Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 
Manal Issa (left) as Sara Mardini and Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini in Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers.’ (Supplied)
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Updated 08 December 2022

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 
  • The filmmaker on her acclaimed movie about two Syrian sisters, one of whom became an Olympian after fleeing their homeland 

DUBAI: Conjure an image of war — an image of what a young woman stuck in those circumstances must be going through to take the desperate decision to flee into the dark of night, to become a refugee. Is your image full of ash and smoke, of abject terror and starvation? That is exactly the image that Sally El-Hosaini’s film “The Swimmers” — based on the remarkable true story of Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara — attempts to dispel from the start.  

The film, which is now streaming globally on Netflix, begins in a very different civil-war-era Syria than the one commonly depicted in the news: Two young women are dancing to Sia’s “Titanium” with their friends, clubbing and finding joy where they can. Bombs are falling in the distance, but they have found a way to push that out of their minds for a moment, to continue their normal, middle-class lives because they refuse to give into the fear.  

“When Yusra was watching this scene, she turned around to me in the cinema, and said, ‘Thank you for this. This is what it really felt like,’” El-Hosaini tells Arab News. 

“Yusra told me the story of the day a mortar landed in front of her as she was going to meet her friends, and there was chaos, so she hid behind a wall. And as she hid, she thought, ‘Should I run home, or should I still go meet my friends?’” 

Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Yusra Mardini and Sarah Mardini at the premiere of ‘The Swimmers’ in Toronto. (AFP)

As Yusra Mardini hid behind that wall, she told El-Hosaini, she did the math in her head. Surely, if she was going to die tonight, it would have been here. 

“Statistically, I’ve already had the mortar land in front of me. Another one’s not going to hit me tonight. I’m going to meet my friends,” Mardini thought.  

“That’s the way it becomes normalized. It’s horrific, but that’s what really happens. They were just trying to be teenagers,” El-Hosaini continues.

Filmmaker Sally El-Hosaini (with megaphone) during the making of ‘The Swimmers.’ (Supplied)

In many ways, El-Hosaini’s film can’t help but be remarkable. The fact that the sisters cheated death time and again for one to reach the pinnacle of their sport on the other side of the world is undeniably inspiring. What makes it especially notable, however, is not just the true story at its center, but the way that the British-Egyptian filmmaker El-Hosaini frames it as a film of “female emancipation” — a story not of passive victims, but of active heroes who used a desperate situation to rise up in ways that, ironically, they never could have had their circumstances not been changed so dramatically.  

“War turns everything on its head,” says El-Hosaini. “All of the structures of society — cultural, patriarchal structures — no longer exist. They're shaken. That allows the young the freedom to really go on a journey like this. It’s an ironic liberation that came out of tragedy and war. On that journey that they took, they really were making crucial decisions about their lives. They became heroes by doing that. That’s something I really responded to.” 

 Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa and Ahmed Malek. (Supplied)

This is not just a story that El-Hosaini dreamed of making, it’s a story she had grown up wishing already existed. 

“You don't often see young, modern Arab women on screen. I saw this opportunity to make complex heroes out of these types of women. Normally, you have, like, victimized portrayal. When I was growing up, I never had a role model like that — a version of me on screen. I had the thought that if I didn't do this project, and I saw the film, I might feel disappointed, because I knew what it could be in my hands. And if it didn't achieve that, I would be very sad. And that was when I realized I had to do it myself,” says El-Hosaini. 

At the center of the all-star Arab cast, which includes Syrian superstar Kinda Alloush as the Mardini sisters’ mother, acclaimed Palestinian actor Ali Soleiman as their father, and rising Egyptian star Ahmed Malek as their closest friend, are two relative unknowns — Lebanese sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa as Yusra and Sara Mardini.  

The Issa sisters were only cast after an exhaustive search, one that initially only included Syrians before the visas required by the film’s locations made Syrian casting impossible.  

“Manal had been in some independent Lebanese films and she had this very charismatic, rebellious presence. When she auditioned, she mentioned she was a big sister just like Sara, but her younger sister, Nathalie, was not an actress — she was studying for a master’s in literature. We asked if she could audition, and after Nathalie read the book, she was inspired, and came to screen test for us. Their chemistry blew me away, as they each embodied the very different energies of Sara and Yusra. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I’ve found the Lebanese version of the Syrian Mardini sisters,’” says El-Hosaini.  

When the two pairs of sisters met, the connection was instant. 

“Within a few hours, they were sharing their life stories. When they spent the night at their house that first meeting, they talked all night, and they were like the best of friends. And they’re still friends now. It just felt so natural,” the filmmaker continues. 

But the film did more than provide the two pairs of sisters with new friends. It also brought the Mardini sisters back together, as they had drifted apart somewhat since the events of the film. 

