A guide to uncovering Europe’s Islamic heritage this autumn

A guide to uncovering Europe’s Islamic heritage this autumn
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Updated 27 September 2023

A guide to uncovering Europe’s Islamic heritage this autumn

A guide to uncovering Europe’s Islamic heritage this autumn

As the leaves begin to fall and Europe’s landscapes are painted in autumnal hues, a captivating expedition awaits travelers. It is a voyage that invites you to retrace the steps of Arab-Muslim pioneers who left an indelible mark on this continent, from the bustling bazaars of Sarajevo to the elegant Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

Day 1: Arrival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina 

As the first light of dawn breaks over the horizon, your journey begins in the heart of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This city, where East meets West, is an emblem of resilience and cross-cultural heritage. The echoes of its Ottoman past resound through the labyrinthine streets of the Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old bazaar and the historical and cultural center of the city built in the 15th century. The air is infused with the fragrant aroma of spices, and the calls of merchants create a symphony of languages as diverse as the goods they offer. 

The 500-year-old multi-domed Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque stands as a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, a silent witness to the history that unfolded within its walls. The intricate details of the mosque’s facade tell stories of faith, culture, and the intertwining of civilizations.

The interior of the 16th century Ottoman style Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. (Shutterstock) 

Day 2: Sarajevo Exploration 

The sun rises over Sarajevo, casting a warm glow on the city’s rich history. Today, you will embark on an exploration that delves deeper into the layers of this dynamic city. Svrzo’s House stands as a living museum, offering a glimpse into the daily life of an Ottoman-era family. The Sarajevo War Tunnel, constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian War, is a stark reminder of the city’s recent past and speaks to its enduring spirit and resilience. 

The Sarajevo Tunnel which provided a lifeline for Bosnian citizens' survival during the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1995. (Shutterstock) 

Day 3: Travel to Skopje, North Macedonia 

It is time to journey to the captivating city of Skopje in North Macedonia. A short flight whisks you away and as you land, you’re greeted by the majestic Vardar River, which has witnessed the ebb and flow of history. 

One of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the Balkans is Skopje’s Old Bazaar, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and artisan shops. It beckons with its Ottoman-era charm. Here, you’ll find hidden courtyards and intricately designed facades that harken back to a bygone era. Built on Roman foundations under the patronage of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, the Stone Bridge, an iconic symbol of the city, spans the river, connecting the past with the present. 

Skopje’s Old Bazaar. (Shutterstock) 

Day 4: Skopje and its surroundings 

Today, you’ll delve further into Skopje’s rich history and venture beyond its borders. A day trip to Tetovo offers a glimpse of the Arab-Muslim influence in the region. The 600-year-old Painted Mosque, adorned with vibrant frescoes and intricate designs, is a testament to the enduring cultural exchanges that have shaped North Macedonia. 

Returning to Skopje, the city’s architectural wonders continue to unfold. Situated on the highest point in the city overlooking the Vardar River, the Kale Fortress with foundations dating back to the early 6th century offers panoramic views of the cityscape. As the sun sets, you’ll find yourself immersed in the enchanting blend of cultures that defines Skopje. 

Day 5: Journey to Granada, Spain 

Your journey takes a new turn as you bid farewell to Skopje and set your sights on the sun-drenched landscapes of Granada, Spain. A flight transports you to a land where Moorish architecture and European charm intertwine harmoniously. As you check in to your accommodation, the Alhambra Palace looms in the distance, promising a glimpse into a world of architectural marvels. 

Dating back to 1238, Alhambra, a masterpiece of Islamic art and culture, is your gateway to centuries past. The Nasrid Palaces with their intricate stucco work and delicate mosaics showcase the artisans’ dedication to perfection. The Generalife Gardens, a tranquil oasis of fountains and greenery, provide respite as you traverse this living testament to history. 

The fortress and palace complex Alhambra. (Shutterstock)

Day 6: Granada’s Albaicín and Albayzín 

The allure of Granada extends beyond the Alhambra’s walls. The Albaicín and Albayzín neighborhoods, with their narrow winding streets and white-washed houses, transport you to another era. The Mesquite Mayor de Granada, a former mosque, reflects the city’s multicultural history and spiritual significance.  

Day 7: Travel to Lisbon, Portugal 

Leaving behind the enchanting vistas of Granada, you board a flight to Lisbon, Portugal – a city that echoes with tales of explorers, poets, and a rich mosaic of cultures. Settle into your accommodation and venture into the Alfama district.

As you wander through the tangled alleys of Alfama, the Moorish influence is palpable. It’s in the graceful archways that frame your path and the ornate tilework that adorns the buildings, each tile whispering stories of centuries past.

