Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony

Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony
Hassan Massoudy has spent a lifetime creating art that, despite its break with tradition, continues to express the beauty of Arabic calligraphy. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 24 September 2020

Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony

Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony
  • The acclaimed artist and calligrapher discusses the origins of his work and the decades of practice leading to his new book

LONDON: The Iraqi artist and renowned calligrapher Hassan Massoudy is at home in Paris quietly reminiscing. Now well into his 70s, and having not returned to Iraq for 50 years, he can be excused the odd moment of nostalgia.

“When I was younger, I went on a trip with my mother to visit her brother, who was a preacher and a thinker,” he remembers. “I looked at him in awe in his black clothes and large turban as he wrote literary phrases using a reed pen. I didn’t know how to read at that time, but what attracted me was the black ink on the white paper. I used to see the Arabic letters as a set of pictures. I marveled at that sight.”

He remembers, too, being summoned to the front of his class when he was 10 years old. Expecting the worst, he made his way to the front slowly, only to be praised for the quality of his writing. “I was over the moon when my teacher asked me to write in front of the other students in order for them to learn,” he says, pride still evident after all these years. “Today, after 66 years, I think that was the first time I wrote calligraphy in front of an audience — something I have continued to do all my life.”

Generosity is giving more than you can. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). (Supplied)

Massoudy has spent a lifetime creating art that, despite its break with tradition, continues to express the beauty of Arabic calligraphy. He has taken individual letters and words, constructed them as huge sculptural works, and developed his artistic practice through the increased use of energy and speed. This has led to the creation of texts with far greater character, he says, and to his own appreciation of the importance of space. “Beforehand, I thought that the letter was the only important aspect of calligraphy,” he says. “Now I realize that the space around the letters is another part of calligraphy — the letters and spaces must work together in harmony.”

Renowned for transforming poetic texts into vibrant works of art, Massoudy may have broken with classical calligraphic tradition, but his sentences are peppered with references to old masters. In Istanbul, he met the last of the great Ottoman calligraphers, including Hamid Aytaç, and studied for a brief period of time at the Madrasat Tahsin Al Khotoout in Cairo. As an apprentice in Baghdad, he spent hours with Hashem Al-Baghdadi, considered the last of the classical calligraphers. 

Knowledge stands at the highest of all ranks. Arabic saying. (Supplied)

In 1980, he went in search of the official body of work of Ibn Muqla, a vizier within the Abbasid Caliphate and the first to codify the principles of calligraphy in the 10th century. Although not a single line of Ibn Muqla’s work has survived, Massoudy has documented the calligrapher’s physical legacy, including a small eight-page notebook in Cairo and another in the National Library in Tunis. The former is a copy made some time in the 16th century.

“How do calligraphers from the past continue to affect me? Their beautiful lines have lived for thousands of years, and as a calligrapher you want to continue that. And as Jalaluddin Rumi says: ‘What you are looking for is also looking for you.’”    

Born and raised in Najaf, Massoudy moved to Baghdad in his late teens. The idea was to study at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts but he didn’t meet the entry requirements, so turned instead to the calligraphers’ shops that could still be found in the city in the early Sixties. The world he encountered there was populated by a small group of calligraphers, “but it was generous, open-minded, and unafraid of the collapse of classical methods.”

The best of speech is concise and precise. Arabic proverb. (Supplied)

Although all of his work was in the world of advertising, he learned multiple styles of calligraphy, including elaborate forms such as Thuluth and Diwani, before leaving for Paris in 1969. There, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he produced his first figurative paintings and eventually formed what would become his own distinctive practice.

“In my calligraphy I reflect my personal state of being — my hopes and my aspirations,” he says. “I empty my soul of all its concerns, providing myself a state of inner peace. This is a state of equilibrium between the artistic process of the self and the human community we are linked to. What can an artist do against the wars and the injustices faced by individuals? I believe that an artist can make their work honestly representative of the time, and therefore a benefit for future generations. It’ll be for others to judge the quality of the artist’s work, therefore determining its longevity.”

Place your words well, for words place you. Arabic saying. (Supplied)

The words he draws upon for his work are those of others, particularly the writings of poets and philosophers, including Rumi, Khalil Gibran and the Persian mystic Al-Hallaj. He also draws heavily on proverbs from around the world. In doing so, he not only creates distinctive works of art, but promotes a message of peace and tolerance — two themes that are central to much of his work. That’s why words such as ‘love’ and ‘serenity’ are sprinkled liberally throughout his work.

