Excelling in exile: Hiam Abbass’ road to success

Excelling in exile: Hiam Abbass’ road to success
Hiam Abbass at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 10 November 2023

Excelling in exile: Hiam Abbass’ road to success

Excelling in exile: Hiam Abbass’ road to success
  • The Palestinian actress discusses being in her daughter’s latest documentary, why she left her homeland, and her hopes for the future

DUBAI: For the first time in her life, the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass found herself uncomfortable in front of a camera. She wasn’t being asked to act. She was being asked to be herself. And the person doing the asking was her own daughter, Lina Soualem.

Soualem wanted her mother to open up. To reflect on her chosen exile and the ways in which the women of her family had influenced her life. Without her honesty and emotion, the intimate family portrait that Soualem had in mind would not be possible.

“When we started filming, I thought, ‘Do I really want to say this?’ And ‘Do I want to suddenly be exposed to people in a way where it’s not a character that I’m playing but it’s myself?’” recalls Abbass, the central figure in Soualem’s “Bye Bye Tiberias.”

Hiam Abbass (seated, right) sits with her mother Um Ali and her daughter Lina Soualem in the 1990s. (Supplied)

“There were times — in the beginning specifically — when I wasn’t very comfortable, and Lina wasn’t feeling comfortable. When she was asking me questions that I was answering as if I was sitting in front of a journalist,” she continues. “I was very factual and very thoughtful and she was looking for something more authentic: She wanted feelings. So I decided to let go and to trust her.”

That trust has paid off. “Bye Bye Tiberias” had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September and has already picked up awards at the BFI London Film Festival and Festival Cinemed in Montpellier.

Speaking before the Israel-Hamas war began, Abbass is candid about her life growing up in the Palestinian village of Deir Hanna. Although she was born into a family that was full of love, she found it difficult to express her artistic side. For years she kept her acting at the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem a secret from her parents, and struggled to come to terms with the fact that decisions were being made for her.

Abbass with Ramy Youssef (C) and Amr Waked in “Ramy.” (Supplied)

“You suffocate,” she says. “You suffocate from everything that is imposed on you. And don’t forget the political conflict and all the wars that we had to go through. This whole double identity: Who do you belong to, knowing that you are Palestinian, but you are a Palestinian in Israel?” The Nakba scattered her family. Her maternal aunt, Hosnieh, became a refugee in Syria and was not allowed to return. The family of her paternal grandmother ended up in Lebanon. Others, too, were torn from Palestine.

“Because I was born in Israel, I couldn’t get to any of these people. My grandma died with no contact with anybody from her family. She was the only person from her family that stayed in Palestine. Being born in this context, and having to prove to people all the time that you are Palestinian… You’re not even allowed to use the word. You cannot say ‘Palestine.’ At seven years old, during the ’67 war, I didn’t understand anything — ‘Who is fighting who? What’s going on? Who do we belong to?’ All of these are such early questions in the mind of a kid, but they stay with you,” she says.

“Being in the middle of all these Arab countries — living in this country that is the enemy of all the countries around you — is a heavy thing. And I couldn’t stand it. At one stage, I really couldn’t stand it… I felt that my place had to be somewhere else, or at least the oxygen that I was supposed to breathe was supposed to be different. I needed a different oxygen… just to be able to build something for myself in my career, in my way of being, in what I wanted to do in my life, without having to give any justification to anybody.”

Abbass (L) in 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” (Supplied)

So, in her early twenties, Abbass left Deir Hanna to follow her dream of becoming an actress in Europe. She eventually settled in Paris, married the French actor Zinedine Soualem (they have since divorced), and had two daughters, Lina and Mouna. Both have followed her into the film industry.

“Everything really came in steps,” says Abbass. “I never rushed the system. I just wanted to savor every minute of the decision that I had made, because it was my own choice. I just was happy being abroad, not working for a while, then happy being a mother and not necessarily an actress. So it felt like I gave time to everything and I have no regrets whatsoever about all these decisions that I made. And my career just came with it. I wasn’t greedy about anything. It built itself up in a kind of very authentic, natural way.”

Her first films were Rashid Masharawi’s “Haifa” and Cédric Klapisch’s “When the Cat’s Away,” both released in 1996. However, it was Raja Amari’s “Satin Rouge” that proved to be a pivotal moment in her career. Released in 2002, Abbass’ portrayal of a Tunisian widow who becomes a cabaret dancer was a “decision with no return.”

