The Cairo-trained violinist who wants Saudis to pursue their musical ambitions

Born and raised in Yanbu, Elyas Yaseen attended his local university before realizing his true calling lay in music. (Supplied)
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Born and raised in Yanbu, Elyas Yaseen attended his local university before realizing his true calling lay in music. (Supplied)
A violin in the making by French luthier Benedicte Friedmann is pictured at her workshop in Cremona on June 9, 2020. Stradivarius' homeland, the Italian city of Cremona, has become a laboratory for luthiers from all over the world. (AFP/File Photo)
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A violin in the making by French luthier Benedicte Friedmann is pictured at her workshop in Cremona on June 9, 2020. Stradivarius' homeland, the Italian city of Cremona, has become a laboratory for luthiers from all over the world. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 30 January 2021

The Cairo-trained violinist who wants Saudis to pursue their musical ambitions

Born and raised in Yanbu, Elyas Yaseen attended his local university before realizing his true calling lay in music. (Supplied)
  • Saudi violinist Elyas Yaseen dreams of his own music academy in his beloved Red Sea port city of Yanbu 
  • The Ministry of Culture began issuing licenses in December for the Kingdom’s first musical training institutes

DUBAI: Elyas Yaseen is unlike other men his age from Yanbu, a small port city on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. He is a gifted musician, known for his proficiency at playing the violin, the oud and the qanun. The young Saudi talent also has an aspiration: to establish, with the government’s help, a music school in his coastal hometown so he can teach others to play and allow more young Saudis like him to realize their potential.

In the absence of specialist academies and music in the Kingdom’s national curriculum, most Saudi musicians are self-taught, relying on platforms like YouTube to pick up the basics. Others look to friends or family for private lessons, limiting their scope for development. But with the country’s social-reforms programs taking hold, this is beginning to change.

Yaseen, the youngest of six, has been interested in music since the age of eight when he first fell in love with string instruments. “I was raised among musicians,” Yaseen told Arab News. “My older brother, who played the qanun, and my father, who was one of the musical pioneers here and played Yanbu’s local instrument — the simsimiyya — are musicians and both of them gave me the passion to play. This is how I started.”




Following a few rudimentary lessons from his father and brother, Yaseen spent the next decade mastering the instrument at home. (Supplied)

Born and raised in Yanbu, Yaseen attended his local university before realizing his true calling lay in music. After learning to play the simsimiyya, a traditional lyre instrument, he discovered his passion for the violin.

Following a few rudimentary lessons from his father and brother, Yaseen spent the next decade mastering the instrument at home. He was largely self-taught — until an unmissable opportunity to study abroad presented itself.

“I went to Egypt and met a very famous violinist called Abdo Dagher and I took many classes with him at the Cairo Opera House to improve my skills on the violin,” he said. “I knew by then that I wanted to play the violin professionally and that I wanted to be a professional musician in Saudi Arabia.”

Opportunities to study and perform music in Saudi Arabia were limited until fairly recently. Now the Ministry of Culture has started issuing licenses for the Kingdom’s first musical training institutes. Once it begins accepting online applications in the coming months, a vibrant domestic music industry is sure to follow.

The liberalization of music culture is part of a broader effort to promote the entertainment and leisure sectors in Saudi Arabia, aimed at creating jobs and weaning the country off its economic dependence on oil, while also sharing its homegrown talents with the world.




Yaseen is seeking support from the Saudi government to establish his own music academy in Yanbu. (Supplied)

Now Yaseen is seeking support from the Saudi government to establish his own music academy in Yanbu, offering classes in the gamut of instruments to students of all ages.

“We don’t have that yet, but I really hope we will achieve it,” he said. “For now, I provide private classes to my friends, the youth and children who are interested in learning the violin and the oud.”

As a Saudi whose training in Egypt enabled him to reach standards of musicianship that most people can only aspire to, Yaseen hopes the Ministry of Culture will heed his call.

“We have to go through many processes. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. But there’s a lot of demand from young Saudis who want to play instruments, and I receive many requests daily from both men and women,” he said.

“It’s a passion for them too and they want me to teach them, but I don’t have a place that is large enough to teach everyone. I just want to help others in their musical journey because it’s enjoyable for me.”

FASTFACTS

Music in the Kingdom

* Saudi Arabia granted licenses for two music colleges in Dec. 2020.

* The institutes will offer cultural and artistic training programs.

* Licenses to be granted for theater, music, literature, publishing, translation and museums.

