, the circus brought their incredible acrobatics to Riyadh’s King Fahad Stadium and it turned out to be a night to remember.

Prior to the event, Cirque’s Vice President of Creation Daniel Fortin offered little in the way of spoilers but hinted that we would see something the likes of which we never had before. With the promises of exclusive new acts, music, costumes and stage tricks piquing my excitement, I joined a throng of green-and white-clad spectators flooding the stadium. Performing to a sold-out crowd, the show kicked off at exactly 8.30 p.m. and the magic truly began.

Barely five minutes into the show, something stole over me as I settled into the rhythm of the music, something I saw flickering over the faces of those in the crowd around me: Recognition. We were seeing ourselves, our identity, echoed back at us, but with a twist. We saw ourselves through someone else’s eyes — someone respectful and admiring.

As a Saudi youth today, it has become an unfortunately common occurrence to face negativity from various outsiders, born of ignorance or fear. It has become dreary and repetitive to have to continually defend my people and my culture from those who have no wish to understand us.

But at this show? I saw my country once more through the eyes of an outsider, but this time, it was different. I saw my culture and my heritage lauded, celebrated, delicately fused with that tangible Cirque du Soleil flair. The attention to detail was careful, almost loving, but also daring and outlandish. It was a glorious fusion of classic Saudi aesthetics with the ethereal, bizarre beauty of Cirque du Soleil.


The symbolism was not always obvious, sometimes it was subtle, constrained to the beat of a drum or hidden in a snatch of song. Other times, it was blatant and bold, in the sloping hump of an elegantly clumsy camel costume, or the billowing of the Bedouin Big Top in the gentle breeze. And yet, unmistakeably, I felt the Saudi influences in every note of the performance. It felt like an homage, and yet it did nothing to diminish its own identity. It remained unquestionably a Cirque du Soleil performance, only below the usual circus frippery, there was a ribbon of something else that lay coiled beneath the surface. Something bright, vibrant green. Saudi green.

The spectacle rounded off with an astonishing display of fireworks, so plentiful that for a moment, the sky glowed bright as day. To me, each one felt like a promise fulfilled. A dream achieved. A miracle witnessed. Here, on my own home soil, it was the perfect tribute to a rich and vivid culture.


Demi Lovato champions Lebanese eyewear label By Karen Wazen

Demi Lovato champions Lebanese eyewear label By Karen Wazen
Updated 23 April 2021

Demi Lovato champions Lebanese eyewear label By Karen Wazen

Demi Lovato champions Lebanese eyewear label By Karen Wazen

DUBAI: American pop star Demi Lovato has been spotted wearing a pair of sunglasses from Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen’s eponymous accessories line By Karen Wazen.

The two-time Grammy nominee opted for the Glamorous shades, a pair of cat-eye-shaped sunglasses in green lenses and a clear frame.

Wazen took to her Instagram to express her excitement with her 5.9 million followers. “The one and only @ddlovato spotted in @bykarenwazen. I love her and feel so happy seeing this (sic),” said the influencer and entrepreneur, who shared a video on her Stories of the 28-year-old “Sorry Not Sorry” singer wearing her shades.

Instagram/ @karenwazen

Dubai-based Wazen launched her debut collection of eyewear in December 2018. The first line of five styles came in acetate and stainless steel and in an array of colors, from neon to tortoiseshell.

Less than a year after the official launch of her brand, her designs were picked up by major e-tailer Farfetch, which became the first online platform to offer her eyewear collection.

Now with a large collection of stylish shades, the label has gained the nod of approval from international celebrities including British-Albanian singer Dua Lipa, reality television star Kourtney Kardashian, French model Cindy Bruna, and American singer Becky G, along with a number of regional influencers and trendsetters such as Lebanese blogger Nathalie Fanj, Lebanese-Canadian actress Cynthia Samuel, and Iraqi influencer Deema Al-Asadi.

It is not the first time that Lovato has championed an Arab designer. In August, she wore a pair of sandals by Jordanian-Romanian footwear designer Amina Muaddi, who is famous for her signature flared heels.


Movie maestros: Who will win this year’s Academy Awards?

Movie maestros: Who will win this year’s Academy Awards?
Updated 23 April 2021

Movie maestros: Who will win this year’s Academy Awards?

