Lee Majdoub on taking the lead role in the latest ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game

Lee Majdoub on taking the lead role in the latest ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game
“Assassin’s Creed: Mirage” is the latest installment in the Ubisoft’s acclaimed blockbuster series. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 October 2023
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Lee Majdoub on taking the lead role in the latest ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game

Lee Majdoub on taking the lead role in the latest ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game
  • ‘It’s been a genuinely profound experience,’ says the Lebanese-Canadian actor

DUBAI: As we have seen time and again, it is still difficult for many in the international community to put themselves in the shoes of the Arab people. While cinema has long been an important tool to broaden perspectives, video games have a power we’re only just starting to discover. For a new generation, there is no more empathetic experience than guiding a character’s journey through the controller in your hand. And for representation, that could become a true game changer.  

In “Assassin’s Creed: Mirage,” the latest installment in the Ubisoft’s acclaimed blockbuster series, which released globally last week, players find themselves immersed in Arab and Muslim culture with a level of respect the medium has never seen before. Set in 9th-century Baghdad, the game follows Basim Ibn Ishaq, one of the most complex characters in the franchise’s history. And, significantly, he’s voiced by an Arab: Lebanese-Canadian actor Lee Majdoub.  

“It means the world to me,” Majdoub tells Arab News. “The world is experiencing the beauty of the Arabic language, the depth and diversity of Middle Eastern culture, all produced with such love and care by people who put authenticity at the forefront. 




Majdoub’s star has risen quickly over the last few years. (Supplied)

“Middle Eastern and North African communities still have so much difficulty getting seen as three-dimensional people. In media, that’s held true for a long time as well. A game like ‘Mirage’ is such a treat in that sense. I’ve found myself more deeply moved by video games in the last few years than any movie or show. They’re immersive — you’re not just seeing the world through their eyes, you are them. That affects you deeply. And bringing that power to Basim’s story, to an Arab story, was a responsibility for all of us.” 

Majdoub’s star has risen quickly over the last few years, after what was supposed to be a bit part as Agent Stone in 2020’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” film — itself based on a video game franchise — became a cult favorite with the series’ massive fanbase. By the time the second film was released in 2022, his character was a pillar of the story, and Majdoub was given his own posters that were plastered across the world to promote a film that ended up in the top 10 highest grossers globally last year. 

Those posters were particularly moving for Majdoub, who was born in Lebanon and grew up in the US and Canada in the early 2000s. It was a time in which he desperately needed a face that looked like his own positively represented in a culture that primarily depicted Arabs as terrorists. Without it, he spent much of his youth turning away from his identity, refusing to speak Arabic for many years and burying his heritage deep within himself.  




“Assassin’s Creed: Mirage” was released globally last week. (Supplied)

“There was a lot of turmoil in me,” Majdoub admits. “I’ve had a long journey to find a way to love being Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Arab.” 

Then, as fate would have it, a desire to rediscover his heritage awoke within him just months before he was approached for his “Assassin’s Creed” role. 

“I had this sudden realization. I called my mother and told her, ‘I want to learn to read and write Arabic again.’ She was so excited. We’d spend four days a week on WhatsApp video relearning the alphabet, learning to read like I was in grade school — sounding things out and getting frustrated. But I was determined, and slowly got better and better until I could speak and read confidently again,” says Majdoub.  

“And then ‘Mirage’ came, and the team immediately asked me, ‘Do you speak the language?’ All I could think was, had they come to me a year earlier, that would have been a very different conversation,” Majdoub continues with laugh. 

His journey to find himself, it turned out, was fitting for the project in more ways than one. Basim was last seen in “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla” as the game’s secret villain, a man who had turned to darkness later in life. “Mirage” is set a dozen years earlier, finding him still full of light and in pursuit of justice, an emotional state that Majdoub could relate to.  




