Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 April 2019

Arab creatives tell of global success

Creative individuals with Arabic roots share their unique stories of success, though each one did begin with a heartfelt connection with their respective crafts.
Jennifer Jajeh hopes to launch a talk show based on her web series In Bed With Jen Jajeh. Courtesy Jennifer Jajeh
Jennifer Jajeh hopes to launch a talk show based on her web series In Bed With Jen Jajeh. Courtesy Jennifer Jajeh

Tarek Atrissi

The Lebanese/Dutch designer Tarek Atrissi's work has been featured in New York's Guggenheim Museum and in the permanent design collection of the Affiche Museum in Holland. After studying in Lebanon, Dubai and the US, Atrissi settled in Holland in 2004 to launch Tarek Atrissi Design. His clients include Estée Lauder New York, the Mathaf Museum of Modern Arts in Qatar and Saudi Arabia's STC telecommunication.

"Being in Holland helps me take the critical distance from the Arab world, where most of my projects and research relate to, and I could look and understand the large geographic area of our Arab world with an objective eye," says Atrissi. "The philosophy of my design studio has been celebrating the beauty of Arabic culture and visualising it in the most creative and exciting ways."

His current projects include designing for the V&A Museum in London - specifically 2D exhibition graphics for their forthcoming contemporary photography show about the Middle East - and a design book with the Lebanese designer Nadine Chahine.



Yasmine Al Massri

With acting roles including Miral (2010) and Caramel (2007) on her resume, the Los Angeles-based actress and director Yasmine Al Massri has turned to co-producing a project with her actor husband Michael Desante (The Hurt Locker).

"We contacted the writer Matt Beynon Rees and bought the rights to The Collaborator of Bethlehem for film and TV," says Al Massri, whose father is Palestinian and mother Egyptian.

The story focuses on a history teacher in a refugee camp who is forced to prove the innocence of a former student, who eventually becomes a sort of Arab Sherlock Holmes. As an Arab woman, Al Massri's focus is to continue making projects that have artistic value and positive impact.

"It's very important for me, especially because my father is Palestinian, and Palestinians have been shouting out loud to the rest of the world for the past 65 years," she says.

Caramel and Miral, she says, represent social and human issues that are important to Arab women, such as protecting the family, identity and "the right to love and be loved back with dignity".



Mo Amer

Dubbed the Arab-American Bill Cosby, Mo Amer has toured more than 30 countries and, in 2001, five months before September 11, at 20 years of age, became the first Arab comedian to perform for American troops - in Germany, Italy and Sicily.

"I wanted to face my fears and express my true reality without being fearful," says Amer, a Palestinian. "I also fought to get on a military tour in Japan and South Korea in 2002 and was loved, and realised I had an effect on the soldiers and how they viewed Arabs and Muslims. I just continued to be myself and eventually broke the haters with my comedy."

Amer was also part of the Allah Made Me Funny: Official Muslim Comedy Tour and brought his Legally Homeless show to Dubai last month. The docu-comedy explores his trials and tribulations as a refugee in the US and as a travelling comedian. A screenplay for a feature film is also in the works.

"The screenplay is about a Palestinian Muslim living in Palestine, Texas, that finds himself elected to mayor illegally, while being caught in the middle of a cultural firestorm of ignorance," he says.



Khaled Al Berry

In 2011, the now Cairo-based Egyptian author Khaled Al Berry was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his third novel An Oriental Dance.

In his 2009 memoir Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise, Al Berry pulls readers into the mid-1980s when, at just 14, he briefly became involved in radical Islam.

"The book tackled the human side of the subject, the influence of the theological, political, social on the human being," says Al Berry, who has also published articles on Egypt's revolution. He is now working on a new novel. To him, writing is "therapy, joy, discovery, play".

"Politics is easiest because you don't need to create. Yet, it's dangerous, because it's changing … Fiction is the most tiresome, yet the most important. It's like a chess game with the whole world as your rival and as your tools."

Follow him on Twitter @khaledalberry


Elizabeth Ayoub

Before the civil war in Lebanon, Elizabeth Ayoub moved to Venezuela, where she fell in love with music.