Movie maestros: Who will win this year’s Academy Awards?
  • Arab News assesses the nominees for the major awards in next week’s Oscars

BEST PICTURE

 

The essential, beautiful “Nomadland” is the clear favorite to pick up the Best Picture award this year, and deservedly so. Chloé Zhao’s movie about a middle-aged woman forced to pack up her belongings in a van and travel the States looking for temporary work to make ends meet — and about the ‘tribe’ of van-lifers she meets on the way — is thought-provoking, moving and perfectly formed. It would be a huge shock if it doesn’t win. Among the what must be considered also-rans (although they’re all fine films in their own right), “Sound of Metal” — the story of a heavy metal drummer losing his hearing — would be a great left-field choice, but is surely a rank outsider, as is the excellent “The Father,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman in a heartbreaking portrayal of a father and daughter struggling to cope with dementia. The rape-revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman” has plenty of buzz about it, the bittersweet, gentle “Minari” is a wonderful movie, and David Fincher’s biographical drama “Mank” is a film about the film industry (and a very good one), which always plays well with the Academy. Another biopic, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” is a timely, superbly acted, examination of racial injustice. But if any film is going to pip “Nomadland” to this prize, it will likely be the powerful “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a historical legal drama based on the legal proceedings against a group of anti-Vietnam war protestors written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and starring a stellar ensemble cast.

OUR PREDICTION: Nomadland

BEST ACTOR

The Academy will surely take the opportunity to posthumously honor Chadwick Boseman, one of the most talented, popular and acclaimed actors of his generation, who died of cancer last year. Fortunately for the voters, Boseman was great in his last role, as cocky jazz trumpeter Levee Green in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Among his fellow nominees, British veterans Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins are both deservedly recognized for their star turns in “Mank” and “The Father” respectively (with Hopkins’ performance just ahead, in our view), while Steven Yeun is selected for his perfectly pitched performance as a frustrated but loving father trying to build a working farm for his family. Perhaps Boseman’s biggest challenge will come from Riz Ahmed who, in “Sound of Metal,” displayed a subtle, nuanced range as well as some serious technical chops — learning to play the drums and ‘speak’ sign language for the movie. You have to expect, though, that Ahmed, like the others, will ultimately lost out to Boseman. And they’re probably fine with that.

OUR PREDICTION: Chadwick Boseman

BEST ACTRESS

This may be one of the hardest categories to call this year, with no clear favorite yet apparent. What is apparent is that all five nominees turned in stellar performances. It could be the category in which “Promising Young Woman” picks up a ‘major’ award — Carey Mulligan is excellent in the lead role, adding nuance and humanity to a character it would have been easy to play at full throttle throughout. Frances McDormand is just wonderful in “Nomadland,” but the role might (deliberately) lack the flashy touches that often grab the Academy’s attention. Viola Davis certainly can’t be accused of that — as the eponymous lead in “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” she dazzles and transfixes with her presence and vocal chops. As does Andra Day in her debut feature film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” turning in an electrifying performance as the eponymous legendary singer. This talent-filled category is rounded out by Vanessa Kirby, recognized by the Academy for her heart-rending, all-too-believable portrayal of a woman who loses her baby at birth in “Pieces of a Woman.”

OUR PREDICTION: Viola Davis

BEST DIRECTOR

For the first time in its 93-year history, the Academy has two female nominees for best director. Could one of them become only the second woman to win the award (following Kathryn Bigelow’s triumph with “The Hurt Locker” in 2009)? We think so. Otherwise, this would be an enormous missed opportunity for the Academy to show that it’s making some effort to move with the times. Chloé Zhao’s fantastic “Nomadland” is, as mentioned, the favorite to win Best Picture, and while that’s no guarantee of landing this award, it certainly doesn’t hurt — and Zhao did an undeniably brilliant job. She deserves to win. The second female nominee is Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” It’s a very of-the-moment piece, and Fennell constructs it brilliantly, but being timely and socially relevant isn’t always a plus with the traditionally conservative Academy. Among the men, David Fincher might be feeling that his time has come. Widely recognized as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, “Mank” has earned him his third nomination in this category. If anyone can beat Zhao to this year’s prize, it’s probably him. Both Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”) and Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) have made great movies, but it would be a big shock if either of them picked up the award this year.