Abbass (center) with her “Succession” castmates Sarah Snook (L) and J Smith-Cameron in 2017. (AFP)

“When I said yes [to ‘Satin Rouge’] I thought, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is this really something I can hold on my shoulders after, because it’s not easy?’ And then I knew that I had to make a decision. It’s either I am an actress, or I am not. So, if I’m an actress, I go and I do it. And if I’m not, it means I stop now and I will never be one. So it was the turning point for me in that I knew by doing this there were people that would be hurt, people that wouldn’t like it, people that would think I’m not who I am — who would disrespect me. But it was the most important choice I made. That movie was a life- and a career-changer for me.”

She would go on to star in films including Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” as well as HBO’s “Succession” and Hulu’s “Ramy.” The latter two shows, in particular, have brought her international acclaim. And yet, despite her worldwide fame, much of Abbass’ work has centered on Arab cinema. She has played Syrians and Tunisians, appeared in Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now,” and starred in Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s “Dégradé,” which was set in a hair salon in Gaza.

“Every offer I’ve had from Palestine I said yes to, because it’s very important for me,” says Abbass, who is due to star in Annemarie Jacir’s upcoming film, “All Before You.” She was also artistic producer on “Egyptian Cigarettes,” the second episode in the third season of “Ramy,” which was directed by Jacir and set in Palestine.

Now that “Succession” has ended and “Ramy” is likely to end after its fourth season, Abbass is looking to the future, which she hopes will include Ramy Youssef, the Egyptian-American actor and creator of “Ramy,” who gave Abbass the opportunity to direct an episode of season three.

“I would love to develop stories with him and work with him again,” says Abbass of Youssef. “I have a feeling that the older I get, the more I want to do projects that connect the two cultures I’m involved in. We are who we are because we come from these places, with our culture, with whatever we carried, with whatever we inherited. And, at the same time, we’re living in Europe and we’re living in an influential Western world. Through cinema or TV, I would like these two worlds to meld together and to become one identity. Maybe there is this thing in me that is stronger than ever: To create this melting pot in cinema, where the two worlds can become one.”

And then there’s “Bye Bye Tiberias.” For Abbass, its importance lies in the documentation of a collective memory that is vanishing — something that she is grateful to her daughter for capturing. “I think it’s important to immortalize their struggle,” she says. “Someone like my grandma, she fed me her story, she fed me her beauty, she fed me her love for life, she fed me her smile… It’s nice to know that she’s eternal now.”

Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression

Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression
Updated 16 sec ago

Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression

Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression

DUBAI: Located in three distinctive areas of Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, a creative hub in the city, is a new site-specific work by Palestinian artist Dima Srouji titled “This is Not Your Grave,” which explores architecture’s uses as shelter, resistance and oppression.

The work is part of “Walk with Me,” Alserkal Avenue’s 2024-2025 edition of public art commissions curated by London-based Zoe Whitley, a curator, writer and the director of Chisenhale Gallery in the British capital.

Whitley was inspired by Alserkal Avenue’s accessibility and range of cultural offerings for visitors on foot rather than by car. The commissions thus invite the visitor to walk in the area and discover new work. The Alserkal public art commissions, which launched in 2015, realize ambitious new works in a way that makes them accessible to Alserkal Avenue visitors both aesthetically and intellectually.

“Library,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

A cornerstone of Srouji’s practice is what she refers to as “the failure of architecture.”

“It is meant to protect its people and its users, mostly in relation to the basic concept of architecture, which is shelter,” she told Arab News recently.

“Over the last few years, especially during COVID, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of shelter as a sanctuary and what it means to actually create a shelter in the middle of a crisis during my childhood in Palestine,” she added. “As we’re seeing it again now in Gaza under genocide, and that we’ve noticed in the imagery of Gaza since October, but also in Palestine in general since 1948, architecture has been used as a weapon to build a Zionist state,” the artist said.

“Library,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

One aspect Srouji says she has been thinking about in relation to shelter is how “it is not necessarily just architectural spaces and domestic spaces where you can hide in a tunnel underground or use the tunnel underground as a space of resistance, but also elements as simple as a bathtub used as sites of shelter … because if the bombing is happening in the neighborhood nearby and you can’t run downstairs as quickly as you need to, then the closest safe space is a bathtub. The same thing with the staircase.”

