Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 

Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 
Safwan Modir (L) and Omar Almaeena in “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)
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Updated 01 March 2024
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Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 

Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 
  • How two childhood friends made their newfound love for camels the heart of a Netflix hit 

LONDON: It takes a certain level of trust to go into business with your best friend. It takes an even greater degree of faith to do so in an industry that is new to both of you. And it takes a crazy amount of love and commitment to document that journey together and showcase it to audiences around the world.  

But ‘a crazy amount of love and commitment’ is a pretty good way to sum up the relationship between childhood friends Safwan Modir and Omar Almaeena, the stars of comedy docuseries “Camel Quest,” which premiered on Netflix at the start of February and went straight into the streaming service’s regional top 10. The show sees the duo travel across Saudi Arabia in a bid to reach the Crown Prince Camel Festival, learning more about the revered animal — and themselves — along the way.  

Key to the show’s success is the fact that Modir and Almaeena, now 40, have known each other for more than half their lives. 




Safwan Modir (L) and Omar Almaeena (center) shooting “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

“We met when we were 16,” says Modir. “We met at a mutual friend’s house, and we clicked immediately. We’ve been good friends since then. Omar was studying in the United States, so we used to talk through Messenger or phone calls, and then every time he came back to Saudi, we would do crazy things. And we were always dreaming of doing something together as we grew up.” 

And while no obvious opportunity to work together presented itself — “Saf went into being a hotelier,” Almaeena recalls, “and I was bouncing around trying to figure out what I was good at” — that desire to create a project together never went away. The pair’s separate careers continued to develop. Modir became the youngest Saudi general manager of a five-star hotel, and Almaeena became a seasoned entrepreneur with a series of successful startups. 

“Omar came back after COVID,” Modir recalls, “and he had been bitten by the bug of entrepreneurship. He came to the hotel to visit, and he saw the setup, and he said to me: ‘Safwan, I think we should do something together.’ That’s when everything started to cook.” 




Omar Almaeena (center) and Safwan Modir. (Supplied)

That ‘something’ turned out to be the camel business — an industry that, Almaeena admits, he “wasn’t very keen on” at first. “But we found it to be a very lovely world that can be passionate and loving towards the camels, yet also financially viable if done properly.” 

“There was a lot of movement in the camel world,” Modir adds. “It’s going in a similar direction to the horse industry — it’s becoming super-fancy; you have beauty competitions, you have races, you have competitions all over the world, with royalty attending. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed love camels, and one of the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030 is to take the camel industry to the next level — to the level of the horse industry and maybe even beyond. 

“And,” he adds with a laugh, “it’s something that we had absolutely no clue about. We had never seen camels (up close) in our lives. So that was a challenge. It took me time to convince Omar that there was an opportunity here.” 




Omar Almaeena (L) and Safwan Modir in their Netflix show “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

And therein lies the second reason the pair have had such success. Modir and Almaeena share the kind of comedic chemistry that can’t be workshopped or choregraphed — and the kind of trust that convinces two successful men to leave their existing careers and start something new together. 

“The fear was there, but the support from my family, especially my wife, was there too,” says Modir. “And having my best friend beside me made it easier.” 

The two started the Redsea Camel Company — a camel breeding farm (and soon to be racing stable) in Al Qassim — powered by their collective experience and ceaseless enthusiasm. And it’s been such a rewarding experience that Almaeena suggested making a TV show about it. So, looking back now, was he scared too? 

“No, no, no…” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve done this so many times, and I’ve failed so many times, what’s one more…?”  




Omar Almaeena (L) and Safwan Modir in “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

The chuckle is swiftly upgraded to a full-blown laugh from both men — something that happens a lot during their conversation with us. “There’s trust there, that was so important. I can’t lie, and I don’t know how to sugarcoat things.” 

Despite the fact that they had as much experience with TV production as they had previously had with camels — i.e. none — the pair made smart decisions, surrounding themselves with professionals who could help them tell their story. Director Tarek Bou Chebel, creative directors Rana Sabbagha and Amin Dora (who also served as showrunner) bought in, convinced as much by the relationship between the two friends as by the concept for the show — which wound up being perfectly timed with the Saudi Ministry of Culture’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of the Camel. 