* Licenses for music practitioners will cover musicians, acoustics and production.

Some of Yaseen’s earliest musical inspiration came from Egyptian singer and actress Umm Kulthum, one of the best-selling Middle Eastern artists of all time, whose songs he set to the violin. “They’re not easy to play by a young person like myself,” Yaseen said.

However, it was Yanbu’s distinctive culture that truly captured his imagination.

“We have traditional music here, which includes special songs for locals, describing their life, from the old generation to the young generation. And from that, I created a new genre on my own,” he said.

Even as his musical proficiency grew under Dagher’s mentorship, Yaseen never lost sight of these early influences. Progressing in leaps and bounds, he soon graduated from Helwan University’s Faculty of Music Education in Cairo with an outstanding grade.

He still feels a deep debt of gratitude to his teacher. “I feel very grateful to him,” Yaseen said. “He is the main reason I am where I am today. We are still in touch. We talk regularly and we still have a strong friendship.”




As a Saudi whose training in Egypt enabled him to reach standards of musicianship that most people can only aspire to, Yaseen hopes the Ministry of Culture will help others follow in his footsteps. (Supplied)

Returning to his home city three years ago, Yaseen quickly made a name for himself. Agencies were getting in touch with him with requests for appearances in Jeddah and Riyadh. Before long, he had a certain amount of name recognition thanks to clips of his performances shared on social media.

In 2019, Yaseen received a reward from famed Saudi singer and composer Abadi Al-Johar for an outstanding solo performance in Dammam. A year later, he received an award from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in Riyadh for his rendition of the Saudi national anthem.

“Music is like therapy for me,” Yaseen said. “My favorite moments are spent playing music. It relaxes me. Music is my soulmate and I feel well when I play the violin or any other instruments. I spend most of my day playing it.”

Thus, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of concert venues across the region last year, Yaseen was grateful for the free time to practice at home.

“The lockdown was great for me because I didn’t feel it,” he said. “Music gives me a sense of freedom that no lockdown can ever take away.”




Cairo Opera House's National Arab Music Ensemble (AME) performing at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh in 2018, the first event of its kind in the Saudi capital. (AFP/Saudi General Culture Authority/File Photo)

Yaseen nevertheless hopes someday to perform internationally. “I want to be the first Saudi who represents Saudi Arabia as a violinist in the world,” he said. “I fell in love with the instrument, which is why I dedicated my life to it.”

He hopes other young Saudis will pursue their musical ambitions, no matter how daunting the challenges.

“I encourage them to learn music and to keep going because there are no music academies so far. We need to help each other as much as we can,” Yaseen told Arab News.

“For all young Saudis who want to pursue their passion in music or play an instrument, I would tell them to not give up because I’ve already seen many of my friends give up. Keep pursuing your goals and passion, and always expect good things. It’s important not to put yourself down when you’re on this journey and believe you will move forward.”




Yaseen is especially grateful for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan, which has made it a national priority to support the Kingdom’s youth and promote the arts and culture. (Shutterstock)

Yaseen is especially grateful for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan, which has made it a national priority to support the Kingdom’s youth and promote the arts and culture. The importance of the ongoing social and cultural changes became especially obvious to him during the pandemic.

“Everything is changing in the new Saudi Arabia. It’s not as we have known it before. It’s changing for the better and I’m happy to see all these shifts,” he said.

“I just hope the government will answer my call to support a large, dedicated music education center and the teachers needed for people to learn.

“I have so many ideas that are ready to be implemented. I want to get the ball rolling as soon as possible.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’
Updated 28 February 2021

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’
  • He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”

ISTANBUL: Mujdat Gezen’s half-century career as an acclaimed Turkish writer and actor has included awards, a stint as a UN goodwill ambassador and a taste of prison after a 1980 putsch.
Now aged 77, the wry-witted comedian and poet with an easy smile and a bad back risks returning to jail on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”
“I am even banned from appearing in crossword puzzles,” Gezen quipped.
Gezen landed in court with fellow comedian Metin Akpinar, 79, over comments the pair made during a television show they starred in on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
In the broadcast, Gezen told Erdogan to “know your place.”
“Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place,” Gezen said on air.
His parter Akpinar went one step further, saying that “if we don’t become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar.”
These are risky comments to make in a country still reeling from a sweeping crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a failed coup in 2016.
Their trial is coming with Erdogan rattled by a burst of student protests that hint at Turks’ impatience with his commanding rule as prime minister and president since 2003.
Prosecutors want to put the two veteran celebrities behind bars for up to four years and eight months. The verdict is expected on Monday.

