A few days ago I came across an article about turning 28. What a coincidence, I thought, as I would be 28 in a few days. I knew the article was gonna ravage my mood, as it was full of warnings and well-meant advises about reaching this “turning point.”
You may wonder why on earth 28 would be a turning point, but according to this article, when we reach this age we need to get serious about dating – especially if you want to have kids, ’cause, you know, your biological clock is ticking; career – if you wanna switch careers do it now, or else you’ll be stuck in a field you don’t like forever; health – you may have gotten away with junk food until this age, but you should really start watching every bite you stuff in your face to avoid excess fat on the abdomen/hips/butt/you-name-it.
Objectively speaking, I shouldn’t be too worried (as no one should). After all, aging happens only gradually, and a number, in the end, is just a number. What matters more is how you treat your body, I believe. Give it some exercise, some wholesome food, and don’t skimp on sleep. And, not to forget, a little fun from time to time goes a long way as well.
That is not to say I don’t feel like being in a transition period. I don’t know (and don’t care) if it’s the age, but my husband and I have been playing with the idea of change, and we both are convinced we need some new challenges during the course of this year.
For me, that challenge could be anything, from exercise challenges to improving my Arabic, and from taking a course in journalism or writing to enhance my skills to reading some inspiring books.
Or, maybe, just maybe, we take a leap of faith and decide on some drastic changes. Let’s see what happens in the next few months.
Last month, my work allowed me to travel again. I can hardly keep up with all the trips I made in the last 12 months. Following media trips to Switzerland (read here part 1, 2, and 3), Abu Dhabi and London I was invited on a visit to the tiny city-state of Singapore in South-East Asia.
I had been once to Singapore before, with my husband on our way to New-Zealand back in 2012. In that time, we stayed a few nights to rest from the first leg of our journey and diminish the effects of the jet lag we would sure have. We walked around and saw some of the highlights, but by far not everything there is to do and see.
Although Singapore is one of the smallest states worldwide, it actually has a lot to offer for tourists. However, what makes the country unique for me is that it is one of the most religiously diverse places in the world. In Singapore, you will find a Buddhist temple on Mosque Street, or a mosque next to a church. But what you don’t find is people fighting because of their religion. Singapore is a very tranquil country in which the different ethnic groups live next to and with each other peacefully.
When the Brits set foot on the island back in 1819, the population was predominantly Malay. However, soon the country became dominated by immigrants from China, Malaysia, and India. The fourth major group are the “Eurasians,” descendants from mixed European and Asian marriages.
While the British planned to separate the various ethnics in different neighborhoods – hence the still existing China Town, Little India, and Arab Quarter – they ended up living together without any problems.
The result of this is also a very interesting cuisine, and we got the chance to make some of its dishes during a cooking class at Food Playground.
I finally got to learn how to make Chicken Satay (tofu for me), a dish I truly love and is quite popular in the Netherlands as well due to the Indonesian influence there. I could eat peanut sauce every day and not get bored of it! I was surprised how complicated and time consuming it is to make good peanut sauce, though. I remember seeing some recipes on the Internet calling for peanut butter, water, soy sauce, and perhaps a little chilli, but I can tell you that is not the real thing! This was so much tastier and unlike any peanut sauce I had before. If I have enough courage and time I will try to replicate this recipe at home.
We also made Char Kway Teow, a fried noodle dish with egg, prawns (not for me) garlic, chives, bean sprouts and soy sauce. I’m not a big noodle eater, but this was definitely an easy to make and quite tasty dish.
Naturally, our meal wouldn’t be complete without ending it on a sweet note. For this we made crepes made of flour, egg, coconut milk and pandan juice (which gives it the green color) stuffed with a concoction of grated coconut and palm sugar. As you can see on the picture, I became quite a master in Kueh Dadar!
The cooking class was the highlight of the trip for me. I always enjoy trying new dishes and learning about ingredients.
Another highlight was our visit to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and particularly the infinity pool on top of the three skyscrapers. Too bad we just had a glimpse of the rooftop swimming pool, but it was nevertheless special to see.