They started filming in November 2021, and finished in the first weeks of 2022. The pair recall being scared on the morning of the first day, but that getting the first shot in the can did a lot to calm their nerves — not to mention those of the director.  

“We thought we would be repeating that first scene 20 times,” says Modir. “But we did it, and the director said we were amazing. And that he had been worried, but that we had surprised him.” 

“He came clean afterwards,” Almaeena says with a laugh. “He said we were naturals. That gave us a lot of confidence.” 




Safwan Modir (top) and Omar Almaeena in a promo shoot for “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

Although the pair’s comedic chemistry is key to “Camel Quest,” it was important that the real stars of the show were given the respect they deserved. 

“The joke is always on us, as it should be,” says Almaeena. “There have been instances in the past where the joke was on the camel, and it wasn’t very well received.” 

“The joke is about Omar pranking me,” adds Modir. “Just like when we were kids. But it’s never about the camels; we were very careful to take that into consideration.” 

“The (idea) is to build this business, and to understand how it takes us across Saudi Arabia to see the camels in different cities,” Almaeena continues. “To see the beauty contests, to see camels raised for milk, or for meat. You see all the different variations. But the point is, whoever has them, you see the ultimate love for this animal.” 

The pair insist they didn’t fall out during the trip — Modir, when pressed, slightly amends this and says it did happen once, but only because Almaeena cancelled his food order — and they would love to do a second series. But that’s only the start of their plans for their camel empire. 

“The breeding program has shot up now, and Saf’s come up with some brilliant ideas for the program and getting people involved,” Almaeena explains. “People are signing up to buy camels from us, and we’re close to finalizing the racing team, which will have its first race in May. And we have one movie hopefully close to preproduction, and another in the pipeline.” 

But in all of these projects, one thing remains constant — and no wonder, given how well it’s served them thus far. 

“I’m handling the camels, and Omar is handling everything to do with the movies and production,” says Modir. “But, with all of these things, we’ll be doing it together.” 


Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles

Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles
Updated 14 April 2024
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Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles

Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles

DUBAI: US actress and producer Jessica Chastain sparkled in a purple jumpsuit by Lebanese designer Elie Saab at the Annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

Chastain — who has previously championed looks by Lebanon’s Zuhair Murad, among other Arab designers — hit the red carpet in the sequined number that boasted a plunging neckline and bootleg-style pants. Celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart finished off Chastain’s look with a statement necklace by Damiani jewelry.

US actress and producer Jessica Chastain sparkled in a purple jumpsuit by Lebanese designer Elie Saab. (Getty Images)

French Canadian scientist Michel Sadelain was awarded an "Oscars of Science" for his research into genetically modifying immune cells to fight cancer at the event, AFP reported.

The genetic engineer was awarded the Breakthrough Prize at a glitzy ceremony attended by tech giants such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, and an array of celebrities including Chastain, Robert Downey Jr. and Bradley Cooper.

His work has led to the development of a new form of therapy called CAR-T that has shown exceptional efficacy against certain blood cancers.

"This prize is an extraordinary recognition," Sadelain told AFP on the red carpet at the Oscars Museum. "It's all the more of an honor because ... my scientific colleagues told me for a long time that it would never work.

Honorees Dr. Michel Sadelain, right, and Dr. Carl H. June accept awards onstage during the 10th Breakthrough Prize Ceremony. (Getty Images)

"The greatest pleasure, however, is to see patients... who no longer had a chance and who thank us, who are alive today thanks to CAR-T cells," added Sadelain.

Launched in 2010, the Breakthrough Prize awards "the world's most brilliant minds" in fields including life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics, styling itself as the Silicon Valley-backed answer to the Nobels.

Dubbed the "Oscars for Science", founding sponsors include Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.

Sadelain will split the $3 million prize money with American immunologist Carl June, who also led groundbreaking research into the field independently of his co-winner.

Sadelain studied medicine in Paris, then immunology in Canada, before taking up postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989.

Other celebrity guests at the event includes actresses Zoe Saldana and Margot Robbie, director Olivia Wilde and Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, among others.


Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival

Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival
Updated 14 April 2024
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Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival

Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival

DUBAI: Saint Levant, a Palestinian French Algerian Serbian rapper, performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival music festival in California on Saturday.

