Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’

Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’
Maya Youssef isgoing to release a new concept album “Finding Home,” on March 25, introducing some Western instruments to her sound. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 March 2022

Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’

Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’
  • The groundbreaking Syrian qanun player talks influences, sexism and ‘home’

DUBAI: The Syrian musician Maya Youssef was only eight years old when she was told something that changed her life. Youssef was on her way through Damascus to a music lesson in a taxi with her mother, when she heard the intriguing sounds of the qanun on the radio. She asked the taxi driver what the instrument was and he said that the qanun was traditionally played only by men.

“I said: ‘I will play it. You’ll see.’ And he just laughed at me,” Youssef tells Arab News. 

It was no laughing matter for Youssef. She signed up for qanun classes and studied music for five years at the prestigious Higher Institute of Music in Damascus.




She signed up for qanun classes and studied music for five years at the prestigious Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. (Supplied)

Youssef recalls that time — long before the harrowing civil war — as a “golden age” for Syria’s art scene; buzzing and full of opportunities. She joined a traveling ensemble of female musicians reviving traditional Arabic music. They performed as far away as China. “The qanun has been my companion ever since,” she says.

Youssef always had the head — or the ears — for music. Every evening, she and her family enjoyed listening sessions, taking in African, Western and Arabic classical compositions, from Umm Kulthum to Bach.

“I was humming and tapping all the time, since I was very little,” she says with a chuckle. She is known today as the ‘Queen of the Qanun,’ but when she first started out professionally, a few eyebrows were raised.




Youssef always had the head — or the ears — for music. (Supplied)

“Music should never be gendered,” she says. “But the reality is that, in Arab (music), women are a very small minority. We are maybe three to five percent of qanun players. I have a theory about that. I think because the qanun is such an important instrument — it sits at the heart of the ensemble — the minute you have a qanun in your lap, then you have the spotlight on you. Perhaps for somebody who doesn’t accept a woman being in the spotlight or being powerful, they would find that radical. It’s not very long ago that somebody called me a radical. It’s a symbol of hidden power, so to speak, which is why I think we don’t see many women playing it.”

The qanun is held in great reverence in Arabic culture. It is mentioned in the famed folk tale collection “One Thousand and One Nights” and its name translates means ‘law.’ With 78 strings, it’s not an easy instrument to master. Youssef’s qanun is made of maple wood, and was constructed by a craftsman in Aleppo.




The qanun is held in great reverence in Arabic culture. (|Supplied)

It is often referred to as ‘the piano of the Arab world,’ and like the piano it is capable of producing melodies that are nostalgic, melancholic, and/or cheerful.

“It’s very closely connected to human emotion,” Youssef says. “It makes me feel everything across the spectrum. All of my music is a journey through sorrow and loss, but it always goes towards hope and joy.” 

In 2007, Youssef left Damascus for Dubai and then moved to Oman, where she taught music. London has been her home for the past 10 years. When the war broke out in her country, it was a heartbreaking experience that inspired her to compose her own music for the first time, leading to “Syrian Dreams,” her debut album.




A special commission from London’s Leighton House Museum also awaits Youssef. (Supplied)

“Making music was like an act of defiance: I am playing music, I am alive, I am carrying the tradition of my ancestors in me,” she says. “If you are in a state of destruction and then you hear a bird sing, you cannot not feel hope.”

2022 is set to be a busy year for Youssef. This week she will embark on a UK tour that will last nearly three months. She is also going to release a new concept album “Finding Home,” on March 25, introducing some Western instruments to her sound.

“Before, ‘home,’ to me, was a physical place. Syria will always be in my heart, but now I feel ‘home’ has changed from a place to a state. A state where you feel at peace,” she explains. 

A special commission from London’s Leighton House Museum also awaits Youssef. She will compose music inspired by the museum’s interiors, particularly its stunning Arab Hall, which is full of tiles from Damascus. The refurbished museum is expected to reopen its doors in the summer, and Youssef will perform her piece in a setting that is emotionally and physically familiar. It is, in a way, a moment of coming full circle. 


Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence
Updated 19 sec ago

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence

DUBAI: Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and actress Andra Day stunned audiences at the Critics Choice Association’s fifth annual Celebration of Black Cinema and Television on Tuesday when she arrived on the red-carpet wearing Lebanese label Zuhair Murad.

In an off-shoulder metallic gown with billowing sleeves, the Oscar-nominated star’s look gave off festive vibes while remaining chic and stylish.

Meanwhile, the celebration culminated in the evening’s most anticipated honor — the presentation of the Career Achievement Award to Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett.

The actress most recently starred in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” and is known for her roles in movies including “Boyz n the Hood” and the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It."