The three-part installation represents a bathtub, staircase and tunnel as architectural aspects that reflect shelter.

“Sanctuary,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

“I’m not just interested in them architecturally because of their sense of scale as compressed spaces and so on, but actually because they are spaces where people can gather and the family structure becomes the actual sanctuary and then they serve as shelter,” she said.

Whitley says she first encountered Srouji’s work in a group exhibition in Jeddah. “I was immediately transfixed by her sensitivity to her surroundings and careful study of how cities are made, then evolve. She shows us how we move through and within spaces — often not in the way an architect intended,” she told Arab News.

“Library,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

“Dima’s three-part installation very literally encourages a walk through Alserkal Avenue,” she added. “Every curator aims for ‘dwell time’ from viewers and Dima’s concept encourages us to gather, to linger and to reflect.”

Projects by artists Abbas Akhavan, Asma Belhamar and Vikram Divecha will be developed over the course of the year and will complement Srouji’s by activating and punctuating places across the site.

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch
Updated 16 min 8 sec ago

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch

DUBAI: Abu Dhabi is welcoming cultural leaders from around the world to the sixth edition of Culture Summit Abu Dhabi.

Taking place from March 3-5, this year’s edition is titled “A Matter of Time,” and will take place at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

Organized by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, the summit will bring together thought leaders, artists and culture specialists to share inspiring stories, case studies and world perspectives.

Visitors can register their interest on the summit’s official website. All sessions will be streamed live on Culture Summit Abu Dhabi’s YouTube channel.

Here we take a look at five thought-provoking panels taking place at the summit:

Keynote speech by Adonis

On the first day of the summit, Syrian poet and essayist Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known as Adonis, will deliver a keynote speech. He is the author of many collections of poetry and is considered the leader of the modernist movement in contemporary Arabic poetry in the second half of the 20th century. He has been a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature and is the first Arab writer to win the Goethe Prize in 2011.

The speech will be delivered at 9.50 a.m. on Sunday.

Ministerial dialogue

The 2024 edition of the summit will also inaugurate a new series entitled “Ministerial Dialogue,” jointly organized by DCT Abu Dhabi and UNESCO. The platform offers culture ministers the opportunity to share reflections with the global culture and creative sector on the outcomes of UNESCO’s MONDIACULT 2022 summit and how they see their work paving the path towards the 2025 summit. This year’s session will feature Mohamed Khalifa Al-Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, and Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, along with several other ministers from around the world.

The panel will take place on Monday at 10 a.m.

Creative conversation with Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wole Soyinka

Famed Nigerian playwright and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wole Soyinka will be in conversation with Manthia Diawara, professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Soyinka was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature for “a wide cultural perspective and poetic overtones fashioning the drama of existence.”

The conversation will take place on Sunday at 10.40 a.m.

Creative conversation on Batman

Abu Dhabi Film and Television Commissioner Hans Fraikin will be in conversation with film producer Michael E. Uslan, popularly known as the “father of the modern Batman.” He will be joined by son and producer David Uslan as they look back at the history of the series.

The session will take place at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Panel on artificial intelligence

The hot button topic of the moment, artificial intelligence, will also get its time in the spotlight as industry experts answer the question: “Is the journey of AI worth the cost of human creativity?” Speakers including Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of The Recording Academy; Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi Film and Television commissioner; Cathy Hackl, prominent tech futurist and emerging tech executive; and Tom Wainwright, tech and media editor at The Economist, will take part in the panel.

The discussion will take place on Monday at 2.35 p.m.

Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel

Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel
Updated 29 February 2024

Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel

Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel

ROME: Almost 9,000 people, including artists, curators and museum directors, have signed an online appeal calling for Israel to be excluded from this year's Venice Biennale art fair and accusing the country of “genocide” in Gaza.

Israel has been facing mounting international criticism, including in the arts world, over its military offensive in the Palestinian enclave, which happened after an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants in southern Israel.

“Any official representation of Israel on the international cultural stage is an endorsement of its policies and of the genocide in Gaza,” said the online statement by the Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA) collective.

ANGA said the Venice Biennale had previously banned South Africa over its apartheid policy of white minority rule, and excluded Russia after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said the appeal was an “unacceptable, as well as shameful ... diktat of those who believe they are the custodians of truth, and with arrogance and hatred, think they can threaten freedom of thought and creative expression.”