As always, we had way too little time to see and do it all, so it would always be a good idea to come back. To find out what other highlights we visited you can check the article I wrote in the Saudi Gazette: “Singapore: A family friendly getaway.”
While writing this in the afternoon, I am enjoying having a bottle of water next to me, sipping from it every now and then. Nothing strange, you might think, but for the next 29 or 30 days (depending how long the lunar month is) I will not be able to do this. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is around the corner: tonight it will begin, meaning we will start fasting from tomorrow.
Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month and believed to be the month when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received the first revelations of the Qur’an. Muslims worldwide fast during this month from dawn (Fajr prayer, which is before sunrise) to sunset. This entails abstaining from eating, drinking, engaging in sexual relations, and talking or behaving badly.
It is the fifth Ramadan since I moved to Saudi Arabia in August 2010, but I haven’t been always here and fasting. In 2012 and 2013, I spent part of it in the Netherlands. However, when I am hear, I try to fast, although I must say I don’t find it easy to do so. It’s not even the hunger or thirst that makes it difficult, but rather the boredom and low blood sugar/dehydration that mess with my well-being.
This year, I am determined to not let myself go down. I jotted down six strategies to keep the spirits high, which I would like to share.
1. Keep structure in my life
Throughout the years, I discovered that I am a person who needs structure. I feel good when I plan my day and get things done. While the month of Ramadan means my daily routine will be completely different (as I won’t eat during the day and most activities will take place during the night) I will try to create a new structure of breaking my fast around 7:10 p.m., do my runs around 9:30/10 p.m., go to bed at 2 a.m., get up for suhoor (the pre-fast meal) at 4 a.m., sleep until 10:30 a.m., write my articles, and prepare iftar in the afternoon (breaking-of-the-fast meal).
2. Eat healhtfully
Paradoxically, a big part of Muslims who fast Ramadan actually gain weight during this month. The reason? The sugar- and fat-laden foods usually eaten when breaking the fast. Some think they need to make up for the long hours they fasted and indulge themselves with sweet drinks and meals, while fried foodstuffs (samboosa, anyone?) are often found on the breakfast table as well.
Though I have always been quite careful what I eat during Ramadan, avoiding too many fried things, this year I will guard to eat healthfully and sufficiently, because some years I did not and ended up shivering during the day and losing several pounds. I know, many people would envy me, but for me it is not good to lose weight.
3. Exercise moderately
Another point to keep in mind this month is to take it easy when it comes to exercise. Again, many people try to get active during this month, picking up a sports routine like walking or swimming, but someone like me who is used to exercising vigorously needs to slow down during this month. A few years ago, I kept running avidly five days a week (despite feeling weaker and weaker) and ended up with anemia. I have already been taking it easy for the last couple of months (let’s say I had some overtraining symptoms), but I will have to continue to do so this coming month. I find it extremely difficult, ’cause I feel so energetic these days, but I will have to be strict with myself and run for not over an hour and stick to a moderate pace. I am thinking I may do some cross-training this month, like swimming and spinning.
4. Keep in touch with family and friends
For me, personally, Ramadan can be a rather lonely month. Most of my (expat) friends are out of the country for the summer holidays, and spending a lot of time with my in-laws – we usually break the fast at my mother-in-law’s – is fun but also makes me aware how different I am. By keeping in touch with my family and friends back in the Netherlands I am hoping to feel less isolated. I will also (hopefully) use this month to improve my Arabic, which will help me to enjoy my time with locals more.
5. Remember the things I am grateful for
Perhaps the single most important thing to do this month is to be grateful. After all, no matter how hungry, thirsty, tired, or bored I am, there are so many things in my life I am grateful for. Remembering these things will cheer me up whenever I feel down. I may try keeping a gratitude journal to remember the little and big things that make me happy once or twice a week (which, researchers say, is more effective than doing it daily).
