Lebanese singer-songwriter Tania Saleh reflects on a decade of life as a divorcee in the Arab world

Lebanese singer-songwriter Tania Saleh reflects on a decade of life as a divorcee in the Arab world
The veteran Lebanese singer/songwriter is a pioneer of the Arabic alternative-music scene, with an illustrious career spanning more than two decades. (Supplied)
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Updated 30 April 2021

Lebanese singer-songwriter Tania Saleh reflects on a decade of life as a divorcee in the Arab world

Lebanese singer-songwriter Tania Saleh reflects on a decade of life as a divorcee in the Arab world

BEIRUT: Tania Saleh is not generally known for mincing her words, whether in casual conversation or in song. “You come to a point in your life where you just can’t hold back anymore — you need to say what’s on your mind, regardless of the consequences,” she says of her new album, the deeply confessional “10 A.D.” (which stands for 10 Years After Divorce).

The veteran Lebanese singer/songwriter is a pioneer of the Arabic alternative-music scene, with an illustrious career spanning more than two decades, and speckled with both compelling studio releases and diverse collaborations.

As its title reveals, the LP is driven by Saleh’s decade-long experience of living in the Arab world as a divorced woman.




The LP is driven by Saleh’s decade-long experience of living in the Arab world as a divorced woman. (Supplied)

“It’s about my reflections and observations. How I’ve been dealt with, how society looks at me, and how I’ve looked back at it,” Saleh says as a preface to her no-holds-barred chronicle of the life of divorcées across the Middle East.

“The way that men see a woman after divorce is basically as fair game — like you’re willing to settle for anything and be with anyone,” she explains. “This is, of course, horrible. It’s a demeaning and humiliating way to treat women. To be honest, at the beginning, I was very angry when approached by men in this way. But then I understood that it’s part of a wider problem, especially in the social and economic context of where and how we live.”

Her native Lebanon has, for the past 18 months, spiraled through a caustic mixture of socio-economic and political crises, compounded by decades-long governmental corruption and the COVID-19 pandemic. Saleh points out that this backdrop has served to exacerbate the lives of women in the small Mediterranean nation and the choices they make.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh)

“Because of Lebanon’s problems, a lot of men have left to work abroad, leaving many women either single or unmarried or separated from their partners,” she says. “As a result, you see beautiful, talented, educated women settling for a lot less than what they deserve. This happens all the time.

“And so,” the singer declares somberly, “it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wanted to address the absurdity of that whole situation on this album.”

“10 A.D.” is Saleh’s fifth LP and her third on Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV), the Norwegian label founded by producer and lyricist Erik Hillestad in 1974. The album is part of a long road she has taken to get here, and brings Saleh’s musical evolution full circle — especially since embarking on a painstaking path of essentially reinventing herself.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh)

On her early work, she collaborated with her ex-husband, producer and sound engineer Philippe Tohme, whose extensive list of professional accolades includes the seminal Lebanese alt-rock band, Blend and its later, Erin Mikaelian-fronted, permutation Pindoll.

“We wanted to produce music in an honest way, as a tribute to our influences in rock, folk, funk and jazz,” Saleh recalls. “On (her sophomore 2011 LP) ‘Wehde’, the guys from Blend were, in fact, my band, and we recorded the album together. We were family.

“By collaborating with other artists that Philippe was working with at the time, like (composer and arranger) Bilal el Zein and (producer and entrepreneur) Michel Elefteriades, we created a sound that married our rock roots with more-mainstream Arabic music.”

Saleh candidly admits that after the dissolution of her marriage to Tohme, with whom she has two sons, she no longer had access to her support system. “I had to find myself again; I had to find a new formula, and this was very hard,” she says. “That was the beginning of those 10 years that this new album is about.”

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh)

The arduous process included “deep reflection on who I am as a woman, as an artist and musician. It was hell for more than two years, but my attitude was, ‘Either you stand up now and survive, or it’s all over.’”

