DUBAI: “I was the first woman in Syria who wore trousers and sat in the Rawda café in Damascus, and my pants were tight and clinging to me… I wanted to open the doors for others [to do the same].” According to the Atassi Foundation, these were the words of Syrian painter and feminist Leila Nseir, who was born in Latakia, northern Syria, in 1941. Unlike several of her Arab contemporaries, she never permanently left Syria. Currently in her early eighties, Nseir still lives in her birthplace.
Nseir started drawing aged 14. Art was not really seen as a ‘suitable’ career for a woman in what was a relatively conservative society. Through a government scholarship, though, Nseir earned a place at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, from which she graduated in 1963. At the time, it was rare to send for a young Syrian woman to travel abroad for educational purposes.
“Leila is the first female artist in Syria who really took her art seriously — to take it as a career,” Atassi Foundation director and Syrian art expert Shireen Atassi told Arab News. “The others were getting married and having children. Some were ‘the artist’s sister’ or ‘the artist’s wife’ but they weren’t focused on their own careers per se. But Leila was really focused on her career.”
Her family reportedly didn’t approve of her artistic path in life. Nseir never married or started a family of her own, yet, ironically, motherhood and pregnancy are common themes in her body of figurative work. At exhibition openings, she rubbed shoulders with fellow pioneers such as Louay Kayali and Mahmoud Hammad — and she was an important and active figure in her country’s burgeoning art scene, but life in Damascus was difficult for Nseir, and she eventually moved back to Latakia to live more freely.
She was an artist of her time, painting politically charged compositions of martyrdom, drawn from real-life violent events occurring in Palestine. A 1970s modernistic image on this theme, where the martyr is likely a female, is currently housed in the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE.
Her works have not been widely acquired by museums, but have found homes in private collections. Occasionally, her paintings make an appearance at auctions in Europe and the Middle East.
The Atassi Foundation — which specializes in Syrian art — is the custodian of a couple of Nseir’s smaller images. Executed with thick contours, they portray close-ups of ragged faces with wide, baggy eyes. “She deconstructed the human face,” says Atassi.
Mytheresa CEO discusses Saudi growth and luxury e-tailer’s formula for success
Updated 31 March 2023
DUBAI: For German luxury e-tailer Mytheresa, the Middle East remains an important market. Aside from already hosting two events in the region this year — one in Riyadh and one in Dubai — Mytheresa also partnered with Saudi influencer Nojoud Al-Rumaihi for its 2023 Ramadan campaign.
Arab News spoke to CEO Michael Kliger to understand Mytheresa’s plans for Saudi Arabia and how the luxury e-tailer continues to be one of the most prominent in the world.
“The Middle East is an important region, with Saudi being the largest market. It has overtaken the UAE, which was not the case three years ago — it’s quite remarkable,” he said.
Kliger added that while Saudi clients continue to order to apartments in Europe, there is a significant increase in domestic demand, too. “I was in Riyadh in January, and it’s clear that the government plans on making the infrastructure in terms of hospitality and retail as good as what the Saudi client is used to when they go to France or Italy — so it’s very exciting. It’s a very fashionable region.”
Mytheresa aims to increase its presence locally through more ground staff (personal shoppers), local PR and events. Kliger feels that face-to-face interaction is essential to understand clients’ needs better.
What started as a standalone multi-brand boutique in Munich in 1987, Mytheresa is now one of the most prominent players in luxury e-commerce and went public on the New York Stock Exchange in January 2021.
Mytheresa’s unique business model has shown financial strength during tough times like the pandemic and economic downturns. In February 2023, Vogue Business reported the e-tailer to be more profitable than competitors like Matchesfashion and Farfetch. Kliger believes that Mytheresa’s tightly curated edit and focus on wardrobe-building customers vs. the occasional luxury shopper is key.
“We only have 250 brands in the womenswear category compared to other platforms with thousands. Our role is to inspire, and inspiration doesn’t come without curation. If you’re looking for a floral dress and see 2,000 dresses, you’re not inspired; you’re put off.
“Instead, if you’re shown 160 floral dresses that our buyers believe are the best, it’s more convenient,” Kliger said, adding that the wardrobe-building customer keeps returning to shop with Mytheresa.
“That customer lives a luxury lifestyle and buys many times a year. If you win that customer, they keep returning, which ties to profitability. If you have a customer that only buys one product and doesn’t return, you won’t make money in e-commerce.”
Kliger said that 95 percent of Mytheresa’s revenue comes from customers who started shopping with the e-tailer in 2015.
Last year, the platform added a new category, “Life,” to its range, where customers can shop luxury lifestyle products, including home decor, travel and pet accessories.
