Vogue September Cover: Hend Sabri On The Importance Of Women’s Rights In The Arab World
Award-winning Tunisian actor Hend Sabri believes in the freedom of Arab women and strives to defend their rights.
Hend Sabri is full of enthusiasm when she arrives at Nazlet Al-Samman in Egypt, a popular area near the Great Pyramids characterized by its simplicity. Her optimism increases when calligrapher Hend Riad arrives holding a large roll-out hand-painted with the words “break the silence,” which she wrote in collaboration with the star. Sabri considers it the best expression of her aspirations. She believes that only hope revives people, illuminates our present and our future, and urges us to move forward. “Hope is my daughters Alia and Leila,” she says, adding that the sheer act of giving birth requires a promise for tomorrow.
Yet, Sabri speaks with pain when conversing about hope, the theme of this September issue. “2020 is really the year of ‘enough is enough.’ I pray that I will be able to erase it from my memory.” She believes that the world is experiencing a long rebirth and is certain that good will prevail. Sabri talks about human values and their roles in society. “True religion is the real deterrent and belief in the essence is what we need. Faith means that we stop hurting, backbiting, stealing, and disrespecting others. Religion is the appreciation of men in general and women in particular. Respect the rights it grants her and stop making judgments based on appearance. Religion exists in everyday practices.”
Sabri’s words shed light on her philanthropic activities, particularly those that concern women and the environment. She is known for playing meaningful characters that convey a social message because she truly believes that art can make a difference. “Society listens to artists and is influenced by them,” she says. “I am not saying that my job as an actor is more important than that of a scientist whose work is not widely recognized. Honesty is what is most important; no matter what role an individual plays in society.”
Currently the star is resuming filming the Hajma Mortada series under director Ahmed Alaa and with her friend Ahmed Ezz. She is also working on Kira and the Jinn, a film by Marwan Hamed, written by Ahmed Murad, and starring Ezz and Kareem Abdel Aziz. In October, she will start filming an Algerian-French movie. It’s a busy agenda for an artist who seeks to use her fame to champion values and have her voice heard. Sabri made her acting debut at the age of 14 in the critically acclaimed Tunisian production The Silences of the Palace (Samt al Qosoor) by director Moufida Tlatli in 1994, which was screened as part of that year’s Cannes film festival Directors’ Fortnight. It has also subsequently been listed as one of the Dubai international film festival’s 100 most important Arab films. Following this, she starred in several Tunisian productions until she drew the attention of director Inas El- Degheidy, who introduced her to Egyptian cinema with A Teenager’s Diary (Muzakirat Murahiqua) in 2002. In a short time, she became one of the most prominent Tunisian actors in Egypt and the Arab world.
Sabri recently joined streaming giant Netflix. “I’m so proud and excited to be the first Arab artist to sign with this network as an executive producer and starring in a show,” she expresses. “Going global is achieved through immersion in what is local. It is a matter of choices.” She’s also been chosen as a jury member at major international festivals, including Venice in 2019 – where she was the first Arab woman to join the jury – and Rotterdam in 2016. “They found an authentic expression of Arab women in my work,” she says. “I have frequently participated over the years where I introduced so many ideas,” she recalls, adding that she hopes the festival circuit will resume next year.
The star has recently used her social media platform to raise awareness about harassment, because she felt that women needed empowerment in this regard and that someone should open a dialogue to encourage victims to talk in public about their experiences. “I am against this heinous offense. Harassment is a crime,” she asserts. “It is necessary to educate young people and encourage girls to break the barrier of fear and expose the perpetrators. In law, to describe an incident as a crime, there must be a victim. When she is silent, the misconduct cannot be legally documented and will remain a social problem. Women must contribute to the documentation of delinquency in order to build a system that legally protects them. This requires courage, which in turn calls for a healthy society and the support of others, whether family or community, and this is what is lacking. Women are afraid of men, which paves the way for harassment and makes it permissible for men whose mistakes are forgiven by the people.” Sabri is well-versed on the subject of justice as she received her license from the University of Tunis in 2001 and earned a master’s degree in intellectual property law and copyright in 2004.