This led Saleh to reconnect with an old passion of hers. “If you listen to songs like ‘Hsabak’ or ‘Habibi’ (off her self-titled debut album), they are clearly influenced by bossa nova. So, I wanted to take that further and start to incorporate classical arrangements.”

Following the release of her 2014 album, “A Few Images,” she also began exploring the idea of introducing electronic music into her arrangements, a crucial step in the rejuvenation of her overall sound.

“I love Bob Dylan, but I don’t love that he’s had the same style for 70 years,” she says. “I prefer Joni Mitchell, who changed with every album she did. She’s a huge influence on me.”

The realization of “10 A.D.” comprised an intricate process of arranging about half of the songs she had written with Dr. Edouard Torikian, a professor of music theory at Lebanon’s Kaslik University, who had previously captivated Saleh with his complex, quarter-tone-infused choral arrangements. The remainder of the tracks were conceived with the help of “another band I had worked with before, whose influences were much more on the Brazilian music side of things.”

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh)

She knew that this time, however, she had to break out of her comfort zone. “I wanted to learn, to do something different, to find a point where rock, electronic music and classical arrangements meet with my Arabic singing and lyrics.”

Saleh sought advice from KKV, whose boss, Erik Hillestad, connected her with Øyvind Kristiansen, the Norwegian pianist, arranger, and composer. “Øyvind understood right away what I wanted to do, and the fact that I was looking for someone to unify all these songs with a particular sound,” she says.

Aside from the murky aural landscapes of “Al Marwaha” (‘The Fan’), which is a discernible homage to Saleh’s rock-oriented musical heritage, a track like “Halitna Haleh” (We Are In A Fix) is a testament to Saleh’s accomplishment of the cohesive sonic approach that she had desired all along. The piano and classical string quartet-propelled affair is delicately ornamented with Kristiansen’s strategically deployed electronic beats and sounds.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh)

The topic of divorce is certainly not Saleh’s only focus on the record. She explores “our collective addiction to the digital world, a need to get back in touch with nature, hyper-consumerism, vanity and social pressure,” among other relevant prevailing themes.

But overall, “10 A.D.” is a musical postcard from a seasoned artist who continues to drive herself forward through self-discovery.

“I want to learn, to grow. I don’t know when my next album is going to be and what it’s going to look like. I don’t even know when I’ll perform next,” she says. “It’s hard to make plans – I can barely plan for the next few hours. But with COVID, I think a lot of us have realized how little we actually need to survive.

“I really hope that we all have as much of a desire to heed the lessons of the past and move forward as I do.”


What We Are Reading Today: The Government of Emergency

What We Are Reading Today: The Government of Emergency
Updated 04 December 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Government of Emergency

What We Are Reading Today: The Government of Emergency

Authors: Stephen J. Collier & Andrew Lakoff

From pandemic disease, to the disasters associated with global warming, to cyberattacks, today we face an increasing array of catastrophic threats. It is striking that, despite the diversity of these threats, experts and officials approach them in common terms — as future events that threaten to disrupt the vital, vulnerable systems upon which modern life depends.
The Government of Emergency tells the story of how this now taken-for-granted way of understanding and managing emergencies arose. Amid the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, an array of experts and officials working in obscure government offices developed a new understanding of the nation as a complex of vital, vulnerable systems. They invented technical and administrative devices to mitigate the nation’s vulnerability, and organized a distinctive form of emergency government that would make it possible to prepare for and manage potentially catastrophic events.


Misk Art Week showcases artists from Saudi Arabia and international community

Afra Aldhaheri’s “End of A School Braid” (2021), part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)
Afra Aldhaheri’s “End of A School Braid” (2021), part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)
Updated 03 December 2021

Misk Art Week showcases artists from Saudi Arabia and international community

Afra Aldhaheri’s “End of A School Braid” (2021), part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)
  • For its fifth year, Misk Art Institute’s annual event features several exhibitions exploring the nature of identity

RIYADH: Inside Riyadh’s Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall, multimedia artworks are displayed across the venue’s two floors on the theme of Takween, which means “form” in Arabic, and its relation to one’s identity.

