THE ROUNDUP: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

THE ROUNDUP: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
Ruba Shamshoum is a Palestinian singer-songwriter. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 February 2021

THE ROUNDUP: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

THE ROUNDUP: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
  • From award-winning soundtracks to a rock cover of a classic Dalida track and some heartfelt slow-burners

RUBA SHAMSHOUM

The Palestinian singer-songwriter has released the first single — and accompanying video — from her upcoming EP “Risha.” The track — “Sununu” — is evocative and delicate, switching between world-music and electronic vibes, and includes a spoken-word section towards the end. Lyrically, Shamshoum said in a press release, it’s a song “about being in a society that expects people to look a certain way, to fit into a mold, to hide until they disappear. It’s dedicated to those who fight everyday to be what they wish to be, instead of what they are told to be.” Shamshoum went on to describe her five-track EP, set for release in April, as “a love letter to femininity, and to the human connection to nature and to the self.”

ABEER NEHME

The Lebanese artist’s powerful latest track is fuelled by both personal and national tragedy. “Fallou” (They Left), she explained in a statement, was inspired by a poem by Ghassan Matar that Nehme read when “I had just lost my unborn child, for the second time” earlier this year. It gained extra poignancy following the August 4 explosion in Beirut Port. The song, she said, “is a promise that no one leaves us forever; they are a part of us, through every breath and every day of our lives.” The accompanying video “tells the story of five women who had to either continue their path alone, or without the presence of a loved one, whether a child, partner, parent, or friend.”

AMIR HEDAYAH

The Egyptian composer and producer won Outstanding Main Title for a TV Show in  Foreign Langauge at the  Hollywood Music in Media Awards earlier this month for his soundtrack to the Lebanese TV show “Dofaat Beirut.” Hedayah was also nominated for Best World Music track for “El Otoor.” Discussing his “Dofaat Beirut” soundtrack in a press release, Hedayah said: “The show is about Beirut in the Sixties, so it was an unusual challenge for me to musically capture the essence of another country in another time period.” He did this partly by adding “a hint of the French influence of the Lebanese music of the period,” he explained.

JADAL

The Jordanian indie-rock veterans have released a thrilling cover of Egyptian-born French singer Dalida’s “Helwa Ya Baladi,” performed in their own inimitable style. Judging by the production notes, it’s been a long time coming — the bass and drums were recorded back in 2015, but frontman Mahmoud Radaideh only added the vocals and other instruments late last year.

MOHAMMAD MURAD

The Kuwaiti photographer was one of the winners of the Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum International Photography Awards’ January Instagram contest, the theme of which was “Abstract Light and Dark.” Murad won for this striking image of a Thomson gazelle’s horns. “In abstract photography, often there aren’t the usual frames of reference for the viewer. This lack of context is one of the reasons why abstract photography can be so challenging and, equally, enthralling,” he wrote on Instagram.

ALYA

The 15-year-old Emirati singer-songwriter caused quite a stir with her debut major-label track “Hung Up,” grabbing plenty of media coverage as well the attention of Fendi stylists. The upbeat follow up, “Coco Kisses,” has Afro-inspired percussion backing Alya’s bilingual lyrics. She described the track in a press release as “tropical summer happiness.”

DANNY ARIDI

The Lebanese-Canadian singer-songwriter returns with “I’ll Be Here,” a heartfelt ballad that he describes as “an emotional song about love and reassurance.” “It’s about you reassuring a loved on that you will always be there for them, even if you are not physically close by,” he wrote online. “The song is particularly powerful today … when people are losing loved ones around the world.”


What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta

What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta
Updated 27 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta

What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta

Opening up new frontiers in birdwatching, this is the first field guide to focus specifically on the identification of European passerines and related land birds in flight. Showcasing 850 stunning and remarkably lifelike color illustrations from acclaimed bird artist Tomasz Cofta, produced using the latest digital technology, backed up with more than 2,400 photographs carefully selected to show typical flight profiles, it provides detailed and unsurpassed coverage of 205 European passerines and 32 near-passerines. This cutting-edge book brings a new dimension to birdwatching, the concise and authoritative species accounts presenting novel yet essential information on the flight manner of individual birds and the structure and behavior of flocks — features that are key to identification, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. It also includes precise transliterations of flight calls, supported by sonograms, and links to a unique collection of hundreds of online audio recordings. Beautifully designed and written in an accessible style, this book will appeal to birdwatchers of all abilities.


Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’

Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’
Updated 26 February 2021

Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’

Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’
  • The acclaimed Syrian artist on challenges, loss and optimism

LONDON: It must be strange for artists to hear people theorizing about their art. Talking to Tammam Azzam, you get the sense that, while he is happy to engage and listen, the Syrian artist is not particularly interested in adding layers of rumination to what he has already expressed on canvas.

“Sometimes even the artist cannot realize the message because there is no message — just a visual language,” he says. “Even I don’t know exactly what it means.”

Part of the reason that people want to talk about the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ in Azzam’s work is that his images are so powerful. When you look at his photomontage “Bon Voyage”  — showing a shattered Syrian apartment block suspended by balloons in front of the burning Twin Towers — you feel a flood of mixed emotions. Azzam explains the thinking behind the piece: “This image is about the evil and imbalance in our world. Every life is important, whether American or Syrian, and it is right that 9/11 is commemorated every year. But who is commemorating the Syrian casualties?”

Part of the reason that people want to talk about the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ in Azzam’s work is that his images are so powerful.  (SUPPLIED)

Azzam’s 2013 “Syrian Museum” photomontage series, in which he inserted famous masterpieces into scenes of destruction from the ongoing civil war in his country, garnered international attention. Asked why he juxtaposed Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” with the mangled wreckage of a bombed-out building, he answers: “Besides my love and admiration for Van Gogh, I chose to show his night sky — full of energy and movement — to make a sharp contrast between beauty and destruction.”

Another striking image from the same series shows Paul Gauguin’s “Tahitian Women on the Beach” transplanted into an arid landscape with a UNHCR refugee tent in the background. “This came from seeing women around the camps just sitting and waiting — actually for nothing,” he says. “Gauguin’s women were sitting and contemplating and I just put them in a different location, situation and atmosphere.”

Much of the global attention was focused on “Freedom Graffiti,” which superimposed Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” onto a ruined apartment block. It was the final image in the series and Azzam was taken aback by the publicity it attracted.

160x240 cm, paper collage on canvas, 2019 (Supplied)

“It’s strange, because as an artist I was just creating my work. I don’t know the secret behind that,” he says. “I spent a year working on this project and after the Klimt I felt that there was no need to go further,” he said. “I am always questioning myself: ‘How long am I going to use this technique and why?’”

Azzam studied fine art at Damascus University, specializing in oil painting. And after graduating, he went into graphic design. The combination of those two disciplines clearly informs his work, and he mentions the German-based Syrian artist Marwan Kassab Pashi  — whose workshop he attended at university — as a major influence.

In 2011, Azzam was forced to flee his country. He was assisted by Ayyam Gallery, which has helped him and other artists start new lives in Dubai and Beirut. For Azzam, the pain of leaving was amplified by the loss of his studio and materials, on top of the cultural shift.

The Syrian artist is not particularly interested in adding layers of rumination to what he has already expressed on canvas. (Supplied)

“It took me three years to adjust to living in Dubai. It’s another system and mentality. Everything was different. And very expensive. In Damascus I had my studio and my materials. In Dubai I felt everything was lost; I couldn’t go anymore to the old souk where I used to get my materials,” he says. “Before Dubai I never thought about creating digital art, but because I was a graphic designer for 10 years in Syria, that helped me make the shift.”

After five years in Dubai, he moved to Germany in 2016 taking up a residency at the Hanse Institute for Advanced Studies in Delmenhorst. Once again, he found himself grappling with the challenges of adapting to a new environment, culture and language. In 2018, he moved to Berlin where he now lives. His family is scattered due to the war.

“Like so many Syrian families, we are dispersed around the world,” he says. “It’s sad, but it’s nothing compared to what’s happening to people still in the country and unable to leave. My parents are still in the village where my father, a writer, has his library. He is still writing. They are not in a conflict area, but daily life is difficult with just a few hours of electricity each day and no gas for heating.”