“My representation of you on screen put me on a path as a little Black girl — a high school student that lived in the Jordan Park housing project in St. Petersburg, Fla. — that I only dreamed of because of you,” Bassett said in her acceptance speech, addressing the packed room, according to a report in Variety.

“My dreams were not only fulfilled, but your stories have been immortalized — some of them for future generations to discover and enjoy.”

Another “Black Panther” star, Michael B. Jordan, was also in attendance. The actor received the Melvin Van Peebles Trailblazer Award in recognition of his seasoned career and upcoming directorial debut with “Creed III.”

The 35-year-old looked dapper in a purple jacket over a black button-down shirt and black loafers. He was joined by his parents, Michael A. Jordan and Donna Jordan, and his sister Jamila Jordan.

“The Bear” star Ayo Edebiri was also awarded the Rising Star Award, presented by IMDbPro for her work on the lauded FX series.

Other talent in attendance included “Abbott Elementary” creator and star Quinta Brunson; Quincy Isaiah, who plays Magic Johnson in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty;” “Devotion” lead and Marvel star Jonathan Majors; and the ensemble cast of ABC’s “The Wonder Years” revival.

This year’s ceremony took place Dec. 5 at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel and was hosted by actor-comedian Bill Bellamy. The event serves to recognize Black performers and filmmakers who are making stellar contributions to the film and television industry.


Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF
Updated 06 December 2022

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF
  • Netflix hosted a creative space at Red Sea Souk to celebrate the pioneering spirit of four Arab filmmakers, Hana Al-Omair, Hend Sabri, Kaouther Ben Hania and Tima Shomali
  • Hana Al-Omair: I am so happy with the new change that the Saudi film industry is experiencing, especially with more females behind cameras and on-screen, and actresses

JEDDAH: Global video streaming giant Netflix recently released a specially curated collection of 21 Arab films in 2022 by women filmmakers spanning various genres, including documentaries, drama, and romance, as part of a dedicated collection titled “Because She Created.”

During the first six days of the Red Sea International Film Festival, Netflix hosted a creative space at Red Sea Souk to celebrate the pioneering spirit of four iconic women filmmakers from the Arab world, including Hana Al-Omair from Saudi Arabia, Hend Sabri and Kaouther Ben Hania from Tunisia, and Jordan’s Tima Shomali.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by هند صبري (@hendsabri)

The space aims to amplify women filmmakers’ voices to an international audience of esteemed industry professionals and future generations of female storytellers throughout the “Because She Created” platform so that more stories from the Arab world can be loved globally.

Al-Omair and Shomali showed up on the fifth day of the RSIFF for media junkets.

Al-Omair told Arab News that she likes to add a female element to her working crew because it adds balance.

Hana Al-Omair is from Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

“I personally think that in front and behind of the camera, the more female characters, the better, because it is always about the stories by nature, which are always revolving around untold female stories.”

Al-Omair is an award-winning director and the woman behind the first Saudi thriller drama series on Netflix, “Whispers.”

She said that “Whispers” reflects on-the-ground women’s empowerment through screen.

“There are so many women working in a different field that we haven’t heard of on the screen,” she said: adding: “Netflix was the perfect platform for displaying my series as it helped to narrate the story of Saudi women in an unusual way.

“I am so happy with the new change that the Saudi film industry is experiencing, especially with more females behind cameras and on-screen, and actresses. All this would support more content and female stories to rise.”

Netflix has a special collection of Saudi content. For women filmmakers, it started with “Wadjda,” the work of iconic Saudi film director Haifaa Al-Mansour.

Shomali is director of “AlRawabi School for Girls,” a first-of-its-kind young adult series in the Arab region.

The six-episode series tells the story of a bullied high school girl who gathers together a group of outcasts to plot the perfect revenge on their tormentors.

Shomali is also a producer and scriptwriter. She told Arab News: “I am so happy to take part in this initiative that supports young Arab filmmakers, which is something I personally advocate for as it represents my work in terms of women empowering women in the industry.”

She added: “I feel like it is my responsibility to support female emerging talents in filmmaking because I did not have an easy journey, and a lot of people on the way gave me an opportunity to rise, and now I am interested to give back an opportunity for those young females passionate about the film industry.”

Netflix launched the “Because She Created” platform last year as a virtual panel talk hosting Arab women filmmakers discussing the evolving role of women in the industry.

Nuha El-Tayeb, director of Netflix content acquisitions in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey was also present at this year’s event.

She told Arab News: “What’s important for us is bringing Arabic stories from our region targeting the local market and at the same time for them to have that option to travel across the world … one and foremost is our support for female filmmakers, whether they are in front of the screen or behind the screen.”

