Reclaiming what was lost: Nostalgia in Arab art

In Adra Kandil’s mid-20s, she has cultivated a deep attachment to photography from the 1960s. (Supplied)
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Updated 09 April 2020

Reclaiming what was lost: Nostalgia in Arab art

  • A new generation of artists and designers in the Middle East are ‘part of an awakening for a past that has been undervalued’

BEIRUT: It’s mid-February in Beirut and the visual artist Adra Kandil is discussing old photographs in a café on Bliss Street. Although in her mid-20s, she has cultivated a deep attachment to photography from the 1960s — particularly Lebanon’s Golden Age and the imagery associated with the country’s pre-war heyday. For her, such photographs represent something that has been irretrievably lost. 

“My memories are amplified and seem much better than they really were,” she says. “I romanticize memories. That’s the thing with time passing: It glorifies what you once had. I construct from that feeling — the happiness, the melancholy; all of it.”




For Adra Kandil, such photographs represent something that has been irretrievably lost. (Supplied)

It is this loss and sentimentality that drives Kandil’s work: a collection of collages and compositions that have a nostalgic, dreamlike quality. There are old newspapers, flowers, film stars, vintage cityscapes, Air Liban tickets, coffee cups and classic cars in her artwork, which she releases under the moniker Dear Nostalgia. In many the moon features prominently. 

“I create from an accumulation of memories, feelings, scents and sounds,” says Kandil, whose work enables her to explore themes of childhood, home and identity. “My memory is very much based on my sensory experiences. I am inspired by what once was, and inspired by collecting and putting things together from my past, or a collective past. My work always has a message and the process isn’t linear. Sometimes an old photograph inspires me, sometimes a new song from my playlist, sometimes a story about my father’s childhood.”




It is this loss and sentimentality that drives Kandil’s work: a collection of collages and compositions that have a nostalgic, dreamlike quality. (Supplied)

She’s far from alone. A new generation of artists and designers have embraced the imagery of their collective past. From cultural icons including Umm Kulthum, Fayrouz, Sabah, Abdel Halim Hafez and Asmahan, to vintage signs and photographs of old Beirut and Damascus, there’s a palpable sense of nostalgia to much of their work. Even the scripts these artists use are synonymous with certain eras: Ruqʿah, for example, a shorthand script often associated with Egyptian movie posters. 

Examples of work from a number of these artists and designers can be found on Arabic Pop Art, an Instagram account that curates pop and collage art inspired by Arab culture. There’s Stephany Sanossian, who places modern pop-culture figures in old Arab settings, and Saba Mousavi, who goes by the name sad.mim.art and has a fondness for the Palestinian cause. 




Rana Salam who first captured her distinctive visual style in 1992. (Supplied)

“There’s something visually charming about nostalgia which gives you that dreamy, romantic feel which a lot of people might prefer over today’s more minimalistic, or even more realistic, visual approach,” says Paola Mounla, the founder of Art of Thawra, an Instagram account that curates art related to Lebanon’s recent protests. “That said, when it comes to Lebanon, the common feeling among the Lebanese is that the country’s best days were pre-war, and so any art that is nostalgic will bring out that feeling of ‘Oh, those good old days.’”

That this sense of nostalgia is noticeably stronger in Lebanon and Palestine is understandable. The former has seen its cities scarred by war and its landscape butchered by political and corporate greed. The latter has seen its people displaced and its land stolen. This sense of loss is now being felt in Syria too.

But there’s also a more universal feeling. One that involves the reclamation of the past and a celebration of Arab culture, says the Lebanese designer Rana Salam, who has used pop-culture imagery to create everything from posters and bags to cushions and towels. For her, Egyptian or Lebanese cultural icons, just like those of other countries, are key to setting those countries apart and to challenging prevailing perceptions of the Arab world.




Lebanese designer Rana Salam has used pop-culture imagery to create everything from posters and bags to cushions and towels. (Supplied)

“I was studying in London and felt that the British had no clue what the Middle East or Beirut looked like,” says Salam, who first captured her distinctive visual style in 1992. “And as I majored in visual communication and art direction at the Royal College of Art, I was taught how to translate a culture by highlighting its strength. And for me pop culture spoke the loudest.

“Nostalgia is one way of reaching people emotionally… and I know that I was part of an awakening for a past that had been disposed of and undervalued,” she continues. “And by reviving the past I have made many fall in love with their culture, have pride in their culture, and focus on local ideas and production rather than importing only Western ones.”

It’s not all positive. There are those who would describe nostalgia as a malaise. As an emotion that throws a golden glow around the past and distorts the collective memory.