The musician used the opportunity to address the ongoing war in Gaza, saying: “Coachella, my name is Saint Levant and I was born in Jerusalem and raised in Gaza … as I hope all of you are aware, the people of Gaza have been undergoing a brutal, brutal genocide for the past six months. And the people of Palestine have been undergoing a brutal occupation for the past 75 years.”

Saint Levant performed a series of his hits, including “Nails,” “From Gaza, With Love” and a slowed-down version of “Very Few Friends.” The artist also performed “Deira” and “5am in Paris,” which was released last week.

“It’s about exile,” he said, describing the new song. “A feeling that us Palestinians know a bit too well.”

Born Marwan Abdelhamid in Jerusalem, the singer previously spoke to Arab News about his childhood.

“The actual cultural makeup is my mom is half-French and half-Algerian. My dad is Serbian, half-Palestinian. And they actually both grew up in Algeria. But they decided, in the early 90s, post the Oslo Accords, that Palestine was going to be free.

“So they went back, my dad went to live in Gaza in the early 1980s. And my dad actually built a hotel there and that’s where I grew up,” he said.

“For everyone, childhood is very meaningful. And for me, it was a juxtaposition because I remember the sound of the drones and the sounds of the bones. But more than anything, I remember the warmth, and the smell … and the taste of food and just the odd feeling of soil.”


Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon

Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon
Updated 14 April 2024
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Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon

Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon
  • The newly rediscovered medallion features a portrait of Sultan Mehmed II The Conqueror
  • The item is expected to sell for around £2 million at auction at Bonhams of London

LONDON: To the Christians of Europe in the mid-15th century, the Islamic leader Mehmed II was “the terror of the world,” a “venomous dragon” at the head of “bloodthirsty hordes.”

The Roman Catholic Pope, Nicholas V, went even further. To him, the seventh ruler of the Ottoman Empire was nothing less than “the son of Satan, perdition and death.”

Understandably, Mehmed’s subjects felt rather differently about the man who between 1444 and 1481 would triple the size of the empire.

Illustration showing Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople. (Shutterstock)

To them, he was “The Father of Conquest,” the man who in 1453, at the age of 21, achieved the impossible by capturing the supposedly impregnable fortress of Constantinople.

The single most strategically important city of the Middle Ages, Constantinople had been in Christian hands ever since its foundation in 330 AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

In modern-day Turkiye, Mehmed II is considered a hero by many. Symbolically, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which was completed in 1988 and links Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, bears his name.

Now, a unique and only recently rediscovered portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror, created an estimated three years before his most celebrated feat of arms, is coming up for sale at an auction at Bonhams of London, at which it is predicted to fetch as much as £2 million ($2.53 million).

This painting of Mehmed the Conqueror by Venetian artist Gentile Bellini in about 1480 can be seen at the National Gallery in London. (Supplied)

This is far from being the only known portrait of Mehmed; one of the most famous, painted by the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini in about 1480, can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

The uniqueness of the likeness on the bronze medallion is that it is not only the only known portrait of Mehmed II as a young man, pictured before he conquered Constantinople, but also the earliest known portrait of any Islamic ruler by a Western artist.

There is no date on the medal. But the clue to when the portrait was executed — almost certainly from life, by a skilled but anonymous Renaissance artist — lies in the Latin inscription, which reads: “Great Prince and Great Emir, Sultan Master Mehmet.”

Tellingly, said Oliver White, Bonhams’ head of Islamic and Indian art, “the inscription lacks the ‘Imperatorial’ title, which was included on medals after the fall of Constantinople.”

Experts have also concluded that, because of the absence of any design or lettering on the reverse of the brass medallion, plus the existence of a hole at its top, through which a chain might have been attached, it could well have been “a deeply personal and significant possession of the great Sultan.”

FASTFACTS

• Size of of Ottoman Empire would triple between 1444 and 1481.

• In 1453, at the age of 21, Mehmed II captured Constantinople.

• Mehmed II made further conquests before dying aged 49 in 1481 .

This, said White, suggests the intriguing possibility that it might once have hung around the neck of The Conqueror as a talisman. Indeed, in a later portrait Mehmed is depicted wearing what appears to be the very same medal.

“For us, the single most important historical element is that we believe that the medal belonged personally to Mehmed,” said White.

“You can also say it was almost certainly done from life, that it is a real portrait that actually looks like him rather than being a typical generic miniature painting of a sultan.”