The Netflix collection aims to give more people the chance to see their lives reflected on screen and entice new audiences to discover the work of women storytellers from the Arab world.

El-Tayeb added: “Yes, we want to support women. We want to bring these amazing movies to one place where people can watch it and enjoy the movies, and it’s a start to many more coming down the line with what we have created now.”

The collection celebrates the creativity of the Arab world’s greatest women storytellers, including the works of brilliant directors from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia.


First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival
“Within Sand” is the first Saudi film shot in NEOM. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2022

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival

RIYADH: “Within Sand,” the first Saudi film shot in NEOM, will premier at the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival on Dec. 6.

The film’s director, Mohammed Al-Atawi, spoke to Arab News about the process and challenges of making the film. 

“Within Sand” follows Snam, a 23-year-old tobacco-merchant who breaks away from his trading convoy to reach his village quickly as his wife is about to give birth to their first child.

During his travels, Snam is ambushed by thieves who steal his tools and leave him for dead. In a quest to survive, Snam travels with a wolf trailing him while he struggles on his journey to keep his sanity as memories and the difficulties of loneliness torment him.

“In the film, I wanted to capture a genuine and organic relationship between a man and a wolf. I also focused on presenting the desert of north Saudi in a way that champions its mysterious beauty, not only the harsh nature of a desert,” said Al-Atawi. 

Behind the scenes on the set of ‘Within Sands.’ (Supplied)

The director shed some light on the inspiration behind the film’s name.

“Without spoiling a critical element in the story that inspired the name, the whole narrative takes place in the desert, and we witness Snam’s journey with the wolf, so the environment where the story takes place is significant to the story, and I wanted that to be reflected in the title,” Al-Atawi said.

Discussing the inspiration behind the film, Al-Atawi said: “The story of ‘the wolf companion’ is almost like a folkloric tale in Saudi culture, but it doesn’t have a lot of details about it. Hence, I took creative liberty and tried to approach it with complete creative control but also remain faithful to the original material.”

“During the development phase in The Red Sea Lodge, I had many meetings with director Mohammed Atteia, who was incredibly insightful in film craft and contributed a lot to how I approached some scenes,” the director said.

Behind the scenes on the set of ‘Within Sands.’ (Supplied)

The Red Sea Lodge is a program Al-Atawi was part of that aims to empower cinematic talents by equipping them with the knowledge and resources to launch a successful career in cinema.

The director began working on the film in 2019 with his producer Reem Al-Atawi. 

“COVID-19 postponed the shoot over three times, and at some point, due to weather issues, the shoot was delayed further. But our belief in the story is persistent, and we focused on making this film,” he said.

He highlighted that the writing process was continuous, with the final draft of the script being completed two and a half years from when he initially began writing.

“Writing a script can be time-consuming and creatively challenging, but it’s an organic process, where even during the shoot, I was writing new scenes as I felt more aware of the narrative and the film’s pacing,” he said.

The director added that the support he received from the Saudi Film Commission allowed him to bring the project to life.

A scene from ‘Within Sands.’ (Supplied)

The film was shot in the deserts of NEOM. “NEOM’s media sector chose it to be the first Saudi film to be shot in NEOM, and their support was vital in making the film in one of the best locations,” the director said.

Al-Atawi highlighted what it means to him to see his film featured in the Red Sea International Film Festival.

“First and foremost, it means we made a film that was appreciated by an international festival like the Red Sea, which is a significant accomplishment.

“It also means much more to me that the film’s first screening will be in Saudi Arabia, which is both an honor and a pressure to satisfy the Saudi audience’s expectations, which is not an easy task.”

To those interested in pursuing a career in the industry, Al-Atawi said that “having a career in film can be overwhelming at first, but it’s vital to have a passion for the craft. As challenging as it is, it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to create and share with an audience around the world.” 


Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere
The film took home the Armani Beauty Audience Award at this year's Venice Film Festival. (Supplied)
Updated 07 December 2022

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere
  • Coming-of-age drama inspired by photo of bombed house
  • The film took home the Armani Beauty Audience Award at this year's Venice Film Festival

DUBAI: Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan, who will showcase her lauded second feature film “Nezouh” at the ongoing Red Sea International Film Festival on Dec. 7, is no stranger to telling stories of conflict. But while other filmmakers may look to the violence and the tragedy, Kaadan turns to hope and the whimsical to bring context to the horrors.

“Because the experience is still so traumatic and so harsh and difficult and clear, (I) only could express my story with magical realism,” said Kaadan in a virtual interview with Arab News.

