Armenia: Hidden gem of the Caucasus

Armenia: Hidden gem of the Caucasus
Yerevan is Armenia’s capital city. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 21 August 2021

Armenia: Hidden gem of the Caucasus

Armenia: Hidden gem of the Caucasus
  • The ex-Soviet republic offers a dazzling mix of landscapes for the more-adventurous traveler

RIYADH: Armenia is a country most people are vaguely aware of but might have trouble placing on a map. Tucked away in the Caucasus Mountains between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, this ex-Soviet republic is off the usual tourist track, but still attractive to curious travelers.

Landing in the capital Yerevan on a balmy July night, I am struck by the absence of COVID-19 precautions: A tight crowd has gathered outside the little airport and there is much kissing and embracing, and not a mask in sight. 

I’m booked at a good hotel — actually The Good Hotel. Owner Anna and her colleagues Nara and Artur have a touching concern for all their guests. A lavish Armenian breakfast is served up every morning: fresh fruit, homemade jams, omelets, cheese, salads, cold cuts and crusty matnakash bread.




Sanahin Monastery is an Armenian monastery founded in the 10th century in the Lori Province of Armenia, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Shutterstock)

Yerevan is a juxtaposition of high-end luxury and harsh poverty. Strolling down the tree-lined boulevards, with their elegant pink-stone buildings and boutiques selling $4000 alligator-skin handbags, you are just a few steps away from scrappy neighborhoods where time has stood still for half a century. Russian-made Lada cars from the 1970s, belching diesel fumes, are interspersed with Bentleys and Maseratis — a typical post-Communist scenario of shady oligarchs lording over ordinary people getting by on $300 a month.

“We all have big families,” my barber tells me. “And we depend on each other. That’s the only way to survive in this country. The other option is just to leave — there are nine million Armenians around the world, and only three million in Armenia.”

The cost of a visit here is cheap. I spend no more than S50 a day, including accommodation. Five of the pink plastic tokens for a metro trip cost just a dollar.




Lake Sevan is a large, high-altitude lake in eastern Armenia. (Shutterstock)

I embark on a road trip to the north, near the Georgian frontier. The smooth highway at times becomes a rough dirt track, winding through grassy hillsides and valleys before ascending into wilder mountainous regions. I stop in Alaverdi, a small town on the banks of the Debed River, at the foot of a steep valley. 

Irina, landlady of the charming Iris B&B, serves a delicious supper of charcoal-grilled chicken and vegetables. “I trained in Moscow as a cellist and orchestra conductor”, she tells me. “I had a good career there, but one day I had enough and returned here. It’s a simple life, but I love it and I love to share it with visitors.”  

The Soviet Union may be gone, but Armenia remains deeply stamped by it. Most older Armenians speak Russian as a second language; only younger people tend to speak English.




Yerevan shopping street. (Shutterstock)

Fortified by another legendary Armenian breakfast, I head to the alpine village of Sanahin. It’s Sunday, and a group of schoolchildren are performing folk dances in the garden of the monastery — the music and dances almost identical to that of eastern Turkey. 

Nearby is a museum dedicated to the Mikoyan brothers — two heroes of the Soviet Union. Artyem Mikoyan was the chief designer of the MiG jet, while his brother Anastas managed food distribution for the whole of the USSR. Outside the museum is an actual MiG jet. How it was brought up the mountain, I do not know.

I drive south, through the Debed River Canyon — a deep chasm that continues for at least 50 kilometers. After a night on the shores of the high-altitude Lake Sevan, I return to Yerevan and discover surely the most pleasant spot in the city: The café in Lovers’ Park.




Wings of Tatev is a 5.7 km cableway between Halidzor and the Tatev monastery in Armenia. (Shutterstock)

I head off once again, this time south to the town of Goris, near the recent warzone of Nagorny-Karabakh. The area is safe now, but there are still signs of the conflict. 

