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Archive for the category “Interviews”

Rozabee – The Art of Being and Doing


Anousha Vakani, our wonderful contributor who has a way with words, has written some of my favourite articles on Jeddah Blog. For this latest blog post, she sits down with life coach Rozana Al-Banawi, to talk about her practice and her thoughts on art, beauty and humans.Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 1.13.35 PM

“I am Rozana Al-Banawi and life is only beginning. Growing up as a teenager, I was curious about ‘change’, and about how our relationship with it is a love/hate one. Life is about change and I assumed as a young girl that it is a given that we all want to improve ourselves for the better, that change is part of our DNA. Little did I know back then that I would be an expert in change and transformation. I like to see my work as an experience that you co-create what you want for yourself. The most fulfilling image is seeing my clients embarking on the first steps of change and transformation, like a caterpillar getting ready to become a cocoon and inevitably a butterfly. Once a client starts that process, there is no turning back.”

What is Rozabee?

Rozana’s practice is aptly named ‘Rozabee’ as a play on both her name and the beauty of being and doing at once. The connotations of her chosen name are more beautifully explained on the homepage of her website, with a note from her and a quoted poem by Khalil Gibran to sum it up. I decided to connect with Rozana and explore her thoughts on art, beauty and humans.

We talked about some important things: about art, beauty, relationships, books and life in general and I thought it would be best to quote her thoughts on each topic, as an insight into her as a person and her philosophy as a life coach.

Rozana’s take on art and beauty:

“God, Allah Almighty, has created a beautiful world for us; beautiful oceans with beautiful sea creatures, of all shapes and colors, of different kinds and species. We find all kinds of purposes within each of them. God created art from day one; we, human beings, are pieces of art, in our exterior and interior worlds. And by art I mean more than the tangible parts. I look at the synchronicity of our lives, the connections that take place and our relationships with almost everything around us (our homes, people, mother earth and our inner selves). It is so intricately simple and sophisticatedly multifaceted.”

On people, connections and relationships:

“With every human being I work with, I see a part of myself in them, whether it’s in the way of thinking, a specific phrase they use, a certain vulnerability they are choosing to show, or a dream that they strive to make happen. I always connect to that. No matter what it is, our inner worlds are very similar. It is like we are the same prototypes.

I also like to look at archetypes with clients, and explore inner energies. We have access to a huge reservoir inside of us, and we only know a little chunk of it. Once we are curious about that world of resources, we find whatever we need: certain energy, a unique vibe or a different voice – we will find it there. All we have to do is create a channel to access it, and by channel I mean the tools that enable us access: such as holding a beginner’s mind, a curious being and a loving graceful soul.

I asked for her favorite quote, and this is what she had to say:

‘I believe that in every stage in our lives, we connect with one quote more than another. For now, I love the quotes that my clients come up with in our sessions. Sometimes they blurt out the wisest things, and that inspires me. When that happens, I usually ask: “Did you hear what you just said?”

Rozana’s favourite books:

“Same with quotes, when I was a young girl, Anne Frank’s Diary was the ‘wow’ book. Then it was Malcolm X. When I started grad school, ‘Broken Open’ helped me grieve some heavy losses that I had to come to terms with. Later, reading Eckart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’ made me aware of my ego for the first time in a very conscious way and that opened doors for my inner child healing. After that, Brene Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’ started me off on the process of vulnerability and wholeheartedness, and led to my leadership work that I did last year. Now, I am in love with Reinventing Organization’s ‘human consciousness movement’ by Frederick Laloux. Next, I want to immerse myself in ‘Rising Strong’ by Brene Brown, I have a feeling it will create something new for me.”

I summed up with a time capsule question and asked her what she would tell herself ten years from now: “ten years from now?! Gosh, that is a stretch since I am working on living the present moment and being here now. So this is the first thing I would tell myself then. Also, to keep slowing down. If I haven’t had the guts to get that book published or that TV show aired, then I would tell myself: do it now – what have you got to lose? Nothing. My kids are old, I am happy with my life, so just do it for the fun of the process, and mostly for the long term impact that it will bring to the world.”

Rozana can be contacted through her website, email, Instagram or Twitter.