Dana Barqawi is a Palestinian artist whose work celebrates Palestinian existence and culture. (Supplied)

“I feel we need to draw the difference between a nostalgic message and a nostalgic visual style,” says Mounla. “In both Adra and Stephany’s case, the visual style is nostalgic but the message is always progressive and anchored in today. In this case, I feel they’re creating something totally new and I’m not even sure it should be labeled as ‘nostalgia.’”

Kandil’s work addresses issues of nationality, culture and social and political change, while Dana Barqawi — a Palestinian artist whose work celebrates Palestinian existence and culture — portrays the people of the land before 1948 using old photographs, ink, newspaper, gold leaf and thread. For both artists, nostalgia is used for a purpose. Dig beneath the aesthetics and you’ll find strong political and social messages.

For Barqawi, that has meant challenging the widely cited rhetoric that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. That’s why all of the photographs she uses were taken “before the land and its people were forcibly removed and displaced.”




Barqawi lives in Amman and her work is currently being exhibited at the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC. (Supplied)

“Nostalgia is defined as the sentimental yearning for a return to a past period or place with happy personal associations,” says Barqawi, who lives in Amman and whose work is currently being exhibited at the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC. “I come from a diaspora generation that mostly only heard about Palestine from first generations who either romanticized it or never wanted to speak of the past because it was too painful. My generation developed a sense of belonging to a place they’ve never seen or been to, a place they never lived in. Palestine became more than just a place; it became a concept of justice, freedom, resistance, existence, beauty, but also the sadness that comes with something unattainable.

“I intend that my act of artistic creation is inseparable from notions of the real world. In times where socio-political changes compose an inherent part of our reality, I choose to reflect the context within my work, consequently creating politically and socially engaged art,” she continues. “I might use nostalgia to appeal to an audience on a feel-good level — (just as) I use beauty in my work as a tool to attract the viewer — but beyond the pleasing nature of the work, and below those aesthetic layers, there is a political agenda which challenges the institutional invisibility of Palestinian history and experience.”


Dubai gets a taste of kosher

Updated 18 September 2020

Dubai gets a taste of kosher

  • The Habtoor Group has partnered with Elli’s Kosher Kitchen to become the first UAE hotel operator to offer kosher meals

When Elli Kriel moved to Dubai from South Africa eight years ago, she was determined to maintain her family’s kosher Jewish diet and quickly sought out shops serving kosher products in the city.

“At the time we thought we were the only family that kept a kosher diet, but when word got out that we were a kosher family living in Dubai, many Jews who were traveling to the UAE would contact me for food,” Kriel told Arab News.

“I started sending food out from my home to help Jewish travelers and as the community started growing so, too, did the need for more kosher food.”

In 2018, a group of rabbis arrived in Dubai for an interfaith conference and the organizer called Kriel in a panic not knowing how to feed them. Once again, she cooked and prepared kosher meals for the numerous attendees.

“At the time the idea of kosher food outside the Jewish community was strange — something unknown,” said Kriel.

After the conference, word of her services spread quickly, and she received requests from hotel managers, concierges and others who needed to serve food to Jewish guests. In 2019, Elli’s Kosher Kitchen was born.

With the UAE normalizing ties with Israel, a number of hotels and restaurants across the emirate have begun preparations to introduce kosher food and beverages. The first is the Habtoor Group, which will offer kosher meals at several of its hotels, including the Hilton Dubai.

Habtoor Hospitality has partnered with Elli’s Kosher Kitchen.

“There has been great demand since the normalization process with Israel started, and we have had several requests for groups that require kosher food, as well as from tourists from Israel and other parts of the world who would like to visit the UAE now,” Fredrik Reinisch, general manager at Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City, told Arab News.

Hotels offering kosher catering will include Hilton Dubai, V Hotel, Habtoor Palace Dubai, LXR Hotel and Resorts, Habtoor Grand Resort, Autograph Collection LLC, Metropolitan Hotel and Habtoor Polo Resort.

“Kosher food is prepared in accordance with religious laws, the laws of the Jewish religion,” said Kriel. “It has to have kosher ingredients, follow specific methods of cooking and be served in a particular way. But it also applies to the way in which you eat the food. The basic principle is not to mix any dairy or meat products.”

Kriel ensures that all meals are prepared in accordance with OU kosher certification (Orthodox Union), believed to be the most trusted form of certification globally.

Guests with specific kosher preferences will also be able to choose from tailored menus. Meals will be packaged and sealed with an OU certified stamp.

Kosher food is similar to the concept of halal food, which adheres to Islamic law and follows religious rules in production, service and consumption.