As part of Misk Art Week’s fifth outing, taking place until Dec. 5, artists from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, North Africa and the wider international community present art that questions identity — specifically how an individual’s social, historical and cultural origins influence their past, present and future.

From video works produced with AI to paintings, textile-based art and installations, the art on show aims, according to the Misk Art Institute, to offer a “critical platform for the creative community,” fostering cultural dialogue and intellectual exchange.

As visitors enter the hall, they are confronted by two dark figures by Saudi artist Filwa Nazer, made of black polyethylene industrial netting and titled The Other is Another Body (2021). The figures seem to guard the vibrantly colored wool-weave tapestry work hanging on a wall between them, titled Palm (1985), by American artist Sheila Hicks.

The works are part of Here, Now, the third in a series of the Misk Art Institute’s annual flagship exhibition, curated this time by British writer and curator Sacha Craddock alongside Misk’s assistant curators, Nora Algosaibi and Alia Ahmad Al-Saud.

The show, which features a mix of emerging and established artists and runs until Jan. 30, 2022, is the first in the Saudi capital to present works by both Saudi and international artists, including ones by well-known Saudi artists such as Manal Al-Dowayan’s abstract black and white work, I am Here (2016), Ayman Yossri Daydban’s Tree House (2019), and Sami Ali AlHossein’s colorful abstract figurative works on canvas. There is also a painting by renowned Sudanese painter Salah Elmur titled The Angry Singer (2015) and delicate floral drawings by Korean artist Young In Hong dating to 2009.

While without an overarching narrative, the show prompts the spectator to question, like the exhibition’s title, “why here and why now?” It encourages the visitor to reflect on the artworks and the nature of identity in a reflective, personal and subjective manner.

Upstairs is Under Construction, an exhibition of Misk Art Grant recipients who hail this year from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Algeria. The grant funds up to SR1 million ($266,632) and has been distributed among the nine participating artists and collectives.

Basma Al-Shathry, lead curator at Misk Art Institute, said: “This year’s Misk Art Grant exhibition, ‘Under Construction,’ explores how identity is perceived as an emblem of growth, continuity and endless iterations of cultural representation throughout history. It has been a delight to bring together artists and designers from both the Middle East and North Africa to address the theme as a process of development, repetition, distortion and incompleteness in a time of synthesis, understanding and promise for the future.”

Mira AlMazrooei and Jawaher AlMutairi’s “Glass Libary” (2021). Part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition titled  “Under construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

The works on show also respond to the theme of identity while focusing on how identity can be perceived as a method for growth and renewal, as well as social and historical continuity, via the incorporation of cultural representations throughout history.

One of the most poignant works is by Emirati artist and designer Latifa Saeed’s Sand Room (2021), which presents an assembly of sand-encased glass panels in the form of a cube that one can enter to observe the desert sand sediments that she collected from construction sites around Dubai.

Latifa Saeed’s “Sand room” (2021). Part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition titled “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

“My research and work is always about transformation, whether it be of a city or of one’s mentality,” Saeed told Arab News. “I began by building an archive of sand from Dubai because the sites from where I collected the sand we cannot visit anymore because they are now construction sites.

Saeed visited development sites in Dubai, and before the construction started she would collect sand from the area and label it accordingly. She now has more than 200 different types of sand from these areas.

“I am archiving, preserving and documenting the Dubai landscape, topography and the material itself,” she said.

Near to Saeed’s mesmerizing room of sand specimens is Emirati artist Afra Al-Dhaheri’s End of a School Braid (2021) — a large installation of twisted and backcombed off-white colored rope that hangs from the ceiling. In this piece Al-Dhaheri examines how hair can be seen as the keeper of memories, preserving not only time but cultural norms and heritage.

