Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 

 Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 
Social Garage - NYU. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 March 2023
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Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 

 Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 

DUBAI: For the past few months, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater has been organizing a weekly online class for artists in Gaza. “Last week, it took us 52 minutes to get one group in Gaza a strong enough connection to start the class,” says Samar Haddad King, the company’s artistic and founding director, referencing the territory’s chronic electricity crisis. “You see the disappointment from the artists and the fatigue caused by just trying to do something small.” 

This is just one glitch among many. Haddad King, who is in Haifa when we talk, rattles off a series of stories related to the disruption and oppression caused by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: People taking 16 hours to travel eight kilometers, delayed performances, missed shows, and artists hurrying dangerously through warmups.  

“Sometimes before these shows they go through severe trauma at the checkpoint, but I think there’s this ability to kind of push things down in order to accomplish something and then you deal with the repercussions,” she says. 




Zoe Rabinowitz by Chrissy Connors. (Supplied)

A transnational company based between New York and Palestine, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater puts a significant amount of time and effort into education and engagement programs, says Zoe Rabinowitz, the company’s executive director. But even developing and working with artists is a challenge. “One of our current teaching artists from Jerusalem is now in Denmark. This is a big thing,” she says. “Artists leave. It’s a very difficult place to live and work in and so we’re constantly investing in developing artists — and then that community shifts and changes. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a really solid core group of artists, but visas are not always approved to the US, we have to make last minute casting changes, and there have been years where up to 40 percent of our programming has been cancelled due to security issues, visa denials — the full gamut of things.” 

Can dance be anything but political in Palestine? Is dance a form of resistance? While the company’s work is not necessarily ideological, “there is something about raising your voice and our story being told, and maybe being told in a different way,” says Haddad King. “Just being seen, just screaming out, talking it out, dancing it out is political. We are politicized.” 




Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour in 'Last Ward' at NYUAD in February. (Supplied)

“I think doing contemporary work as a Palestinian-American company is a bit of a perspective shift for a lot of folks who, if you say ‘Palestinian,’ are expecting dabke or a more-cultural dance performance,” adds Rabinowitz. “So (by being) in this space that is melding a lot of different forms — we have folks that are dabke dancers, we have ballet dancers, we have hip-hop, we have circus, we have theater performers — we’re really making a hybrid form that’s dealing with contemporary themes, and it’s not life in the camp and the hardships of the Palestinian struggle. That’s not always at the forefront of a narrative. And that subverts the expectations sometimes of an audience, which I think is really important.” 

Formed in 2005, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater’s mission is to promote understanding through the arts. It does so through cross-cultural dialogue and social discourse, with its performers both formally trained and self-taught. By working with artists from across the Arab world, Asia and the US, all of whom are from a variety of dance and theatre backgrounds, the company has created this hybrid, global form of multimedia dance theatre that Rabinowitz talks about. 

Its most recent production is “Last Ward,” a performance that follows one man’s journey towards death in a hospital room. Written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, with choreography and music by Haddad King, the work had its Arab world premiere at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi in February and stars the Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour. As Natour’s character reflects on his life, relationships and connection to place, the ritual of doctor visits, family calls and nurses administering food and medicine transforms into an increasingly bizarre landscape of tragedy and humor. 




Wael Abu Jabal. (Supplied)

 “It’s interesting that Palestine is not in the show at all, and yet it’s an opportunity for people to see this man, who’s a Palestinian man, as a human,” says Rabinowitz. “And to really have compassion and empathy for his experience is a powerful thing.” 

“It’s perhaps our most political work because of that,” adds Haddad King. “We have more overt political themes in (works such as) ‘Against A Hard Surface,’ also created by Nizar and I. There are dancers bashing themselves against a wall and there’s a lot of nuance in that — a lot of story in that. But ‘Last Ward’ isn’t overtly political and yet it’s highly politicized because cancer can get everyone. There’s no wall.” 

The daughter of a Palestinian mother and American father, Haddad King grew up in Alabama before moving to New York and ultimately to Palestine, where she floats between cities and towns on both sides of the Green Line. “I feel like a constant Bedouin,” she says simply. To date, the company has created more than 30 original performances, including site-specific and durational, immersive works. Telling the stories of underrepresented communities and uplifting the voices of marginalized populations, the company’s work is inspired by personal histories – Haddad King’s included.  