Jailed over book
Thousands of Turks, from a former Miss Turkey to school children, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdogan on social media and television.
Bristling at the jokes and comments, Erdogan warned in 2018 that his critics “will pay the price.”
“The next day,” Gezen told AFP in an interview by telephone, “police turned up and I was summoned to give a statement to prosecutors.”
The knock on the door reminded Gezen of how he ended up being dragged before the courts after spending 20 days in jail when a military junta overthrew Turkey’s civilian government at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
Gezen’s book about Nazim Hikmet — perhaps Turkey’s most famous 20th century poet, who happened to be a communist who died in exile in Moscow in 1963 — was taken off the shelves after that coup.
“I was chained up while being taken from prison to court with a gang of 50 criminals, including murderers and smugglers,” he recalled.
He was freed by the court in 1980, and may yet be acquitted on Monday.
Still, Gezen is uncomfortable with the similarities, and with Turkey’s trajectory under Erdogan.
“There is a record number of journalists in jail — we have never seen this in the history of the republic. That’s what upsets me,” he said.

Irritable dictator
An author of more than 50 books and founder of his own art center in Istanbul, Gezen says he has “either criticized or parodied politicians to their faces” for decades without going to jail.
His popularity and resolve earned him a role in 2007 as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children’s relief fund.
But he fears that Turkey’s tradition of outspoken artists — “art is by its nature oppositional,” he remarked — is wilting under Erdogan.
“We now have self-censorship. But what is even more painful to me is that (some artists) prefer to be apolitical,” he said.
“The president has said how he expects artists to behave. But it cannot be the president of a country who decides these things. It’s the artists who must decide.”
To be on the safe side, Gezen’s lawyers now read his books before publication to avoid legal problems.
“It is risky in Turkey,” he observed.
Many of the opposition media outlets that once flourished have been either closed or taken over by government allies, leaving independent voices with even fewer options.
But he remains doggedly optimistic, calling democracy in Turkey something tangible but just out of reach, like the shore for a stranded boat.
“And then someone up on the mast will cry: Land ahoy!“


Egypt’s tourism ‘will return to pre-COVID-19 levels by fall 2022’

Egypt’s tourism ‘will return to  pre-COVID-19 levels by fall 2022’
Updated 43 sec ago

Egypt’s tourism ‘will return to pre-COVID-19 levels by fall 2022’

Egypt’s tourism ‘will return to  pre-COVID-19 levels by fall 2022’
  • The tourism sector is one of the Egyptian economy’s main pillars. It made revenues of $4 billion in 2020, compared to $13.03 billion in 2019. The country received about 3.5 million tourists last year, compared to 13 million in 2019

CAIRO: Tourism in Egypt will return to pre-pandemic levels by autumn 2022, according to a government minister.
Khaled Al-Anani, who is minister of tourism and antiquities, said the sector’s recovery and restoration to pre-pandemic levels would be because of countries’ COVID-19 vaccination programs as well as Egypt’s efforts in developing archaeological sites in the Red Sea and South Sinai areas.
He said that, in the last three months of 2020, Egypt had received between 270,000 and 290,000 tourists on a monthly basis, equivalent to 10,000 tourists a day.
Al-Anani said the Grand Egyptian Museum would be finished during the third quarter of 2021 provided that, within the next few days, the winning international coalition to manage the museum’s operations was announced.
He added that the ministry had contacted 30 companies that organize concerts and Olympics to participate in the opening ceremony of the Grand Egyptian Museum but, while three had been chosen to organize the event, the pandemic had disrupted these plans.
The tourism sector is one of the Egyptian economy’s main pillars. It made revenues of $4 billion in 2020, compared to $13.03 billion in 2019. The country received about 3.5 million tourists last year, compared to 13 million in 2019.
At the start of 2020 it was expected that Egypt would receive over 14 million tourists.
It received 2 million tourists in the first quarter of last year until the pandemic hit and led to a contraction in tourism, according to the minister’s adviser and ministry spokesperson, Soha Bahgat.
“The tourism sector in the whole world has been affected in an unprecedented way due to the pandemic … and Egypt has taken strict precautionary measures to limit the spread of the virus, and at the same time supportive measures for the economy, including supporting the tourism sector,” she said.
Egypt managed to attract about a million tourists from last July to the start of 2021.
Bahgat added that although the number was small, it had led many establishments to resume operations and slowly maintain the tourism sector.