Interview with Faran Tahir: Pakistani-American Muslim in Hollywood


Best known for his role as Raza in Iron Man and Captain Robau in Star Trek, Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir talks exclusively to Anousha Vakani for Jeddah Blog about his career, his upcoming works and his recent acting workshop conducted right here in Jeddah.

faran-tahir

Faran speaks to Jeddah Blog

Faran Tahir comes from a family of actors and writers, so we asked him what it was like growing up around artists and to what degree that influenced his decision to get into the acting field: “Your environment can of course have a significant influence on who you are, although no one in my family pushed me to pursue this as my career, on some level, I always knew that this is what I wanted to do.” His father, Naeem Tahir, an actor, scholar and dramatist also appeared in the immensely popular Pakistani movie Khuda Ke Liye. In a 2013 interview with Geek Mom, Faran Tahir explains that he loves stories; whether he’s reading them, attempting to write them or bringing them alive onscreen, as it has been a part of him and his family for decades.

Faran Tahir as Raza in Iron Man

Faran Tahir as Raza in Iron Man

Faran Tahir has appeared on stage, alongside drama and films. He has acted in episodes of Law and Order, The West Wing, Charmed and Grey’s Anatomy to name a few. His films include Picture Perfect, Elysium and Escape Plan. When asked which the better experience was, he replied, “To me, it depends what story we are trying to tell. Different stories require different mediums.” He adds that he doesn’t have a favourite role as, “The way I see it is that one should always give everything one has got to every role otherwise you are doing that character a disservice.”

Faran Tahir as Captain Robau in Star Trek

As Captain Robau in Star Trek

The actor also admits that he is careful when choosing roles that may represent religion in a negative light, he goes on to say that while there are challenges to being a Pakistani Muslim in Hollywood, “There are times when one wants to not be labeled as anything but just ‘actor’. However, things are changing. There are better and more layered roles. Part of it is because we are increasing in numbers and because the market has become more global.”

Faran Tahir in Escape Plan [3]-1

Faran in “Escape Plan” with heavyweight icons of action Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger

We asked him about his latest venture Flight World War II opening in cinemas tomorrow, “It’s a science fiction movie. I play a pilot of a commercial airline. We take off from Washington DC for London and are hit by a freak lightening storm which throws us back in the past. The passengers and crew then discover that we are now flying over Nazi Germany during World War II. It is my job to bring the passengers and my crew home safely.”

The trailer for Flight World War II can be viewed below.

About other future projects, “I just did a CBS pilot for the series Super Girl. If that goes to series I might have a recurring role on that. I am starting a movie late summer called The 11th, and later this year, I will go play the title role of Othello in Shakespeare’s Othello.”

Jeddah was great. It has a wonderful artistic pulse. I would love to return if I am invited again.

Faran conducts acting workshops on and off, and he recently conducted a workshop in Jeddah on the invitation of the US consulate, “It is my way of connecting with other artists. It is important that we share our knowledge and experience. Jeddah was great. It has a wonderful artistic pulse. I would love to return if I am invited again.” Stay tuned for the release of Flight World War II on the 2nd of June, which, judging by the trailer, is going to be a thrilling ride.

Interview with Zahid Jamal, RJ of Bindas Radio


Zahid Jamal grew up as an expat in Jeddah. Having developed an interest in the Urdu language, and hosting shows at school, he went on to not only become a successful chartered accountant with one of the Big Four firms, but also moonlights as an RJ with UK-based Bindas Radio.

In this interview he chats to Jeddah Blog about what it was like growing up in Jeddah, his career, passion for working in radio and his feelings about the city he once called home.

Bindas 1

Tell us about your connection to Jeddah.

I grew up in the streets of Al-salama, Al-Rowda and then Al-Aziziah in Jeddah where I was raised as Zahid Jamal. I saw Jeddah transforming from old to new in the 90s and have seen all the new extravagant structures constructed in front of my eyes. Although I hail from Karachi, I consider myself more a Jeddawi.

Living as an expat in Jeddah, how did you manage to forge a connection with your home country, and especially to the Urdu language?

I was educated at the Pakistan International School Jeddah(PISJ), in Aziziah, spending the usual weekends picnicking in Obhur, beach resorts and playlands like Bahra-tul-Qatar – an oldie would know what I am talking about here. Living in Saudi Arabia, but studying in a Pakistani school and learning to be more Pakistani is one of the phases which every expat would have gone through in KSA. I also went through this phase where I was made a Pakistani in a Pakistani school, as we used to travel on Pakistani passport to and from Pakistan.