According to a 2013 study by UN Women in Egypt, 99.3% of the women surveyed had experienced some sort of harassment, ranging from being touched to verbal abuse, rape, stalking. The report also noted that 30% of the men surveyed gave their reason for pestering a female as “the girl feels happy when harassed.” “Years ago, I thought that it was still too early to address this issue,” says Sabri. “Today it seems to me that the time has come for victims to speak up. The more women there are who are willing to talk about their experiences, the stronger the issue becomes. At the same time, we must organize things to unify our words and stances.” The Ana Zada platform meaning “me too,” has since been created on Instagram. It aims to gather various opinions to form a pressure force to change laws. The star acts as liaison between women and the concerned parties interested in this issue. She provided a video to support them and was keen to promote them on various occasions. “I cannot say that I have achieved anything,” she notes. “This issue cannot be solved by one person, it requires community, legal, and political cooperation. Individual action in this field is like fighting windmills,” she says. “The only thing that can change the system is social awareness and spreading the slogan ‘No means no’ to everyone, which requires raising your voice without hesitation. It does not help to remain silent while urging others to speak about their experiences. It is enough for one to speak bravely so that other women do the same.”
Accountability starts with enacting and enforcing laws that protect women and describe the crime. “It’s not acceptable that bothering girls on the streets goes unnoticed, because it is a form of harassment. We must not overlook any vulgar form of pestering or touching, which could hurt women,” states Sabri. The star has adopted several approaches to communicate her thoughts, including in the 2010 sitcom Ayza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married), which candidly addressed the issue of young girls getting married. She also starred in Halawet Eldonia (The Sweetness of Life) as a cancer patient – one of her most beloved characters to date, she notes.
Sabri is one of a handful of public women who promoted the uprising in the Arab world. “I wasn’t afraid to lose my fan base – particularly males – for promoting women uprising. I’m defending their rights here. I’m not calling for usurping those of others. I have a dream of realizing equality between men and women in Arab societies. I hope that we can enjoy the highest levels of equality like women in Scandinavian societies,” she says, acknowledging that there is still much work to be done to achieve this. As a mother and wife, she is focused on her family and credits her choice of partner for contributing to its strength. “He is a very respectable man who values women,” she says of her husband, a businessman who is not part of the entertainment industry, preferring to stay out of the limelight. “The man who appreciates and respects his mother will respect any other woman.”
Their relationship is based on mutual esteem and commitment to rules, including respecting her work and her responsibilities. As for her children, she instills within them important values like independence, self-confidence, and valuing the customs and traditions with which she was raised. She is keen to teach her daughters to empathize with others, to be kind, to love, to learn, and to contribute. From her point of view, such values bridge gaps and help build a sound society where people do not judge one another based on appearance or religion. She also hopes to continue to introduce the Arab woman with all her fears, pains, troubles, and joys through her art. She aspires to serve the Arab world and to raise her daughters in a manner that will secure them a better future.
Originally published in the September 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography: Ämr Ezzeldinn
Styling: Yasmine Eissa
Hair: Ahmed Mounir
Makeup: Aya Abdalhamid
Video: Muhammad Gamaleldin
Video Edit: Hue Studios
Stylist Assistant: Habiba Rahoum
Set Designer: Noor Satea
Fabrics: Yara Ismail
Sustainable Textile Designer: Kiliim
Location: The Cheops Observatory by Studio Malka Architecture
Production: Snap14 Productions Production agency
Waad Al-Kateab Speaks From The Heart About Her Hope For Syria
She documented human history in For Sama, but for Oscar-nominated Waad Al-Kateab, the fight continues until Syria is free and justice is served.
Waad Al-Kateab is sitting in the Channel 4 news offices in London. Her hair cut in a neat, long bob, she’s wearing a floral summer dress while the bright morning sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her. She looks like any ordinary 29-year-old woman. Yet she’s anything but. In 2011, Al-Kateab was an activist with a camera who went on to film one of the most important documentaries of the 21st century: For Sama. The film spans five years in Syria, starting with the peaceful protests against president Bashar Hafez al-Assad, through the Arab Spring and, ultimately, Al-Kateab being forced to flee the country of her birth in 2016. Unlike some war documentaries, For Sama reveals the full spectrum of humanity beyond the frontlines. While it provides a raw, inside perspective of the horror and systematic attacks on civilians, it also underscores moments of joy. We see Al-Kateab marry Hamza, a doctor who built the hospital in Aleppo where most of the footage is filmed; we witness baby Sama enter the world, and we watch friends and strangers become one community amid darkness and despair.