Egypt has overcome peak of coronavirus second wave, says health official

Egypt has overcome peak of coronavirus second wave, says health official
Vendors work at a vegetable market amid the coronavirus disease pandemic in Cairo. (File/Reuters)
Updated 28 February 2021

Egypt has overcome peak of coronavirus second wave, says health official

Egypt has overcome peak of coronavirus second wave, says health official
  • Egypt on Tuesday morning received 300,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, the second batch from the company after the first shipment of 50,000 doses in December

CAIRO: Egypt has overcome the peak of the second wave of coronavirus, according to the president’s health adviser Mohammed Awad Taj El-Din.
He said that new coronavirus cases were currently decreasing, pointing to the continued presence of the disease, but that precautionary measures still needed to be followed in order to reduce infection rates among people.
“The second wave was high, but there is a decrease in new cases. As for cases that need hospitals or ventilators, their numbers have decreased,” he added.
Taj El-Din regarded the fluctuation in the number of cases, whether it was an increase or decrease, as natural because COVID-19 symptoms appeared in some people up to two weeks after they had contracted the virus.

FASTFACT

Egypt on Tuesday morning received 300,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, the second batch from the company after the first shipment of 50,000 doses in December.

He said that intensive care rooms were available as were respirators and, as long as there was a decline in the number of new cases, there was no reason to be worried.
Egypt on Tuesday morning received 300,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, the second batch from the company after the first shipment of 50,000 doses in December.
It also received 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in early February, as part of its program to vaccinate health workers.
Taj El-Din said the antibodies produced by the coronavirus vaccines could last up to nine months, and the immunity to coronavirus that was produced by the vaccines, the period in which people were protected from contracting the virus again, varied between three and nine months.
He explained that the immunity period varied from one person to another, as some vaccines gave 86 percent protection from the virus while others gave up to 90 percent.
He said it was necessary to limit gatherings and follow precautionary measures during Ramadan so that there was no new coronavirus wave in Egypt.


Lebanon facing coup threat, Maronite leader warns rally

Lebanon facing coup threat, Maronite leader warns rally
Updated 28 February 2021

Lebanon facing coup threat, Maronite leader warns rally

Lebanon facing coup threat, Maronite leader warns rally
  • Patriarch calls for UN-led forum to save nation ‘from those who harbor evil’

BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s influential Christian Maronite church has warned that the country is facing the threat of a “full-fledged coup,” and called for an international conference to avert “chaos, hunger and oppression.”

In an emotional address to thousands of followers on Saturday, Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said that he was “drawing red lines for anyone who harbors evil for Lebanon, regardless of their sect.”
His comments were widely seen as a veiled reference to Iran-backed Hezbollah along with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and its founder President Michel Aoun.
“We are facing a full-fledged coup attempt,” Al-Rai told Lebanese who traveled to the church’s headquarters in Bkerke to support his demand for a UN-sponsored international conference to save Lebanon.
In response to the patriarch’s speech, people chanted: “Hezbollah is terrorist,” “Get out, Iran” and “Michel Aoun, leave.”
Cries of “Revolution! Revolution!” were also heard.
The Bkerke rally went ahead despite measures to limit gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, with some observers suggesting it could signal an end to the stalemate in Lebanese politics.

We want to provide support to the Lebanese Army, making it Lebanon’s sole defender.

Patriarch Bechara, Boutros Al-Rai

The FPM, led by Gebran Bassil, did not attend, saying it feared that the gathering “would be used against it,” according to affiliated websites.
Sources at Bkerke told Arab News that Al-Rai decided to speak out “because Lebanon is facing an existential threat” following the failure of a string of initiatives, including his efforts to reconcile Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
Banners unfurled on the dome of the Bkerke church read: “Neutrality, sovereignty, and stability,” “Lebanon comes first and last,” and “Bkerke for all of Lebanon.”
Al-Rai said at the outset of his address: “Long live a single, united and neutral Lebanon that is active, positive, sovereign, independent, free and strong.”
He said: “We are demanding this now because all other solutions have reached a dead end, and we have not been able to agree on the fate of our country, nor even to discuss our homeland’s affairs. We support finding a solution inside Lebanon.”

BACKGROUND

The Bkerke rally went ahead despite measures to limit gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, with some observers suggesting it could signal an end to the stalemate in Lebanese politics.