We were lucky enough to have watched the Pakistani drama called Tanhaiyan on Saudi Channel 2 in Ramadan, and this was when I was first introduced to Pakistani dramas. My Urdu language skills improved further as I watched not only more Pakistani drams but Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood on PTV (Pakistan’s national television channel). This gave me an opportunity in my school to imitate Moin Akhtar, and I began hosting events at my school. My Urdu teacher once told me to try out for an audition in Radio Pakistan due to my voice and the level of Urdu he recognized in me.

From hosting events at school, how were you introduced to the world of radio?

In 2003, I completed high school and left for Karachi to study chartered accountancy. I realized that Radio Pakistan was an old phenomenon in Pakistan and it was now FM radio stations taking the youth by storm, so I used to listen to the radio while studying for the most complex studies in CA.

In 2006, when I successfully cleared my exams, my passion of hosting and public speaking took me to knock on the doors of those FM stations and ask for an audition. Luckily, there was an upcoming station, HOT FM 105 whose office I spotted by chance as no one knew it would be airing soon. So I went in, gave an audition and was selected. Finally Zahid Jamal transformed into ZJ, as I was neither a qualified RJ nor a DJ, hence I was simply ZJ.

Tell us about your reasons for returning to Jeddah?

I worked in radio for two years while completing my CA articleship with one of the Big Four audit firms, Ernst & Young in Karachi and this was the time when I got a good job offer from E&Y in Jeddah in 2008. I bid farewell to the FM radio in Karachi and decided to return due to the unstable security situation in Pakistan, and my parents living in Jeddah.

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From being an expat in one country to another. You then moved on to the UK. What led you there?

I continued my efforts in the E&Y Jeddah office, and joined British online radio, so that I could fulfill my passion in the not-so-bachelor-friendly Saudi Arabia.

In 2010, I was offered a position in E&Y London which I accepted happily due to the reason of being called an expat even when I have spent my entire life in Jeddah. I will always need permission to live there, so I decided to leave Jeddah and settle in London when I had an offer from my own company.

I now work in E&Y London office as an executive auditor and do online radio as an extracurricular activity.

Any old memories of Jeddah you would like to share? What do you miss about this city?

I love Jeddah. Jeddah represents me; it’s global and modern, but the Islamic lifestyle is what I carry wherever I go. It gave me the confidence to work and grow up living and interacting with different nationalities. I miss Ramadan in Jeddah and the food. I call it food heaven; halal food at a reasonable price. Who can forget to mention Al Baik? – always top of my list when I visit Jeddah from time to time.

Due to obvious reasons, it’s not easy for single and young professionals to work and live a lifestyle they want in Jeddah. I assume life is much easier for married couples, especially now that women have started working alongside men, although it’s very hard for expat women to find a job other than teaching.

Also, I don’t see a platform for expats living in KSA to voice their opinions and experiences about the usual life matters they are going through. I found Jeddah blog very useful myself, and I guess Bindas Radio would give another platform to the people living in KSA, especially Jeddah, due to my presence at the radio to share their experiences with the rest of the world.

Tell us about Bindas.

Bindas Radio is a British online radio which is managed from Canada and the UK. We are broadcasting live globally and can be reached through our website . You can also download our app and then we will just be a click away from you. We have RJs from Canada, Saudi Arabia and the UK. We have some more to come from other parts of the world. You can also find us on Tunein which is a radio stations application to listen to any radio in the world.

Although we are playing more Urdu/Hindi content these days, we have international radio presenters, and based on our listenership we will start focusing more on English and maybe even Arabic if there is a demand from listeners. Anyone can listen to our radio.

We are in the startup phase currently and we are coming up with some excellent ideas which will be more beneficial to our listeners. Fingers crossed, there will be much more happening on the airwaves on Bindas.

Dont forget to tune into my shows every Sunday from 3pm – 5pm (GMT) and every Wednesday from 10pm-12midnight (GMT). Keep it locked, keep it Bindas!

You can also follow Zahid via Twitter and Facebook.

Uzma Raheem – A Beacon of Hope for Children with Exceptional Needs


In this blog post, I am particularly proud to be able to introduce you to a lady who has, and continues to inspire me and countless others. Her non-stop positive attitude is infectious and the sheer energy, determination, drive and passion she draws upon and imparts to those around her makes me wonder whether she might just be super-human. Uzma Raheem is a force of nature, and a shining source of support and hope to many families here in Jeddah. Jeddah Blog writer Anousha Vakani sat down with Uzma earlier this month to chat with her about the inception and growth of the Hope Center, its success stories and the challenges she faces.