The actress and singer has produced two albums - Prelude and Oceanos y Lunas - and often plays the oud, blending the sounds of East and West.

"It's a warm companion to any composition," says the Miami-based Ayoub. "It speaks to my soul and when played by a master, it sends you to far away places. It's magical."

Her father was one of the founders of the Lebanese Social Club in Caracas, and maintained strong links to their home country, where she visits and draws inspiration from. Ayoub also performed at the 2009 Dubai International Jazz Festival.

"I loved performing in Dubai," she says. "The Arab world has always been open to other sounds. They've yearned for it. Now, with walls crumbling before our eyes and changes in the Arab world, the fusion will get better."

Ayoub is working on a third album, the first of a two-volume series, as well as a short film called Ballerina Nights.



El Seed

The Tunisian street artist El Seed grew up in the suburbs of Paris surrounded by the hip-hop scene, which has informed his work, which blends Arabic calligraphy with graffiti - a style dubbed "calligraffiti".

Based in Montreal, Canada, his work sheds light on social and political issues and was featured in the book Arabic Graffiti.

He is currently applying his calligraffiti to the tallest minaret in Gabes, Tunisia. El Seed also has work included in a collective art exhibition at the Pergamon in Berlin. A solo show at the Itinerrance Art Gallery in Paris is due to open next month.

"As a popular art form among the youth, graffiti and street art have the power to transcend cultural divisions on a large scale," says El Seed.

Street art and graffiti have been increasingly legitimised, he says, as the arts have fuelled and reflected revolutionary struggles as part of the Arab Spring.

"The youth … are the future politicians, business people, activists, mothers, fathers, who will form their societies," he adds.



Petra Yared

The Australian actress Petra Yared, who is of Lebanese descent, has appeared in various films and television series, including Neighbours, Sky Trackers and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

"I never know what type of role will appeal to me until I read the script, and then it's usually an instinctive response," says Yared. "I sometimes just 'get' the character immediately and I know how I want to play her."

Yared, who recently had a baby, also completed filming the series Underbelly: Badness, in which she portrays a federal police agent.

Being an actress, she says, allows her to explore different worlds, "whether it's trying to understand the psychology of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or researching a different religion or learning how to fire a gun".

Embracing her Arabic roots is also of great importance to Yared, who majored in history at university with a strong focus on the Middle East.



Jennifer Jajeh

The Palestinian-American performer, writer and filmmaker Jennifer Jajeh aims to challenge stereotypes through her work.

Her tragi-comic solo show I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I Am Afraid to Tell You, successfully toured for five years internationally, with stops in 12 US cities. The one-woman show takes an "unflinchingly honest look at these issues through the eyes of a young woman, trying to figure out her identity". It is a story, she says, not often told.

"People are interested in hearing a human story about Palestine," she says. "The western media has created this narrative around us that's at the very least insulting to Palestinians and at worst completely dishonest, inaccessible and frankly boring for the average person."

Jajeh, who is based in San Francisco, is wrapping up 19 performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland this month. Next up, she hopes to launch a talk show based on her web series In Bed with Jen Jajeh and put on a play about a prominent female political figure.



Ajyal Theatre Group

Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Arab-American Ajyal Theatre Group, based in Michigan, and founded by Najee Mondalek. To mark the occasion, the group has planned new productions as well as a tour of the US, Canada and Australia.

"We picked three old plays featuring the famous character 'I'm Hussein'," says Mondalek, referring to a recurring character he created. "His character has now almost overshadowed my name, the whole group and the company, so we decided to present them again."

Having witnessed Lebanon's civil war, Mondalek moved to the US in 1985 and formed Ajyal after meeting up with fellow Lebanese students.

The group collaborates with local theatre and dance companies and has helped to develop a regional Arabic arts community. Most of their productions poke fun at the everyday lives of Arab-Americans who are recent citizens just trying to blend into mainstream US culture, Mondalek says.

"I hoped to convey a message to Arab-Americans to be proud of who they are and to reject the blanket notion that Arab-Americans are all covert terrorists," he says. "We're just another ethnic group working hard and paying our share to make this country great."


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Updated: August 28, 2012 04:00 AM