Majdoub (right) with Jim Carrey in 'Sonic The Hedgehog 2.' (Supplied)

“This is the story of someone trying to find who they are, trying to do what’s best for others, which I identified with. I’m also trying to figure out what’s best for me — to come to terms with the man I am, in more ways than just my identity. There’s this constant struggle of trusting the path, but also feeling you need to take control, and then learning to let go of control. Basim is on this cycle, and I find myself there as well,” he explains. “In this story, he’s trying to forge his own path. But at the same time, he wants to do what's best for everybody. I think that push and pull is something a lot of us have experienced. We ask ourselves, ‘Where do I fit in? How do I do what’s right by me, and by my loved ones?’ Those are questions that have helped me reach where I am today, and are still guiding me.”  

As the team at Ubisoft worked to recreate ancient Baghdad, doing an unprecedented amount of research on an area that is not nearly as well documented as previous settings for the game, they worked closely with experts to ensure that the game was as close to the lived reality as possible, which meant honoring the culture, the language, and the profound religious faith of the Islamic Golden Age. With Majdoub immersed in that landscape, he continued his journey of cultural self-discovery in a way he would never have dreamed of during those video calls with his mother.  

“It’s been a genuinely profound experience. After having voiced a character like Basim, and now watching all the cinematics, hearing the music, seeing the Arabic calligraphy and exploring the design, it’s hard to not to feel more connected, and to feel even more proud to be a part of the legacy of this incredibly multi-faceted region and its people in some small way,” says Majdoub.  

“Now that it’s out and I’ve finally had a chance to start playing it, I’ve also been struck by something I wasn’t expecting. I’ve been feeling this weird sadness. It’s made me realize I haven’t been back to Lebanon in a long time, and there’s so many parts of the Middle East I’ve never explored. It’s wonderful to take a journey in this game, but now I want to forge a deeper connection,” he continues. “This is the place that I come from, and now I need to go on an adventure of my own.” 


Saudi Cup kicks off in Riyadh with a showcase of traditional fashion

Saudi Cup kicks off in Riyadh with a showcase of traditional fashion
Updated 24 February 2024
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Saudi Cup kicks off in Riyadh with a showcase of traditional fashion

Saudi Cup kicks off in Riyadh with a showcase of traditional fashion
  • From bespoke creations designed exclusively by and for style icons to bold original outfits, guests were dressed in striking attire for the event
  • The Saudi Cup carries a prize fund of $35.4 million, with the $20 million Saudi Cup race itself maintaining its position as the most valuable race in the world

RIYADH: The Saudi Cup, the Kingdom’s annual international horse race, returned this weekend in Riyadh for its fifth edition with a head-turning display of fashion.

From bespoke creations designed exclusively by and for style icons to bold original outfits, guests were dressed in striking attire for the event that takes place Feb. 23 and 24.

Princess Nourah Al-Faisal, special adviser to the chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, spoke to Arab News about fashion at the event — and the vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the event. 

Princess Nourah Al-Faisal wore an intricately embroidered tulle covering over a robe with embroidered detailing on the cuffs. (Photo by Huda Bashatah)

He “really had a vision, and not just for fashion, but he had this idea that he wanted the event to represent our culture and our heritage in every way possible,” she said.

“I have to say I am delighted and super excited by it and especially this reintroduction of our heritage to the younger generation … (and) seeing what this younger generation is doing with that, you know the experimentation,” she added.

Princess Nourah donned an intricately embroidered tulle covering over a robe with embroidered detailing on the cuffs from Art of Heritage.

Influencer and model Rakan Alhamdan also showed off attire inspired by his country.

“Today, I’m wearing Siraj Sanad — he’s a Saudi (designer) in Jeddah. As you can see, it is heritage-style clothing with three embroidered triangles which Najd is known for,” he said, referring to the Saudi region of Najd which is famous for its triangles visible in architecture and embroidery.

Influencer and model Rakan Alhamdan. (Photo by Huda Bashatah)

Other guests showed off a rainbow of colors at the fashion-forward event, with modern takes on Saudi attire spotted across the venue — from gemstone-covered burqas to elegant kaftans complete with heavy embroidery.