He said in a statement that Israel “not only has the right to express its art, but also the duty to bear witness to its people” after being attacked by “merciless terrorists.”

The Venice Biennale press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Signatories of the appeal include Palestine Museum US director Faisal Saleh, activist US photographer Nan Goldin and British visual artist Jesse Darling, who won last year’s Turner Prize.

Dubbed the “Olympics of the art world,” the Biennale is one of the main events in the international arts calendar. This year’s edition, “Foreigners Everywhere,” is due to host pavilions from 90 countries between April 20 and Nov. 24.

Third edition of AlUla Arts Festival champions public art and cross-cultural dialogue 

Third edition of AlUla Arts Festival champions public art and cross-cultural dialogue 
Updated 29 February 2024

Third edition of AlUla Arts Festival champions public art and cross-cultural dialogue 

Third edition of AlUla Arts Festival champions public art and cross-cultural dialogue 
  • The festival showcases AlUla as a global and regional destination for art and culture  

ALULA: Positioned outside Madrasat Addeera — a former girls’ school in AlUla that has been turned into a creative arts center — are creations by five design practices, the results of the first AlUla Design Residency.  

Hall Haus, a creative collective from France, took inspiration from the traditional Arabic majlis for its giant modular sand-colored sofa, entitled “Haus Dari.” “Peculiar Erosians,” meanwhile, is a series of sculptural works by another French designer, Leo Orta, that were inspired by the mud-brick architecture of AlUla and the geology of the region. And Saudi artist Leen Ajlan created her modular seating area, “Takki,” from reclaimed wood and was inspired by regional boardgames, popular in the evenings in AlUla, such as jackaroo, backgammon and carrom. The two other works are “Surface!” from Bahrain-based design studio bahraini-danish, and “From Debris” by Studio Raw Material from India. 

Leen Ajlan's 'Takki' on show at the Design Residency Exhibition. (Lorenzo Arrigoni/ Supplied)

Together, the works form “Unguessed Kinships,” an exhibition curated by Ali Ismail Karimi, which runs until April 30.  

“For the duration of a period from the end of October 2023 to the end of January 2024 these designers have been based in AlUla exploring materiality, objects, furniture and the ways in which design mediates public space,” Karimi told Arab News. “Of course, during the residency a series of conversations came up on the role of design in a place like AlUla and within the larger vision for Saudi Arabia in this moment and the conversations led us to the way design objects act as mediators between different unities and different publics from around the world, Saudi Arabia, and the wider Middle East, coming to AlUla and interacting.” 

“Unguessed Kinships” is one of several exhibitions taking place during the third edition of the AlUla Arts Festival, which runs until March 2, and which immerses visitors in a vibrant showcase of visual and public art and design throughout the ancient city. 

Highlights include the return of the international open-air art exhibition Desert X AlUla, and two exhibitions of Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan’s work that form part of the pre-opening program for Wadi AlFann, a new “cultural destination.” 

Elsewhere there is AlUla 1445, an outdoor exhibition of typically vibrant photographs taken by Moroccan pop artist Hassan Hajjaj of residents of AlUla, including farmers, sports teams, merchants, craftspeople and the creative community, taken in February last year.  

Hassan Hajjaj's 'AlUla 1445.' (Supplied)

And this year’s festival includes is the first public showing of Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi’s Ithra Art Prize-winning piece, “Palms in Eternal Embrace,” which explores what Alsafi calls “the dialogue about the deeper relationship between the landscape and humanity.” The work, staged in AlUla’s AlJadidah Arts District, is a site-specific installation comprising 30 palm trunks intricately woven together using a diverse array of locally sourced organic or recycled textiles in collaboration with local artisans. The work encourages viewers to reflect on ways to safeguard the natural environment and the endangered palm trees.  

The first of the two exhibitions of the work of Manal AlDowayan, who will also represent Saudi Arabia at the Venice Biennale this year, marks the lead-up to her monumental new land art commission “Oasis of Stories” (also the name of the exhibition), a large-scale labyrinthine installation inspired by AlUla’s Old Town, which will be permanently placed in the desert around AlUla from 2026. It features hundreds of drawings gathered from the artist’s participatory workshops with communities across AlUla. The drawings and stories will eventually be inscribed into the walls of “Oasis of Stories.” The second exhibition, “Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths,” examines AlDowayan’s practice and the recent inspiration she has derived from AlUla.  