“When we first screened the film for them in Berlin, we all sat in the back room, terrified, because they hadn’t seen anything. And then, as the movie started, they started laughing, and then crying, and talking through it — whispering to each other. When the movie ended, Sara climbed over the cinema seats, and she gave me a big hug. She said, ‘Thank you. You reminded me how much I love my sister’” says El-Hosaini. 

“Most people don’t ever see their life contained in two hours in that way. It was a very intense experience,” she continues. “But I’m so thrilled that they’re proud of it, and that they felt represented. It was really one of the great honors of my life to tell their story.” 

‘Shockwave’ as Dutch producers R3HAB and Afrojack strengthen bond with new single

‘Shockwave’ as Dutch producers R3HAB and Afrojack strengthen bond with new single
Updated 28 January 2023

‘Shockwave’ as Dutch producers R3HAB and Afrojack strengthen bond with new single

‘Shockwave’ as Dutch producers R3HAB and Afrojack strengthen bond with new single
  • The new single is out now on MDLBEAST Records

LONDON: Dutch producers and longtime friends R3HAB and Afrojack have teamed up again on a new collaborative release, “Shockwave,” in the wake of the 2022 hit and Tomorrowland’s official anthem, “Worlds On Fire,” featuring Au/Ra.

A statement said: “With noticeable elements of big-room, house, and bass sound, it showcases both R3HAB’s and Afrojack’s signature styles, while still standing out.”

With its stabbing synths and dancefloor-friendly bass, “Shockwave,” which is out now on MDLBEAST Records, is said to be “a guaranteed crowd pleaser from these two heavyweights.”

R3HAB and Afrojack have played back-to-back sets at festivals over the last decade, produced music together, remixed each other, and developed a long-lasting friendship along the way.

R3HAB said: “Afrojack and I have worked together for over 10 years, and this last year has been the best yet.

“We released our anthem ‘Worlds On Fire,’ remixed each other’s records, and played sets at the world’s biggest festivals.”

He said they were excited to kick off the year with “Shockwave,” adding: “[It] is unlike any record we’ve worked on yet, it’s been a staple in our sets as we’ve developed it, and it’s finally ready for its official debut.

“Each year keeps getting better, and we can’t wait to see what this one has in store.”

Afrojack said: “It’s been great being back together with R3HAB. We’ve got many records ready to pop; you can find some already in our sets, and we’ve been testing ‘Shockwave’ for a while now and we’re pumped to put it out now.”

Georgina Rodriguez celebrates her birthday in Riyadh with Cristiano Ronaldo, children 

Georgina Rodriguez celebrates her birthday in Riyadh with Cristiano Ronaldo, children 
Updated 28 January 2023

Georgina Rodriguez celebrates her birthday in Riyadh with Cristiano Ronaldo, children 

Georgina Rodriguez celebrates her birthday in Riyadh with Cristiano Ronaldo, children 

DUBAI: Argentine model Georgina Rodriguez celebrated her 29th birthday in Riyadh on Friday with her partner, Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, and their children. 

The family was photographed at Armenian restaurant Lavash on The Boulevard.

The model wore a white midi form-fitting dress, that was off the shoulder, and a pair of white heels.


A post shared by LAVASH (@eat_lavash)

She was welcomed with a three-tier birthday cake that boasted flower designs and gold text that read “Happy Birthday” in Portuguese.

She posed for pictures with her family against a white backdrop covered in feathers that was lit with the message “Happy Birthday Georgina.”

The private room was decorated with white balloons, gypsophila flowers and inflated helium balloons shaped as “29” and “G.”

The pathway to one of the dinner rooms reserved for the couple was decorated with pictures of the birthday girl.

The room was decorated with candles to add a romantic feel, while Rodriguez was welcomed with a large white bouquet.

The couple were also treated to two instrumentalists, playing an oud and a violin.

Fans of Ronaldo and Rodriguez gathered outside the restaurant to cheer the couple following the celebration.

The model last week featured at the Joy Awards in Riyadh, showing off a midnight blue form-fitting velvet gown by Dubai-based Tunisian designer Ali Karoui. Her look featured a matching veil, gold pumps from Italian luxury shoemakers Le Silla, and jewelry from Kooheji, of Bahrain.

The Netflix star, who now calls Saudi Arabia home after her partner signed a record-breaking deal with Al-Nassr, shared her pictures on Instagram, and wrote: “A big thank you to everyone, love you Saudi Arabia.”

Rodriguez also showed up to support her long-time partner as he made his Al-Nassr debut against Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League on Sunday.

The footballer, 37, captained the team to a 1-0 win at Mrsool Park in Riyadh, while Rodriguez cheered on from the sidelines in a Ronaldo jersey, paired with cut-off jeans and a jacket.