The soulful strains of fado music fill the air, evoking a deep sense of nostalgia and longing. This genre of music, with its roots in Portuguese-Arabic poetry, encapsulates the complex emotions of saudade — a deep, melancholic yearning for something lost.

Alfama’s essence is a testament to the enduring legacy of the Moors and Arabs who once called this district home. Their architectural marvels and cultural contributions continue to shape the identity of Lisbon and remind us of the rich tapestry of influences that have shaped Europe’s heritage.

Alfama in Lisbon. (Shutterstock)

Day 8: Algarve Adventure 

Your journey takes you south to the Algarve, where the golden beaches and rugged cliffs meet the azure waters of the Atlantic. Silves, a town with a rich history, showcases remnants of Arab-Muslim influence in its red sandstone castle and archaeological sites. In Faro, the Algarve’s capital, the Arco da Vila gate serves as a gateway to the past, inviting you to explore its charming streets. 

As your eight-day journey draws to a close, take a moment to reflect on the threads of history you’ve traced through these remarkable destinations. Cherish the memories of Sarajevo’s bustling bazaars, Skopje’s Ottoman architecture, Granada’s Alhambra, Lisbon’s Alfama, and the Algarve’s coastal splendor. 

From the bustling markets to the serene courtyards, from the opulent palaces to the humble neighborhoods, each step you’ve taken has been a step through time.

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF
Updated 30 November 2023

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF
  • The film heads to Saudi Arabia after screening at the Venice Film Festival this year
  • The director has won multiple awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and has been nominated for prizes in Venice and Chicago, among other festivals

DUBAI: Years ago, Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia was struck by an image he couldn’t get out of his head. It was a man running towards a cliff, and when he reached the edge, he started to fly. He knew there was greatness in it — a perfect image of freedom. He felt it could perhaps be the basis for his greatest film. But as he wrote and he wrote, nothing came of it. The emotions felt flat. It wasn’t that the idea wasn’t ready — he wasn’t ready himself.   

“I was maybe 20 years old at the time. I was childish and immature. Everything I wrote made little sense to me,” Ben Attia tells Arab News. “But when I finished my film ‘Hedi’ in 2016, the idea returned. Suddenly this idea of a man flying started appearing in my mind beside my own emotions — the rage I was feeling deep within myself. And then these feelings and that image started to blend.” 

At the start of December, “Behind the Mountains,” the result of that renewed inspiration, will screen in competition at the 2023 Red Sea International Film Festival, after receiving support from the Red Sea Fund while in production. The film made its acclaimed debut at the Venice International Film Festival in September, and as much as Ben Attia put his all into the making of the film, seeing audiences react to such a deeply personal and multifaceted movie can sometimes be painful.  

Ben Attia on set with Walid Bouchhioua, who stars as Yassine in “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

“I hate this at times, to be honest. I know I’m supposed to love it, but it can be difficult when people get so confused by watching it, trying to figure out what it’s trying to tell them,” Ben Attia says. “This is part of doing cinema — a film cannot be loved by everyone. But it’s a very strange feeling with this film particularly, because it’s hard even for me to explain the meaning of the film, as well as for many to understand what drives this character to begin with.”  

“Behind the Mountains” begins simply enough, at least. Rafik is released from a Tunisian prison, four years after his mental health issues manifested as a violent outburst in his former workplace. He now believes he can fly, and kidnaps his young son to take him to a special place behind the mountains to show him that his vision is real.  

There are many potential interpretations of this tale, but it’s hard not to draw parallels to the story of Tunisia itself, even for Ben Attia. Almost exactly 13 years ago, the Tunisian Revolution began, culminating in the ousting of the Ben Ali government and the start of a still-ongoing redrawing of the Tunisian political landscape and a reorganization of the country’s society at large.  

Ben Attia on set with Majd Mastoura, who stars as Rafik in “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

In a time of great upheaval, a world of possibility emerges. Suddenly, the future feels free — enough to make a man feel that he could fly, because perhaps he can. But is the anarchy of freedom a blessing? A curse? Both? And can anything truly change if people continue to impose the same mental shackles on themselves as they did before? It’s a complicated subject that has caused more than a few headaches, to put it lightly.  

“I would say that, since our revolution happened, the busiest people in our society have been the psychiatrists. Because it wasn’t just that things changed politically — it was also a revolution of the individual; a revolution of feeling,” Ben Attia explains. 

