A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’
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Sabrina Mahfouz. (Supplied)
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Sabrina Mahfouz. (Supplied)
Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)
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Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)
Laura Hanna. (Supplied)
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Laura Hanna
‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)
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‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)
Elif Shahak. (Supplied)
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Elif Shahak. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 June 2021

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’
  • A spirited new anthology of poems and stories by Arab women down the ages overturns common expectations of gender 
  • ‘We Wrote in Symbols’ celebrates the literary works of 75 female writers of Arab heritage spanning five millenia

DUBAI: British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh hopes a new book featuring 75 stories of love and desire penned by Arab women will help pave the way for more female authors to emerge from the Middle East region.

The English-language anthology “We Wrote in Symbols,” edited by Dabbagh, was published in April this year, marking a literary first in showcasing the works of women from the region on subjects many might consider bold.

Spanning several millennia, the volume includes the works of classical poets, award-winning contemporary authors and emerging writers.

“It brings together a diverse range of voices who are writers in English, French and Arabic, coming from all of the three main monotheistic religions, as well as those that are not religious at all,” Dabbagh told Arab News.

‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)

The idea arose after Dabbagh stumbled on an anthology called “Classical Poems by Arab Women,” which contained writings from the pre-Islamic period up to the fall of Andalusia in 1492.

The collection left a lasting impression. “Some were what you would expect. There were poems lamenting the loss of a brother in battle,” Dabbagh said.

“But other women were talking about sexuality in a way that was very self-assured. Some were being a bit provocative, but others were just content with that aspect of their life. The voices were surprising, but they also felt fresh, contemporary and spirited.”

Dabbagh began to notice similar themes in the work of contemporary female authors discussing issues of love and desire — in some cases dealing with the disconnection between the two in relationships, which were portrayed with remarkable sensitivity.

As a fiction writer, Dabbagh had always found this a difficult topic to handle, partly due to self-censorship stemming from her own notions of shame.

“There is a universal insistence on associating the actions of a character with the behavior of an author, which we need to be freed from,” she said.

Sabrina Mahfouz. (Courtesy of Greg Morrison)

“To be a writer who is able to depict those delicate shifts in mood and connections between people takes an enormous amount of skill and imagination. So, the collection is basically a combination of the older, classical poets and the newer voices looking at this difficult terrain.

“A lot of them are very funny, some are quite daring and explicit, and it’s just a different way for women identified with the region to have their writing viewed — through matters of the heart and the body.”

Dabbagh said there is an expectation among English readers that most Arab fiction is slightly depressing, political or downbeat. In the words of Nathalie Handal, one of the poets featured in the anthology, “people think Arabs don’t love with a beating heart.” The book aims to challenge this misconception.

“It tries to bring that sense of emotional excitement and tenderness to a vast, diverse and varied region through the writing of women,” Dabbagh said.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate about women in Arab literature, which actually predates anything published by a female author in the English language. One of the earliest poems included in the anthology dates back almost 5,000 years.

“You have this tradition, mainly in poetry, of writing and letter writing by Arab women before women started writing in Europe,” Dabbagh said. “I really wanted to show that, because it’s not something that is associated with the Arab world in terms of having higher levels of advancement in female literacy.”

Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)

For Dabbagh, whose debut novel “Out of It” was nominated as a Guardian book of the year in 2011-12, navigating the affairs of the heart is not something that necessarily becomes easier with age.

Although she read the works of Hanan Al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif avidly in her 20s, she wishes there had been more Arab women writers in her youth. “Sadly, I only read fluently in English,” she said.

“It was really radically life-changing for me to read accounts by women of a similar background. I grew up between the Gulf and Europe mainly, and I always found it such a difficult subject matter for me to find my voice.”

Reading their stories made Dabbagh more articulate about her own feelings.

“It just gives you a set of tools with which to negotiate this tricky emotional terrain,” she said. “I think (my book) might help to provide a level of self-knowledge because there are so many different characters in it that readers should be  able to relate to.”

Having read the works of critically acclaimed American writers, whose brash depiction of the hook-up culture she found dulling, her interest returned to the writings of women of Arab heritage to see how their interpretations of romance, sentimentality, vulnerability and desire affected her.