Uzma Raheem after winning her 9th International award in 15 years.

Uzma Raheem after winning her 9th International award in 15 years.

The Hope Center needs little introduction – the people of Jeddah, the rest of KSA and even abroad have watched it grow from a summer programme held in a tiny apartment to a full-fledged multi-cultural institute that has won a total of nine international awards in just fifteen years. Yet, the Center’s founder and directress, Uzma Raheem, speaks to us about the Center’s growth with paramount humility. She is not oblivious to the lives she has touched but her pride lies in the teamwork and dedication that is the foundation of this ‘life-skills institute,’ as she prefers to call it.

Baking activity with the children.

Baking activity with the children.

She admits that not even in her wildest dreams did she imagine that her efforts would grow to this magnitude. Even receiving a licence from the Ministry was inconceivable, let alone gaining both national and international recognition and awards. However, she says the Center is not just about her efforts, “it is a community project, a joint effort with so many supporters and well-wishers. We have very dedicated, compassionate staff and in fifteen years we have managed to establish our credibility in the market so yes, people know that Hope for Exceptional Needs does deliver.” However, it’s not an easy task – one struggle is that of finding trained staff. The Center started off with just two or three volunteers at one time working with an average of six to nine students. It has grown to a full-sized institute with fifty staff members but it is still a struggle. One reason for this, Uzma Raheem notes is that, “universities are churning out students but guess what? They’re taking their degrees and working in other fields that pay more. You cannot get into this field with a commercial mindset, especially if you’re working with disabled children. You’ve got to have the compassion as well. If you’re thinking of the rewards of both this life and the after, then yes, come in to this field where the salary may not be that high but the job satisfaction is tremendous.”

The children with their toys.

The children with their toys.

The job satisfaction is another factor we discuss, and her contentment is hard to misplace. She mentions the success stories, of fourteen children who have been integrated into mainstream education, one who has gotten a job and one who has gotten married. “Three children came into the center who could not even walk and today when I see them running in the hallways, I think my heart leaps behind them. I sleep with a lot of peace in my heart. It’s that fantastic.” When asked about the struggles that come with her job, she sighs and admits that there are many, as with any other job. “Apart from the financial aspect and the shortage of resources, I have to say the children are the easiest part of my job. One of the most difficult parts is actually dealing with the parents. While some parents come in with this wealth of knowledge and acceptance of what their child is going through, and that’s half of our job done – when the parents meet us midway – some parents are, unfortunately less educated or educated and in denial or under severe depression – those are the families that are a challenge to work with, but it is part of the package.”

Martial arts training at the Center.

Martial arts training at the Center.

Among others, the center offers physiotherapy, occupational therapy, hydrotherapy and speech and hearing therapy. While they do not set an age limit, Uzma Raheem encourages parents to admit their children as early as possible. “A young child is like freshly kneaded dough and you can mould them out into any shape you want, whereas an older child is like slightly stale dough and if your try too hard to make any shape out of them, they break.”

The children on a visit to Makkah. Hope for Exceptional Needs.

The children on a visit to Makkah.

Religion is also a major point of focus at the Hope Center. The Muslim children are taught basic du’as, the ritual of wudu and etiquette for visiting the Holy Mosque. Regular trips are also made to Makkah where the children make tawaaf and implement all that they’ve learnt. “I think religion plays a big part, and not just for the children but for us as well, in finding comfort that a higher power is looking after our children,” Uzma Raheem muses as a wrap up to our brief but enlightening conversation. To learn more about the Hope Center’s programmes and to follow their progress, join Hope- for exceptional needs on Facebook. Check out their website too, expected to go live in a few days’ time.

CREAM – Meet the Style Specialists


As irresistible and luscious as its name, CREAM is a pleasure that is hard to resist. This exclusive outlet has well-established itself among fashionistas as a concept store – a  very selective, high-end lifestyle boutique that focuses on modernity and femininity.

CREAM specializes in style and is constantly in touch with the very latest catwalk designs. They are trendsetters, rather than followers of fashion. Jeddah Blog was lucky enough to score an exclusive interview with Dana Malhas, the driving force behind CREAM and we were able to delve a little into the idea behind setting up her own boutique, and what it is that inspires her.