The festival also marks the opening of Design Space AlUla in the AlJadidah Arts District, a focal point for AlUla’s wide-ranging design initiatives, and a major contribution to the vision that AlUla will become a global destination for art and culture. 

Hall Haus's 'Haus Dari' from the Design Residency Exhibition. (Lorenzo Arrigoni/ Supplied)

The event also presents the results of the annual AlUla Visual Arts Residency in “The Shadow Over Everything,” curated by Maryam Bilal. The show transfroms Mabiti’s palm grove into an outdoor experiential exhibition featuring works by artists from across the world. 

“We created the residency so that it becomes the source for our longer-term projects, such as the museums,” Arnaud Morand, head of innovation and creation at the French Agency for AlUla Development, said. “It is a way for us to create a laboratory of contemporary creation that will feed the other long-term projects. 

“We are also trying to identify talent through the residency that could be invited afterwards to pursue research into more ambitious commissions, whether for museum pieces to feed our collection strategy, or public art strategy, or otherwise,” he added.  

Works on view at “The Shadow Over Everything” include an installation/performance artwork by Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla titled “If…to be born,” which consists of mud sculptures and a live performance that delves into Arab folklore and myth.  

And in the dazzling, mirror-clad Maraya Concert Hall “More than Meets the Eye,” an exhibition of contemporary works of art by Saudi artits on loan from collectors across Saudi Arabia, is intended to “re-canonize the history of contemporary art movements in Saudi Arabia, documenting the story of artists and the role of collectors in the development of the art scene,” according to a press statement. 

Curated by Dr. Effat Abdullah Fadag, the exhibition presents key works by pioneering Saudi artists including Abdulhalim Radwi, Mohammed Alsaleem and Mounirah Mously alongside leading contemporary artists from the Kingdom such as Ahmed Mater, Muhannad Shono and Dana Awartani. The exhibition showcases works that have rarely been presented to the public.  

TRAILBLAZERS: Nabila Al-Bassam — groundbreaking Saudi artist and gallery owner 

TRAILBLAZERS: Nabila Al-Bassam — groundbreaking Saudi artist and gallery owner 
Updated 29 February 2024

TRAILBLAZERS: Nabila Al-Bassam — groundbreaking Saudi artist and gallery owner 

TRAILBLAZERS: Nabila Al-Bassam — groundbreaking Saudi artist and gallery owner 

DUBAI: The first in this year’s series highlighting pioneering female artists from the Arab world in honor of Women’s History Month. 

The life of Saudi artist, teacher, traveler and gallery owner Nabila Al-Bassam is as multilayered as her detailed textile collage works. Al-Bassam was born in India, where her family had previously established business ties. She lived there for 17 years and was educated in Mumbai before going on to the American University of Beirut, one of the Arab world’s top learning institutions. 

Al-Bassam, who is now based in Alkhobar, graduated with a Master’s degree in education in 1968. She then headed to the US, where she learned how to work with paper, textiles, silkscreen printing and ceramics. Returning to her home country in the late Seventies, Al-Bassam established the Arab Heritage Gallery, reportedly one of the first gallery spaces to open in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.  

One of Nabila Al-Bassam's textile works on show at the Diriyah Biennale. (Courtesy of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation)

A selection of her colorful pieces from the Nineties are now being shown for the first time at the Diriyah Biennale in Riyadh, where co-curator Wejdan Reda told Arab News: “She realized that she wanted to create a space dedicated to art. She was very interested in preserving the crafts and knowledge behind textile making.” That led Al-Bassam to travel around the country for many years, which was uncommon for a woman at the time.  

On her travels, Al-Bassam was inspired by both the scenery and the people. She met local craftswomen and collected a variety of materials, including silver beads, traditional dress cloths and old fabrics, which she later incorporated into her textile canvases. She was also inspired by the traditional sadu weaving technique, which features symmetrical patterns of triangles and diamonds, often colored in red, black, brown and white.  

Many of Al-Bassam’s woven pieces, some of which have been showcased in international auction houses including Sotheby’s and Phillips, are an homage to the mountainous, palm-tree-lined Saudi landscape. Rows of cloth are stacked on top of one another, forming a colorful orchestra of hills or dunes that accommodate little houses and imposing, patterned towers.