Bahraini artist Noor Alwan’s Sacred Spaces (2021), a series of hanging textile-based tapestry works, similarly seeks to preserve personal and collective memories. Growing up, she would watch her grandfather ritually draw hundreds of patterns on paper — a tradition that stemmed from his childhood and that immersed him in a meditative process of repetition. Alwan recalls his trance-like process of art creation and likens it to a shared Arab collective practice — with elements mirroring the mesmerizing geometric forms of Islamic art.

Nour Alwan’s “Sacred Spaces,” (2021). Part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition titled “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

Moving into the rapidly developing digital landscape is an engaging work by Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi, titled Beyond Language (2021), in which a poem by the late revered Saudi poet Muhammad Al-Thubaiti Poetry (1952-2011), titled Salutation to the Master of the Arid Land, is transformed into a video work with sound via artificial intelligence. For the work, which captivates the viewer through its colorful abstract images — some seem like palm trees while others appear to be figures — Alsafi trained the AI through data collection and machine learning to understand poetry and produce visual representations of each verse with accompanying machine-made sound.

“The first form of art in the region and the way we connected with each other was through poetry,” Alsafi, an artist who studied computer science, told Arab News. “Al-Thubaiti, one of Saudi’s pioneer poets, changed the way that poetry was written and read. Everyone sees AI as robotic, but my vision, I want to see how we can make the machine more human so that it understands language, learn and develop artwork depending on the vision of the artist. I believe artists can use AI as a tool to develop their work.”

Lastly, there is the second iteration of works created in the Masaha residency program, located in the basement of the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall.

The program, part of Misk Art Institute’s mission to support Saudi and international practitioners across the artistic disciplines in the research and production of new works via mentorship opportunities, can be viewed on the ground floor. Titled HOME: Being and Belonging, the works by 10 visual artists from the UK, Guatemala, Morocco, India, South Korea, and from across Saudi Arabia, examine questions of how an individual and collective sense of belonging and nostalgia for one’s culture and heritage stems from one’s socio-cultural and ethnic background. The works on show explore how our sense of belonging changes and transforms with time.

The residency offers international artists the opportunity to create work on site at Masaha over a three-month cycle. Many of the participating artists are showing their work for the first time in the Kingdom — demonstrating once again Misk Art Institute’s broader aims to expand Saudi Arabia’s cultural landscape through international creative dialogue.

Hana Almilli’s “Through The Earth I Come Back Home” (2021). Part of the Masaha Residency showcase during Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

 


UAE-founded sustainable brand The Giving Movement gets charitable

Since its inception, the sustainable label has quickly gone on to become a staple in the wardrobes of social media influencers across the region. (thegivingmovement.com)
Since its inception, the sustainable label has quickly gone on to become a staple in the wardrobes of social media influencers across the region. (thegivingmovement.com)
Updated 03 December 2021

UAE-founded sustainable brand The Giving Movement gets charitable

Since its inception, the sustainable label has quickly gone on to become a staple in the wardrobes of social media influencers across the region. (thegivingmovement.com)

DUBAI: In the regional fashion industry, a handful of brands and organizations have been putting forth new initiatives that aim to give back to the community. Notably, The Giving Movement, an athleisure brand founded by Dominic Nowell-Barnes in Dubai in 2020, donates $4 of each sale to charity.

Since its inception, the sustainable label has quickly gone on to become a staple in the wardrobes of social media influencers across the region and was picked up by several e-retailers such as Ounass and Sivvi. But perhaps, its biggest accomplishment to date is raising over $1,000,000 in donations for local charities Dubai Cares and Harmony House India.

“The most important thing when I set out to do this project was just around feeling like we’ve done something good for the world,” Nowell-Barnes told Arab News.

“So when I started The Giving Movement, it was all about trying to find fulfillment and to feel that maybe in five, 10 years, when I looked back at where I’ve put my time and energy, it’s had a positive impact.”

The designer’s goal was to partner with charities that look after the basic needs of the less-fortunate, which is why he chose to partner with Dubai Cares and Harmony House India.