That body of work is extensive, ranging from works on paper to theatrical performances that combine music and poetry with the creation of calligraphy live on stage. His first such performance was with the French actor Guy Jacquet and the Iraqi multi-instrumentalist Fawzy Al-Aiedy — the trio toured for 13 years in the Seventies and early Eighties. A later collaboration with the choreographer Carolyn Carlson and the Turkish musician Kudsi Erguner led to the creation of “Metaphore,” a ‘harmony of music, dance and calligraphy.’

Be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi (1869-1948). (Supplied)

“When I find a poetic verse, one that includes an image that I can see perfectly in my mind, I take its most beautiful words and spend days imagining the poet writing those words and how to formally reach a new expression through the new construction of a word,” Massoudy explains. “I also try to think of what can be added to enrich the painting. For example, the use of colors, as I am a person who tries his best to achieve perfection. When I speak of perfection, my goal is to create something that is as close as possible to the vision the poet had in mind. Therefore, I write the same word multiple times in a different size, even if it (differs) just by a few millimeters.”

This creative process was central to the creation of “Calligraphies of the Desert,” published by Saqi Books this month. Drawing inspiration from the writers and poets who ‘lost themselves in the mysteries of the desert,’ it is the end result of various trips undertaken by Massoudy and his wife Isabelle to the deserts of North Africa. It was there that his calligraphy “took on the ochre, yellow and pink hues of the setting sun” and his lines “closely paralleled the hollows of the dunes.”

Massoudy’s artistic vision is a humanist one. He seeks to enhance society and to elevate culture, using inspirational words to “contribute modestly to public awareness.”

“Love, happiness, hope and dignity,” he says. “All of these themes, and many others, are needed in this current time.”

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal
The BTS meal is coming to McDonald's in May. File/AFP
Updated 20 April 2021

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

DUBAI: US fast food giant McDonald’s has tapped Korean pop sensation BTS to promote a new meal, and Arab fans of the boy band can hardly contain their excitement.

Many supporters of the seven member group took to their social media to express their anticipation for the Grammy-nominated boy band's meal that will be launching starting next month in nearly 50 countries, including Oman, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar and Morocco in addition to the US, India, Singapore and more.

“From today, I will just eat at McDonalds,” wrote one Twitter user in Arabic.

Another user from Saudi Arabia mentioned McDonalds in their Tweet, urging them to make the meal available in the Kingdom.

“I am not a fan of McDonald’s, but I changed my mind because of this meal. Provide it to us like you did for the Arab countries on the list,” the user wrote.

Another Twitter user wrote in Arabic: “Wait a minute, I discovered something. A few days back, Suga said he is hungry and a few days later, they collaborated with McDonald’s. He was probably giving us a hint, but we were clowns. WE WANT THE BTS MEAL IN EGYPT (sic).”

Dubbed the “BTS meal,” it will include chicken McNuggets, fries and two dips.

The burger chain has seen its revenue outside the United States drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company is tapping on promotional campaigns through celebrity endorsements and limited-time menu items to get customers back into restaurants as economies reopen with the roll-out of vaccines.

The BTS meal follows similar US-only deals with singers J Balvin and Travis Scott, which McDonald’s says boosted sales in the later half of last year.

The spike in demand during the Travis Scott promotion caused the company to temporarily run short of ingredients to assemble its signature Quarter Pounder burgers at some restaurants.

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children
Lebanese influencer and designer Karen Wazen stars in new Polo Ralph Lauren campaign with her children. Instagram
Updated 20 April 2021

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

DUBAI: Lebanese influencer and designer Karen Wazen was recently tapped to front a new campaign for Polo Ralph Lauren, and she is sharing the spotlight with her family. Wazen features in the campaign images with her three children, twin girls Karlie and Kay, and her son George.

“Ah so happy to share with you our Family Campaign for @PoloRalphLauren!!” exclaimed the Dubai-based fashion blogger on Instagram, alongside the campaign images. “There are no words to explain the love and emotions I have for my family... they’re my biggest blessing and pride,” she added, thanking Polo Ralph Lauren for “capturing these beautiful moments together.”

It’s not the first time that the American brand has shone a spotlight on an Arab family for a major campaign.

Back in December, the label released a campaign titled “Family is Who You Love,” featuring a diverse cast of siblings, parents and children, among them Saudi sisters Sakhaa and Thana Abdul as well as British-Moroccan model Nora Attal and her family.