“Home and lifestyle is an interesting category – and home is even more overwhelming. For example, if you’re looking for a nice vase, there are so many out there. Here, we have a website that says ‘look, we’ve found 60 of the nicest vases for you.’ So the element of curation in home again is very relevant.”
The platform also thrives on exclusive capsule collections with designers, which Kliger says do especially well in the Middle East. “We have many of those products you can only find on Mytheresa and nowhere else in the world,” he added.
Actor Asser Yassin takes us behind the scenes of his new Ramadan hit ‘Battalion 101’
The actor has won awards at Sweden’s Malmö Arab Film Festival, the Festival International de Cinéma Méditerranée Tétouan and the Carthage Film Festival
‘I’m thinking about the kids whose fathers are gone,’ says the Egyptian star
Updated 31 March 2023
DUBAI: Egyptian actor Asser Yassin had heard the stories. For much of the last decade, Wilayat Sinai — a radical terrorist organization aligned with Daesh — had turned Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into hell on earth for many, as they staged attack after attack, leaving scores dead as the group attempted to reshape the country in their image. The people that stood in their way, and ultimately overcame the threat, were the soldiers of the Egyptian Army’s Battalion 101.
Yassin had heard the stories, but how could he have known how deep their sacrifices went? Their struggles and triumphs remained relegated to news briefs and statistics. No one had really explored what really happened out there.
“Our nation does not realize the sacrifice given in this sector — how much of their own blood they spilled to protect their country. I feel it’s my duty to be a part of telling those stories, so the world knows exactly what happened,” Yassin tells Arab News.
With “Battalion 101,” airing on MBC Shahid throughout Ramadan, that story will finally be told. For Yassin, who stars as a military intelligence officer tasked with undermining Wilayat Sinai — and procuring the knowledge needed to do it, getting into character first required him to learn the real stories of what happened, the human stories, so that he could give this series his all.
“The thing that has touched me the most while making this show is that, in the intelligence world, you will never hear these stories, because people cannot tell them without risking the lives of others. You cannot say how an intelligence officer died defending his country. His kids may know that he’s a hero, but they can’t put it out to the world because their father died on a secret mission,” says Yassin.
“I met some of the families, and they know the men their fathers were. They know he was their champion. But they can’t tell the media. But I can put those fathers into my character. I can’t say their names, I can’t say the details, but I can put their spirits into this, in appreciation for the people who secretly died fighting these evils,” Yassin continues.
While Yassin is an accomplished action star, his character in the series, for the most part, is not on a battlefield dodging bullets, or swinging from helicopters. To better understand the intelligence world, Yassin met with officers to learn about the particulars of things such as interrogation, finding that many of the tropes that are present in most films and television are pure fiction.
“It’s all in the particulars. There’s no fans or distractions in the room, there’s no two-way mirror. The setting is not nearly as dramatic. Usually, the officer, for example, stays sitting behind a desk in a room that’s as basic as can be, with only certain shades of gray because it’s psychologically important,” says Yassin.
After diving headfirst into the details, the challenge for Yassin was to dramatize this world. When there was so much dedication to telling the story as it actually happened, and following the events to the letter in order to properly honor the people that went through those situations, it was important to keep in mind that the show was being made for an audience looking to be entertained, not to be studied as part of a history course.
“We had a responsibility to give a proper image of what we were portraying, of course. There are so many facts for us to deliver, but we couldn’t just be informative, we had to be engaging, we had to also make it an Egyptian drama. That can be a huge challenge,” says Yassin.
Yassin worked closely with the writers and supervisors, including people from the military who were on set as consultants, in order to make sure that the audience was always first and foremost in their minds.
“We would ask ourselves questions like, ‘Can we not talk about that part? Can we make this terminology simpler?’ It could get very heavy if we didn’t. People don’t care about how you build the rocket, they care about whether the rocket is going to fly, and where it’s flying to. When you focus on that, then you have something suitable for people to watch,” he says.
Yassin also did that by focusing on his character Khaled, who, as a composite of the many intelligence officers he learned about, was also ripe for drama.
“Khaled is a guy who manipulates everything with the utmost skill. He gives you the sense that he’s always awake, he’s always around, and he can even be in two places at once,” says Yassin.
“What made him work as a character though, is not the high level of skill he possesses. Yes, he’s always doing his job right — he never makes a mistake. But that doesn’t mean that things will always work out. Sometimes you can do everything right and things still won’t go the way they’re planned, and his frustration in that gap was fascinating to explore,” Yassin continues.
Starring opposite Yassin is Amr Youssef, who became one of Egypt’s biggest stars after his turns in projects such as “Sons of Rizk,” 2015’s “The Prince,” and the highly regarded 2016 Ramadan hit “Grand Hotel.”