Al-Kateab, a young filmmaker and citizen journalist who moved to Aleppo to study in 2009, always kept her Sony camcorder rolling, filming approximately 500 hours of footage. It took two years for her and co-director Edward Watts – who she met through her work as journalist for Channel 4 – to cut it down to a 95-minute documentary. For Sama went on to achieve global acclaim, receiving an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature and winning best documentary at this year’s Bafta awards (where it also set a record for most nominated documentary), as well as four British Independent Film awards. The recognition is testament to Al-Kateab’s talent for showing the human story that so many governments still choose to ignore. Yet, a year after the release For Sama, there is a look of pain and sadness in her eyes. “Nothing has changed in Syria. It’s still happening,” she says. While news coverage of the civil war has decreased and the fanfare surrounding the film has slowed down, the crisis hasn’t ended. “There are still people in Aleppo being shelled and bombed.”
Does she feel guilty for leaving? Her body closes in on itself; she folds her arms and her eyes well up. “If we were there, we could help a little,” she says, her voice faltering. “One day I risked my life and went to Aleppo. I felt it was the right thing to do. Now, I know it’s the right thing to do but I feel I’m not able to do this. I’m not the same person who left the city in 2016. It’s confusing and the guilt is something I don’t expect I will get away from.” Of course, if she hadn’t left Aleppo, fleeing after Russia threatened to bomb the last hospital where they were working, For Sama may never have reached the big screen. “Sometimes I feel that was right, but there are times when I think, maybe I’m just saying this because I want to make it easier for myself,” she considers. “When I’m talking to someone who is still in Aleppo, I feel so much shame. I’m trying to help but I’m not there. It’s hard.”
Witnessing so much tragedy has left Al-Kateab battling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “My main problem is the nightmares. It’s still very real for me – I’ve never been able to ignore what happened,” she shares. She even feels guilty for having nightmares. “I know that whatever I feel now is nothing compared to what is still going on in Syria. What happened to me is just a little compared to other people. I would love one day to feel some healing, but the only thing that will help me do that is feeling justice for Syria and its people.”
After fleeing Aleppo, Al-Kateab and her family lived briefly in Turkey before seeking asylum in the UK. That’s the abridged version – the full tale is one full of bureaucracy failings and political injustice.
Her family arrived in London in 2018, after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the result of which was in large part prompted by voters’ issues with border control around an influx of migrants and refugees. “I mean, oh my God,” she says, half laughing about the difficult timing. Yet, ever the pragmatist, Al-Kateab decided to not only be a voice for Syrians, but refugees, too. “I feel that I can affect people in their thinking about what it means to be a refugee, and why it’s important for us to not close ourselves. At the Baftas, I was the only refugee nominated. I felt that I was in a position where I could fight for different issues.”
“The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria… it’s never too late for accountability and justice”
While she feels accepted in the UK, Al-Kateab struggles with displacement. She and her family never intended to leave Aleppo. They risked their lives and the lives of their children – she was pregnant with their second child – to stay in Syria. “When I watch the film I’m able to accept everything that happened to us, but the displacement I can’t feel OK about – when we were saying goodbye to the city…” She trails off briefly. “We were fighting so hard to stay.”
Al-Kateab’s daughters, Sama, who is now four-and-a-half, and Taima, who is three, have settled into life in England. Like her mother, Sama initially experienced nightmares. “We had doctors help her and she is much better. She rarely wakes up at night crying or screaming now,” Al-Kateab shares. The girls have adapted so well that they even have London accents, which Al-Kateab half-facetiously seems less than keen on – not so much for the actual dialect than for their heritage. “They are happy,” she says, smiling. “They speak a mix of English and Arabic. We are trying to keep the Arabic level good, but it’s difficult.”
