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.” 

The restaurants in Saudi cities offering a taste of Persia on a plate

Alshaya's kabab plate. (Supplied)
Alshaya's kabab plate. (Supplied)
Updated 21 March 2023

The restaurants in Saudi cities offering a taste of Persia on a plate

Alshaya's kabab plate. (Supplied)
  • Restaurants in the Kingdom offer flavor-packed Persian dishes, including the national dish of Iran
  • Launched in 1999, the Persian restaurant Alshaya has expanded to nine locations around the Kingdom

RIYADH: Persian cuisine is popular around the world for its healthy, hearty and luxurious dishes.

The aromatic and flavorful cuisine includes perfectly cooked fluffy rice, grilled or stewed meat such as chicken, lamb, goat or fish, and vegetables that are enhanced by a variety of nuts, fruits, herbs and rich spices like cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, sultanas, berries and dried rose petals, among others.

Bordered by Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman and Turkemenistan, Iran comprises diverse ethnicities, with neighboring countries having a huge influence on its food.

Popular Persian dishes include ghormeh sabzi, chelo kabab, dizi, kabab koobideh, khoresht gheymeh, zereshk polo, tahdig, faloodeh and tulumba, among others.

Isfahani's most popular dish, chelo kabab. (Supplied)

Renowned Saudi food blogger Hisham Baeshen is known for his cooking videos on Instagram. With about 4 million followers, Baeshen makes dishes from around the world, including Saudi Arabia.

Baeshen said that he has cooked Persian food, with his favorite being the national dish of Iran — ghormeh sabzi, a stew prepared with meat and kidney beans with a side dish of zereshk polo, a mixture of white and saffron flavored basmati rice topped with barberries.

“I consider sabzi as the king of Persian foods. With a side order of zereshk rice, which I consider one of the staple dishes in Persian food,” Baeshen told Arab News.

Drawing similarities between Saudi and Persian cuisine, the blogger said: “I would absolutely recommend Saudis cook Persian food at home, because all the materials that you need for the Persian kitchen are available in the Saudi kitchen and the techniques used in cooking Persian food are not very different than the Saudi cuisine.

“Many people have tried Persian recipes and loved them. Honestly — very beautiful and delicious.”

Here are some restaurants in the Kingdom offering a taste of Persia on a plate.

Founded in 1990 in Bahrain, Isfahani has expanded its presence to eight locations across Bahrain and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, with branches in Dhahran and Alkhobar.

Ahmed Alqaseer, vice president of Isfahani group, said that Isfahani started when his uncle, Elias, gave his father, Jalil Alqaseer, the business.

Ahmed’s father took it upon himself to learn more about Persian culture from top Persian chefs by visiting Iran and Lebanon.

“The most important thing for us is to explore and share is the quality of the food. We keep on tracking, developing and adding more dishes,” Ahmed said.

With many great options to choose from, chelo kabab remains by far the the most popular choice among diners.

“Chelo kabab is the dish that gets the most recommendations and gets sold out the quickest in Isfahani locations and food delivery applications like Talabat,” Alqaseer said.

Isfahani’s target for 2023 is to expand to new locations and focus on its design, ambience and food.

“I want the customers to have a great restaurant experience and taste, as if they are in another world. We keep on developing the food and getting new recipes all while maintaining the quality of the food. The new restaurant will have customers will feel like they are in a very modern Persian restaurant,” Alqaseer added.

Mohammed Abduljabar is the owner of Zahra Zad, one of the only Persian restaurants in Al-Qatif.

Saffron tea served at Zahra Zad in Al- Qatif. (Supplied)

“We decided to open a Persian restaurant because we saw that there weren’t any in the city of Qatif. The people of the city love Persian food and we wanted to give them something to indulge in,” said Abduljabar.

The soft opening of the restaurant, which is adorned with paintings highlighting Persian culture, architectural style and clothing, took place in February this year.

“We try to capture the true essence and atmosphere of a traditional Persian restaurant through these paintings and decorations. We have all sorts of paintings that symbolize Persian society and dress. Additionally, we added Persian music to add to the ambience.

“I think before starting any project, it is very important for us to study the culture thoroughly so that project truly succeeds,” Abduljabar said.

He added that the most popular dishes are mixed Persian grills — a mixture of beef and chicken kabab — and kashk bademjan, a Persian eggplant dip.

To satisfy one’s sweet tooth, Zahra Zad offers saffron cake and bastani sonati, a rich pistachio ice cream with saffron and rose water.

Bostani ice cream served at Zahra Zad in Al-Qatif. (Supplied)

Taking accessibility and inclusivity into consideration, Abduljabar has kept its ground floor exclusive to people who are unable to climb stairs.

To make the restaurant attractive for customers of all ages, Zahra Zad also contains a shisha cafe.

Alshaya is another Persian restaurant with branches in Riyadh and the Eastern Province. Started in 1999, Alshaya has expanded to nine locations around the Kingdom. The restaurant offers traditional Persian dishes such as kabab, sultani steak and morgh chicken kabab, among others.

Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad creates custom look for Taylor Swift on Eras Tour

Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad creates custom look for Taylor Swift on Eras Tour
Updated 20 March 2023

Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad creates custom look for Taylor Swift on Eras Tour

Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad creates custom look for Taylor Swift on Eras Tour

DUBAI: US pop superstar Taylor Swift showed off a glittering ballgown by Lebanese couturier Zuhair Murad during a tour concert in Glendale, Arizona, this week.

The Grammy-winning singer donned a custom-made gown by Murad in a peachy hue with starburst sequin work across the length of the creation.