His next show is at Berlin’s Kornfeld gallery in April and that is the focus of Azzam’s carefully structured days at the moment. (Supplied)

His parents, he says, were always supportive of his desire to be an artist. “I was lucky,” he says. “It was my dream from a young age. To be an artist is an endless dream.”

In Germany, his focus recently has been on collage. “It was a new step for me — a big challenge to use a new medium,” he says. Even in this new medium, however, the message remains consistent. One recent work is a representation of a building with its façade blown out, revealing glimpses of wallpaper, painted walls, and fabrics, all exposed to the elements. “I saw so many building like this,” he says. “Totally destroyed with interiors that used to be full of life and color.”

His next show is at Berlin’s Kornfeld gallery in April and that is the focus of Azzam’s carefully structured days at the moment.

“I work every day, alone. It is very important to me to work otherwise I can’t do anything,” he says. “I feel optimistic even with all the bad daily news. We will find good things alongside the bad.”


THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’
Updated 26 February 2021

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

DUBAI: Through their 2011 installation, The Paris-based Lebanese duo reflect on their 2011 installation, inspired by the Lebanese Rocket Society from the 1960s.

Lebanese Rocket Society. (Supplied)

Hadjithomas: It all started with my sister. She was researching Lebanese history and came across this story about rockets being launched from Lebanon (in the Sixties). It stayed in our minds. A few years later, we saw the stamp of the Cedar IV rocket, which was issued in 1964, and we thought it was really interesting. 

Joreige: We wondered why such a positive project disappeared from our history and memory. 

H: The Lebanese Rocket Society started in 1960 at Haigazian University. There was a professor — Manoug Manougian — who was really fond of rocketry. His students started making rockets and propellants at the university. The Lebanese Army joined in, but for Manoug and his students it was always an educational project — never a military one.

J: It wasn’t nationalistic either. Most of the people involved weren’t Lebanese — they came from all over the region. Through education, they were building peace.

H: They thought they were contributing to the space race — they were contemporary to the rest of the world, researching this fascination that people had for space. It’s about hope and dreams. So we felt that we should tell this story and find all the people that participated. That was not easy because they were scattered all around the world.

J: We had to think about different strategies of reactivating the past in the present.

H: So we rebuilt a rocket with the help of Sharjah Biennale and we offered it to Haigazian University. Reconstitution is a way of giving matter — reality — to our lost memories. That’s why it was important to redo the rocket exactly as it was. We chose Cedar IV because it was one of the most successful, but we didn’t put the Lebanese flag on it.

 J: if you put a flag on it, it would become national and militaristic. By keeping it white, it’s a place of projection, a ghostly presence.

H: Today, it seems like a military missile but it’s not. 

J: The UAE probe (which reached Mars on Feb. 9) is called “Hope.” When you are targeting another dimension, something you don’t know, it is always a question of hope.

H: Lebanon is very rich in its people, but we are hostages of people that are corrupt and think only about themselves. We were really happy for the UAE when “Hope” reached Mars, and I think the Lebanese reacted to it because they felt they should also be dreaming — and having the possibility to reconstruct and free themselves from those corrupt people.


Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can
Updated 27 February 2021

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can
  • The most prestigious venues in South Africa’s tourism capital have never been more affordable

DUBAI: The silence atop Table Mountain on a cloudless afternoon in December is an experience only the COVID-19 pandemic could have brought. 

As one of the most popular hikes (or cable-car rides, if you’d prefer an easier climb) in Cape Town, the summit is usually thronging with people wielding selfie sticks and smartphones whatever the day, leaving you jostling for a decent view of the famed Twelve Apostles to the left, and the sweeping city and harbor to the right. But on this Friday evening we find ourselves alone except for our guide and a peppy rock hyrax for company. 

Naturally, South Africa’s tourism capital is a different place during the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the world, it’s largely devoid of international travellers. This is bad news for the country’s tourism industry, but a positive point if you’re one of the few choosing to head abroad.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. (Shutterstock)

The city’s top hotels are offering large discounts to entice travellers in. And Cape Town’s premier attractions — including its world-renowned restaurants — are easier to get into then ever.