“The idea that this regime could change was impossible for us to imagine. So it gave us the feeling that anything could happen, even in our own lives. That’s why people started changing professions, getting divorced… That’s exactly where this film finds its characters — in moments where they come to their own realizations of possibility, their own understandings of how things can be different, for better or for worse.”  

A still from “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied) 

Ben Attia has changed a lot, too. Over the last decade, his work has captured the attention of the film community cross the world. 2016’s “Hedi” won the Best First Feature award at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival and was co-produced by the renowned Dardenne brothers. His next film, “Dear Son,” was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and was the Tunisian entry for the Best International Film category of that year’s Academy Awards.   

Part of what has kept him grounded as his star rises is his second career, the one he rarely talks about.  

“I have a strange life, to be frank. While I’m doing all of this, I’m also a chef in my family’s Italian restaurants in Tunis. I get my ideas for films when I’m working in my kitchen. It gives me balance in my own life when I have these dual identities. It takes the pressure off. When I was just doing nothing, no ideas came. I have to work in the restaurant — I have to be making pasta fresca to get a little bit inspired. It allows me to see things I couldn’t have in any other circumstance,” says Ben Attia.  

But while the kitchen is where the ideas start to flow, art is still an act of self-therapy, especially as it can often contain complex and contradictory ideas that everyday linear thought often can’t. 

A still from “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

“We are living in strange times, especially with what’s happening in Gaza and everywhere else,” Ben Attia says. “It’s not just our region of the world, it’s also about the identity of the Arab people and our relation to the Occident. As an artist, that fills us with contradictions — today I think something and tomorrow I think something very different. But thankfully, we are not making science, we are making cinema. We’re still discovering what the truth could be, and what our future could be.”  

At each screening of “Behind the Mountains,” Ben Attia gets different interpretations from the audience of all the things it may be saying. And with every question, he has more time to consider what he thinks about both the work and the world he’s living in — and he hasn’t quite worked it out. But that’s the beauty of cinema, as he says, and when his next film idea comes to the boil back in his kitchen, he’s ready to see where his inspiration takes him next.  

“I’m giving myself boundaries: first, just follow the promotion of this film just to understand better what I did and how, and why I did it. Even if that hurts, it’s good to do, and it’s good to react to what happened with this film,” he says. “Even now, I have a vague idea — I have another image I’m getting ready to pursue. But I’m in no rush. I want to take my time and see if it’s still there in a few months, and if that’s the case, then I’m ready to start for sure on the right foot.” 

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’
Updated 30 November 2023

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’
  • Fantasy film based on hit novel ‘about the journey of discovery,’ director says
  • Baraa Alem stars as kindhearted jinn who falls for mortal woman

DUBAI: Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri said he was delighted that his new film, “HWJN,” had been chosen to open this year’s Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.

Speaking to Arab News before the big night on Thursday, the Dubai-based filmmaker said: “I feel really surreal. Getting to open the festival in Jeddah about a story set in Jeddah itself is pretty fantastic.”

The fantasy film is based on the hit young adult novel of the same name by Saudi Ibraheem Abbas, which was praised for combining Western sci-fi and fantasy tropes with Arab culture and folklore.

Al-Yasiri said he was drawn to the challenge of making a fantasy film in Saudi Arabia as the genre was still new in Arab cinema.

A poster for opening film 'HWJN.' (Supplied) 

“And to actually have Image Nation Abu Dhabi, MBC and Vox excited to bring this to life was very fortunate. For me, it was an ideal opportunity to bring such a story to life.”

Set in modern-day Jeddah, “HWJN” follows the story of Hwjn, a kindhearted jinn (genie), played by Baraa Alem, as he discovers the truth about his royal lineage and falls in love with Sawsan, a mortal woman played by Nour Al-Khadra.

“‘Hwjn’ is a story about the jinn world. Of course, jinn is deep-rooted in our culture and religion and it’s a familiar subject to our audience. Yet, there is no visual representation of jinns. So, I wanted to make a movie about them and at the same time make it relatable to the audience, so they feel what they have in their minds — as a legacy and from a cultural standpoint — can be relatable visually,” Al-Yasiri said.

“The story is about the journey of discovery that one of the jinns takes and a forbidden relationship that he has with someone from the other realm, which is the human realm.”

Al-Yasiri, whose previous films include “Murk Light” and “On Borrowed Time,” spent five years making “HWJN” and said its cast were as obsessed with the novel as its many fans.

“When it comes to casting, I always follow my instant gut feeling,” he said. “Most of my previous films, I cast my actors upon first viewing, like I get butterflies when I see their performance. And when I see that both performance and looks really match with what I have in mind for the character, it clicks.