6. Helping others
Studies suggest that one of the most effective ways to be happy is to help others or give to charity. I wrote about this today in the Saudi Gazette, which you can read here. In short, not only do happy people spend more money on others; spending money on others also makes people happier. It’s a reinforcing cycle, and I think I may give it a try this year, whether it is helping my mother-in-law preparing iftar or sending a letter to my foster child in Uganda.
Brazil and Saudi Arabia: Could there be a wider gap between any other two countries? Brazil is known for its lascivious women and crazy parties, while in Saudi the sexes are strictly segregated in most situations.
Luckily, there are the diplomats who are often more than happy to throw in some spice with swinging dance parties and concerts. For the opening of World Cup it was the French Consulate in Jeddah that added a dose of samba – as well as Caribbean and Jamaican rhythms, for that matter.
Soon I will write more about this phenomenal event, but let me just say that it was an amazing party Brazilian style (and probably much better than the official opening ceremony, which many people were disappointed with).
However, the real party began last night, with the first game of my country: Spain vs. The Netherlands!
Now, I was far from convinced the Dutch had a chance. Not only do I tend to be very critical of my country, my husband and I did some research and saw that the bulk of the squad consisted of players whose name I (which is not that surprising, given my disinterest in football (soccer for you Americans)) nor my husband (who is a huuuuuge football fan) had never heard of!
We are participating in a football poll, in which we had predicted Holland would lose 4-1 against arch enemy Spain.
There is one thing, though, we have to give the Dutch credit to. With their Orange fever taking off over a month before they play the first game, they are one of the most enthusiastic fans of the world. This fever manifests itself in decorating entire streets and houses in orange, wearing orange clothes, and even eating orange foods during the games. Of course, businesses feed this craze by supplying their shops with orange gadgets, hats, sunglasses, cutlery, etc., while supermarket chains (Albert Heijn) give away some orange goodies (Wuppies) that have become world (ok, country) famous.
Needless to say, our pessimism proved wrong when the Dutch scored their first, second, third, fourth, and finished with a 5-1 score, completely and utterly humiliating the former World Cup champions.
The Spanish, perhaps sensing the impending defeat, withdrew to the outside terrace when Holland scored its second goal.
Once the game was over and the Dutch exuberant as if they had just won the final, the Spanish, however, were quick to say they had lost the first game in 2010 as well.
Let’s not spoil their illusions by reminding the Spanish that that game was against Switzerland and only a small (0-1) defeat…
Love coffee? I do, but I also feel I should not be drinking it by the liter. I think what makes me drink it sparingly are all the different – and conflicting! – opinions I read and hear. Some say it’s healthy and full of antioxidants, others say it increases the chance of certain conditions; some say it dehydrates the body, others deny this; there are those who warn against drinking it right after a meal, as it would extract minerals from our body, while others claim coffee contains useful nutrients.
So I decided to do some research myself and write an article for the newspaper. Wanna know the truth about the black elixir? Read the article.
My work in April and May was pretty much focused on tourism and art. Of course there was that amazing trip to London about which I wrote in my previous post, but also did my write-up about Stockholm come out this month. For some insider tips on this Nothern European capital – hubby and I were shown around by two locals and their cutie pie two-year-old daughter – read the article here.
While being in London, I managed to squeeze in a visit to an arts and crafts fair, where I met a representative of PR company Gong Muse. Long story short, she had messaged me on Twitter some time before asking if I was interested in covering the London Masterpiece fair (one of the biggest art fairs in the world for those not familiar with the name). Of course I was! I met her in London and did later an interview with Masterpiece CEO Nazy Vassegh, which recently appeared in the Saudi Gazette.
That Jeddah’s art scene is booming is something I realize more and more, and I am quite proud of it to be honest! I already wrote about the interesting show by Emy Kat to preserve the Old Town of Jeddah; another artist I met was Louis Romero, a French ‘art and steel enthusiast’ who creates sculptures out of metal leftovers, which he founds at the construction company he works for. His exhibition “Metalmorphose” was on display at the French Consulate in April.