The Saudi Cup carries a prize fund of $35.4 million, with the $20 million Saudi Cup race itself maintaining its position as the most valuable race in the world.

- Additional reporting by Hams Saleh


Bella Hadid expands portfolio with launch of new brand Orebella

Bella Hadid expands portfolio with launch of new brand Orebella
Updated 23 February 2024
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Bella Hadid expands portfolio with launch of new brand Orebella

Bella Hadid expands portfolio with launch of new brand Orebella
  • Speculation that model will sell fragrances, incense, body lotions, oils, shampoo, conditioner and candles

DUBAI: Bella Hadid is launching a new brand, Orebella, that is likely a venture into the perfume and beauty market.

The US-Dutch-Palestinian supermodel shared a teaser on Instagram on Thursday.

“Ôrəbella founded by Bella Khair Hadid,” she captioned the post teasing the brand’s launch in May. “Reveal your alchemy on 5/2.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Bella (@bellahadid)

The 10-second video showcases a close-up of Hadid’s face intertwined with clips of the universe, culminating with the brand’s logo.

Gigi Hadid showed support for her younger sibling, writing: “YAAAAAYYYYY.” This was accompanied by a genie emoji.

While specifics about the brand and its offerings remain under wraps, WWD Magazine reported that Hadid’s trademark filing, dating back to 2022, hints at Orebella’s focus on scent-related products. These may include fragrances, incense, body lotions, oils, shampoo, conditioner and candles.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Orebella (@orebella)

In 2021, Hadid co-founded Brooklyn-based Kin Euphorics with Saudi Arabia-raised Jen Batchelor.

The brand boasts non-alcoholic tonics “made to transform the world’s oldest social ritual, drinking, into a conscious act of better being,” according to its website.

The name Kin Euphorics is a nod to the Greek word “euphoros” — meaning a state of well-being.

The brand claims that many of its key ingredients, such phenylethylamine and rhodiola rosea root extract, improve cognitive function and increase energy levels. Kin drinks will also soon be infused with lavender grown on the Hadid family farm in Pennsylvania.

Hadid has walked for some of the top fashion brands in the world, including Burberry, Off-White, Fendi, Versace, Givenchy, Max Mara and Moschino.

She has had multiple covers in France, Italy, UK, Japan, China and other countries.


Nadim Naaman takes the stage as first Arab lead star in ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ at Dubai Opera

Nadim Naaman takes the stage as first Arab lead star in ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ at Dubai Opera
Updated 23 February 2024
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Nadim Naaman takes the stage as first Arab lead star in ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ at Dubai Opera

Nadim Naaman takes the stage as first Arab lead star in ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ at Dubai Opera
  • Lebanese-British theater performer realizes lifelong ambition after growing up with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical

DUBAI: The moment has finally come for Lebanese-British theater actor Nadim Naaman. For over a decade, he has been associated with the popular musical “The Phantom of The Opera,” initially joining as an ensemble member.

The play, which centers on the theme of unrequited love, was written by the famed English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and made its debut in London in 1986. 

Growing up in the British capital, Naaman had seen the play’s posters on buses and taxis. It was a big deal in the world of theater.

Naaman worked his way up and recently landed the lead role of Phantom, making him the first actor of Arab origin to play the coveted male character on stage. (Supplied)

“I think I was probably 15 or 16 and my parents took my brother, sister and I to see it, like a family outing, and I remember thinking, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,’” Naaman told Arab News. 

Naaman worked his way up and recently landed the lead role of Phantom, making him the first actor of Arab origin to play the coveted male character on stage.

Until March 10, “The Phantom of The Opera” will be playing at the UAE’s Dubai Opera, with a production team of over 100 cast and crew members from around the world. 

For the actor, who has visited Dubai for three decades for family reasons, performing in the UAE feels like a full-circle moment. Last year, he also played the Phantom during the show’s run in Riyadh.