“@TaylorSwift wore for her Night 2 of The Eras Tour a custom #ZMCouture pink tulle ball gown, with a starburst bodice and cross strap back (sic),” the fashion house posted on Instagram, referring to the look that was styled by Joseph Cassell Falconer.

Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” kicked off on Friday night in Glendale. She performed a three-hour show that ran through hits from every era of her 17-year career and followed it up with a second show in the city.

Boucheron celebrates the Middle East in new campaign starring Saudi actress Mila Al-Zahrani

Boucheron celebrates the Middle East in new campaign starring Saudi actress Mila Al-Zahrani
Updated 20 March 2023

Boucheron celebrates the Middle East in new campaign starring Saudi actress Mila Al-Zahrani

Boucheron celebrates the Middle East in new campaign starring Saudi actress Mila Al-Zahrani

DUBAI: Luxury French jewelry label Boucheron has released a new campaign celebrating the Middle East featuring its regional ambassador, Saudi actress Mila Al-Zahrani. 

The “Invent The Future, Honour The Past” campaign features three short clips, as well as a series of photographs, that pay tribute to the region’s roots, progress and future. 

The first episode of the series, “Roots,” features Al-Zahrani and a mother figure, portraying the bond between mother and child. In the clip and the images, both women wear the brand’s Serpent Bohème jewellery. 

Created in 1968, Serpent Bohème was the first of Boucheron’s iconic collections. It is reimagined yearly and the new campaign sees Al-Zahrani show off the newest white gold Serpent Bohème Solarité earrings paved with diamonds. 

“Evolution,” the second episode in the campaign, features the Saudi actress and a sister figure.  The two women wear jewels from the Quatre collection. 

Finally, the third video, “Future,” transports viewers to a modern metropolis where Al-Zahrani is seen wearing pieces from the new Quatre Double White Edition. 

Frédéric Boucheron founded the label in 1858 and it has grown from its traditional home on Place Vendôme in Paris to more than 85 boutiques worldwide.  

Riyadh-born actress Al-Zahrani was unveiled as the label’s Middle East ambassador in November 2022. 

The announcement was made at a Boucheron brand experience in Riyadh in November, titled “La Maison,” which was hosted to showcase their Carte Blanche Ailleurs High Jewelry collection for the first time in the Middle East.  

The collection was first presented during Paris Haute Couture week in July. 

“The Middle East is a historic and crucial region for Boucheron from a business standpoint, as it still holds tremendous potential,” said Helene Poulit-Duquesne, CEO of Boucheron, in a released statement at the time.  

“In Saudi Arabia, as in the rest of the region, we operate at the very top of the market, selling to highly educated and savvy collectors. This is something I am proud of, which is why Boucheron returned to Riyadh to host the second edition of our ‘La Maison’ event,” she added. 

‘Put it on your must-see list,’ Oprah Winfrey says after Jordan visit

‘Put it on your must-see list,’ Oprah Winfrey says after Jordan visit
Updated 20 March 2023

‘Put it on your must-see list,’ Oprah Winfrey says after Jordan visit

‘Put it on your must-see list,’ Oprah Winfrey says after Jordan visit

DUBAI: US TV personality Oprah Winfrey explored Jordan with US TV show host Gayle King this week and the former took to Instagram to encourage her followers to visit the Middle Eastern country.


A post shared by Oprah (@oprah)

“Put it on your must-see list if you haven’t already” Winfrey posted on Instagram on Sunday about her recent trip to Jordan’s “Rose City,” Petra.

The show host shared a carousel of photos in which she can be seen riding a camel in Petra and visiting religious sites in the country.

“Visited Jordan this week and there was so much to see and experience! We visited the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Petra and all its fascinations, camels, and the spot where the big boulder comes rolling out of Indiana Jones. So much history there in the ‘Rose City,’ voted one of the 7 new wonders of the world. It takes 3 days to really see it all we only spent 3 hours. Put it on your must see list if you haven’t already!” she posted on Instagram.

Dior reveals design details about Princess Iman of Jordan’s wedding dress

Dior reveals design details about Princess Iman of Jordan’s wedding dress
Updated 20 March 2023

Dior reveals design details about Princess Iman of Jordan’s wedding dress

Dior reveals design details about Princess Iman of Jordan’s wedding dress

DUBAI: French fashion house Dior has shared details about Princess Iman bint Abdullah II of Jordan’s wedding gown, which she wore as she wed Jameel Alexander Thermiotis in a ceremony in Amman’s Beit Al-Urdon Palace last week.

Princess Iman, 26, opted for a traditional white wedding dress with a sheer lace panel at the neckline, lace-cuffed sleeves and a flowing skirt. The bridal look was completed with a matching veil and tiara by Chaumet.


A post shared by Dior Official (@dior)

“Take an exclusive look into the #DiorSavoirFaire behind the wedding dress specially designed by @MariaGraziaChiuri for Jordan’s princess, H.R.H. Princess Iman. The gown is imbued with beloved codes of the House like flourishes of florals on the lace neckline and sleeves,” the label posted on Instagram on Sunday.

Dior added that the elegant gown featured floral details and intricate lace work.

“For Jordan’s Princess Iman, @MariaGraziaChiuri incorporated delicate floral details into the collar and sleeves of her sleek wedding dress. Contemporary yet timeless, the white gown is adorned with immaculate lace work and precise tailoring as a testament to the refined excellence of the House’s atelier. The glowing bride beautifully embodied the irresistibly feminine silhouette for her special day,” Dior said.

Italian fashion designer Maria Grazia Chiuri was named the creative director of Dior in 2016, after stints working at Fendi and Valentino.