The filmmaker is excited to attend RSIFF 2022, saying the film festival has supported “Nezouh” from day one. “Antoine Khalife (director of Arab programs and film classics for the RSIFF) loved the film from the first cut. Even Kaleem Aftab (head of international programing) supported the film from the beginning, even before it was picked at the Venice Film Festival. I feel as a program and a festival, Red Sea is appreciating the stories we are telling,” said Kaadan.

Kaadan, who was born in France but moved to Syria as a child, started writing the script of “Nezouh” in 2013. At the time she had just fled the war-torn country with her sisters, and had also wrapped up writing her first feature “The Day I Lost My Shadow.”

Filmmaker Soudade Kaadan. (Supplied)

 For the coming-of-age drama “Nezouh,” she was inspired by a photo of a bomb-damaged house in Syria. In her director’s statement on the Venice Film Festival’s website, Kaadan states that “Nezouh” in Arabic is the “displacement of souls, water and people; it is the displacement of light and darkness.”

A still from the film. (Supplied)

 “It started actually from a real photo of a bombed building, completely dark and destroyed. And there’s light invading the place from a hole in the ceiling. And this real image made me think it’s a metaphor and feel immediately that this is the image of my next film. It’s a metaphor of what happened in the country. It’s a tragic, tragic situation, but we can still find hope and light,” said Kaadan, who now lives in London.

 “Nezouh” sees Syrian actors Samer Al-Masri and Kinda Alloush play a husband and wife who are in conflict over whether to stay in their besieged hometown of Damascus or flee and become refugees. In the meantime, their 14-year-old daughter, played by newcomer Hala Zein, watches her world quite literally open up when a missile rips a hole in the roof and her neighbor, played by fellow newcomer Nizar Alani, throws down a rope.

 Discovering Hala Zein

 While the parents in the film are played by established Syrian actors, finding the 14-year-old protagonist took some time and effort. “She’s the spirit of the film and had to be someone who could carry the film,” said Kaadan.

“So, one week before rehearsals, she was having dinner with her family and someone from casting spotted her and she wasn't thinking at all to be an actress. But when she came to the casting, I immediately knew she could make it. She was strong, she was innocent, she was spontaneous, and she was also brave,” added Kaadan, visibly proud of her young lead star.

A still from the film. (Supplied)

 The filmmaker went on to explain the rigorous exercises Zein had to go through to be able to carry out the scenes where she had to climb a rope to reach the roof. “We had a safety team and a harness standing by in case she couldn’t (climb the rope) but every time she did it. We kept laughing because we were paying all this money for a team of people we didn’t need,” added Kaadan, still chuckling at the memory.

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs until Dec. 10.


Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema
Pan Nalin’s “Last Film Show” is India’s Oscars submission. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2022

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema

JEDDAH: Pan Nalin’s autobiographical sketch “Last Film Show,” which is India’s Oscars submission and is part of the ongoing second edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, is a heartening look at a young boy’s dreams, made more wonderful by the innocence reflected in the work.

Set in the lush green village of Chalala in the northern Indian state of Gujarat, Nalin takes us on a nostalgic trip to his boyhood. He discovers and understands the power of the movie medium and its ability to transport us to a dream world. After all, cinema is but dream, magical and mystical.

Samay (Bhavin Rabari) is the son of a humble tea seller. When he is not helping his father, he invariably bunks school and whiles away his hours thinking about movies. The father (Dipen Raval) keeps reminding him that they belong to an upper caste and passions like cinema bode ill for them.

“Watching films is not respectable,” he often admonishes the boy, sometimes not sparing the rod. Samay rebels and makes fun of his father and his ideas — “you sell tea... my teacher says that there are only two castes – one who speaks English and one who does not,” he tells his father.

Samay is steadfast in his resolve to find ways of making cinema a part of his life, and lucky for him he finds a single screen theater where he befriends the projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali).

Pan Nalin. (Supplied)

However, Samay is not interested in just watching movies, he wants to learn the art of how they are made and finds ingenious ways of doing so. He and his friends steal film reels and set up their own little show with the help of a variety of unbelievable gadgets, including a sewing machine.

It is fascinating to watch Samay’s inventions, but “Last Film Show” has a deeper meaning. It is an ode to cinema, the kind of cinema we grew up watching in small, single screen theaters. There is a very disturbing scene, when we see Fazal’s theatre being demolished to make way for a multiplex replete with digital equipment. It is telling that Nalin’s work comes at a time when there is a lot of anguish and uncertainty around the future of the big screen as streaming platforms continue their advance.

Beyond this, “Last Film Show” has gorgeous imagery, emotional relationships and offers a powerful take on caste and class. It is also about the need to move with the times — “Last Film Show” poignantly embodies change at an unhurried pace with an excellent performance by its young lead who is a natural star.