“I always knew that this was my dream role, and I just have to be patient and, hopefully, one day the opportunity would come,” he said ahead of the show’s opening night in Dubai.

For the actor, who has visited Dubai for three decades for family reasons, performing in the UAE feels like a full-circle moment. (Supplied)

“To be the first Arab to do so in this region, in Saudi and Dubai, is the perfect combination of circumstances ... I couldn’t have dreamt that would happen.”   

The award-winning musical is based on the early 20th-century novel “Le Fantome de l’Opera” by the French author Gaston Leroux. Set at the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, the venue is haunted by the hidden Phantom, a disfigured and passionate outcast, who falls for his protege, the young Swedish soprano Christine Daee. Things become intense when Christine’s lover, Raoul (played by Dougie Carter in the Dubai play), enters the picture. 

“It’s such a strong story. It’s a love triangle, which is always a winner. There is an element of recluse — someone who doesn’t fit in society and, of course, everyone at some point in their life can relate to that,” the English actress Harriet Jones, who plays Christine, told Arab News.

“The story of Christine is really a coming-of-age story, which suits my journey with the show because I first played her 10 years ago. Nadim and I have known each other for 10 years now. We’ve kind of grown up together on this show.”

Naaman, who formerly played Raoul, says that the Phantom is unlike any other character he has taken on.

Naaman says that the Phantom is unlike any other character he has taken on. (Supplied)

“With Raoul, it did always feel quite close to me. The Phantom is the complete opposite. To get ready to play a character and to look in the mirror and see somebody who is nothing like you, who behaves in a way that is nothing like you, is a really exciting and quite liberating experience because every single move you make or word that comes out of your mouth has a motivation that you have to really discover. It’s not easy, it’s hard work, but that’s what makes it rewarding.”

The other bit of hard work has also been wearing a face prosthetic (of a burn scar) covered with the mask, along with a wig, for every performance. The fitting takes more than an hour but helps Naaman get into character.

Around 20 shows have been scheduled at Dubai Opera, and for Naaman and Jones, it is still a thrill singing in front of an audience every night.

“Standing backstage and listening to the overture, which is so loud and big and it goes through your chest, that is almost when it starts for me. It’s an incredible feeling,” said Jones.  

Why has the musical been a hit with millions? Naaman believes it is the universality of its story that has made it popular until today, finding its way to new audiences in the Middle East.

“The show has been around for 40 years, but there is a new generation of audiences getting to experience it for the first time,” he said.

“Those key themes of love, unrequited love, and wanting to fit in and be accepted are relatable to all cultures, all ages, backgrounds. The key ingredients just keep people engaged the whole way through.”


AlUla’s Wadi AlFann celebrates Saudi contemporary artist Manal AlDowayan 

AlUla’s Wadi AlFann celebrates Saudi contemporary artist Manal AlDowayan 
Updated 23 February 2024
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AlUla’s Wadi AlFann celebrates Saudi contemporary artist Manal AlDowayan 

AlUla’s Wadi AlFann celebrates Saudi contemporary artist Manal AlDowayan 
  • Two exhibitions of the influential Saudi artist’s work mark the pre-opening program of a new cultural destination  

ALULA: The work of Manal AlDowayan, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading contemporary artists, is often focused on cultural metamorphosis, collective narratives and the representation of women, particularly from her home country. 

AlDowayan, who will represent the Kingdom at this year’s Venice Biennale, is currently the subject of two exhibitions in AlUla as part of the pre-opening program of Wadi AlFann, a major new cultural destination for art, design and performance.  

The first exhibition, “Oasis of Stories,” features hundreds of drawings and tales from local communities across AlUla. It will run in the AlJadidah Arts District as part of the AlUla Arts Festival 2024 until March 23.  

Part of the exhibition 'Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths’ by Manal AlDowayan. (Supplied)

“AlUla is a library of stories,” AlDowayan said in a statement. “This land holds an archive of narratives and identities that numerous civilizations engraved into its rocks for centuries, telling us about the tools they used, the animals they farmed and the lives they led.” 