OUR PREDICTION: Chloé Zhao

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM

The region’s hopes in this category lie with Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, nominated for her dark satire “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” in which a Syrian refugee desperate for money allows a famous artist to use his skin as a canvas for his latest work. But she faces stiff competition, not least from Best Director nominee Thomas Vinterberg’s meditative comedy-drama “Another Round.” The harrowing Bosnian war drama “Quo Vadis, Aida?” may be the latter’s closest contender, closely followed by Alexander Nanau’s “Collective,” a documentary thriller about a shocking health-care fraud in Romania. Kwok Cheung Tsang’s compelling crime romance “Better Days” is an outsider here.

OUR PREDICTION: “Another Round”

BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

The only other nominee from the Arab world at this year’s Oscars is “The Present,” directed by Farah Nabulsi and telling the story of a man in the West Bank searching for a gift for his wife, accompanied by his young daughter. It’s already picked up a BAFTA and would be a worthy winner. “Feeling Through” — a touching tale of connection between a DeafBlind man and a homeless teen; “The Letter Room” (starring Oscar Isaac); the hyper-timely “Two Distant Strangers,” about a young black man repeatedly confronted and killed by a white NYPD officer, and Israeli contender “White Eye” make this a tough, tough category to win.

OUR PREDICTION: “Two Distant Strangers”


Roka rocks: Dubai’s new Japanese restaurant

Roka rocks: Dubai’s new Japanese restaurant
Updated 23 April 2021

Roka rocks: Dubai’s new Japanese restaurant

Roka rocks: Dubai’s new Japanese restaurant
  • Famed London eatery opens its doors in the Middle East

DUBAI: Roka is the smaller, slightly more casual, sister of renowned Japanese restaurant Zuma. It’s branch in Dubai — housed in a building designed by the acclaimed late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid — is its first in the region, but another is scheduled to open soon in Riyadh.

Its entrance is marked by a white light sign on the gray floor spelling out the restaurant’s name. Simple and stylish. That’s a theme continued inside, where the cold concrete walls and pillars are warmed up by wooden accents and plenty of greenery. The mellow electro beats in the background and the dim lighting all add to the ‘contemporary jungle’ feel of the place — although the stunning views of the downtown skyline are a reminder that you’re in the heart of a city.

The mellow electro beats in the background and the dim lighting all add to the ‘contemporary jungle’ feel of the place. (Supplied)

There are a number of great dishes at Roka, but if you’re only going to order one thing, we would recommend the rosuto bone marrow; combined with the venue’s jungle vibes, you’ll feel like an ancient hunter-gatherer as you feast on this charred, cut bone served with garlic confit, mini miso buns and pickled shallots (admittedly, an upmarket hunter-gatherer). The smoky fattiness of the bone marrow combines perfectly with the creamy subtlety of the confit garlic, complemented by the fresh tang of the shallots. It’s a rare treat.

The age nasu no goma-ae (eggplant with sesame miso) is also excellent — and I speak as someone who doesn’t generally enjoy eggplant. This decadent dish offers a deep palette of flavors, balancing the strong hit of the warm eggplants with the faint sweetness of sesame and savory bonito fish flakes, which also add a welcome crunch to the juicy, tender aubergine.

Roka’s branch in Dubai is housed in a building designed by the acclaimed late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. (Supplied)

One of Roka’s signature dishes — made famous in its London branch — is the kampashi sashimi no salada. And it deserves its reputation: the thin, supple slices of yellowtail sashimi are drenched in a delicious yuzu truffle dressing and garnished with some fresh greens, creating a perfect marriage of raw fish and earthy umami flavor.

The presentation is simple and immaculate. (Supplied)

Roka is a Japanese restaurant, so of course we have to sample the sushi. We opt for the deluxe sashimi platter with tuna, yellowtail shashimi, scallop with green tea and sansho, and torched o-toro nigiri with caviar. The presentation is, once again, simple and immaculate — served up on a big slab of ice on bamboo and wooden plates and accompanied by several palette cleansers. Some of the sushi is stacked on the ice to remain cold, while the rest is presented in a beautiful shell. It is all delicious. Roka also serves fresh wasabi with its sushi, which tastes very different from the store-bought version. It has a mild earthy flavor, with a fleeting hot spicy aftertaste.