At Athr Gallery, one of Jeddah’s most prominent art spaces, my eye also fell on a fascinating collection of drawings by Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat when I went there to interview Kat. Although I was unable to meet the artist (he had not been able to come to the country due to visa issues) I thought it was worth writing a story about the satirical drawings that all speak for themselves, and which – surprisingly! – had been approved by the authorities here to be shown to the public.
And then there were the Italians, who came up with the crazy idea to organize a major event including everything Italian: food, cars, and fashion. The first two were not a problem, as I’ve written about these things before. The third part, fashion, although not my favorite topic to write about, could be done as well. But how to hide the fact that this Italian haute couture was shown by sleek Arab models dressed in evening gowns? I chose to mention the haute couture part without putting attention on this detail and omit the model pictures. Read the article here.
“Would you like to go on a trip to London with Brititsh Airways?” asked the PR lady on the phone. I had met her only once, during an interview, but I didn’t need a second to answer her. Of course I would love to go, I replied.
The whole trip would be very short: leaving on Monday morning with the first British Airways four-cabin Boeing 777 and flying back on Wednesday evening. We would fly first-class and stay at the charming and central Langham Hotel, located at the top of Regent Street and right next to the BBC’s Broadcasting House.
Together with four other journalists and someone from the PR agency I left in the beginning of April to experience another episode of my rich-girllife. The flight was beyond expectations, I could say. Of course I had expected a very comfy journey, but who would have thought I would have a private suite with flat screen, a seat that reclines to a fully flat bed, bed linen, complimentary travel kit full of creams, lotions, and moisturisers, PJs and slippers, power socket and USB port, and an extensive list of à la carte dining options! I was sad the flight lasted only five hours or so.
At Heathrow, I bumped into a Saudi lawyer who immediately recognized me. Turned out I had interviewed him about a year ago, when he started a partnership with a British law firm, and he had always wanted to thank me for the good job. It kinda surprised me, because I had just began working as a journalist at that time and had been incredibly nervous every time I interviewed someone and had an article published.
But back to my three days in London. We were picked up by the Langham Hotel, which is a lovely 5-star hotel that radiates Britishness: from the fresh roses brought in every single morning to the wallpaper and furniture, and from the polite staff to the world-famous afternoon tea served daily at the restaurant lobby.
The days in London had not been stuffed with activities, which made it possible for me to do some sightseeing on my own and have a morning run in Regent’s Park. We visited Harrod’s and met charming perfumer Roja Dove, who briefed us with passion about his Aoud collection. Aoud, usually spelled as “oud,” comes from the wood of the tropical Agar tree, originated in India, and is extremely popular in the Middle East.
A highlight of the trip, the following day we got the chance to fly in a Boeing 777 flight simulator! Although I had never really felt the ambition to fly a plane, I was so much fun to learn some basics and be able to take off and land the plane safely. And the simulator did feel incredibly real!
In between these activities the two other female journalists and I did some shopping (where better to shop than in London?!) and I spent a whole morning running from one monument to another! I managed to see 30 St. Mary Axe (a.k.a. The Gherkin); the Monument, a remembrance to the Great Fire of London of 1666; Leadenhall Market, where aristocratic bankers can be spotted enjoying their lunch; and St. Paul’s Cathedral, built after the Great Fire on top of the Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the city.
Subsequently, I crossed the river on the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, from where I got a glimpse of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. On the river’s south bank I saw the reconstructed Globe Theater, where Shakespeare’s playing company used to perform; Tate Modern, Britain’s national museum of modern and contemporary art; and London Eye. Then I crossed the Waterloo Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. I turned right on Whitehall to get a glimpse of 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the prime minister, and of Horse Guards Parade right next to it. I ended up at Trafalgar Square, from which I had to hurry back to the hotel for the flight simulation.
While writing this, I can hardly believe I spent only three days (or 2.5 actually, considering we arrived Monday afternoon and left Wednesday evening) in this metropolis, because I did much more than I wrote down! I found the time to see Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guards, take plenty of flower pictures at Green Park, St. James’s Park, and Hyde Park, did a morning run in Regent’s Park (my favourite park by far!), and had a spa treatment at Langham’s spa Chuan.