Although the name of the artist remains unknown, “we do know that it was made in Italy, because that’s where all these pieces were being made at the time, when it was a fairly new thing.

“The whole concept of these portrait medallions, which had been resurrected from ancient Rome, had begun only about 20 years earlier, in the 1430s.”

Presenting the fall of Constantinople as an existential struggle between Christianity and Islam would be to simplify a complex situation, said White. There were Turks among the defenders of Constantinople, loyal to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, and thousands of Christians among the 50,000-strong Ottoman army.

Shutterstock image

In a short biography commissioned by Bonhams, historian Peter Frankopan writes that despite the portrayal of Mehmed in contemporary European propaganda as a tyrant, in fact “the conquest of Constantinople was accompanied by a set of policies that even critics conceded showed a surprising degree of tolerance, most notably to the Greek Orthodox Christians who were protected from persecution by laws as well as by the sultan’s personal command — with similar concessions being given to Armenian Christians, to Jews and to other minorities in the city.”

Nevertheless, the fall of the city, “which had been the subject of lavish investment by the Roman Emperor Constantine and had stood for more than a millennium as the capital of the Roman Empire in the east — usually called the Byzantine Empire — sent shockwaves through the Mediterranean and beyond.

“Constantinople’s fall to Mehmed and his forces was not so much a dramatic moment as a decisive turning point in history.”

Art experts from Sotheby's talk about Paul Signac's "La Corne d'Or (Constantinople)" during an auction preview November 1, 2019 at Sotheby's in New York. (AFP/File photo)

In fact, according to the Victorian British historian Lord Acton, modern history began “under the stress of the Ottoman conquest.”

In Acton’s view, wrote Frankopan, “the failure of Europeans to put their differences to one side, the reluctance of Christians in the west to support their Greek-speaking Orthodox neighbours to the east, and the ineffective response to the threat posed by Mehmed and his Muslim armies set off a chain reaction that ultimately helped shape the Reformation — if not the age of global empires that emerged from places such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain.”

It was, said White, “no exaggeration to say that the fall of Constantinople shaped the modern world — and it was with the eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that many of the problems of the modern world arose.”

Ruins of Rumelihisari, Bogazkesen Castle, or Rumelian Castle, built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.  located at the hills of the European side of Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul, Turkiye. (Shutterstock image)

In his relatively brief life — he died at the age of 49 in 1481 — Mehmed achieved much, including a series of further conquests in Asia and Europe. But although he carved his way through much of the 15th century with a sword, he was a man of contradictions, introducing many political and social reforms at home and proving a great patron of the arts and sciences.

“He gathered Italian humanists and Greek scholars to his court,” said White, “and by the end of his reign had transformed Constantinople into a thriving imperial capital.”

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Although Mehmed commissioned many portraits of himself during his reign, executed in the Italian style, it is the rarity of the medallion that has invested it with such a high potential value.

“The medal was acquired by its present owner in an auction in Rome in 2000,” said White. “It was lumped in with a job lot of medals, and considered to be of very little importance.”

At the time no one quite understood its significance. A lot of academics have looked at it, and for seven or eight years after the original sale it was thought it might date to the 1460s, which was post-Constantinople and therefore less.”

Finally, it was realized that Mehmed had been referred to by the Latin title “Magnus princeps” only once before — in a treaty with Venice, drawn up in the 1440s.

In all portraits and references following the 53-day siege of 1453 he is referred to without exception as “The Conqueror of Constantinople.”


ALSO READ: Book by Saudi author unravels Ottoman atrocities in Madinah


The unnamed owner is now parting with the medal after the successful completion of two decades of research into its history.

“It’s been his baby for 25 years,” said White, “and I think he feels, ‘we know what it is now, and it's time for the public to enjoy it’.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that the medal will be purchased by an institution, said White. But the expected price and the historical significance of the piece in the story of Islam suggests at least “the possibility” that bidders will include some of the great museums of the Middle East.

Tipu Sultan's fabled bedchamber sword sold for £14 million at Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art sale in London on May 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Bonhams)

Bidding will have to be furious to beat the world record for an Islamic and Indian object, set by the sale in London last year of the sword of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India between 1782 and 1799, for £14 million.