In contrast to its decaying Soviet-era buildings, the area around Goris is beautiful. It sits on the banks of a little river, and on the adjacent hillside are pointed sandstone rock formations, similar to the ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia in central Turkey. It is a good base for further excursions; to the ‘Wings of Tatev’ — the world’s longest cable car (a breathtaking ride of 5.7 kilometers) — and Karahunj, the ‘Stonehenge of Armenia’ — a prehistoric circle of hewn rocks.

Driving back to Yerevan, I meander through lush vineyards, undulating grain fields and rugged mountain passes — all lingering images of a country unlike any other.


Lebanese-Australian model Jessica Kahawaty explores Saudi Arabia

Australian-Lebanese model Jessica Kahawaty is no stranger to jetting around the world. File/ Getty Images
Australian-Lebanese model Jessica Kahawaty is no stranger to jetting around the world. File/ Getty Images
Updated 05 December 2021

Lebanese-Australian model Jessica Kahawaty explores Saudi Arabia

Australian-Lebanese model Jessica Kahawaty is no stranger to jetting around the world. File/ Getty Images

DUBAI: Australian-Lebanese model, entrepreneur and influencer Jessica Kahawaty is treating her one million Instagram fans to a tour of Saudi Arabia.

This week, the model hopped between Riyadh and Jeddah, with a pitstop in the Saudi desert, for a number of events.

She hit the ground running in Riyadh with a visit to the Times Square entertainment destination in the capital and stopped off at the Echo Beauty department store and the We Cre8 department store in The Boulevard.

“Riyadh. Wow. What a welcome. Thank you #VedaHolding a pioneer in entrepreneurship in concepts like @wecre8.sa and @echobeauty.sa, for your hospitality and thank you to the people of Riyadh who found me in a quick and quiet visit to Times Square late last night after the desert and gave me the funnest welcome ever!!! Can’t wait for what’s to come soon Saudi (sic),” Kahawaty posted on Instagram alongside a carousel of images and videos of her visit.

For the occasion, she showed off a dazzling pink dress by Miu Miu.

Before her 3 a.m. trip to the mall, Kahawaty enjoyed a traditional dinner in the desert and shared a cozy-looking carousel of photos in which she can be seen enjoying kabsa in a desert camp complete with a roaring fire.

“My first Saudi desert experience with a traditional kabsa dinner (rice with lamb),” she captioned the post on Instagram.

The model, who is also an avid humanitarian, then hopped on a plane to Jeddah, during which she was treated to a meal she had been craving — a McDonald’s burger.

“They asked what cuisine I wanted, I said ‘Le McDonald’s’,” she joked on her Instagram feed.

In Jeddah, Kahawaty received a warm welcome as she arrived to stay with Saudi designer Arwa Al-Banawi before the pair enjoyed a spread of pastries and homemade goodies.

When she’s not jetting around the world, the Dubai-based 32-year-old can be found setting up charitable endeavors — evidenced most recently in her online fundraiser to support those struggling in Lebanon amid the country’s shortage of fuel, medical supplies and food in August.

“My name is Jessica Kahawaty and I, like many Lebanese expats, feel helpless watching my country and people drown in despair,” she wrote at the time.

Kahawaty said that money raised was distributed among nonprofit organizations that she personally vetted, individual families and students.


Review: Final episodes of ‘Money Heist’ are emotional and action-packed

The final episodes of ‘Money Heist’are now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)
The final episodes of ‘Money Heist’are now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)
Updated 04 December 2021

Review: Final episodes of ‘Money Heist’ are emotional and action-packed

The final episodes of ‘Money Heist’are now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)

CHENNAI: A runaway hit, the last five episodes of Spanish series “Money Heist,” created by Alex Pina, were just released on Netflix to international fanfare.

Readers be warned, this review contains spoilers for the first part of season five, which was released three months ago.

Audiences were left on a cliff hanger, with the shocking death of Tokyo (Ursula Corbero) and the emotional run continues in the second part of the season, with the Professor (played by Alvaro Morte) displaying heightened sadness, triumph and nerves in the final episode.