“Dubai Cares is predominantly focused on education, so the idea is that if you can educate people then they have the ability to get jobs and make a better future for themselves, as opposed to maybe just giving them a meal here or there. And then with Harmony House, they focus on the kind of immediate needs of providing food and shelter, and then ultimately education,” explains the designer.

The concept of giving back is very important and personal to Nowell-Barnes.

“Growing up in the north of England, I got to see very different types of lives. You can be walking down one street and there will be a guy driving a Ferrari, and the next minute you can be walking down a street where there’s people living on the sidewalk. This was my earliest recollection of feeling like life can be unfair to people,” he reflects.

“Therefore, I chose these charities because there are people who have just been dealt a bad hand so I want to spend the rest of my life supporting these people,” he added.

Harmony House currently looks after 700 disadvantaged children. The money raised by The Giving Movement will help provide food and shelter for these kids, in addition to providing the materials required to educate children with Dubai Cares.

Nowell-Barnes launched his genderless label in April 2020, after slowly losing interest in his 9-5 e-commerce job.

Despite launching in the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic — during the lockdown in Dubai when residents needed a police permit to leave their homes to go grocery shopping or run errands — the made-in-UAE brand was met with immediate success, which Nowell-Barnes attributes to people wearing activewear and loungewear more than ever as they were going out less and spending more time indoors.

In addition to its charitable aspect, the brand is sustainable too.

The Giving Movement only utilizes fabric that is either certified recycled or organic as well as low-impact dyes. Eventually, the brand wants to move into circularity by launching some sort of initiative to collect garments from customers once they have used them and rather than them throwing them away, the brand can send them to be recycled or reused.

“I want to make sure that what I am doing is not only good for other people, but also good for the planet,” concludes Nowell-Barnes.

 


Review: Halle Berry’s ‘Bruised’ walks to a familiar beat

The Oscar-winning star directs and stars in this gritty sports drama. (Supplied)
The Oscar-winning star directs and stars in this gritty sports drama. (Supplied)
Updated 03 December 2021

Review: Halle Berry’s ‘Bruised’ walks to a familiar beat

The Oscar-winning star directs and stars in this gritty sports drama. (Supplied)

LONDON: For her directorial debut, Oscar winner Halle Berry throws herself wholeheartedly into the role of Jackie ‘Pretty Bull’ Justice — a former UFC fighter who left the sport in disgrace and now scratches a living as a cleaner in ramshackle Newark, careening from one drink to the next and arguing with her manager-turned-boyfriend Desi who wants her to get back in the ring.

When Desi tricks Jackie into attending an underground fight night, she catches the eye of local promoter Immaculate, who offers her a comeback fight and sets her up with his head trainer, Buddhakan. Oh, and on the way home, Jackie’s estranged mother shows up with Manny, the son Jackie left when he was an infant, now returned to her after his father was killed in a shooting. As the pressure at home ratchets up, Jackie throws herself into training, battling not only her opponents in the ring but, it turns out, her inner demons too.

(Supplied)

It’s a metaphor, see? And it’s not the only time that Berry’s movie is a little heavy handed with its use of tried-and-tested symbolism. “Bruised” is, in fact, the latest movie in the “Rocky” franchise in everything but name. Seemingly unaware that audiences may have seen other fighting films, Berry shamelessly mines the genre for every bloody cliché and underdog trope going, mashing them all together into a movie that is perfectly serviceable — it’s competently directed, and nobody can doubt Berry’s commitment to the role — if extremely familiar. 

(Supplied)

Berry’s co-stars — Shamier Anderson, Adan Canto and British actor Sheila Atim — all get the time to flex their creative muscles and there is some enjoyment to be found in this female-led story of hard-won redemption. But the film is dominated by such a feeling of déjà vu that it becomes overpowering. Every story beat is predictable, and even the brutal climax feels a little by-the-numbers. “Bruised” is a decent movie, but it’s a decent movie the audience will almost certainly have seen before.