Demand goes through the roof for Saudi Crown Prince’s AlUla Brunello Cucinelli’s zip-up gilet

Demand goes through the roof for Saudi Crown Prince’s AlUla Brunello Cucinelli’s zip-up gilet
Updated 28 January 2023

Demand goes through the roof for Saudi Crown Prince’s AlUla Brunello Cucinelli’s zip-up gilet

Demand goes through the roof for Saudi Crown Prince’s AlUla Brunello Cucinelli’s zip-up gilet

DUBAI: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was spotted on Friday at a restaurant called Somewhere in AlUla, and fashion lovers on Twitter have once again gone wild over a vest that he wore. 

The crown prince championed the Italian brand Brunello Cucinelli’s zip-up gilet in white and beige. The straight hem vest, with a high neck, had two side-slit pockets. 

The vest retails for around $6,900 on luxury application FarFetch. 

Fans quickly started looking for websites selling the jacket at a lower price.



“For people who liked the jacket of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and are not able to (buy it) because of the price, this jacket is similar to it and has a number of colors and all sizes and a cheaper price,” wrote one user.

Another user noticed that the website ShopStyle increased the price of the vest after it was worn by the crown prince. 

“The crown prince’s jacket was priced at $3,850, and now its price has increased (to $4,524),” he wrote on Twitter, while another user said: “High demands on the crown prince’s jacket.”

“Someone find us a similar jacket on Shein,” joked another user. 

Videos on social media showed the crown price accompanied by the crown princes of Jordan and Oman. 

The videos shared on social media showed people posing for pictures with the Saudi crown prince. 



“I am proud to meet His Highness, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, may God protect him, and His Excellency Badr Al-Asaker in the city of AlUla,” tweeted one user sharing his pictures with the crown prince. 



It is not the first time that the Saudi crown prince has sparked a style storm online.

In 2022, a cohort of fashion lovers on Twitter went wild over a pair of dark brown Oxfords, called Hallam, from British footwear label Crockett & Jones, that retailed for about $560. 



In 2021, he was photographed wearing a quilted gilet while chairing a board meeting of the Public Investment Fund.

The prince showed off a $6,551 casual sleeveless vest by UK luxury cashmere brand Franck Namani.

In 2019, he attended the Formula E races in Riyadh wearing a navy-colored Barbour jacket worn over a crisp white thobe that immediately sent the internet into overdrive.

The outerwear item by the British heritage brand sparked its own Arabic hashtag on Twitter — that translated to “crown prince’s jacket” — with many taking to the social media platform to admire the look.

Dutch DJ Martin Garrix performs at Formula E Diriyah E-Prix 

Dutch DJ Martin Garrix performs at Formula E Diriyah E-Prix 
Updated 28 January 2023

Dutch DJ Martin Garrix performs at Formula E Diriyah E-Prix 

Dutch DJ Martin Garrix performs at Formula E Diriyah E-Prix 

DUBAI: Dutch DJ Martin Garrix hit the stage on Friday at Formula E Diriyah E-Prix in Saudi Arabia to perform to a packed audience. 

The “Animals” artist, who was ranked number one on DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list for three consecutive years, played remixes for “Shakes,” “Summer Days” and many more. 

One of the posters read: “Martin on, world off.”  (Arab News)

Fans in the Kingdom danced, cheered and held up signs to support the DJ. 

One of the posters read: “Martin on, world off.”   

Egyptian singer Mahmoud El-Esseily also met his fans at the event. “I am very happy to be here today. We will light up the stage, won’t we?” he told his fans. 

He sang some of his hits: “Helm Baeed,” “Ekhteraa” and “El-Leila.” 

Fans were also treated to a drone show and colorful fireworks. 

The event also presented local talent, including Saudi Lebanese record producer DJ Loush, whose real name is Ali Assi.  

The audience sang along with him to “Staying Alive,” “The Business” and “Do It To It.” 

Saudi writer, director and producer Ali Al-Kalthami talks success  

Saudi writer, director and producer Ali Al-Kalthami talks success  
Updated 28 January 2023

Saudi writer, director and producer Ali Al-Kalthami talks success  

Saudi writer, director and producer Ali Al-Kalthami talks success  
  • As one of the co-founders of Telfaz11, the writer-director-producer is now reaping the rewards of years spent establishing an authentic entertainment industry in the Kingdom 

DUBAI: Ali Al-Kalthami is trying not to let it all go to his head. But that’s easier said than done. As one of the three co-founders of the pioneering Saudi production company Telfaz11, Al-Kalthami is one of the pillars of the Kingdom’s film future. And, as we’ve seen over the last two months, that future is now.  

In that short span of time, Telfaz11’s film “Raven Song” became the latest Saudi submission to the Academy Awards, their theatrical release “Sattar” became the highest-grossing Saudi film in history, and their latest feature, “Al Khallat+,” just became the first Netflix original film from Saudi.   