While Sama is too young to remember what she witnessed in Aleppo, her mother aims to keep the girls connected to their roots. Al-Kateab is hopeful. “As Sama grows older, she will be able to understand more. We try to keep the conversation about Aleppo and Syria and I’m trying to tell them stories before bed. I want to keep part of that culture that Hamza and I believe in, and we feel that they should know where they come from, including all the elements like Ramadan and Eid.” One way to understand is to watch her searing documentary. “I don’t know if I will show them the film,” says Al-Kateab. “We need to see when they are ready. Sama has seen the trailer – she loves to watch it.” Naya al Altrash, the daughter of a family friend, Afraa Hashem – both of whom feature in For Sama – was shown the documentary when she was six. “The film answered so many questions for her,” explains Al-Kateab. “She was three-and-half when she left. Now, she is able to see the story as someone from the inside and the outside.”
Since moving to London – the family was granted leave to remain shortly after arriving – Hamza is no longer practicing as a doctor but is working towards a master’s degree in public health. Al-Kateab continues to work as a journalist for Channel 4, producing stories on justice, Syria, and Covid-19. She is also dedicated to three major ventures: a fiction project related to Syria, a new documentary, and Action for Sama, an ongoing campaign to end the targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria. It’s currently building a case against the Syrian regime and Russia for alleged war crimes – For Sama footage will be used as evidence. “The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria,” Al-Kateab says. “If it’s too late for governments to intervene and stop it, it’s never too late for accountability and justice.”
While Al-Kateab may feel guilt for not being in Syria, she continues to fight for Aleppo from afar. “My main hope is to see something changed in Syria soon. I hope we can return to the place we fought for,” she says. Her dream is for citizens to feel empowered. “That’s why this whole Syrian revolution started. If we felt that we were being respected, or empowered, I think the situation wouldn’t have come to this.” After her years staring death in the eye, her words are poignant. “When I was in Aleppo, I was forced to live as if every moment was my last. Until today, I feel that this is the best thing to do. There is not a lot of time in the future so everything you want to do, do now. Tell everyone you love that you love them, right now. Don’t hide any of these feelings because when you have lost them, there is no more time.”
Award-Winning Saudi Artist Lulwah Al Homoud Shares Why Art is a Mechanism for Change
Abstract artist Lulwah Al Homoud, creator of the cover artworks for this issue, found meaning from within – and it’s resonating throughout the world.
When Saudi artist Lulwah Al Homoud was a little girl, she would spend hours in front of the mirror, enthralled by her reflection as she tried on different outfits. She examined the colors, shapes, and textures with infinite curiosity. “I was always attracted to beautiful clothes,” she recalls, fascinated by how these sartorial signs could convey meaning. “I was an artist as a child, like every other child.”
Today, Al Homoud is known as a pioneer, one of the few women to practice abstract art in Saudi Arabia. Characterized by intricately placed Arabic letters in delicate mesmerizing patterns, her work explores calligraphy and Islamic philosophy. It has found an international audience, featuring in the collections of the British Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in the Netherlands. She also heads her Lulwah Al Homoud Art Foundation, which publishes books, organizes exhibitions, and promotes cross-cultural research. One of her works hangs in the office of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and she even crops up in the national curriculum.
“My plan was to follow a career in something that was close to art,” she reminisces. Born in Riyadh in 1967, Al Homoud studied sociology at King Saud University, then left for the UK, where she researched Arab calligraphy and Islamic geometry as part of her MA from Central Saint Martins. She was the first Saudi to graduate from the celebrated college of art and design. She worked in London as a creative director, designing logos for art pavilions, curating exhibitions, and teaching at the British Museum. Gradually, however, she grew disillusioned and alienated from her work. She also felt that she could create more impact as an artist. And so, she looked to calligraphy, something which had always been a source of inspiration, even in her commercial work.
“I always wanted to do something different,” she says. “I didn’t want to follow a school.” Al Homoud trained with the renowned Pakistani calligrapher Rasheed Butt, and drew inspiration from Egyptian calligrapher Ahmed Moustafa. Her process centers heavily on research. Using calligraphy, she painstakingly builds up intricate patterns based on a sacred sense of geometry. This is the deeper meaning behind the commission of this issue’s cover: abstract beauty crosses borders that in reality don’t exist, be they geographic, gender, art, fashion, geometry, or creativity. Abstract art transcends all boundaries.