‘The Houses of Beirut’ — preserving a city’s architectural heritage

The original version of the book, published in both English and French, was, Julie said, popular among the Lebanese. (Supplied)
The original version of the book, published in both English and French, was, Julie said, popular among the Lebanese. (Supplied)
Updated 03 December 2021

‘The Houses of Beirut’ — preserving a city’s architectural heritage

The original version of the book, published in both English and French, was, Julie said, popular among the Lebanese. (Supplied)
  • Why two sisters chose to republish their mother’s children’s book following the Beirut Port explosion

DUBAI: Twenty-four years ago, Nayla Audi published her only book: “The Houses of Beirut.” It was created for children — an oversized book in the shape of a house — but at Dubai Design Week last month, adults, too, were opening the ‘doors’ of its cover to reveal the old-school watercolors (created by Audi’s friend, the painter Flavia Codsi) within. 

The book’s current revival was made possible by Audi’s two daughters, Yasmine and Julie, who published a new edition in the wake of the Beirut Port explosion last year, having found a copy of the book — a nostalgic memento of their childhood — that had survived the damage inflicted on their family home in the city’s Gemmayze neighborhood.

Nayla, Yasmine and Julie Audi. (Supplied)

“It really affected us personally,” Julie, who lives in London, told Arab News. “We thought we needed to do everything we can to preserve this book — to re-edit and try our best for these houses to stay. We grew up taking all these things for granted. But now, with a bit of maturity and age, we also realize that it’s important for us to continue what our mom started.”

The original version of the book, published in both English and French, was, Julie said, popular among the Lebanese. 

“A lot of people in our generation kind of grew up with this book,” she explained. “Through this project, people sent us messages saying: ‘It reminds me of my childhood.’ Or, ‘This was my favorite book growing up.’”

The book’s detailed and idyllic images take the reader through small-but-significant moments of daily life: Students arriving home from school, youngsters running around with the Lebanese flag; a street vendor filling a basket with vegetables, and the serene blue of the sea beside the corniche.

(Supplied)

But, as the name suggests, it is the tall traditional houses with their red-tile roofs and triple arches, which can be seen throughout the streets of the Lebanese capital, that take center stage. 

“She realized how important the heritage houses were in Beirut and how important it was for us — we were very little at the time — to have them as a memory,” Yasmine said.

Many of those heritage houses, some of which were built over a century ago, were seriously affected by the explosion and the sisters have stipulated that all proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Beirut Heritage Initiative, launched in 2020 to restore badly damaged historical buildings.

(Supplied)

Apart from the fact that their mother wrote it, “The Houses of Beirut” is intensely personal to the sisters in other ways. Julie and Yasmine (and their cat) actually feature in the charming, colorful pages and they grew up in one of the depicted heritage houses — the ‘White House’ of the book. 

“The interior has an open, traditional layout — the living room in the middle and the rooms on the side,” Yasmine said. “When we were growing up, the balcony was our favorite place. It was kind of like our playground.”  

For the reprinting of the hand-bound book, the sisters kept the story as it was, (although they printed the English version only) and even turned to the same family-run printing press — Anis, established in the late 1950s — that published it in the first place. Like many businesses in Beirut, Anis was practically destroyed, so getting things off the ground has been a struggle. 

(Supplied)

“We kept coming back to the fact that we’re doing this, also, to help Lebanon,” Yasmine said. “So, why would we print the book somewhere else and not help the actual artisans in Lebanon, who have been affected by the economic crisis and everything that’s been happening?”

Both Julie and Yasmine were born in the US, but feel a strong attachment to Lebanon. They flew to Beirut after the explosion and that experience reinforced their belief in the necessity of chronicling the city’s architectural traditions. 

“It’s this cycle, which is sometimes a bit sad when you’re from Lebanon, of how every generation has to go through these hardships,” said Julie. “There are so many issues nowadays, but preserving our heritage is really important.”