Laura Hanna. (Supplied)

In these works, she found creativity, humor and craft. “We’re always being told to see these two worlds I come from (the West/Europe and the Arab world) as almost antithetical to one another,” Dabbagh said.

“But with the language of love and looking at the Mediterranean as a kind of sea of stories, we can see how there’s been influence over time between Europe and the Arab world.

“In the 19th century, you had a lot of writers and explorers who came to the Arab world because it was a place of freer sensuality. It seemed to be less restrictive than the puritanical backgrounds these writers came from.

“Now that pattern has, to some extent, been reversed.”

During the Abbasid period, the topic  was written about and seen almost as a scientific study. “You could have a book which dealt with astrology and physics as well as expounding on sensuality, because sensuality and getting that harmony right between a couple was something that was indicative of how you can have harmony in the society as a whole,” Dabbagh said.

Elif Shafak. (Supplied)

“So, it was a way of ensuring that the community was in balance and that, to me, is such a beautiful idea. But it’s something that is rarely associated with the religion anymore.”

Nowadays, any associations between religion, women and sexuality appears to be overwhelmingly negative. “I wanted to show that range, to try to break up that stereotype,” she said.

And although one book is unlikely to change opinions overnight, Dabbagh believes women’s voices are gradually subverting traditional methods of censorship.

“The region has been engulfed with images, films and TV for the past 70 years, and most of it was state-run,” she said. “But now with Netflix and online streaming, we have a lot more content coming in and it’s hugely influential.”

Nevertheless, the depiction of Arabs and the Islamic world in Hollywood has improved little in the past century. “There is a kind of mass absorption of negative images of the region from outside, which is going to influence behavior,” Dabbagh said.

“We need to find ways of writing stories which are connected to regional history, cultures, which are exciting, dramatic, sleek and sexy. It’s just about being trained up, opting into it and starting to influence the way these stories are told.”


Twitter: @CalineMalek

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022
50 Best Restaurants lauds Trèsind as one of the best dining establishments in Dubai. Courtesy
Updated 49 min 41 sec ago

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022

DUBAI: In February 2022, some of the most lauded restaurateurs, fine chefs and food lovers will congregate in the UAE for the reveal of the 50 top restaurants in the region.  

It’s been announced that The World's 50 Best Restaurants, owned and run by William Reed Business Media and established in 2002, is launching a new regional restaurants list and awards program that will be hosted in Abu Dhabi early next year.

It will be the first time that a Middle Eastern country will play host to the prestigious event, which is informally known as the Oscars of fine dining.

“We are delighted that Abu Dhabi will be playing host to the awards ceremony, as the UAE capital has been establishing itself as a culinary force over recent years,” William Drew, Director of Content for 50 Best, said in a released statement.

Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants is the latest regional restaurants list and awards program since 2013, when both Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants were established. 

The list, which was born out of the magazine pages of Britain’s “Restaurant” is now widely regarded as the most highly influential ranking of its kind.

The inaugural Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants list will be revealed in a live countdown, along with a series of special awards, culminating in the announcement of The Best Restaurant in the Middle East & North Africa 2022. 

“The diversity of cuisines and restaurants across this wide region will ensure this new list is a vital addition to the international gastronomic landscape,” added Drew.

The ranking will be determined by 250 voters, made up of anonymous restaurant experts from 19 countries across the region, based on their best restaurant experiences. Dining establishments cannot apply to be on the list.

Meanwhile, a program of events, including a forum, chef masterclasses and dining events, will be hosted in the UAE capital in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi from Feb. 4-11, as part of the Abu Dhabi Culinary Calendar.

Some events will be open to the public on a ticketed basis, with details to be revealed later.

The gala awards ceremony is set to take place on Feb. 7.