The detailed drawings of daily personal and collective life in AlUla were created during workshops AlDowayan held that attracted 700 participants from AlUla, including farmers, cooks, teachers, tour guides, rangers, artists, students, craftspeople, junior football teams and a disability association. AlDowayan asked them to draw their personal stories on paper. The results are poignant and endearing renderings that detail the realities, hopes and dreams of AlUla’s residents as well as the beauty of the region’s natural landscape. 

“I want to give the contemporary inhabitants of AlUla a space for their narrative, allowing it to live permanently in a public artwork for future generations to contemplate,” AlDowayan said. 

Part of the exhibition 'Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths’ by Manal AlDowayan. (Supplied)

The exhibition marks a turning point in the development of AlDowayan’s permanent large-scale desert installation for Wadi AlFann, which will also be titled “Oasis of Stories,” and is expected to be completed in 2026. That work takes inspiration from the labyrinth-like passages and walls of AlUla’s Old Town. The drawings and stories from the workshhops will be inscribed into its walls, meaning that AlUla’s residents will leave their mark on a major piece of art in the region they call home.  

“I decided to speak with the AlUla residents to learn about their old town,” AlDowayan told Arab News. “I realized that the story of the people of AlUla has not been documented. (And I thought they needed to) inscribe their story onto something in the surrounding landscape. 

“I visited women’s homes and asked them to document their recipes; I attended weddings and danced and also asked eldery women to tell their stories,” she continued. “Me and my studio manager, Carla, were constantly trying to build a relationship of love and trust with the people from AlUla.” 

One of the pieces in the 'Oasis of Stories' exhibition. (Supplied)

Wadi AlFann is a 65-kilometer “Valley of the Arts” in the desert of AlUla. It will include large-scale art installations set against the natural desert landscape and alluring rock formations. The first five commissions will be by AlDowayan, her fellow Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, and the US-based artists Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, and James Turrell.  

“There is no desert quite like the AlUla desert,” Wadi AlFann’s lead curator Iwona Blazwick said during the press tour. “This was once a large plateau that was underwater over millennia. The cliffs have been eroded. They’re made of sandstone. There are 7,000 years of human presence in this area, and we find it through rock art markings, petroglyphs, pictograms and hieroglyphs. They’re everywhere you look. But we want to find an expression of the 21st century that we can also add to the landscape.”  

Wadi AlFann, AlUla. (Supplied)

AlDowayan’s second exhibition, presented in collaboration with Madrid-based Sabrina Amrani Gallery, is “Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths,” a solo exhibition that delves further into her artistic practice. Sculptural works and drawings in a range of mediums explore the idea of ruin — all inspired by the engravings and architecture of the ancient tombs of AlUla. 

In several rooms of the exhibition, there are soft desert rose-shaped sculptures made from tussar silk, on which are printed subtle images reflective of AlUla’s heritage. Elsewhere, AlDowayan’s labyrinth-like drawings bring to mind the winding passages of AlUla’s Old Town.  

The 'Oasis of Stories' exhibition in Wadi AlFann. (Supplied)

There are also intricate works created by Sadu weaving, a technique traditionally used by Bedouin women, mounted on the wall. Once again, AlDowayan engaged the larger AlUla community, and its imprint powerfully resonates throughout.  

“I want to be sure that everyone enjoys art,” AlDowayan told Arab News. “Saudi Arabia is going through a huge transformative moment and public art is being commissioned across the Kingdom. This is part of a vision that art will be ingrained in our communities.” 


Saudi director Khalid Fahad discusses his Netflix hit ‘From the Ashes’ 

Saudi director Khalid Fahad discusses his Netflix hit ‘From the Ashes’ 
Updated 23 February 2024
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Saudi director Khalid Fahad discusses his Netflix hit ‘From the Ashes’ 

Saudi director Khalid Fahad discusses his Netflix hit ‘From the Ashes’ 
  • ‘It’s a great time to be a Saudi filmmaker,’ said Khalid Fahad

 

DUBAI: When Saudi filmmaker Khalid Fahad received the script for his latest project — the Netflix movie “From the Ashes” — it didn’t take him long to sign up. 