Social Garage - NYU. (Supplied)

“When your name’s Samar and your name’s spelt as my name is in the deep south, there’s always a question attached to your name,” she says. “‘Oh, where are you from?’ So identity, from ever since I can remember, was a part of this constant question of where you are from. That obviously changed and morphed with age, with experience, with talking about where I’m from. Are you ‘from’ the place you grew up, or ‘from’ the place that your family was exiled from?”   

“The development of the company and the development of her voice as an artist has always been very linked to that identity and also a desire to tell stories rooted in that perspective,” adds Rabinowitz. “Because you could see a lack of that, in the US especially. Since Samar relocated (to Palestine) in 2010, it has been a real negotiation of ‘How do you have a transnational company, how do you straddle both places, how do you be from both places?’ So the company is sort of part of that negotiation as well.” 

The company is working on a new piece called “The Gathering,” which will premiere in New York next year, and Haddad King is writing a musical. The former is a participatory performance work inspired by her experience as a Palestinian of the diaspora. Part-staged work, part-improvisational score, the piece will utilize technology, storytelling, sound design and play to examine what brings people together in celebration, conflict, protest and sport. 

“It’s trying to break down the barriers between art and audience,” says Haddad King. “So that feels exciting — to keep trying to make art accessible. I would love to keep touring ‘Last Ward’ because I think it still has a big life and the message needs to get out there. But also doing work in public spaces and doing work that doesn’t require a certain level of technicality can get art to where art is not; can get it to people that don’t necessarily go to art. And that’s important. Just to give people an experience.” 


Coffee, an integral part of Saudi culture, hospitality 

Coffee, an integral part of Saudi culture, hospitality 
Updated 28 September 2023
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Coffee, an integral part of Saudi culture, hospitality 

Coffee, an integral part of Saudi culture, hospitality 
  • Ministry of Culture’s Saudi Coffee Festival is open until Oct. 1
  • Gathering for an afternoon drink has deep value as it brings people together

RIYADH: Coffee is deeply rooted in Saudi culture, with families in most regions savoring the hot beverage late afternoon or early morning every day, whether at home or at the workplace.  

Almost all commercial and residential neighborhoods have cozy local coffee outlets nestled between shops. 

To introduce Saudi coffee to visitors and highlight its role as part of Saudi heritage, the Ministry of Culture is organizing the Saudi Coffee Festival for 2023 in the eastern part of King Abdullah Financial District from Thursday until Oct. 1

Targeting all age groups, the festival will offer visitors the opportunity to learn more about the history of Saudi coffee, as well as its cultivation methods, preparation and presentation.

Saudi coffee is made by roasting coffee beans until they are golden brown. The coffee is then boiled and served as a dark, unfiltered drink. Spices such as saffron, cardamom and cloves are also added to the boiled coffee for flavor and richness. Dates or desserts are served alongside Saudi coffee to balance the bitter taste of the drink. 

Saudi national Nourah Al-Harbi, who is originally from Madinah but has lived mostly in Riyadh, said: “When the sun sets, we bring our coffee and dates.” 

Sharing an anecdote from her childhood, Al-Harbi said: “I remember one of my uncles owned a farm in Madinah at the time, when I was a child …  His neighbors used to gather at his farm every evening after sunset prayer for coffee.”

Despite the popularity of the beverage, some of the Kingdom’s regions prefer other drinks during their afternoon hours, such as tea.

Hashid Adeel Mohammed, who works at a local company that specializes in warm beverages like coffee and tea, said: “Some people prefer black tea, while others like green tea, which they also have specific ways of preparing.”

Another business entrepreneur, Anas Al-Balouchi, who works as a general manager at a coffee and tea company, spoke to Arab News about some of the norms when it comes to afternoon hot drinks for people in Madinah, where he is from.

“In Madinah, tea time starts from late afternoon until sunset. But coffee is consumed from sunset to early in the evening,” he said.

“Black coffee is served in the morning.”

In a family-oriented culture, gathering for an afternoon drink has deep value as it brings people together, whether relatives sharing a house or neighbors living in the same community.