“This is not overnight success, of course,” Al-Kalthami explains to Arab News. “It’s been 12 years of experience, 12 years of staying true to our stories, our philosophy, and our talents. We’re grateful that all of these projects are flourishing at the same time, but we’ve been working a long time for these things to take place, and we’re most proud that we got here by doing it the right way — doing it our way.” 

A still from “Sattar.” (Supplied)

We’re speaking to the writer/director/producer over Zoom and he doesn’t want to turn his camera on. It’s nothing personal, he explains, he’s just been filming for 12 hours straight, directing his upcoming theatrical feature “Night Courier,” a dark crime comedy, in Riyadh and he doesn’t want anyone to see him. His mood, however, belies his exhaustion — he’s still thrilled to gush about “Al Khallat+,” perhaps the Telfaz11 project that is closest to his heart.  

The film is a continuation of the 22-episode anthology web series he created, which has amassed an astounding 1.5 billion views — a viewership far too big to qualify this as a ‘cult hit.’ Rather, Al-Kalthami and co., through their years of viral YouTube videos, have defined what Saudi Arabia’s mainstream entertainment looks like, building grassroots support with content that is wholeheartedly Saudi, made with a love and authenticity that allows them to push boundaries and subvert expectations, an aesthetic that is defined in “Al-Khallat.”  

“From the start, I thought about doing a show that reflects the Saudi psyche. We wanted to capture everyday life in a way that that appeals to real people with engaging, well-crafted storytelling,” the creator explains. 

While “Al Khallat+” tells a number of unrelated stories — two thieves crash a wedding to rescue their captured partner, a chef risks his restaurant trying to save his parent’s marriage, a mother searches for her husband who in turn is searching for his son in a nightclub — they each share a defining theme, one that Al-Kalthami and his collaborators discovered while holed up writing together during COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Director Fahad Alammari on the set of “Al Khallat.” (Supplied)

“We went back to the 22 episodes we’d released on the internet, and wanted to figure out what worked and what didn’t as we started to work on the feature. And for some strange reason, we found that the stories that worked had something in common. In each of them, there was a character who had to hustle their way out of an issue brought on by society’s restrictions — and we don’t mean that negatively,” Al-Kalthami says.  

“If you think about Saudi Arabia as a largely conservative society, that comes with a lot of rules that cause restraints on social life. Watching people hustle around those restraints becomes funny, because people can relate to those situations. We approach it with a very local mindset, and that allows Saudis to come along for the ride with us.” 

While “Al Khallat” has a perspective purely his own, Al-Kalthami is always quick to give credit to his collaborators. If he is proud of anything personally, it’s that he’s created a platform which has allowed the Kingdom’s rising talent to thrive, from the myriad actors featured to the crew behind the camera, many of whom he has known for years.  

“When I saw the first edit, I was very emotional. I was able to see in front of my eyes so clearly all the ideas that we’d written come to life through such great production. Fahad Alammari, the director, executed this so well, for example, and seeing all these actors — all of my friends — having fun bringing these characters to life is so rewarding,” says Al-Kalthami. 

“From the beginning, I always wanted this to go somewhere beyond the internet. I had no other experience at the time, but I knew we would get there eventually. To have something that I created with my friends get picked up and treated as a franchise is very humbling.” 

The challenge that Al-Kalthami now faces is to keep pushing forward and rewriting the template that he and his collaborators have made.  

“As a writer, you often create this illusion around yourself when you create something successful. If you’re not careful, there’s a barrier that rises between you and reality. You have to force yourself not to believe the hype, to be true to who you are and true to the society you live in — and force yourself to keep living in it. You can’t isolate yourself and become carried away by your success,” he says. “You have to embrace life, and live like a normal person, and get inspired the right way. I’m always trying to force myself to stay grounded, which can be very tricky with this kind of success, especially when you’re in on the ground floor. You have to force yourself to continue to push the envelope, break boundaries and do great work, and you have to help build this industry the right way. That’s the responsibility of pioneers.” 

While Al-Kalthami is usually focused on the future — committed to pushing himself as a writer and helping Saudi talent flourish both within his own projects and theirs — he does, occasionally, allow himself to look back and take stock of all he and Telfaz11 have accomplished over the last dozen years. Often, the emotion hits when he least expects it. 

“Somebody sent me a TikTok video last week. In it, someone had put together pictures of all the Telfaz11 founders, filmmakers and family members, spanning every moment they could find from 2010 to 2022. They wrote that we were the voice of our local inner life, that we were filmmakers that Saudis believe in. It was just so poetic, so nice, and so innocent. It just really got to me,” Al-Kalthami says. “I was so overwhelmed, I could hardly control it. To know that a lot of people in Saudi feel we represent their voice, their authentic life, truly means everything.”