The only thing I did not do (and kind of regret not doing) was go for the afternoon tea at the Langham Hotel. Appearently, this is the best and most famous place for a high tea. The hotel even claims having invented the custom!
Prior to our overnight flight back to Jeddah we enjoyed our time at the luxurious First Class Business Lounge of Heathrow airport. Unfortunately, the spa was already closing its doors, but I enjoyed the restaurant at the lounge. The flight back was as comfortable as the outward trip, although I was sad it was an overnight flight and I was, thus, supposed to spend it sleeping. You can’t blame me I wanted to enjoy my time on the plane!
Naturally, once back in Jeddah I wrote an article about my trip for the Saudi Gazette, which you can read here.
Some 1.5 month ago, I visited Jeddah’s Old Town, also known by the Arabic term Al-Balad, when my family was visiting me here. Not having been there for quite some time (we usually only go there during the month of Ramadan once or twice), my husband and I were amazed how much the area had been improved: it was cleaner, car-free, and many buildings had been renovated or were under restoration.
The efforts to revive the Old Town are part of an attempt to have Jeddah’s old city center included in the UNESCO list of heritage sites. The last time the committee came together it rejected Jeddah’s bid, mainly due to the state of negligence the area is in. The committee will come together this year in June in neighboring country Qatar, and the Saudi authorities are determined to succeed in including Jeddah this time around.
It is in this context that a famous Saudi photographer, Mohamed Al-Khatib, better known under his artistic name Emy Kat, has made a series of photos that are currently on display here at Athr Gallery. I was lucky enough to meet him and write an article about it, which came out in the Saudi Gazette on Saturday, April 19.
Here is the full article I wrote:
Emy Kat’s cry to save Jeddah’s heritage
Another attempt has been made to show the public the importance of preserving their city’s heritage. Photographer Mohamed Al-Khatib, better known as Emy Kat, has documented historical buildings and palaces of Jeddah’s Al-Balad (or Old Town) in a solo exhibition currently on display at Athr Gallery.
Named “The Everlasting Now,” the exhibition tries to capture the beauty of a heritage that is vanishing due to neglect. As such, it serves two goals: To preserve the heritage, if only through photographs; and to raise awareness about the importance to preserve what is left. The images on display do not try to hide the dilapidated state of some of the buildings. The crumbling walls are clearly visible, as are the traces of rats and worms that occupied the buildings after the owners abandoned it.
However, to simply say that Kat is criticizing the authorities’ failure to preserve the Hejazi heritage does not do justice to the exhibition. According to the artist himself, he did not want to bring the neglect forward more than the beauty. The two had to be equal, and this was the toughest part of the project, he admits. Rather than criticizing or imposing his own opinion, he intends to provoke questions with his work, like “What happened to these historical buildings?”, “Why is no one preserving them?” and “Why do so few people know about this heritage and the importance to preserve it?” The most important question, however, for Kat is “What can be done to preserve it?”
And while this question cannot easily be answered, Kat hopes that by creating awareness people will at least pressurize the authorities to exert more effort to preserve their heritage.
Kat is in no case the first to notice the neglect. In June 2011, UNESCO turned down Jeddah’s request for Al-Balad to become included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly due to the district’s negligence. “It was a blow, but at the same time, we still have hope. UNESCO meets every three years,” is Kat’s reaction.
Since the rejection, much has happened. The Kingdom invested SR50 million into the area’s renovation and promoted domestic tourism heavily. The 10-day heritage festival held in January this year was part of the efforts to acknowledge the importance of Al-Balad and Hejazi culture.
This year, the city has submitted its request for nomination again. Whether it can convince the UNESCO World Heritage Committee this time remains to be seen in June, when the committee’s next meeting is scheduled in Qatar.
Kat’s affinity for Jeddah’s Old Town started at a young age, when he used to cycle down to Al-Balad without permission from his parents. “For me, it was a huge adventure,” he says, and to see it dying in this manner created anguish and frustration in him.