“Noura Al-Kadra really was one of those actors who really clicked right away as soon as I saw her audition tape. And I said, ‘That’s it, this is Sawsan.’ And it was the same with the others, like Baraa and Naif (Al-Daferi),” he said.

“Their hunger and appetite to the story itself and how aware they were to the success of the novel I think added an additional layer to how excited they were about it and that was really showing in their auditions.”

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs from Thursday to Dec. 9.

Paul Chowdhry set to bring ‘family-friendly’ comedy to Riyadh  

Paul Chowdhry set to bring ‘family-friendly’ comedy to Riyadh  
Updated 30 November 2023

Paul Chowdhry set to bring ‘family-friendly’ comedy to Riyadh  

Paul Chowdhry set to bring ‘family-friendly’ comedy to Riyadh  

DUBAI: Paul Chowdhry — the first British Asian standup comedian to sell out London’s Wembley Arena — will perform his first show in the Kingdom as part of the comedy festival Riyadh Laughs, which began Nov. 23 and ends Dec. 2 in Boulevard Riyadh City.   

Chowdhry will be performing his hit show, “Family Friendly Comedian,” in which he lays out the plan for his transition into a happy-go-lucky “guy next door” persona that will turn him into a national TV treasure to Muvi Cinemas on Dec 1. 

“It’s a show that plays on topics that are considered family-friendly to some, but maybe not to others,” he says. “It’s a show about political correctness. I talk about my life, I talk about families, as well as the UK government and English people a lot. So, it’ll be interesting if we get a mix of British people and locals (in the audience), because we talk about both sides of it, as well as traditional upbringings in comparison to Western upbringings and all that.”  

In August 2019, Chowdhry’s record-breaking stand-up show, “Live Innit,” was released as an Amazon Prime original special in 200 countries worldwide. The tour received two nationwide extensions, including five nights at Hammersmith Apollo and that sold-out show at the 10,000-seater Wembley Arena. His performance there was voted one of the venue’s top ten shows of 2017.  

Apart from his current tour, Chowdhry is also excited about audiences soon getting to watch him in a Christmas episode of Sky’s “The Unofficial Science Of…” — a format in which comedians investigate the science behind the stunts of famous films. Alongside fellow comedian Chris Ramsey, Chowdhry will “reenact the stunts from ‘Die Hard’ and then the show goes to America to interview the cast of ‘Die Hard.’ This has never been done before. We’re going to be jumping off buildings and jumping through fire.”  

Chowdhry, who is of Indian Sikh descent, is no stranger to the Middle East, having performed multiple times in the UAE. “I’ve always loved performing in the Middle East, because the crowds are always so great,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to his first show in Saudi Arabia. 

Chowdhry, 49, said he grew up loving comedy, “but you never know you can do it until you stand in front of an audience.” He actually quit university in order to give stand-up a go.  

“I’ve been addicted ever since,” he said. “From my first ever show, I immediately got a real buzz from it. It felt like I was flying.”  

Chowhdhry credits his family with being supportive of his decision to give up on higher education to pursue his dream.  

“They’ve supported me throughout my career so far. Some of my extended family may have had some issues, but that’s not really my concern,” he said. “You have to live your own life. As long as everything you do is legal, then follow your own dreams and live your own life — you’re not living somebody else’s.”  

The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 

The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 
Updated 30 November 2023

The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 

The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 


Director: Abu Bakr Shawky 

Starring: Omar Al-Atawi, Azzam Nemr, Toleen Barbood 

Matar is the youngest child in a family of camel jockeys. When his brother falls in a race and is killed, Matar steps up to save his own camel, Hofara, from the butcher, beginning a potentially deadly trek through the desert in search of a better life. “This is a Saudi film, but it’s so universal,” Egyptian director Abu Bakr Shawky told Arab News in August. “The deeper we got into exploring this world, the more I found themes that are at the heart of great global storytelling; ideas of vengeance, of love, of running away from your problems and finding your destiny.” 


Director: Yasir Al-Yasiri 

Starring: Alanoud Saud, Nour Alkhadra 

The Iraqi director’s fantasy movie — based on the best-selling novel by Saudi writer Ibraheem Abbas — was given the honor of opening the festival on Nov. 30 (it also screens Dec. 1). “Hwjn” is set in a world where djinn are living invisibly among humans. The titular djinn and his family are disturbed when a human family moves into their Jeddah home, but he soon becomes fascinated by them, particularly Sawsan, played by Nour Alkhadra. Alkhadra told Arab News that she landed the part after sending Al-Yasiri a tape of her playing out scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” 

‘Fever Dream’ 

Director: Faris Godus 

Starring: Sohayb Godus, Najm, Hakeem Jomah 

Expectations are high for the latest from the Godus brothers after the success of their debut feature “The Book of Sun,” which was picked up by Netflix. “Fever Dream” focuses on Abdulsamad, a former football star with a bad reputation who tries to mend his awkward relationship with his daughter Ahlam so that she will help him manage his reputation on social media and rebuild his fame in a positive light. They partner with a high-profile PR team and move into real-estate marketing. But as Abdulsamad’s fame grows, he discovers it’s not quite what he dreamed it would be. 