“Amr and I have known each other a long time, but we never worked together. It has really been fun, as we have a nice chemistry and we’re really becoming better friends as we work through this challenge together. I can see a lot of collaborations happening in the future, as, even though we’re on similar levels, we’re completely different types, which creates an interesting contrast,” says Yassin.
Everyone involved was interested in telling the story right, which involved breaking with the usual structure of Ramadan series — they avoided stretching it out to the standard 30 episodes, instead keeping it to 20, so the story could be exactly what it needed to be, and no more.
“It’s much better for everyone involved. The quality is better, and you can focus more on production, rather than rushing things out. It’s still tight, but compared to the torture of hitting 30 episodes that will air night after night, the pain is a lot more livable,” says Yassin.
Mainly, though, as Yassin speaks to us from set in the final days of filming, he is most focused on how the real story resonates with audiences now that they can finally learn the truth.
“I hope that people can appreciate the people who died, and the people who are still out there risking their lives. That’s what touches me most about all of this. I’m thinking about the kids of those fathers who are gone now, and I hope people watching at home will think about them too, and how much they gave so that they could watch a series like this comfortably in their homes all these years later.”
Lebanese singer-songwriter Karl Mattar discusses the new record from his project Interbellum
The artist has performed in multiple countries in Europe including Prague and Berlin
Updated 31 March 2023
DUBAI: Lebanese singer-songwriter Karl Mattar was in Berlin writing songs for the third album from his project Interbellum (Mattar and a revolving lineup of his peers from Beirut’s music scene) — “Our House Is Very Beautiful At Night” — when his hometown of Beirut was rocked by a massive explosion at its port on Aug. 4, 2020.
Inspired by the writings of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, Mattar was already exploring the theme of intergenerational trauma as a phantom (“indistinct and blurry, but familiar,” he says) and he notes that some works created by Lebanese artists, including himself, before the blast have become almost premonitory in retrospect. Interbellum’s previous album, for example, included a track called “Some Ghosts.”
“(The explosion) wasn’t the genesis of the record, but it definitely informed it,” Mattar tells Arab News. “It’s weird how much everything we wrote about before still fits within what’s happening now. And I think it’s because that event didn’t happen out of the blue; it emerged from things that had happened before, almost like a symptom. It’s sad, but it’s almost like it was inevitable. And that’s one of the themes of the record — the cycle of things always repeating and ghosts that have always been there being unlocked.
“I’ve always been interested in themes of memory and the past and nostalgia. I have my own baggage from childhood that I carry around and I’ve been exploring the idea that we have to learn to live with our respective ghosts,” he continues. “And there is a dimension that personal trauma is mirrored by — or is a microcosm of — societal trauma and the state and society reflecting the nuclear family. It’s like a Russian doll thing.”
Lead single “Partners” encapsulates these themes, and the haunting instrumentation — with sounds fading in and out throughout, giving the music a patchwork, collage-like effect that is evident across the record — echoes the ghosts Mattar has been talking about.
“That song’s about an abusive, dysfunctional relationship,” he says. “I was moved by this notion of people who are in such a relationship being tied by this intimate bond. It’s almost beautiful, if it weren’t so horrifying (because of) this idea of how we perpetuate abuse that we lived through and kind of pass it on, and can subconsciously choose a partner to re-enact something we went through. It’s a really sad song, but there’s a beauty to this intimacy that I found poignant.”
“Our House Is Very Beautiful At Night” will be released April 7.
Recipes for success: London’s Bread Ahead founder chef Matthew Jones offers cinnamon bun recipe for Ramadan
The founder of London’s renowned Bread Ahead bakery, which recently opened branches in Jeddah and Dubai, offers advice and a cinnamon bun recipe
Updated 31 March 2023
DUBAI: Even as a child, Matthew Jones wanted to be a chef. “I never had any doubt in my mind about what I was going to do,” Jones tells Arab News. “I was in the kitchen literally as soon as I could walk. . . The kitchen is my home.”
Having spent 15 years working in Michelin-starred restaurants, the self-taught British baker founded Bread Ahead, a popular artisan bakery and school that opened 10 years ago in London’s bustling Borough Market. People still line up to get a hold of sourdough breads, pastries, and its main star, the donut.
“The donut scene was a bit tired at the time,” Jones says. “It was sort of focused on the sweetness, whereas we’re more about gastronomy and flavors. We make our own jams, caramels, all of the fillings. We make everything from scratch. . . It’s all about the eating journey — when it goes into your mouth and you start eating one of our donuts, it’s an emotional journey.”
The bakery is famed for its float donut, filled with vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, and praline and only fried on the surface of the oil. When it’s flipped over, there is a white steamed line at the center of the donut, which Jones calls “the band of truth” — a sign of a good donut. “The body of the donut must be very light, fluffy, and a little bit buttery,” he says. But it’s not just the tangible ingredients that make the donut, it’s how you work the dough. “You give something of yourself when you bake,” Jones adds.