With Tokyo’s death, the Professor is shattered and loses his grip on the situation, which opens him up to risks from all angles. Of particular interest is the developing relationship between detective Alicia Sierra (Najwa Nimri) and the Professor, all with Sierra’s newborn baby in tow. Featuring a newborn innocent in the heady mix of precarious action ups the ante and introduces a heightened level of risk for audiences who will no doubt watch with bated breath.

In the final episodes, the Professor also sees his reasoning questioned by some members of the gang, including Rio (Miguel Herran) who harbors doubts about the morality of stealing gold from the country’s reserves.

On the opposing side, Colonel Tamayo (Fernando Cayo) lost many of his men when he attempted to storm the bank, but is undeterred. He has made his life's mission to get the Professor and his group down on their knees and will stoop low to achieve this, as we come to see. 

“Money Heist” is gripping to the core, and we are so taken in by what is happening on screen that we are willing not only to forgive the misdeeds of the robbers, but also cheer them on. The emotional notes in the final episodes make it all the more magnetically appealing, and allow audiences to wave off the artistic liberties taken by the director with regards to some of the less than believable scenes. 

A particularly noteworthy focus of the latest run is Berlin (Pedro Alonso), whose life is revealed through flashbacks that make up a marvelous character study.

Audiences will be relieved to find a lot of questions are answered, and due the way it ends this global phenomenon is sure to be remembered for a long time.


US-Iraqi beauty mogul Mona Kattan gets engaged

Mona Kattan is the founder of the Kayali fragrance empire. (File/ Getty Images)
Mona Kattan is the founder of the Kayali fragrance empire. (File/ Getty Images)
Updated 04 December 2021

US-Iraqi beauty mogul Mona Kattan gets engaged

Mona Kattan is the founder of the Kayali fragrance empire. (File/ Getty Images)

DUBAI: Friends and fans flooded US-Iraqi beauty mogul Mona Kattan’s Instagram account on Saturday, after the Huda Beauty global president announced her engagement to Dubai-based businessman Hassan El-Amin.

“Forever Ever,” Kattan captioned a carousel of images posted late on Friday night, showing the Kayali fragrance founder posing with a diamond ring on her finger and alongside her soon-to-be husband.

Influencers, beauty entrepreneurs and celebrities took to Kattan’s comments section to send their well wishes.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Mona Kattan (@monakattan“Congrats baby, (you) deserve the world,” doctor and influencer Sarah Al-Madani commented, while Faryal Makhdoom, wife of British boxing star Amir Khan, wrote “congrats cutie.”

According to El-Amin’s LinkedIn account, he is the head of facultative at Middle East and Africa at Aon Reinsurance Solutions and relocated to Dubai after studying at Cass Business School in London and graduating with a Masters of Science.

It seems Kattan’s new fiancé is as family-focused as she is — he even runs an Instagram account together with his two siblings called @the.elamins.

The siblings feature heavily in the carousel of images shared by Kattan, with snaps including both Sally and Ahmed El-Amin.

With a background in graphic design and illustrating, Sally boasts a portfolio of clients that includes  Huda Beauty, leading some to speculate that she could be the link between the loved-up couple.

The good news tops off a busy year for Kattan, who, alongside her sister Huda, announced a number of new investments and initiatives in 2021.

In the summer, the sister duo announced Ketish as the first brand to be launched by Huda Beauty Angels — which falls under HB Investments, their venture capital firm. Ketish, a feminine care label, is spearheaded by Eman Abbass, a former Huda Beauty product developer.

Since then, Mona has focused heavily on the sisters’ fragrance range, Kayali, of which she is the founder and creative head.

The latest Kayali product was launched this week and is called Eden Juicy Apple — a “playful, vibrant and super juicy” scent that is based on “crisp and juicy red apples, sweet berries and fresh floral notes,” according to the brand.

In October, Kayali won the coveted Niche Product of the Year prize at the Beautyworld Middle East Awards for its Sweet Diamond Pink Pepper fragrance.


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)