Lebanese artist Nadim Karam creates memorial sculpture at Beirut Port

Lebanese artist Nadim Karam creates memorial sculpture at Beirut Port
Nadim Karam's 'The Gesture' (2021). Supplied
Updated 03 August 2021

Lebanese artist Nadim Karam creates memorial sculpture at Beirut Port

Lebanese artist Nadim Karam creates memorial sculpture at Beirut Port

DUBAI: A towering sculpture made of scrap metal from the wreckage following last year’s explosions at the Beirut Port on Aug. 4 was unveiled at the site on Monday. Titled “The Gesture,” the giant memorial sculpture is the work of Lebanese artist, architect and Beirut resident Nadim Karam, who said he wanted to honor the families of the victims of the explosions that left more than 200 dead, more than 6,000 injured and over 300,000 people displaced. Karam said he also wanted to show “the will of the Lebanese people to continue to go on.”

Nadim Karam's 'The Gesture' (2021). Supplied

The massive work, which, when seen from afar, seems to tower over the destructed silos with its commanding presence, was funded by several private companies and individuals. “It is a giant made of ashes, traces from the explosions, scars of the city, that still exist everywhere in Beirut,” Karam told Arab News. “The work represents the scars of the people that still have not healed. This figure is every single one of us and a reminder that we are the living energy of Beirut.”

One year after the Beirut Port blast damaged the lives of thousands of Lebanese and tore apart large chunks of the city, which to this day remains in a process of reconstruction, no top officials have been held accountable. Efforts to investigate the root cause of the explosions have stalled and the Lebanese, with their country in a continual state of freefall due to a collapsed banking system and stagnant government, continue to live in a state of trauma, with many fleeing the country for a better life elsewhere.

Nadim Karam's 'The Gesture' (2021). Supplied

While Karam hopes the Lebanese will support the massive sculpture, some have raised questions as to whether artwork should be placed at the Beirut Port when justice still has not been served. Many will agree that the fact that the sculpture has been made from scraps of steel from the site is a powerful statement in itself, which Karam and others hope will recall the importance of solidarity among the people and the desperate need for answers. As Karam says, “‘The Gesture’ also represents the will of the Lebanese to know the truth about what happened. Only when we know the truth will we have justice.”

Chefs Fariyal Abdullahi, Nasim Alikhani to dish up dinner for this year’s Met Gala

Chefs Fariyal Abdullahi, Nasim Alikhani to dish up dinner for this year’s Met Gala
The menu for this year's Met Gala is a collective effort by10 New York-based chefs. Supplied
Updated 03 August 2021

Chefs Fariyal Abdullahi, Nasim Alikhani to dish up dinner for this year’s Met Gala

Chefs Fariyal Abdullahi, Nasim Alikhani to dish up dinner for this year’s Met Gala

DUBAI: For the first time, the Met Gala is introducing a sustainable plant-based menu for its annual event taking place this year on Sept. 13, 2021. 

Guests will be treated to a healthy dinner curated by a group of 10 notable New York-based chefs and Instagram influencers, handpicked by Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson and Bon Appétit.

Among the chefs selected is US-Ethiopian Fariyal Abdullahi and American-Iranian Nasim Alikhani.

Abdullahi is the culinary manager of R+D Kitchen in Dallas, while Alikhani spearheads a hot spot in Brooklyn, New York, called Sofreh.

They join other New York-based chefs, cookbook authors and culinary enthusiasts Emma Bengtsson, Lazarus Lynch, Junghyun Park, Erik Ramirez, Thomas Raquel, Sophia Roe, Simone Tong and Fabian von Hauske.

“I am honored to participate in an initiative that highlights the incredible work of these 10 New York chefs at the Met Gala,” said Samuelsson in a press release issued from the Met. 

“After a difficult two years for the restaurant industry, this will showcase the work and tell the stories of a dynamic group of chefs while presenting an exciting menu of delicious, plant-based dishes. The gala offers an incomparable opportunity for emerging talent to elevate their careers and share their perspectives and craft.”

In the weeks leading up to the gala, the 10 chefs will share plant-based recipes via Instagram Reels, powered by a partnership with the photo-sharing social media platform.

The Met Gala is an annual fundraising gala that celebrates New York’s the Costume Institute’s new exhibition on a changing theme. It typically occurs on the first Monday in May, however, due to COVID-19, it is set to take place as a smaller affair on Sept. 13.