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row
Jameela Jamil is well known for her body positivity organization ‘I Weigh.’ File/ AFP
Updated 20 April 2021

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

DUBAI: British actress Jameela Jamil took to her social media account to defend US singer and actress Demi Lovato due to a body positivity controversy this week. 

Lovato, who is best known for her role in Disney’s musical “Camp Rock,” recently called out a popular Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt shop The Bigg Chill, stating that the store’s diet options could lead some people to feel uncomfortable.  

"Finding it extremely hard to order froyo from @thebiggchillofficial when you have to walk past tons of sugar free cookies (and) other diet foods before you get to the counter,” said the “Cool for the Summer” singer, who has been vocal about her struggles with eating disorders in her documentary “Dancing With The Devil.” The 28-year-old urged the business to “do better” along with the hashtag #dietculturevulture.  

Jamil was quick to come to Lovato’s support, after the singer’s comments garnered some backlash online. Taking to her Instagram Stories, the “The Good Place” star wrote, “Ok, I want to try to avoid making the story bigger than it already is. But if an eating disorder advocate says she sees products that are positioned as guilt free, and it is potentially triggering, that doesn’t mean she’s too stupid to remember that diabetics exist. It just means that we need to change the marketing of products that are for people’s medical needs.”

She added: “That’s all @ddlovato was asking for. It doesn’t make her a monster. It doesn’t mean she disregards people’s illnesses. She’s just one of few celebrities reminding us to look out for mental illness. Guilt free is diet culture terminology.”

The British-Pakistani-Indian actress is a major advocate for body positivity.

The 34-year-old, who became a household name with her activism and role as Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s “The Good Place,” routinely takes to her platform to encourage people to respect their bodies and often gets candid about her struggles with eating disorders and body dysmorphia that she grappled with in her teenage years.

Jamil is also well known for her body positivity organization “I Weigh,” that focuses on self-worth and body positivity beyond weight, encouraging people to weigh themselves by their positive attributes, as opposed to numbers on a scale.

From Riyadh to Dubai, why is good coffee in the region so expensive?

A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/
A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/[email protected]
Updated 19 April 2021

From Riyadh to Dubai, why is good coffee in the region so expensive?

A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/

DUBAI: Buying a cup of coffee in the Gulf can be quite expensive.

Coffee lovers often bemoan the fact that their latte costs double in Dubai or Riyadh what it does in other countries.

What we might not realize, however, is that we are paying for a lot more than milk and beans in that cup of coffee.

Last week, social media was set alight by a complaint over the price of a $7 flat white in Dubai. Coffee lovers from Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar chimed in on whether the cost was justified. It begs the question: Why is coffee so expensive in this region?

We spoke to cafe operators to find out.

Leon Surynt, owner of Nightjar Coffee, one of Dubai’s most popular coffee brands and cafes, said that it is “really hard” to keep his coffee affordable.

Nightjar imports its own beans directly from farms around the world, roasts them at its Alserkal Avenue roastery and sells to hotels and cafes across the country. 

“You need to have multiple avenues, which is a bit of online, a bit of wholesale and a bit of cafe, to make money here,” Surynt says. 

“We live in a society that has a low tax rate, but we also have many compliance costs.”

If we were to break down the cost of a latte at Nightjar ($5), Surynt says, the ingredients — milk and coffee — and the cup only account for about $1 or 20 percent. He estimates that staff wages and expenses, on the other hand, make up a whopping 30 percent, while rent is another 15 percent. Other overheads, such as government fees, marketing, admin and logistics mean his profit from that one latte is about AED 4 (or $1). And that’s not accounting for the cost of delivery aggregators, his salary and kitchen operations.

“There are a lot of hidden costs here,” Surynt said. 

The story is the same for many others.

Samer Harkous, business development manager for Cypher Coffee, supplies hundreds of cafes in the UAE and overseas with green and roasted beans. 

Cypher does not operate a cafe but offers samples at its roastery.

When pricing Cypher’s products, Harkous said rent and municipality fees must be built into the price of beans, and a profit needs to be made on top of that. The cafe selling those beans must then add on its own costs.

And roasting beans is a costly — and difficult — process.

Equipment is imported from overseas. Each bean requires a different roasting method, which is meticulously recorded on charts by staff, from monitoring the necessary temperature and gas levels to listening for the “first crack.” 

Beans themselves command a range of prices. Cypher’s most expensive roast is from Yemen (up to $136 per kilogram) and its cheapest, and most popular, is from Brazil (between $16 to $82 per kilogram). 