Saudi Netflix drama-comedy ‘Crashing Eid’ tackles romantic taboos with heart

Saudi Netflix drama-comedy ‘Crashing Eid’ tackles romantic taboos with heart
Updated 28 September 2023
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Saudi Netflix drama-comedy ‘Crashing Eid’ tackles romantic taboos with heart

Saudi Netflix drama-comedy ‘Crashing Eid’ tackles romantic taboos with heart

DUBAI: Following hot on the heels of Netflix’s first Saudi original comedy series “Tahir’s House,” the global streamer has just announced another Jeddah-set original series that is tailor-made to get the Kingdom talking.

Created by Saudi filmmaker Nora Aboushousha (“Lucky You Are Mine”), “Crashing Eid” is family drama-comedy that tackles societal romantic taboos with both an irreverent spirit and a warm heart, set to debut worldwide on Oct. 19.

The show follows Razan (Summer Shesha), a Saudi woman living in the UK with her teenage daughter who plans to marry a British-Pakistani man under the assumption that her family will approve the pairing without question. When she returns home during Ramadan, with her fiancé following soon after as an uninvited guest, she soon finds that breaking with tradition may be harder than she had originally thought — to both hilarious and dramatic results.

Aboushousha, herself from Jeddah, is a rising star in the Kingdom, with her one-location lockdown crime series “Rahin Altaqiq” and drama comedy about rebellious young Saudi woman “Confessions” both becoming viral hits over the last few years. She is also no stranger to pushing boundaries, with her short “Lucky You Are Mine” winning a production grant by the Saudi Film Commission before debuting at the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival in her hometown to strong acclaim.

“We started off with a concept of someone who is different from their family, and that grew into this story of a single mother who returns from abroad. We started wondering, what will inspire the clash with the rest of the family? And immediately we realized, ‘oh, she should come back ready to be married to someone from outside the culture!’ Everything fell into place from there,” Aboushousha told Arab News.

For Shesha, who steps into her first major lead role as Razan, the project inspired her not only because of the ways that the conceit allows each member of the family to flourish as they grapple with the events it sets into motion, but because the themes are so easy to relate to for so many people across the world.

“First of all, this show is awesome. I really think it is. That drew me to it to begin with. But it also mattered to me that this is on Netflix worldwide. This is a show with global themes of family, conflict and love. I really wanted a show that both felt specific and universal and this show has really captures that,” Shesha told Arab News.


Review: ‘Fingernails’ – Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed star in Apple TV+’s anti-climactic sci-fi romance 

Review: ‘Fingernails’ – Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed star in Apple TV+’s anti-climactic sci-fi romance 
Updated 28 September 2023
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Review: ‘Fingernails’ – Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed star in Apple TV+’s anti-climactic sci-fi romance 

Review: ‘Fingernails’ – Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed star in Apple TV+’s anti-climactic sci-fi romance 

TORONTO: What if there was a test that could determine for certain that you and your partner are in love? Set in a near-distant future, Greek director’s Christos Nikou’s English debut “Fingernails” toys with that idea but the end result falls flat.

The sci-fi sees Anna (Jessie Buckley) on a job hunt after the school she worked for closes down. She lands a position at the love institute run by Duncan (Luke Wilson). This is an establishment that dedicates all its efforts to testing couples on whether they are truly in love with each other. 

Anna and her partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) received a positive test early into their relationship and have settled into a predictable routine at home that no longer excites Anna. Enter, Amir (Oscar-winner Riz Ahmed), Anna’s charming co-worker who helps her find her feet as they start running tests with clients and ultimately collect their fingernails for the final result. As weeks go on and despite Anna’s 100% test with her partner, Amir and Anna fall for each other which contradicts their entire career.

Buckley and Ahmed have instant chemistry as coworkers who root for their clients and share the same optimism for love but the real issue lies within the script. Director and writer Christos Nikou had an opportunity to take this “Black Mirror” style idea and turn it into something thrilling with higher stakes and gorier shots, instead it cuts away whenever fingernails are pulled and there’s no consequence for people if they step out of their test-proven matches. 

Aside from a lackluster screenplay, the score and cinematography match the eerie theme at hand and the pressures that our heroine faces with her conflicted feelings. The performances from Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White and Luke Wilson carry the film and do what they can, especially Jessie Buckley who swaps her thick Irish accent for a convincing American one and is luminous throughout the film. 