Bella Hadid revives noughties fashion in new Miss Sixty ad

Bella Hadid revives noughties fashion in new Miss Sixty ad
Bella Hadid is one of the most in-demand models in the world at the moment. File/ Getty Images
Updated 03 August 2021

Bella Hadid revives noughties fashion in new Miss Sixty ad

Bella Hadid revives noughties fashion in new Miss Sixty ad

DUBAI: Noughties fashion is back, and it doesn’t appear like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Whether it was Blumarine’s Paris Hilton-inspired Fall 2021 collection or the recent resurgence of Ed Hardy, the fabulously gaudy and over-the-top aesthetic of the 2000s in fashion is inescapable. Some of the decade’s most notorious brands have also made a return, including denim label Miss Sixty, which is now being fronted by Palestinian-Dutch model Bella Hadid. 

This week, the brand unveiled its Fall 2021 campaign, which featured the 24-year-old catwalk star rocking a blond bob and striking various poses while wearing pieces from the label’s most recent collection, which included a long-sleeve striped T-shirt emblazoned with the brand's name on the bottom paired with form-hugging black pants and a silver chain belt.

Bella Hadid for Miss Sixty's Fall 2021 campaign. Instagram

The Miss Sixty brand was one of the top labels to define millennium-era style and was wildly popular in the 2000s, with celebrities including Paris Hilton, Mischa Barton and Hilary Duff rocking their low-rise jeans and statement belts.

After fading out of style in the last decade, the denim brand made a resurgence earlier this year, tapping Hadid to serve as the face of Miss Sixty last February.

Hadid announced the exciting news via Instagram earlier this year. 

“Just signed my newest contract as the face of @misssixty,” she wrote at the time. “I have so many vintage pieces that I have collected over the years and I can’t wait to pair it all with the new! This is a dream, I’m so excited to see what we do together in the future!”


A post shared by Bella (@bellahadid)

Indeed, Hadid certainly is a fitting choice for the revival of Miss Sixty.

In addition to being one of the most in-demand models in the world, Hadid is also known for taking past, and often-times polarizing, fashion trends from the early 2000s and making them look fresh again.

From bedazzled cropped T-shirts and flared jeans to monogrammed baguette bags and newspaper boy caps, there’s almost no defining Y2K fashion trend that Hadid hasn’t rocked in weeks past. All that is really needed to complete her looks is a hot pink Motorola Razr or an iPod Nano.

Jury for Saudi Arabia’s 2021 Ithra Art Prize announced

Jury for Saudi Arabia’s 2021 Ithra Art Prize announced
Winner of the 2020 Ithra Art Prize, “Rakhm” by Fahad Bin Naif. Supplied
Updated 02 August 2021

Jury for Saudi Arabia’s 2021 Ithra Art Prize announced

Jury for Saudi Arabia’s 2021 Ithra Art Prize announced

DUBAI: The jury for the 4th edition of the Ithra Art Prize has been revealed.

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) has announced a panel of seven international art experts as the jury for the prize.

They are Abdullah K. Al-Turki, board member of the Ad-Diriyah Biennale Foundation; Dr. Ridha Moumni, historian of art and archaeology; Brahim Alaoui, former director of the museum of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and  Salwa Mikdadi, Director of Al-Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art (NYUAD).

They will be joined by Amal Khalaf, curator, artist and Director of Programs at Cubitt and Civic Curator at the Serpentine Galleries in London; Clare Davies, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Farah Abushullaih, Head of Museums and Exhibits at Ithra.

The jury are responsible for evaluating submissions for the contemporary art prize, which is open to artists from or based in the 22 Arab League countries, with the winner receiving a financial grant of up to $100,000 in commission of a singular work of art. 

Individual artists and collectives are invited to submit a proposal for the Ithra Art Prize by Aug. 13, 2021, with the winner being announced on Aug. 30, 2021.

Meanwhile, the winning piece will be unveiled at Ad-Diriyah Biennale, the Kingdom’s first biennale, scheduled to be held between Dec. 7 and March 7, 2022.

The winner will join the likes of UAE-based Saudi artist Ayman Zeidani, whose project “Meem” won the inaugural edition of the Ithra Art Prize in 2018, 2019 winner, Dania Al-Saleh and Fahad Bin Naif, who won the 2020 prize for his artwork “Rakhm.”