What was the inspiration behind CREAM? Can you describe your journey towards setting up your own boutique?

When I graduated from the American University in Beirut and moved back to Jeddah, I noticed that there was a huge gap in the market for “up and coming designers”, the market was saturated with either high end brands like Gucci, Burberry, Armani..etc or low-end Brands like Zara, Bershka, Top Shop & so on. There was nothing in-between. I was 22 years old at that time, and like most girls, I was obsessed with fashion and everything related to it, especially styling & buying! So I decided to turn my passion into a business. I wanted to open a boutique where I can buy everything I like as I travel the world, style it the way I want, and fill in this gap in the market. I wanted to bring to Jeddah a lifestyle store where up and coming designers from all around the world meet, a boutique that has everything a girl needs, a place that has talented designers regardless of their age or nationality.. and CREAM Boutique in Beirut was the best candidate for that as it was my personal favourite boutique to shop in when I travel. So I brought it to Jeddah, expanded it majorly, started discovering new designers, and turned it into my fashion heaven. The best part is that I buy for my store, like I buy for my closet!

Vibrant Green mini-Clutch

Read more…

Interview: All You Wanted To Know About Susie of Arabia


Jeddah Blog talks to Susie of Arabia about blogging, transitions, and the highs and lows of life in Saudi Arabia.

Prominent among the voices in the Saudi blogosphere are those of non-Saudi women married to Saudi men. As narratives of cultural experiences, this data is significant because the authors bring a natural ease of expression, documentary zest, outspokenness and an analytical bent of mind to bear upon their superset of experiences in Saudi Arabia. Being married to Saudis, they have a direct canal to the culture that they are tackling through the deep end – direct immersion. Where their clarity of observation, their willing embrace of a foreign culture, and the amusing contrasts between an Eastern and a Western culture meet, a thing of great value and beauty is created. ‘Susie’s big adventure’ was among the earliest blogs written by an expat. Along with Carol Fleming of the well-known American Bedu, Susan has revealed her true identity, and shared very real and personal details on the blog. From the fairy-tale romance that led to her marriage to a Saudi, to her reasons for the move to the Kingdom and perhaps, most courageously and significantly, an intimate account of the emotional journey that the move was, what it meant in terms of cultural learning, loss of personal freedom, the real frustrations and difficulties of adjusting to a second culture diametrically opposed to her native culture, and finally, the apprehensions as the mother of a teenager straddling two completely different cultures. Read more…

Greenbox Museum: Pure Green Landscape of the mind


Aarnout Helb, the creator and curator of the museum of Saudi art in Amsterdam redefines green as well as the limits and power of human thought in a delightful and instructive conversation with Jeddah Blog.


The museum of contemporary Saudi art, Greenbox Museum, is a museum, it is safe to say, like no other. It is ‘kept’ by a man who is, it is safe to say, like few others. The museum is not located, as you would expect, in the well-known cosmopolitan cities of Riyadh or Jeddah, or for that matter, anywhere in the Kingdom or the Middle East. It is located, roughly a continent away, in the city of Amsterdam. It is not housed in a glossy high rise the likes of which dot the Middle East, but in a small and cozy space a little bigger than 6 by 12 square meters, on the fifth floor of an inconspicuous building, a stone’s throw from the better known Van Gogh Museum. Its creator and keeper is not a Saudi or a Muslim, but a Dutch who has never stepped foot inside the Kingdom, but who nonetheless looks to the gates of Mecca for guidance. “In the Quran, I read that Mecca is a guide for all human beings. For the moment, that includes me, and nobody should object.” Ostensibly, the museum’s aim is to serve no purpose but thought alone, and at present, it houses a small but significant collection of works by roughly six Saudi artists, displaying a range of works selected solely for the force of ideas they represent.

Aarnout Helb, the creator and curator of Greenbox Museum of contemporary Saudi art, talks to Jeddah Blog about how the museum came into being, how it stands today, and where he sees it headed.

Aarnout, you are a Dutch who has never visited Saudi Arabia, and yet, you are in a way, the ambassador for its art. Isn’t that just a little bit strange?

Karl May was a German, who never visited America, and was a successful writer of cowboy and Indian stories. I’m no less and no more strange than that.

The museum was born of your connection with Islam. What exactly is your connection with Islam?