The Mehmed medallion, estimated at between £1.5-2 million, will be the star lot at the Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art Sale on May 21 at Bonhams New Bond Street, London.

 


Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more

Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more
Updated 13 April 2024
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Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more

Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more

DUBAI: Cinema for Gaza, which was launched by a group of female filmmakers and film journalists, has raised $316,778 to support the UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians through a celebrity auction, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The auction featured donations from Tilda Swinton, Annie Lennox, Joaquin Phoenix, Spike Lee and Guillermo del Toro among others. 

Lennox’s handwritten lyrics to her Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams” was the top seller, with a bidder paying $26,222 for the item.

Meanwhile, “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer, who received criticism online for referencing the Gaza conflict in his 2024 Oscars acceptance speech, donated seven posters from the film, signed by himself, composer Mica Levi and producer James Wilson, as well as a selection of posters for his 2014 feature “Under the Skin,” which collectively raised $13,702. 

US-Egyptian comedian and creator Ramy Youssef donated tickets to his live show as well as to the afterparty and a meet-and-greet. Oscar-winner Phoenix donated a signed “Joker” poster. Del Toro contributed six signed books. Lee contributed a signed, framed poster of Malcolm X.

“We thought we might raise maybe £20,000 ($25,000),” said London-based film journalist and critic Hanna Flint to The Hollywood Reporter.

Flint set up Cinema for Gaza together with her film-industry friends Hannah Farr, Julia Jackman, Leila Latif, Sophie Monks Kaufman, and Helen Simmons a few months after the start of Israel’s ongoing military assault on Gaza.

“We’re a very diverse group of women, we’ve got women of color, we’ve got Jewish women, Muslim women, Christians, atheists, who all came together out of this need to do something tangible to show our support and activism for the humanitarian crisis that’s going on (in Gaza),” said Flint.

“We really believe that cinema can be a powerful tool, a political tool, to speak about the world, to reflect and engage with what’s going on, and, we thought, what better way (to get) people in our industry to come together to try and help people who are not doing that well?”
 


Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show

Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show
Updated 13 April 2024
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Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show

Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show

DUBAI: Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr, who is set to perform at the Dubai Comedy Festival on April 17, says he is an activist who “likes to use comedy as his tool.”

In an interview with Arab News ahead of his show at the Dubai Opera, Zahr said: “Activism is about telling the truth. Being Palestinian is about telling the truth. And comedy is about telling the truth. People sometimes say to me, ‘Hey, I never know when you’re joking.’ I tell them, ‘Look, I’m always being serious. I’m always telling the truth.’ But a comedian uses humor to tell the truth.

“Because if you can make someone laugh, they listen to you and they let down their guard.

“And we Palestinians have been trying to tell our story for 75 years. And we’ve been using art, music, poetry … but for me, I found that comedy is a very effective way. So, I’m a Palestinian first who is trying to tell our stories, and comedy is my tool,” he added.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amer Zahr (@amerzahr)

Zahr, who is also a law professor and political activist, said he got hooked to stand-up comedy while in law school.

“I had thought about comedy and then in law school, the opportunity presented itself where there was a show going on, and they kind of asked if anyone wants to do some comedy before the main comedian comes on. And so, I said ‘let me try it.’ I got up there. I told a couple stories about my dad. Everybody laughed, and I got kind of hooked to the idea of being on a stage and being able to make people laugh and connect with people in that way,” said Zahr.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amer Zahr (@amerzahr)

For Zahr, the allure of stand-up comes from the fact that it involves “speaking truth to power.”

He said: “Comedy is one of the purest art forms. When somebody sings, we’re okay with it if we learned later on that they didn’t write the song. We’re just happy they have a great voice. But when you hear a comedian, you assume that everything that that person is saying is genuine and coming from them. And if you learned later that it wasn’t, you might feel cheated.

“Comedy is a very personal art form between the audience and the comedian. And, so, that’s something that you that you grow into. And then comedy, in its purest form, is a form of protest, speaking truth to power. And, so, it kind of fits the Palestinian story perfectly,” he added.

Asked about what audiences can expect from his Dubai show, Zahr said: “It’s going to be me telling the Palestinian story from before Oct. 7, and after Oct. 7, with love, laughter and the truth. And maybe during the show, I’ll make people laugh until they cry. And sometimes I’ll make them cry until they laugh.”