x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Arts&Life looks back: five years on

As The National turns five, Arts&Life writers past and present reflect on their favourite stories.

The Scottish actor Gerard Butler. Sarah Dea / The National
The Scottish actor Gerard Butler. Sarah Dea / The National

Gerard Butler

In my 10-year career as a journalist, only one interviewee has managed to reduce me to a blushing, stammering wreck: the Hollywood hunk Gerard Butler.

The 43-year-old Olympus Has Fallen actor was unable to sit still in his chair, bursting with nervous energy and peppering his answers with wild anecdotes and risqué one-liners – and was more than a little challenging to interview.

Tinseltown’s man of the moment was in Dubai in November to promote the latest timepieces by the luxury watch brand Roger Dubuis. It was a seemingly straightforward question that prompted an emotional response that surprised us both.

“If you could freeze time, what moment would you go back and stop?” I asked.

From his hunched-forward position, Butler launched himself back in the chair, arms clasping his head as if bracing for an impact. He stared straight ahead, unblinking for what seemed like an eternity before quietly responding. “I would go back to being 9 years old, when I was playing football for my primary school,” he said. “I scored a goal and it put us in the lead. I never felt so high in my life.”

He went off on a nostalgic tangent, speaking of home, musing about his mother and telling me how far he felt from his Scottish homeland and the family and friends he had there.

While much of the rogue’s answers were unprintable and will forever remain classified in a secret dictaphone file, it was a treat to expose the hard man’s softer side, if only for a few moments.

Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane, Features writer

Read Spending time with Gerard Butler here

M?F Husain

MF Husain, the “Indian Picasso”, was my great white whale during the year I spent writing about art for The National. Exiled from his home country on politico-religious grounds, the venerable painter was known to frequent art openings around the Gulf and whenever there was a rumour that he was to appear, there I would be, notebook in hand.

At my third failed rendezvous, I met his son, Owais. “Waiting for my father is like waiting for Godot,” he told me sympathetically. In April 2010, word went around that Husain was going to be in the DIFC to promote some prints of his work. Well, I was there. And to my astonishment, so was he: 94 years old, spindly and magnificent in his white robe and Lennon spectacles, and carrying a walking stick that was really a giant paintbrush. He sat with me for an hour, ranging indiscreetly over his whole extraordinary career – his films, friends, enemies and artistic ideals.

The master’s advice for late bloomers stuck in a rut bears repeating: “To evolve something, you need at least 30 or a minimum of 40 years of perseverance, just to focus on that. Then it comes.”

Well, it didn’t take me quite that long to catch up with him but I couldn’t have waited much longer. A little more than a year later, I left The National and the UAE. That same month, Husain died in London. Too soon, it seemed to me.

Ed Lake, former features writer, Former deputy editor of The Review

Saji Karunakaran

Initially, it was hard to figure out whether Saji Karunakaran did not share his opinions about most things in his life or whether he was shy. Turns out it was a bit of both. A polite man, his eyes twinkled and he smiled only when you talked art. Growing up, he had endured regular beatings from his father when he was caught painting. It was a waste of time, he was told. So he turned art into a secret, bringing it with him from Kerala to the UAE where he works as a labourer on an oil rig.

It was here friends around him noticed his potential. Karunakaran would spend his evenings and weekends painting by sitting on top of a bunk bed in a cramped room he shared with five men, using supplies bought from a meagre income of Dh1,700. The supplies were cheap but the paintings were remarkable for a man with no training and basic literacy skills, a man who saved every penny he earned to buy books on art to learn technique.

When we met, he proudly showed me his collection of books – all three of them. He continues to paint with one lofty goal in mind: that some day a gallery will exhibit his paintings.

Suryatapa Bhattacharya,foreign correspondent Read Saji Karunakaran's interview here

Abu Dhabi’s muezzins

For some, they are the first sounds we hear at the crack of dawn. For the devout, they are the voices promising salvation and hope. The 2004 decision to centralise the call to prayer – from the Sheikh Khalifa mosque near the old souq before eventually moving to the newly built Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – resulted in an audition process where men had to prove their vocal chops to warrant the honoured spot as one of the capital’s official muezzins.

My interviews with the muezzins Saeed Al Bathimi and Muhammed El Yass revealed a life steeped in heavy responsibility.

“If the adhan is performed correctly and it comes straight from the heart of the muezzin, than I guarantee it will go straight to the heart of the Muslim, and non-Muslims will feel peace when hearing it,” said Al Bathimi. “If not, that means we are not doing our jobs the right way.”

Saeed Saeed, Features writer Read the muezzin story here

Arva Ahmed’s walking food tours

When Arva Ahmed (who writes The National’s Food Obsession column) first told me that she was planning to launch a food-tour business, taking people on eating adventures and visiting all the hidden, authentic spots that she’d unearthed in old Dubai, I knew from the start that it was going to be a hit.

This wasn’t just because it would provide an alternative to all the glitz, glam, celebrity chef restaurants and brand names or even because it would allow people, both visitors and residents, the chance to experience a very real part of the city, but more because of Ahmed herself.