Brazilian beans are therefore used by cafes wanting to keep costs down. More expensive beans, usually used by specialty coffee houses, will command a higher price.

Ali Al-Fahad, founder of Earth Roastery, which was established in Kuwait in 2014 and has spread across the region since, adjusts his coffee prices depending on the country he operates in. 

He said that Kuwait is the most expensive and logistically difficult location for a cafe business, while Dubai is the easiest and cheapest. That is why it took them until 2019 to open a café. Before that, he was solely selling wholesale coffee beans.

“Business here is very risky. Very few people can be successful,” he said. “When we opened the coffee shop, we understood that.”

Al-Fahad said their highest costs go on salaries and visa costs, followed by rent and logistics.

“Customers travel. They want the same quality and experience as they have in Europe. But to be on that level, you need to invest more.”


A post shared by (@crustandcrema)

Cyrus Woo, deputy director at Bahrain’s Crust and Crema, said pricing was a “sensitive” subject when they opened.

“We had to be very careful. We only had other coffee shops to compare to, so we did market research and then did our own costing.”

Of the $4 it costs for an Americano or $5 for a latte, Woo agreed that what the customer is mostly paying for is staff salaries.

“If you factor in how much of the coffee and milk you’re going to use for one drink, those are the minimal costs involved,” Woo said.


A post shared by (@crustandcrema)

“You’re paying for the atmosphere, overheads, marketing, utilities, rent, insurance, equipment and labor costs. The market is saturated, and baristas are in high demand, so you have to pay more for them.”

Woo said that while coffee makes more money than food at a cafe, for coffee to be profitable, a cafe has to “sell a lot.”

“We are a for-profit business. We need to be able to survive, but we don’t want to be greedy. 

“I hope that when people come in and have coffee, they appreciate there’s a lot more involved, that they’re paying for the experience.”

So, when you’re handing over $7 for your latte, lamenting the expense, remember: You’re not just buying a coffee. You’re paying for your surroundings and for your barista’s wages. And actually, for $7, that’s pretty reasonable.

Moroccan-Italian model Malika El-Maslouhi stars in new Hugo Eyewear campaign

The model posed for the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign. Instagram
The model posed for the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign. Instagram
Updated 19 April 2021

Moroccan-Italian model Malika El-Maslouhi stars in new Hugo Eyewear campaign

The model posed for the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign. Instagram

DUBAI: There’s no slowing down Malika El-Maslouhi. This week, the Moroccan-Italian model was selected to star in the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign, which was shot by fashion photographer Matteo Montanari.

Featuring alongside model Parker Van Noord, the catwalker appears in a video and campaign photographs wearing key pieces from the German label’s most recent eyewear collection. For the campaign, the 22-year-old posed on a rooftop wearing the brand’s newest range of optical frames and sunglasses, paired with a mustard yellow double-breasted suit and a black, logo emblazoned Hugo Boss top.


A post shared by HUGO (@hugo_official)

The campaigns keep on rolling in for the rising star, who was born in Milan to an Italian mother and a Moroccan father.

In addition to her latest work with Hugo Eyewear, El-Maslouhi also recently appeared in campaigns for Zadig & Voltaire, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein Swim, Jacquemus and Mango alongside fellow Moroccan model Nora Attal.

Memorably, she was the star of designer Peter Dundas’ most recent collection. The Norwegian designer selected the breakout model to  showcase the brand’s glamorous new offering for Fall 2021, which was digitally presented in a look book format.


A post shared by MALIKA (@malika.elmaslouhi)

And when she’s not modeling different collections for brands, she’s helping design them.

She recently teamed up with London-based retailer Ishkar on a range of necklaces delicately handcrafted by jewelers in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

According to the online store, founded by former UAE residents Edmund Le Brun and Flore de Taisne in 2016, the Malika x Ishkar collection is set to drop soon.


A post shared by I S H K A R (

El-Maslouhi, who is signed to VIVA Model Management, made her modelling debut when she was 18 years old at the Alberta Ferretti Fall 2019 show and went on to walk for the Dior Cruise 2020 show held in Marrakech a month later.

She would go on to quit her university studies to pursue modeling full-time, gracing the runways of storied fashion houses such as Hermes and Chanel.

The model, who splits her time between Italy, France and the Netherlands, also has a few editorials under her belt, including Vogue Russia, British Vogue, Dazed Magazine and Elle France, for which she recently served as the cover star.