My connection with Islam goes back all the way to my childhood. I inherited a box of family memorabilia with a postcard that belonged to my grandfather. It had been sent to him by his uncle. On this postcard, the word ‘Allah Taalah’ was inscribed on the four corners, and my grandfather’s uncle had done the calligraphy himself. He was Dutch, born of a Dutch father and a Javanese mother, himself married a Javanese wife, and converted to Islam.  Apart from the postcard, I received several colourful stories about him in my legacy. So, you can say that Islam was present by token since childhood. Then, living in the Netherlands, I was no stranger to Islam. It has always somewhat ‘been in the air’. To quote an example, Mohammad is the most popular name for newborns in Amsterdam and other big cities here. However, I became involved more directly with it in recent years, when I started reading the Quran myself.

A foot in several cultures: The rare and enchanting legacy that was passed on to Aarnout, and which informed, to a great extent, the course of his life. (Image by Aarnout Helb)

The museum itself was born out of the confluence of a couple of incidents. On a visit to Singapore, in the Malabar mosque, I accepted the Imam’s invitation for a cup of tea, and over tea, I asked him if he could show me where it was written in the Quran that respected and interested travel to Mecca was forbidden to non-Muslims. I’m a lawyer by training, so I wanted to understand what the legislation was that led to this assumption. Well, he couldn’t answer me, and having left the discourse, I’m not really bothered by the question any more – Saudi Arabia is very hot anyways to my knowledge- but to some extent, my museum is the metamorphosis of this legal question. If I couldn’t go to Mecca, I could bring Mecca to me indirectly. I conceived the museum as a virtual voyage to Mecca. Another factor was crucial in the creation of the museum. A Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, who I used to meet at my barbershop, was murdered by a confused young Dutch Muslim. Theo made documentaries, and in his own way, was trying to understand Islam. His manner was often offensive to Muslims, but I do know that he was genuinely trying to understand them and paying them respect instead of ignoring them. The incident made me realize that we are divided in the head, and that nothing will change unless things are not set right in our heads. The museum was conceived as a space for a healthy, open-minded and ongoing discussion, leading people in through curiosity.

From the looks of it, Abdulnasser Gharem was turning the same question over in his mind not so long ago. ‘The Road to Makkah’, stamp painting by Abdulnasser Gharem. Image from http://www.abdulnassergharem.com

You see the museum as a space of the mind?

Essentially, yes. I collect artworks based on the merit of their ideas, and use them as portals to ideas. I’m hosting a space in which ideas can flow freely, in an open, non judgmental way. My space is very limited in terms of square metres, but  large in terms of the mind. I have long passed the official White Cube museum in terms of facebook ‘likes’. The museum is not about paintings and statues and its intention is not to place art on an elevated position. It is about ideas, visual communication, research, curiosity and all of that in a pleasant way. Wearing a white dress does not mean the world is white and researching what goes on in terms of visual impulses we receive all day, actually strengthens people against all the misleading commercial and political information that is carried around, and which is, more often than not, the cause of misunderstandings and conflicts.

Outside views of the museum.

Limited in square metres, but infinite in possibility, imagination and the power to bridge divides.

Limited in square metres, but infinite in possibility, imagination and the power to bridge divides.

 What’s with the colour green?                                          

‘Talisman X-Ray’ by Ahmed Mater

The merit of ideas alone: ‘Allah’ from ‘The Language of Existence’ by Louloua Homoud.

The green on my walls first of all reflects my wish to take a designated interest. It’s like my statement of purpose. When I established the museum to research what different people make in terms of visual art from Mecca, I still wasn’t clear about the exact direction and about my later decision to house only art from Saudi Arabia. So, taking a cue from the first painting that entered the museum, which happened to be a very green landscape painting by Jan Heyse of a region down south in the Netherlands, I started painting the walls green. While I was still painting the walls, I realized that the color is also that of Islam. At this time, I acquired some work from the series ‘Yellow Cow’ by Ahmed Mater, and later, some more work by Saudi artists through the Edge of Arabia initiative. But I had works by non-Saudi artists as well till this time. The defining moment came when I realized in the course of my correspondence with Saudi artists Lulwah Al-Homoud, Reem Al-Faisal, and Maha Malluh how much they enjoyed this interest in art from their country, and that there was no such museum in KSA itself. That was the moment I decided to remove everything else and collect only works by those who share in having custody of Mecca. Mecca is the symbolic centre of Islam, all Muslims look Mecca-wards while praying. That was the key concept, I thought about the direction of the eyes of all Muslims. In that sense, I’m an artist, I see the oneness of things, and I will not compromise on the conceptual premise by sending eyes in all directions of the world. So, the green on my walls is the stamp of that conceptual commitment.