South Africa opened its doors to tourists on November 1, but has since faced challenges in being perceived as a safe place to visit. In December, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country was in a second wave of infections, one that was crippling the hospital system. The South African variant of COVID-19 was also discovered. Flights into and out of the country were cancelled. Ramaphosa closed beaches and public parks and enforced a number of other restrictions in perceived hotspots — including Nelson Mandela Bay and the famous Garden Route. The move was another blow for the tourism industry there, which, after a tough lockdown period earlier in the year, was relying on the incoming flock of domestic tourists for the festive season. 

If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. (Shutterstock)

Cape Town and the surrounding area escaped strict restrictions, however. Its beaches, as well as the sparkling white bays and the quirky towns dotted around Cape Peninsula (Hout Bay, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg etc) are humming with locals. It’s a relative hum, however, with only a few beachfront restaurants nearing capacity and a palpable air of uncertainty. 

Wandering along Cape Town’s beachfront, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear a foreign accent. You can wander through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and not see another face for long periods of time. On a hike up Table Mountain, you might only encounter a couple of other people on the same route. The uncrowded outdoors beckon.

Many of the hikes in the city (Lion’s Head is another must-do) seem easy enough, but are better attempted with a guide — both for safety and enjoyment. Most hotels will either have one on staff or will be able to arrange one for you. If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. He’s knowledgeable about hidden spots on the hike, as well as about the area’s fauna and flora, meaning your hike will be peppered with educational tidbits too. 

Babylonstoren is arguably the region’s most popular spot. (Shutterstock)

One and Only Cape Town is a top choice if you’re looking to stay central — nestled in around the waterfront. Its affable army of staff positioned around the property at all times are vigilant about temperature checks and sanitization, and it’s a diverse enough hotel to mean you never have to leave if you’re nervous about mixing in crowds. A central island of resort-style rooms offer an escape to a tropical island in the middle of the city, surrounded by waterways where you can kayak or paddleboard. 

The hotel is also home to Africa’s only Nobu restaurant. Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. Better yet, spend a rainy day trying a sushi masterclass and learn Nobu’s famous six-step nigiri method. 

Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. (Shutterstock)

Best of all, the Western Cape’s world-famous restaurants don’t need to be booked months in advance at the moment. Even in the really touristy areas.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. For instance, at Babylonstoren, arguably the region’s most popular spot, bookings for its restaurant Babel open nine months in advance, with its website recommending booking two or three months in advance. Now, you can book with less than 24-hours notice.

La Residence, Franschhoek’s most beautiful property (and a favorite of Sir Elton John), is a boutique option at the best of times, but now it seems almost as though it’s your own private mansion. The 30-acre estate is positioned on a hillock overlooking the village on one side and with lines of vines on the other, as emboldened peacocks wander around your room, and up to your table at breakfast time. One couple has booked in for 46 nights, which may be a bit much, but it’s hard to blame them, given the (relatively) bargain prices and lack of crowds.

If you’re willing and able to travel — and if the country’s borders are open again — this might be the best possible time to visit this dazzling city.


What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval
Updated 26 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

Authors: Dong Guoqiang and Andrew G. Walder

A Decade of Upheaval chronicles the surprising and dramatic political conflicts of a rural Chinese county over the course of the Cultural Revolution.
Drawing on an unprecedented range of sources — including work diaries, interviews, internal party documents, and military directives — Dong Guoqiang and Andrew Walder uncover a previously unimagined level of strife in the countryside that began with the Red Guard Movement in 1966 and continued unabated until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Showing how the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution were not limited to urban areas, but reached far into isolated rural regions, Dong and Walder reveal that the intervention of military forces in 1967 encouraged factional divisions in Feng County because different branches of China’s armed forces took various sides in local disputes.
The authors also lay bare how the fortunes of local political groups were closely tethered to unpredictable shifts in the decisions of government authorities in Beijing, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. Eventually, a backlash against suppression and victimization grew in the early 1970s and resulted in active protests, which presaged the settling of scores against radical Maoism.