Though the film Nikou’s message is clear — love is not a science and can’t be manufactured or determined by a machine and while the film is shot on 35mm making it seem better and more artistic than it is, “Fingernails” fails to live up to its full potential.

"Fingernails" played as a part of the Special Presentation program at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.


Arab American filmmaker Ruby Malek shines spotlight on Saudi talent  

Arab American filmmaker Ruby Malek shines spotlight on Saudi talent  
Updated 28 September 2023
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Arab American filmmaker Ruby Malek shines spotlight on Saudi talent  

Arab American filmmaker Ruby Malek shines spotlight on Saudi talent  

LOS ANGELES: Arab American filmmaker Ruby Malek is shining a spotlight on Saudi talent in the 10-episode docuseries “Herstory” which follows the journeys of Saudi’s modern-day female music stars.  

“We were just fascinated by the amount of talent because a lot of these artists are self-taught. And, you know, there were no music schools that they went to. There wasn't like a piano teacher that would teach these women,” said Malek to Arab News.  

“A lot of these artists actually didn't show their identity, didn't show their faces, and weren't really out there... We're still talking about 2020 now, so it wasn't like now in 2023.”  

Chronicling these artists' struggles, triumphs and their place in the cultural history of the Kingdom, the series blends the passion for music-infused storytelling Ruby honed making music videos and her skills as a documentarian.  

“I'm the generation that grew up watching MTV, VH1, so I was very into the various reality shows, and that's what I kind of fell into. I fell into creating reality shows and formats, and so went from music videos to reality shows, documentaries. And then one thing led to another,” said Malek.  

Motivated by the positive changes of Saudi Vision 2030, Malek sought to showcase a side of Saudi Arabia that she had not seen in the West. With the series having opened doors for the creator, she’s excited to continue working in the Kingdom.  

“I actually have been back to Saudi. I shot a show for Vice, and yes, I would definitely (work there again). I mean, as a producer, there's so much potential and there's so many stories to be told that I think I will be going there more often and very soon,” she said.  


Review: Wes Anderson returns to Roald Dahl with ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’

Review: Wes Anderson returns to Roald Dahl with ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’
Updated 28 September 2023
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Review: Wes Anderson returns to Roald Dahl with ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’

Review: Wes Anderson returns to Roald Dahl with ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’

LONDON: Given the critical success of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009, it is something of a surprise that it has taken so many years for Wes Anderson to return to the works of Roald Dahl.

Now, lo and behold, four adaptations have come along at once, with a quartet of Anderson-directed short films for Netflix — also including “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison” — released at daily intervals this week.

Anderson has assembled an fine troupe of actors, many of whom appear across the four stories, and first turns his inimitable, behind-the-curtain style to “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.”

As perhaps only Anderson could, the director leans into the multi-layered storytelling, including a narrator (Dahl himself, played by Ralph Fiennes) and a procession of deadpan, to-camera monologues from his cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Dev Patel, Rupert Friend and Richard Ayoade.

Bored, greedy bachelor Henry Sugar (Cumberbatch) stumbles across the story of Imdad Khan (Kingsley), a circus performer who taught himself to see with his eyes closed. Sniffing an opportunity for limitless profit, Sugar tries to develop the same power so that he can make a killing in the world’s casinos.

Because it is a Wes Anderson film, the audience is invited to share in every aspect of the storytelling — whether it is the actors taking on multiple roles, the visible stagehands, the off-screen noises or the occasional glimpses beyond the sets, there is a decidedly theater-like aesthetic at play.

For Anderson, the telling of the story is, in fact, part of that story — and the relationship between author, narrator, actors and audience shifts and pirouettes throughout the 39 minutes.

“Henry Sugar” is one of Dahl’s more upbeat tales, removed from the naivety of the writer’s children’s stories and perhaps lacking some of the more macabre leanings of his adult work.

The cast certainly commits, all throwing themselves into the straightlaced performances. Although it makes for an odd experience — all lavish worldbuilding juxtaposed with starkly functional acting — it somehow works.

Much like Dahl himself, there is an eccentricity about Anderson’s style that makes his films captivating, and the prospect of more work to come an intriguing one.