His love for photography began early in life as well, when his father gave him his first camera at the age of 12. But Kat was not destined to become a professional photographer until he moved to the United States at the age of 29 following his father’s death. Prior to that, he was a successful industrial consultant who appeared to have it all. But soon he realized that money did not make him happy and that, after his father had passed away, nothing tied him to Jeddah anymore. On the fields of Iowa, he attempted to find himself, soon realizing he wanted to pursue a career in photography. He became a fashion photographer and earned several awards. His work got published in prestigious magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Elle Décor, and Kat lived in New York and Paris. To be closer to his mother when she fell ill, Kat moved to Dubai in 2000, where he took up a job in advertorial photography in order to sustain himself at a time Dubai did not yet have a developed fashion industry.
The wish to capture the dying heritage city of his childhood was there ever since he came back to Jeddah after 17 years and saw what was happening to the Old Town. In 2006, the photographer was asked by a senior heritage curator — Kat laughs when remembering the title — to take photos for a book about the old town. Seeing the ignorant and irresponsible attempts at restoration, Kat had to politely turn down the offer. “You can’t just smother paint and cement onto coral and [call it] renovation. It won’t marry; it will fall off,” he illustrates. “This needs to be brushed.” The idea to perpetuate the historical district, however, remained.
Meeting Hamza Serafi, co-founder of Athr Gallery, enabled Kat to turn his dream into reality. The artist lived in Al-Balad for three months, while the whole project of research, execution and developing his photographs covered some one and a half year. “I wanted to tell the story [of the Old Town], but I wanted to say it in a contemporary and personal way,” relates Kat, who decided to resurrect a home through his photographs of various homes. The result encompasses three types of approaches and techniques: There are the photos of spaces – an entrance and a Majlis (sitting place); the macro photos to give the intricacies and the intimacies of the details of the story; and the summarizing, digital collages, for which Kat invented the title “Stripe Collage.”
The current exhibition, Kat adds, is only the first part of his work. Eager to leave a lasting impact on the audience, the artist and Athr Gallery will organize a second edition of this project, although the when and how have yet to materialize. “Because it’s work in progress. It’s a documentary project, so we’re putting it together, and we’re trying to see what is the best way to communicate awareness on a long run.”
It is hard not to get the impression that everything Kat touches becomes gold. A successful industrial consultant turned fashion photographer turned advertorial photographer turned artist, Kat is a staunch believer in the adagio “impossible is nothing.” But thinking that everything in Kat’s life is handed over to him on a silver platter is an illusion. Besides his enormous talents, it is perhaps his determination and perseverance that helps him obtain what he aspires, even if he has to wait for it, as happened when he moved back to the Gulf.
“In Dubai, there was no art, and I wanted to jump to art,” Kat says. Going back to Paris was no option, as he had let his studio. He was stuck in Dubai, so to speak. To sustain himself, Kat worked as an advertisement photographer from 2000, until in 2008 he got the opportunity to become an artist, which he grabbed with both hands.
Kat is an energetic man and full of ideas. It is clear he loves what he does, and he passionately talks about the techniques he used and the challenges he faced, such as when he thought he had shot the perfect image only to find out back in Paris — where he developed his analogue photos — that the picture, although technically impeccable, was soulless. In his Stripe Collages, he used a striking technique of summarizing a space into one two-dimensional image. His works are a combination of colorful details and monotonous gray. Kat has seamlessly achieved his aim to capture the beauty as well as the decline of the Hejazi heritage — a decline that is the result not only of ignorance but also unwillingness to preserve and invest in the city’s true history.
Only two weeks ago, the roof of one of the buildings caught fire. While firemen attempted to extinguish the flames, the roof collapsed, running down the entire structure. Captured on the Stripe Collage “Indoors,” the building is just one example of what is happening to the city’s heritage, but it gives “The Everlasting Now” an additional sense of urgency that time is running out.
“The Everlasting Now” can be seen daily at Athr Gallery until April 30 on the 5th floor of the Business Center, Wing B, at Serafi Mega Mall on Tahlia Street in Jeddah.