When it comes to food, she has a nose (and, indeed, a palate) for seeking out little gems, a talent for talking to people and a proper passion for her subject. She experienced problems along the way and the launch date was put back several times but she persevered.

And when I finally went on one of her tours, it was every bit as interesting, informative, fun and utterly delicious as I’d imagined. The story that followed was a pleasure to write.

Emily Shardlow, Former food writer Read about Ara's food tours

Collecting vintage vinyl in Yemen

The record collector Chris Menist spent two months in Sanaa in 2011 scouring Yemen’s capital for every bit of vintage vinyl he could lay his hands on.

When I spoke to Menist from his base in Thailand, he’d just assembled Qat, Coffee and Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen for release on the Dust-To-Digital label, which specialises in reissuing old and underexposed music from around the world. The project resulted in an aural collage of an era in Yemeni music when the qambus, a fur-lined lute, was the troubadour’s instrument of choice.

Menist, who lugged a portable vinyl player through Sanaa’s backstreet souqs, said that many of the records hadn’t been heard for more than 30 years, simply because of the lack of equipment: “A lot of this old music has ideas and artistic strengths that a younger generation hasn’t yet been able to appreciate.”

Christopher Lord, Former features writer Read the story here

Jalal Luqman

For all the amazing people I interviewed in my three years on Arts&Life, the work closest to my heart was a very simple and personal series of articles about Jalal Luqman’s grass-roots art initiative, Jalal’s Art Trip.

The idea was to take a group of budding artists from any background or artistic discipline on a field trip in the UAE and then spend several weeks putting together an exhibition of the artists’ work based on the trip.

As one of the artists, I was fully immersed in it but I had no idea how fascinating this would be both in terms of the nascent arts scene in Abu Dhabi back in 2008 and also as a piece of self-exploration. Each week, I wrote an article chronicling the growing work of my fellow artists, their frustrations and the terrors of the group critiques that took place at Jalal’s Ghaf Gallery. Each week, I struggled to find my own way with the exhibition work I was producing. I met some brilliant, unusual, idiosyncratic, wildly talented people, not least Jalal and his wife, the artist Sumayyah Al Suwaidi.

Most importantly, the trip was an indication of the talents and artistic yearnings that were sitting dormant in so many Abu Dhabi residents, from Emirati students to expat Britons – the artistic shoots that would burst into flower over the next few years as Abu Dhabi’s art scene exploded.

Gemma Champ, Former assistant editor

Read the interviews here

Race across Dubai taking different transport

Five years of writing for Arts&Life has seen me cover everything from the challenges of working motherhood to the nightmare that is bedbugs (Ask me anything. That second-hand sofa is cheap for a reason). One of the most fun stories I worked on was a team effort in September 2009 when the much-anticipated Dubai Metro was finally inching out of the station for the first time.

My colleague, Sophia, had devised a race involving four members of Arts&Life staff taking different methods of transport – metro, private car, taxi and bus – across the city. Who would make it from Rashidiya to Nakheel Harbour station first?

I did, in my car, despite getting spectacularly lost. It was not the best advert for the metro (Sophia came in third), but it was a great sideways look at what was, at the time, a huge news story.

Katie Boucher, Former features writer The great metro race

Timeline Therapy

Working for the Arts&Life team, we’re assigned all sorts of unusual stories but for me, nothing beats the day I was asked to travel back through time.

Let’s get this straight. This wasn’t some Marty McFly-type voyage to some bygone era. Instead, I was requested to try out a new psychological treatment: Timeline Therapy. This contends that the only way one can overcome emotional pain is to relive traumatic experiences from the past. And by past they mean your stint in the womb or possibly even a previous life. Somewhat surprisingly, my session with the therapist Wendy Shaw took place in the lobby of one of Dubai’s most upmarket hotels. We delved into some anger issues which, according to Shaw, I inherited from my ancestors two generations ago.

Did the treatment work? Hard to tell, although I did feel somewhat calmer afterwards.

And all without the bother of having to hit 88mph in a nuclear-powered DeLorean. Read the time travel story here

Hugo Berger, Features writer

Javier Bardem

It’s likely I will still be boring friends and family for many more years about the time Javier Bardem called me from the set of Skyfall. “Where are you at the moment?” I asked. “Well, I’ve just been shooting James Bond in London. We finished for the day, and then I called you.” was the response that at least 400 people have heard so far, sometimes more than once. Following this somewhat wow-that’s-just-a-bit-cool opener, me and Javier (yeah, that’s right) went on to have a lengthy chat about 007 and also a documentary he had made about the plight of the local Sahrawis in Western Sahara. Despite his celebrity status and A-list marriage (sadly, he wouldn’t reveal whether Penelope was jealous of him hanging out with Bond girls), he came across as extremely intelligent and highly politicised. However, having seen Skyfall since, all I’ve been able to wonder is whether he was still sporting that haircut when we spoke. Read the interview with him here

Alex Ritman, Film writer

QE2 sails into Dubai

November 27 2008, the day the QE2 sailed into Dubai and its final home, was one of those perfect days when you wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world. I was lucky enough to have been invited by Nakheel to watch the arrival of the world’s most famous ocean liner from the deck of a beautiful ketch where guests were entertained like kings and queens.