One of Roka’s signature dishes — made famous in its London branch — is the kampashi sashimi no salada. (Supplied)

All in all, our meal was superb, including the side dishes. Roka has quickly become one of our favorite spots in Dubai. The laidback, welcoming vibe certainly helps and, considering the top-notch quality of the food, the prices (somewhere between a casual family restaurant and a high-end venue) are reasonable overall.

If you’re in Dubai and fancy a Japanese meal, then Roka would be our number-one recommendation.


THE BREAKDOWN: Saudi photographer Reem Al-Faisal discusses monochromatic series ‘Only the Lonely’

THE BREAKDOWN: Saudi photographer Reem Al-Faisal discusses monochromatic series ‘Only the Lonely’
Updated 23 April 2021

THE BREAKDOWN: Saudi photographer Reem Al-Faisal discusses monochromatic series ‘Only the Lonely’

THE BREAKDOWN: Saudi photographer Reem Al-Faisal discusses monochromatic series ‘Only the Lonely’
  • The Saudi photographer discusses her evocative monochromatic image, recently showcased at Art Dubai through the Riyadh-based Mono Gallery

DUBAI: I’ve been professionally practicing photography for 30 years. It began as a hobby then became something more. Photography, for me, is the most contemporary artistic expression. It very much captures the spirit of the time. It interests me because it’s a mixture between the human element and technology. You are dependent on the machine to use your talent as an artist.

This image was taken in New York in the late Nineties. (Supplied)

I’m looking for people to tell me their stories, not to impose a story on them. I find humanity amazing. People are so diverse but, at the same time, so similar. We all face the same issues: Life, death, sickness, poverty, joy, wealth... This series, “Only the Lonely,” is from many other different projects I worked on all over the world. It’s about loneliness in the modern world, loneliness in a crowd. The title is inspired by the Roy Orbison song. He sings: “Only the lonely/Know the way I feel tonight.” When I take these images of lonely people in big cities, I don’t know why but this song always plays in my mind.

In a way, this image symbolizes this lonely person wondering “Do other people know what I feel?” It was taken in New York in the late Nineties. As usual, I was going out walking a lot. And this man happened to be there at the end of the day, cleaning in front of a shop. None of my pictures are staged — I don’t photograph with flash or tripods. My camera is part of my hand.

In France, they call photographers ‘chasseurs d’images’ — hunters of images. That’s what we do: We hunt down images. It’s difficult to explain. You just sense something and you take a picture. It’s usually a split second that symbolizes something that might take pages and pages of written words to explain. One of the reasons why I deal with black-and-white photography is because I’m dealing with metaphysical meanings and philosophy. The black-and-white encourages the viewer to disassociate with the physical world and look beyond it, into the spiritual.


New app reconstructs the ancient glory of Baalbak’s Roman ruins in Lebanon

New app reconstructs the ancient glory of Baalbak’s Roman ruins in Lebanon
Updated 22 April 2021

New app reconstructs the ancient glory of Baalbak’s Roman ruins in Lebanon

New app reconstructs the ancient glory of Baalbak’s Roman ruins in Lebanon

DUBAI: In 1898, an unlikely royal visit was made to the 10,000-year-old city of Baalbek, a jewel in the crown of Lebanon’s archeological history. As part of his grand tour of the Orient — an expedition that involved 100 coaches, 230 tents and 10 guides — the last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his wife Augusta Victoria were awestruck by Baalbek’s famed Roman ruins. Although the Emperor spent just a few waking hours in the ‘City of the Sun’ — his last stop before heading back to Potsdam via the Port of Beirut – he was so captivated by what he witnessed that he decided to commission German expeditions to excavate the site.

“Baalbek Reborn: Temples” provides a 38-minute guided tour with an audio track available in English, Arabic, French and German. (Supplied)

Commemorating the centenary of the Kaiser’s consequential stay in Baalbek, a local museum was inaugurated in 1998 by the Lebanese General Department of Antiquities (DGA) and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) to display a collection of pre-Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine artifacts. The Lebanese-German cultural relationship continues to grow to this day. In fact, thanks to a collaboration between the DGA, the DAI and the US-based virtual-tourism company Flyover Zone, a new smartphone and tablet app has now been developed that lets users view Baalbek virtually.