He added: “To let hunger and oppression destroy the country is something we do not accept in any way. Rejecting the proposed solutions means chaos and seizing the levers of power.”
Al-Rai called for an international conference to ensure Lebanon’s neutrality, so that it “is no longer a victim of conflicts and wars, and a land of division.”
He added: “We want the state to extend its authority over the entire Lebanese territory. We want to provide support to the Lebanese army, making it Lebanon’s sole defender.”
Al-Rai said the UN-sponsored conference also should agree on a plan “to prevent the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and ensure a safe return for Syrian refugees to their homeland.”
He said: “We do not want armies and camps, nor do we want Lebanon to be undermined. Lebanon’s borders are not subject to amendment, its Christian-Muslim partnership is untouchable, and its democracy is not subject to veto.”
The patriarch called on protesters to continue to speak out, saying: “Do not remain silent in the face of corruption. Do not tolerate the theft of your money, the fluid borders, the failure of the political class, the chaos in the investigation into the Beirut port explosion, or the imprisonment of the innocent.
“Do not tolerate the failure in forming a government and implementing reforms.”
Participants in the rally, many from different sects, told Arab News that Al-Rai is their last hope.
“No politician cares for the collapsing state. Politicians have left us on our own,” said one.
A Muslim woman in her 50s said: “This is an opportunity to raise our voice. The patriarch’s stances are patriotic, and history will remember him. The country is collapsing.”
A man in his 40s said: “I have come to Bkerke to say that people suffer from hunger and despair, and there is nothing left to lose.”
Internal security forces personnel were deployed on the road to the church’s headquarters, and those entering the square were searched.
Before the gathering, Hezbollah and FPM supporters took to social media to share tweets opposing the event.


Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle

Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle
Updated 28 February 2021

Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle

Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle
  • Iran-backed terror militia using trapped families ‘as human shield’
  • Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas

AL-MUKALLA: Hundreds of Yemeni families trapped inside their camps in Marib province by Iran-backed Houthis are being used as a human shield against government forces, a Yemen government unit has claimed.

In a report seen by Arab News on Saturday, the internationally recognized government’s Executive Unit for IDP Camps said that militia fighters had besieged camps and planted land mines on main roads to stop families escaping and hinder advancing troops.

“Houthis have prevented 470 families from fleeing, using them as human shields. Until today, many families in the camps are still trapped by the Houthis,” the report said.

Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas. 

The government unit has appealed to the rebels to stop using displaced families as hostages and allow them to leave the camps.

“The Executive Unit for IDP Camps calls on the Houthis to respect international humanitarian law and stop targeting civilians and displaced persons, and to open safe corridors in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.”

The Houthis earlier this month renewed a bloody offensive on Marib, an oil-rich city and the government’s last bastion in the northern half of the country. For four weeks, the Houthis have faced stiff resistance from government forces backed by massive air and logistics support from the Arab coalition. 

Army commanders say that hundreds of Houthis have been killed, wounded or captured and their advance on Marib halted. 

Maj. Gen. Nasser Al-Thaybani, commander of the army’s Military Operation Authority, said that more than half the Houthi fighters sent to seize Marib have died or been wounded in the fighting, while army troops and allied tribesmen have pushed back all of the Houthi attacks on government-controlled areas. 

Yemeni government forces also suffered heavy casualties during fierce clashes.

Local officers and media said on Saturday that Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghani Sha’alan, commander of the Special Security Forces in Marib, was one of several government soldiers who died in fighting with the rebels near Balouq mountain in Serwah district, west of Marib city, on Friday. 

A local military officer, who declined to be named, told Arab News that Sha’alan was leading government troops pushing back a Houthi attack on the peak, which was claimed by government forces last week.

Several army commanders and tribal leaders have been killed since the beginning of the rebel offensive on Marib.

Yemen’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday criticized international rights groups over their failure to “name and shame” the Houthis for attacking residential areas after the densely populated city was targeted by 10 ballistic missiles in the previous 24 hours.

“Since the beginning of February, the province has come under the largest and fiercest Houthi attack in which the militia used all kinds of heavy weapons, including artillery, explosive-laden drones and ballistic missiles,” the ministry said in a statement. 

On Friday, Yemen’s Prime Minister, Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, hailed military support from the Arab coalition to help tilt the war in the army’s favor, vowing to continue backing army troops and tribesmen until they push the Houthi out of areas under their control.