In her work, Al Homoud represents the oneness that connects: the mathematical principles behind the universe and its creation, from the unique hexagonal shape of snowflakes to the double helix of DNA. It is also a founding principle behind Islamic art, which uses geometrical archetypes to decorate holy sites. “It’s an extension of the philosophy of Islamic art because that’s my inspiration,” she explains. “It is the relationship between the finite and the infinite, the periphery and the center; God being the center.” At first, she struggled. “Doing something that was inspired by Islamic art was difficult,” she says. “I wasn’t doing art that was popular at that time.” In fact, her earliest supporters were Western. Perhaps it makes sense; she doesn’t typify her art as “religious” but rather a system of meaningful signs. “They were drawn to the process of my art; the simplicity and complexity,” she says. “They thought I was doing something new with language.” Her artworks are so precise yet full of movement; each element perfectly balanced.
Although she says she didn’t intend to create her own school, perhaps Al Homoud has joined one unwittingly. “When you talk about geometry in Islamic art,” she explains, “it’s a whole school of abstract art.” Her references are unexpected: Bauhaus but also Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso, and Mondrian. “Islamic art is misunderstood,” she says, explaining that it is often seen as primitive rather than as an evolution. She explains how artists like Picasso increasingly used light and shapes as they matured. “They became more spiritual as they aged and that’s why Muslims started with that kind of art because they carry sophisticated ideas and principles behind their art.” She feels that more work is needed on the academic reception and analysis of Saudi Arabian art. “We have a lot of creativity, we have a lot of artists. I think what we need is critical academic research.”
For her, it is a seminal moment for the artistic scene in the Kingdom. “We’re racing,” she says. “We’re trying to catch up with what we’ve missed.” But just as she returned to the founding principles of her culture as her inspiration, she sees this in a wider context of national identity. “My dream is to see my country at the forefront of education, because it has all the components to get there,” she says. “My dream is to see my country at the forefront of the world.” There’s no denying that Al Homoud sees herself as an ambassador for her culture. “National branding is through art,” she says, “It will raise questions and open…” She pauses. “I lost the word in Arabic and English!” We settle on the word “dialogue.” Al Homoud is behind much of that intercultural conversation. The Saudi government has recently significantly bolstered its support of the arts. Al Homoud curated a show for the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation (MiSK) in 2019 and for Unesco in Paris; she featured at the Noor Riyadh festival of light this year, and won the 2020 Al Rawabi Holding Group prize for her outstanding contribution to Saudi-British relations. She is starting to publish books about Saudi artists under the imprint of her foundation and she is also looking forward to a retrospective of her work in the next few months.
If Al Homoud considers that art will “say something about us in the future,” perhaps it is the new vocabulary for the country, to be used to converse with the world, sharing the essence of its people. Al Homoud’s work is a sophisticated language, one in which no words are missing. She calls it her lifetime project. And in creating her own language, she has understood different facets of herself. Just like that little girl, rifling through clothes, her art is her ongoing exploration of meaning. “I rediscovered and uncovered so many layers within me. My research made me grow spiritually,” she says. “It changed me from within.”
Photography: Hayat Osamah
Fashion director: Katie Trotter
Style: Sara Essa
Makeup: Yasmin Isanbouli
Hair: Lana at @e11evenby4
Creative direction: Duha Alhosainy
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
DOP: Othman Mohammed
Editing: Souhail Mohammad
Sound composer: Taha
Models: Shahad Salman, Abdulrahman Alammar
Creative assistant: Abdulaziz Tashkandi
Photography assistant: Sultan Hussain
Catering partner: Vogue Café Riyadh
Local production: Five Colors Films
Saudi Artists Abadi Al-Johar and Tamtam Reveal the Lesser Known Things About Themselves
On the set of their cover shoot, Saudi artists Abadi Al-Johar and Tamtam sat down for a fun question game. Getting to know each other, as well as sharing the lesser known facts about themselves, the two revealed the most adventurous thing they have done, the city they dream to travel to, and much more.
Video team: 24fever
Artist: Abdulaziz AlAbdulaziz
Style: Rawan Kattoa
Makeup: Eilaf Sabbagh
Hair: Nadine Tabbara
Set designer: Rawan Sahsah
Fashion assistant: Suhailah Almamy
Local production: Basamat Arabia
With thanks to Hekaya Studios