Director: Meshal Aljaser 

Starring: Adwa Bader, Yazeed Almaiyul 

Bader was officially recognized as one of the Rising Stars at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Naga” premiered. Bader plays Sarah, whose conservative father approves a shopping trip, on condition that she abide by a strict curfew. That ‘shopping trip’ is actually a cover story for Sarah’s secret date with Saad at a party in the desert, which quickly turns into a disaster, with Sarah stranded miles from home and in a desperate race against the clock to avoid her father’s ire. TIFF programmer Peter Kuplowsky said the film “blew me away with its shocking prologue” and that Meshal “was navigating so many provocative themes, and never at the expense of character or momentum.” 

‘Yesterday After Tomorrow’ 

Director: Abdulghani Alsaigh 

Starring: Ismael Al-Hassan, Ahmad Alsadam 

Alsaigh’s sci-fi movie is the story of two brothers living with their widowed mother having moved back into their childhood home. There, they discover a portal to the past — to a time when their father, whom they never met, was still alive. But the longer they stay there and try to connect with him, the harder it will be to reunite with their mother in the present. Meanwhile, distressed by their disappearance, she teams up with her best friend to try and discover what happened to them. 

‘Khaled El-Sheikh: Between the Thorns of Art and Politics’ 

Director: Jamal Kutbi 

Starring: Khaled El-Sheikh, Samawa El-Sheikh 

Kutbi’s documentary focuses on the famed Bahraini singer Khaled El-Sheikh, whose appetite for pushing musical boundaries has seen him richly rewarded, but also brought opprobrium from audiences uncomfortable with innovation. Kutbi follows El-Sheikh’s rise to stardom from his time as a university student in Kuwait studying economics and politics before dropping out to focus on music. 

Actresses Halle Berry, Katrina Kaif to speak at Red Sea International Film Festival

Actresses Halle Berry, Katrina Kaif to speak at Red Sea International Film Festival
Updated 29 November 2023

Actresses Halle Berry, Katrina Kaif to speak at Red Sea International Film Festival

Actresses Halle Berry, Katrina Kaif to speak at Red Sea International Film Festival

DUBAI: Red Sea International Film Festival organizers revealed on Wednesday that actresses Halle Berry and Katrina Kaif had been lined up to speak at the event’s third edition.

Dates for the stars’ talks are yet to be announced.

The festival, running from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, will also host discussion panels with Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, Australian costume designer Catherine Martin, Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Abidine, Indian director and TV personality Karan Johar, Egyptian actress Yasmine Sabri, Bollywood star Ranveer Singh, and Saudi filmmaking brothers Faris and Sohayb Godus.



American actress Berry kicked off her career as a model and took part in several beauty contests, finishing as the first runner-up in the Miss USA pageant and coming sixth in Miss World 1986.

The 57-year-old gained widespread recognition and acclaim for her performance in 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” a role that earned her the Academy Award for best actress, making her the first African American woman to win in the category.

Her portrayal of Storm in the “X-Men” film series, and her iconic turn as Jinx Johnson in the 2002 James Bond film “Die Another Day,” are among her most well-known movie roles. She has received several accolades, including at the Primetime Emmy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards.



British actress Kaif is one of the leading stars in the Indian film industry.

The 40-year-old has received widespread acclaim for her roles in various Bollywood flicks with one of her most popular performances coming in the action thriller “Ek Tha Tiger” in 2012, where she starred alongside Salman Khan. Her character Zoya, an intelligence agent, showcased both her acting prowess and on-screen charisma.

Another notable film in her career was “Jab Tak Hai Jaan,” directed by the legendary Yash Chopra.



The festival opens on Thursday with a screening of Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri’s fantasy “HWJN.”

German actress Diane Kruger, Singh, and Saudi actor-writer Abdullah Al-Sadhan will receive career honors at the event.

Australian film director Baz Luhrmann will preside over the festival’s jury and will be joined by Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman (“The Suicide Squad”), Indian actress Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Egyptian actress Amina Khalil (“Grand Hotel”), and Spaniard Paz Vega (“Sex and Lucia,” and “The OA”).