“I got attached to the characters, I got attached to the ‘villains,’ I got attached to the idea that we, as a society, make a villain, then we judge him or her for their badness,” Fahad tells Arab News. “I related to the idea that parental pressure can make someone make a mistake. And I wanted to tell people that what happens in a school can be because of what we do in our homes. The school is responsible for educating children, but kids learn a lot from each other, and kids can be aggressive or very kind depending on their parents’ guidance.” 

The film garnered attention ahead of its January release in part because of the real-life events that inspired it. It is set on the campus of an all-girls’ school in Saudi Arabia in which a fire breaks out, resulting in several deaths — echoing the 2002 fire at a school for girls in Makkah that left 15 students dead and many more injured. 

Caption

However, Fahad is quick to stress that “From the Ashes” is not a retelling of that incident.  

“The writers went with their own — different — story,” he says. “The film’s not really about the fire; it’s about the relationship between the schoolgirls and the teachers and the parents. Some of the girls get bullied, and if we don’t address bullying in schools, then bad things can happen. That’s the real message that we wanted to deliver. These incidents — bullying, or arson, or vandalism — we wanted to show that they happen because of relationships between people and to look at why they’re doing this to each other. What’s the real reason for harming other people?” 

There are several such reasons raised in the film — from parental pressure to outperform one’s peers to institutionalized tendencies to label kids as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without really trying to understand their circumstances or the underlying causes of their behavior. 

Fahad on the set of 'From the Ashes.' (Supplied)

For a film dealing with such nuanced topics, and so many strong emotions, Fahad knew the casting, particularly for the students, would be crucial. 

“For the teachers, it wasn’t hard because we have some expert actresses,” he says. “But for the students, it was very hard to find new people who fit these roles. It took five or six days of auditioning to find the right people.”  

When they did find them, Fahad’s experience of working with young actors (as he did in his debut feature, last year’s fantasy adventure “Valley Road”) came to the fore.  

Saudi actress Shaima Al Tayeb in 'From the Ashes.' (Supplied)

“My previous project taught me a lot about how to work with kids, which was very hard for me at first. It taught me what they need from me: I need to be their best friend, to tell them what I need and they’ll do their best to give that to me, in terms of emotion. All of them were very talented and I think this film will open the door for them to enter the industry.” 

The Kingdom’s still-nascent movie industry can only benefit from the younger generation picking up valuable experience on well-funded projects such as “From the Ashes,” which — despite the rapid growth — are still relatively thin on the ground.  

“Our industry is still young,” Fahad says. “It’s hard enough just making one film. In terms of capacity, I think it’s very hard to do, like, 10 movies in one year in Saudi Arabia.” 

Despite that, Fahad is only optimistic about the near future. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Khalid Fahad (@khalidf11)

“It’s a great time to be a Saudi filmmaker,” he says. “Everything is open, everything is new. And it’s OK to make mistakes. If you go into the industry in any other country — say, Egypt or Bollywood — there’s no way you can make mistakes, because there’s history there. But for us, mistakes are OK; we’ve just started and we want to learn from our mistakes.  

“But we also have to respect those companies that want to invest in our country and tell our stories,” he adds. “So there’s a balance necessary — we have to take those projects very seriously and deal with them respectfully and professionally.” 

That was clearly the case with “From the Ashes,” and Netflix has been well rewarded for its faith in the film. It made the list of the Top 10 non-English movies on Netflix in 37 countries, accumulating more than 7 million views in a little over a fortnight. 

“I’ve had comments from Mexico, from Spain, talking about bullies and how girls get into fights in schools — it’s similar to their schools,” says Fahad. “And this tells me that we’ve so much in common with other societies. It’s relatable for other people, which is very good. The message that we wanted to deliver is delivered.”