Advanced and impressive as such ‘travel’ may be, however, the app’s project manager Henning Burwitz is aware that it is a very different experience to actually going somewhere. (Supplied

“Baalbek Reborn: Temples” allows you to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site — known as Heliopolis in Roman times — as it was in the past and as it is now. It provides a 38-minute guided tour with an audio track available in English, Arabic, French and German. It includes a map with 38 individual stops — some of which are inaccessible in reality — that can be ‘visited’ in panoramic, up-close, and satellite views. Highlights include the iconic six columns of the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Baachus, considered by experts as one of the world’s best-preserved examples of Roman-era temples.

The app, released in late March, is another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed tourism and travel. Since global lockdowns began a year ago, there has been increasing interest in the use of advanced technology and virtual reality to allow people to explore the world.

Advanced and impressive as such ‘travel’ may be, however, the app’s project manager Henning Burwitz is aware that it is a very different experience to actually going somewhere.

In modern times, Baalbek has been a major artistic hotspot in the Arab region, hosting high-profile performers including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Fayrouz and Umm Kulthum at the open-air Baalbeck International Festival. (Supplied)

“This was never intended to replace an actual visit,” Burwitz told Arab News. “To learn about a World Heritage Site in a book, in an app, is great. But to be there is a different thing. We (see) this as a way to encourage people to learn about it, to get people to go there, or to maybe even hear about it for the first time.”

Burwitz recalled the first time he laid eyes on Baalbek back in 2002: “When you go there once, you want come back a lot of times. The size and the impression it leaves on you… It is anything but modest.”

The graphics of “Baalbek Reborn” were originally based on 20th-century German archaeologist Theodore Wiegand’s book documenting his findings at Baalbek. (Supplied)

In modern times, Baalbek has been a major artistic hotspot in the Arab region, hosting high-profile performers including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Fayrouz and Umm Kulthum at the open-air Baalbeck International Festival. During the 1950s and 1960s, Baalbek’s temples were prominently featured in tourism and aviation posters. So aside from its historical importance, what is it about Baalbek that creates such a lasting impression on people?

“The fact that Baalbek and its sites are still preserved as they are today, after the civil war, after a lot of bad (times) this beautiful country has seen, is due to the people,” Burwitz said. “They love their site and they do this because it’s their life, it’s their wellbeing.”

Time-traveling has always been the passion of American digital archaeologist and professor Bernard Frischer. (Supplied)

Time-traveling has always been the passion of American digital archaeologist and professor Bernard Frischer, who was involved in the development of the app. Through his company, Flyover Zone, his team has virtually recreated the entire city of Ancient Rome and upcoming plans include sites in Egypt and Mexico. “The cultural mission of what we’re doing — of bridging time and space — is to help bridge people and show people each other’s cultures, starting from when they’re children,” Frischer said. “We have to show young people that there are many great monuments around the world and we have to make them easily accessible.”

“Baalbek Reborn: Temples” includes a map with 38 individual stops — some of which are inaccessible in reality — that can be ‘visited’ in panoramic, up-close, and satellite views. (Supplied)

The graphics of “Baalbek Reborn” were originally based on 20th-century German archaeologist Theodore Wiegand’s book documenting his findings at Baalbek. A 3D-model was developed and minor details that make the research more scientifically viable and accurate were later added, along with touches that gave the images of Baalbek, captured via drone, a richer look and feel.

According to Burwitz and Frischer, the app has been positively received in the region and abroad, with around 9,000 downloads within a few days of its launch.

The project also supports a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the Lebanese non-governmental organization, Arc en Ciel. This initiative will offer restoration training for 100 artisans and workmen in Lebanon, in an effort to rehabilitate Beirut’s heritage homes damaged in the August port explosion.

A 3D-model was developed and minor details that make the research more scientifically viable and accurate were later added. (Supplied)

With the situation in Lebanon so desperate — with political turmoil, an economic meltdown, increased migration and the collective trauma caused by last year’s Beirut blast all exacerbating the issues caused by the ongoing pandemic — Burwitz and his team hope that this project, reconstructing a beloved architectural gem in remarkable detail, might provide the Lebanese people with something to smile about.

“We are all hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel and this might be the little torch trying to guide the people,” said Burwitz.

“We want them to feel that this is good news, which will make them happy and give them some hope,” added Frischer. “It should also give them a special sense of pride that they live in a country that was able to achieve the monumentality of a site like Baalbek.”