Do you collect based on a particular criterion? Is there a pattern? How is it going to be in the future?

I go by the ideas that the works represent. My museum is the size and nature of a cabinet of curiosities, and I intend to keep it that way. My aims are modest. I work on a small private budget. I don’t wish to expand beyond a certain limit and get into the whole business of getting sponsors. In the future, I intend to collect two works each year by young artists.

Regarding the whole concept of Islamic art, what is your perspective? Doesn’t concept art and its high creativity clash with the traditionally understood (or misunderstood) role of the artist as a re-arranger or a passive creator instead of an active one?

This is important. The greatest of all Dutch writers that ever lived, Multatuli, noted somewhere that artists and poets are only re-arrangers and never creators. I totally agree with this concept and this small museum – in some ways only an installation of a lawyer with a sketchbook – is of this serving and open minded character. Everything in the museum was handed to me from elsewhere at different moments in time and the only thing I do is take rational decisions, based on all that I know and meet, to channel a process that I earnestly believe that I do not own. My perspective to your question is that the concept of Islamic art is terribly damaging to Muslims. A wise man, perhaps long ago in Isfahan, once wrote on a new dinner plate, in his most accomplished handwriting, that there is only one God and that his name is Allah. The next day, or many years later, a Western ‘art expert’ got his hands on this plate and defined it as being of another God than his own and so completely defeated the artist’s intention. I think, to truly and strongly answer your question, that ‘Islamic art’ is a colonial coinage and definition and that Museums for Islamic art around the world are actually British prisons for the creativity of Muslims. Have you ever noticed how often such museums are consulted by people from European museums with colonial and anthropological collections?  I will tell you this. This little space that is Greenbox Museum breaks free of this tradition and is filled with ideas about the unity of all things. It by far transcends such heavily consulted Arab or Islamic projects in the Gulf or elsewhere, whatever their very best of intentions.

How do you feel about the profile of your museum as it is evolving now, the profiles of visitors and facebook ‘likers’? This museum of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia is attracting ‘likers’ from all over the Muslim world.

The museum has no predictions, no prognosis and no business model. As I said, I think Greenbox Museum transcends what others do in terms of art museums in relationship to Islam. That is how I interpret the ‘likes’ I gather on facebook. They are from Tanger in Morocco to Port Darwin In Australia, where somebody from  Indonesia lives who dresses his young son as a Saudi. The visitors in Amsterdam are less than I would like but there is so much to do here and I take things slowly, not wanting to spend money on advertising.  Most ‘likers’ are now from Indonesia, then Pakistan, and recently, a lot of Muslims from India as well as Algerians and Tunisians have been discovering the museum page. There are now 4500 Saudi Arabians who like the page.

What are the profiles of your real visitors? Do they consciously come looking for Saudi art or are they just dropping in to see just ‘a’ museum? What are their reactions?

They consciously come  looking for Saudi art and sometimes even fly in against my advise but combine it on a first visit to Amsterdam with the Van Gogh Museum. I do have the occasional Dutch lady and gentleman who have seen all other museums. In general, when they come, they spend at least an hour, viewing the work and then discussing with me. Western visitors always have simplistic clichés about Islam and Saudi Arabia and art related to the two, but I hope the museum does its part in realigning their perspective, if not dispelling the clichés altogether.  Of all visitors their surprise is complete, and although personal opinions and reactions vary, they all meet the unexpected. It opens people’s eyes. I think nobody walks out of the museum indifferent.

From what you tell, the museum came about as a happy accident. What would you be doing if you weren’t researching and collecting Saudi art?

‘Only Allah knows the unseen’.

Green is also the colour of fertility. The landscape of our mind is often rife with misconceptions, prejudices and false ideas about the nature of things. More than anything else, perhaps, the green of Greenbox represents the will and the courage to pluck out these weeds and to restore the pure green landscape of the mind.

All images reproduced courtesy the Greenbox Collection unless specified otherwise.

 

–          Naima Rashid

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