The sun was blazing, there was a brisk breeze and all around us anyone who had a boat was bobbing around hoping for the first view of the majestic liner. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s beautiful 162-metre superyacht Dubai gleamed sleek and white in the sunshine at the head of the welcoming flotilla and the turquoise sea was alive with excitement.

I had already written my article, about an 89-year-old widow Beatrice Muller, who lived for most of the year on board the Cunard liner, so I was able to appreciate the day like any other spectator. We watched in awe while a new Emirates Airline A380 soared overhead as the great liner edged its way towards Port Rashid. It was a poignant coming together of the old and the new.

As the ship sailed past I felt an unaccountable sadness mixed with pride, overwhelmed by the QE2’s majestic lines and wondering why the old girl was giving up life on the high seas after 40 years.

Philippa Kennedy, Former columnist

Karen Armstrong

Looking back over my contributions to The National over the past five years, I have worked on so many stories I am proud of and that have helped to expand my knowledge and understanding of the art scene in the UAE. However, there is one story that stands out as a personal best – interviewing Karen Armstrong. Armstrong is a prolific British author, public speaker and member of the UN Alliance of Civilisation. Her subject is always comparative religion and I consider her to be a beacon of hope in these dark times of global conflict. I first saw her speak at the American University of Sharjah in 2010, just after she announced her Charter For Compassion. She moved me to tears with the simplicity but strength of her message. I sat with her after that and interviewed her for The National and had so many notes I wrote two stories. Read the Karen Armstrong interview here

Anna Seaman, Visual arts writer


Christo in the UAE desert

The Mastaba is a towering sculpture of 410,000 stacked and painted oil barrels, proposed for the desert outside Liwa Oasis and first conceived in the late 1970s by the celebrated artist collaborators Christo and Jeanne-Claude. It has remained on the drawing board ever since. But after Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo has been trying to see through their remaining projects. We had the privilege of touring schools in the Western Region with the artist in 2012, where he presented the Mastaba’s concept to groups of young Emiratis. As students grappled with the possibility of a monumental artwork in their backyard, Christo clicked through projected images of the duo’s past work, including their famous Wrapped Reichstag, in which the German parliament building was swathed in 100,000 square metres of silvery fabric. One pragmatic student probed the veteran artist: “If you like fabric so much,” she said, “then why didn’t you become a fashion designer?” Read the story here

Christopher Lord, Former visual arts writer

Kenny Wizz

One of my most memorable interviews was with the Las Vegas-based Kenny Wizz, who for the past 40 years has made a name for himself as one of the world’s best Michael Jackson impersonators. When Wizz stopped in Dubai at Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, he had the whole crowd out of their seats dancing as he sang MJ’s biggest hits live and reminding us of the King of Pop’s impressive dance skills. Wizz began his journey as a teenager dancing in the streets of Los Angeles, and learnt Jackson’s moves from the 1980s, before the age of social media. For inspiration he had to rely mainly on still images until he was provided with footage from Michael’s concerts. Although he is hugely in-demand, having performed more than 20,000 shows to date, including daily performances during an 11-year contract with Las Vegas’s Riviera Hotel and Casino, he still likes to recreate some of Michael’s iconic costumes himself. Read the story here

Mai El Shoush, features writer

Manolo Blahnik cover

Editing Arts & Life was fantastic fun – far too much so to be able to single out just one favourite story. So, cheating slightly, here are some of the pieces that, while perhaps not the most important stories to run over the past five years, were, for me, the most fun to work on. The Gordon Ramsay interview in which he gave marriage advice to a freshly engaged Arts & Lifer. Victoria Beckham talking parenting, Rod Stewart on train sets, Tom Jones’ perspective on curry and Jonathan Franzen’s take on having his spectacles stolen. Manolo Blahnik sketching our cover. The piece for which we asked esteemed colleagues to reveal their teenage crushes, the Father’s Day special when we demanded they give us good advice and bad old photos too, and the feature for the Dubai metro launch when the entire desk raced each other on foot, bus, abra, train, taxi and automobile across the city. I hope they were nearly as much fun to read as they were to put together.

Katherine Spenley, Former Arts&Life editor

Villages in Wadi Galilah

Anyone who hikes in the mountains of the northern Emirates becomes accustomed to seeing abandoned villages whose residents have opted for the comfort and career prospects of living in town. So it was a surprise near the highest peak in the UAE to find some hard-wrought terraced fields where crops were still being grown. Two Emirati men lived in stone houses nearby with a Pakistani labourer but they all did the hard physical work of tending the crops. Apart from the arrival of electricity and some plastic barrels, this tiny hamlet would not have changed since the pre-oil days and it took them a tough three-and-a half-hour hike to reach it from their villages down in Wadi Galilah. What was particularly poignant was that the most remote village in the UAE would soon become easily reachable by a major road being built up Jebel Jais on the other side of the hill, changing it forever. Read the story here

John Henzell, Features writer


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