Bread Ahead is a London institution, and it has now found its way to the Middle East — opening new branches last year in Jeddah and Dubai, most recently at Mall of the Emirates. “We just got a call one day and somebody said, ‘We want to take you out to the Middle East.’ It was great,” Jones says. “I love Dubai. It’s an amazing city — a city of opportunity, especially in hospitality and the food industry.”
Here, Jones discusses discipline in the kitchen and the challenges of working in the Michelin world, and shares a delicious cinnamon bun recipe.
Q: What’s your earliest food memory?
A: It would probably be making flapjacks, where I used to live with my parents in Quakers Hall Lane, Kent. I would have probably been about five or six years old. I was a happy little soul.
When you started out as a professional, what was the most common mistake you made?
I think I was a good learner when I was a young chef. I worked in quite a brutal environment; I was brought up in the Michelin world in the Eighties and Nineties. So you weren’t really allowed much room for error.([Laughs.) You would just get barked at. But I was disciplined. I had a good work ethic.
What one ingredient can instantly improve any dish?
Truffles, caviar, saffron… (Laughs.) Generally, those high-end things do improve food. But let’s say… good company?
Are you a disciplinarian in the kitchen? Do you shout a lot? Or are you more laidback?
I would shout a lot, definitely, when I was a younger chef and baker. I was very full-on — direct, committed seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, no problem at all. I’ll do that all day long. There’s a lot to get right every day. More recently, I think I’ve sort of cooled down a bit.
What customer behavior most annoys you?
I think probably asking for gluten-free products when they’re not actually gluten-free. Allergens is a big one — I think people don’t really understand them a lot of the time. Obviously, I’m a perfectionist, so anybody who’s critical of food, I find that quite difficult to deal with. (Laughs.)
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Maybe risotto. I love the process of it.
What’s your top tip for amateur chefs?
Keep doing it. Don’t give up. You know, I think it’s that 10,000-hour rule: You’ve got to put the hours in. You’re never going to make your best loaf of bread the first time you make it. It won’t happen, sadly. But even when it goes wrong, that’s okay. Just start again.
Chef Matthew’s cinnamon rolls
For the dough
50g rice flour; 450g strong bread flour, plus extra for dusting; 300g full fat milk; 80g caster sugar; 10g fresh yeast; 10g fine sea salt; 100g butter; 1/4 tspn ground cinnamon; 1 egg
For the cinnamon butter:
180g softened unsalted butter; 225g soft dark brown sugar; 75g soft light brown sugar; 20g ground cinnamon
1. Put all the dough ingredients apart from the butter in a bowl, tip onto table, and — using the heel of your hand — stretch and tear for five minutes.
2. Add the butter into your dough one third at a time, continuing to stretch and tear until the butter is absorbed. Stretch and tear the dough for five more minutes until it is elastic and glossy.
3. Return your dough to your clean mixing bowl, cover with cling film and place in the fridge for at least one hour.
4. Beat the cinnamon butter ingredients together in a bowl until combined.
5. Transfer the dough from the fridge onto a lightly floured work surface.
6. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle, roughly 50cm x 40cm. Spread the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a small strip clear of any filling along one of the long edges, then brush this strip with a little water.
7. Roll the dough up lengthways, gently pressing the filling-free edge into the dough to seal it.
8. The roll into 12 equal pieces about 5cm thick.
9. Transfer them to a baking tray lined with baking paper. Gently press them down so they are about 4cm high. Cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove in a warm place for about 1 hour, until they have almost doubled in size.
10. Preheat your oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6. Bake the buns for 15 minutes, then turn the tray round and bake for a further 10 minutes, until golden brown.
11. Remove buns from oven, transfer to a wire rack, and eat warm.
Cross is also seen dressed in a Dolce & Gabbana leopard print coat while she says: “I’m so tired of everybody else’s opinions, I can make my own choices” with Younes seen shot fully clothed wearing a black sleeveless blazer by Jil Sander commenting” “What can you lose, when you’re doing you?”
“Younes has such a quiet aura to himself, a kind soul with impeccable style,” creative director of Farfetch Yannis Henrion said in a released statement. “It’s brilliant to be able to portray both sides of the spectrum; showing two great personalities who love to express themselves with their style and make up their own aesthetic.”
“We are so excited to bring this unlikely pair of style icons together for this new campaign,” Henrion added. “Marcia is celebrated as an icon for her confidence and fierce style … We wanted to give Marcia the opportunity to show what her own style looks like since she is just as iconic and fierce in real life as in her best on-screen roles.”
The online retailer previously starred actresses Kim Cattrall and Leighton Meester in their campaigns.