remembering miss universe 1971

Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971

Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971

Last Thursday night, my mother proudly proclaimed, “check out my smokey eye - don’t you think I look like Georgina Rizk?”

My mother, a lover of natural make-up and vintage fashion, seldom does a smokey eye. She’s an au naturale kind of woman and rarely opts for the sultry beauty standards of the Arab world. Yet, that night, my mother seemed particularly inclined towards a ‘smokey-eye’, and was quite proud of her ability to make dark eyeliner look good despite - in her opinion - her age. “I am so good at this, I could totally be a make up artist! You know, I could’ve been better than all these so-called designers in Europe, I could’ve been, you know, a true artist. If only I had the opportunities and exposure as a child…” she trails off. “Anyway, I definitely look like Georgina Rizk”.

In 1970, Lebanon announced Georgina Rizk the winner of the nation’s beauty pageant and crowned her Miss Lebanon. She was crowned Miss Universe in Miami, Florida only a year later. She was the first woman from the Middle East to be crowned Miss Universe, and only 4th in Asia to ever win the title. My mom must have been around 4 years old at the time.

For many young Arab women, Georgina Rizk was an icon. She was beautiful and symbolised a kind of “liberation” that was revered by the then youth of the Middle East. She controversially once said that she was “for pre-marital sex” and thought that women should “experiment” before making a commitment because “marriage is not a simple thing”. This, of course, did not go down well with the older generation, but many women in the region idolised her anyway.

In 1972, when Georgina Rizk was due to hand over the Miss Universe crown to her successor in Puerto Rico, 17 Christian pilgrims from the island were killed in an attack on Lod Airport in Tel Aviv by the Japanese Red Army - a militarised Communist group acting on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ms Rizk was, despite having nothing to do with the incident, banned from attending the ceremony in Puerto Rico.

That year, my mom must’ve been 5 years old - her family in a state of disarray having only left Palestine five years prior. As refugees, my Grandmother collected her children - all 5 of them my mother being the youngest - and moved to Jordan. Without knowing it, so much of my mother’s potential would be defined by forces outside of her control. In the mid-80s, when the Soviet Union was still supporting Palestinian rights, my mother obtained a scholarship to study Fine Arts in Kiev, Ukraine. About a month before she was due to attend the University of Kiev, an earthquake devastated the capital. My grandmother wouldn’t let my mother leave and my mother never got the chance to become the artist she wanted to be. My mom was, despite having nothing to do with the earthquake or the geopolitics of the region, forced to limit herself.

Georgina Rizk was banned from attending the Miss Universe ceremony in Puerto Rico due to “terrorist activities” which had nothing to do with her. The attacks were committed by the Japanese (she’s clearly not Japanese) on Occupied Palestinian soil (a place she is not from: her father is Lebanese and mother Hungarian). Funnily enough, a few years after the attack on Lod Airport, Ms. Rizk married a Palestinian man who was responsible for attacks during the 1972 Olympics in Munich (he was assassinated by the Mossad in 1979).

In many ways, Georgina Rizk’s life was defined for her too.

. . .

Many people think that Occupation and colonialism end at check points and borders but for me, it’s been inside my home my entire life. I look back at the privileges that my parents never got to experience simply because of their history and, therefore, the privileges I never got either. I sometimes wonder what “could have been” - I can’t escape the could-have-would-have. I guess its a symptom of inter-generational trauma.

Despite all this, my mother thoroughly enjoys a Thursday night smokey-eye courtesy of Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971.

on finding a japanese bakery in dubai

Gif from the Hello Kitty and Friends cartoon

Gif from the Hello Kitty and Friends cartoon

Last night I had Korean BBQ at Hyu Korean Restaurant. Hyu is a family-owned Korean place in Jumeriah Lake Towers (JLT). JLT is the quintessential Dubai neighbourhood: towering skyscrapers, city lights, taxis, traffic, restaurants, bars, office buildings. Hyu is authentically Korean - clear from its frequently visiting Korean clientele - and is nestled between JLT’s modern buildings and awkward infrastructure (if you’ve been there you’ll know what I mean). The modernity and awkwardness of JLT doesn’t bother me much - I have taught myself to be indifferent to the pointless skyscrapers and accepting of the fact that the future of the city is uncertain and possibly dystopian. For me, I just wanted to enjoy and devour the Korean barbecued beef, which by the way, was insanely mouth-watering-delicious.

A Korean barbecue, a plate of Dakgangjeong, and a green tea later, we decided to go looking for Japanese cheesecake. “There’s a Japanese cheesecake at Yakitate in Al Rigga” said my companion who was researching Japanese cheesecake options on his phone for the last ten minutes. “Al Rigga it is” I said, ready to trek on the 40 minute drive across Dubai, to one of its oldest neighbourhoods. Al Rigga is the quintessential neighbourhood of old Dubai; low-rise buildings, flickering shop signs, bicycles, traffic and shared living spaces. Anyone who grew up in Dubai knows Al Rigga as the neighbourhood that held Dubai’s promise of modernity and is now part of a forgotten past. It is a glimmer of hope that a bit of the city’s history - my history - is preserved. To me, finding the Japanese bakery in Al Rigga was a relief. When we got there, I ordered a Japanese cheesecake, a tart, Mochi and a Nutella-filled croissant for the both of us. To my dismay, I didn’t really like the taste of any*.

The confusion and disappointment I felt at the end of this East-Asian adventure in the heart of Dubai made me think of our experience of Dubai in general. The continuous striving for modernity, the promise of the future, the idea of a “utopian” life in the Middle East. This all of course was triggered by my recent reading on Gulf Futurism and the image of Dubai as a “city of the future existing in the present”. For those of you that might be interested in reading more about these themes, check out this article by Yasser ElSheshawy, Professor of Urban Studies at UAE University.

Of course the idea of a utopian Dubai - or a utopian anything for that matter - is a sham. I don’t even think utopia is a necessary ambition. And also, its okay for everything to just be as it is. Al Rigga doesn’t have to be a sign of hope that Dubai’s past is still alive, and JLT doesn’t have to be a sign that the future is all gloom and doom. I guess what I am trying to say is, its okay to not enjoy Yakitate in Al Rigga. And its also okay to enjoy Korean in JLT. Maybe Hyu is a sign that the future will be alright after all.

*By the way, Yakitate is a really old Japanese Bakery that now has two branches in Al Rigga and also has great reviews on google. It’s affordable in relation to the more recent Japanese concepts popping up around the city. I highly recommend you try it.

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e-mails to my sister

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz. Source:

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz. Source:

I wanted to write a blog post about my love for Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” but my enthusiasm for the essay was so great I wrote about it in an email to my sister instead. The essay touched me so profoundly that I felt the need to share it with her, the person who knows me the most in this world, because I knew that as soon as she read it, she will recognise that it touches on the many unresolved feelings I have towards "aesthetics”. Particularly those relating to the region. I decided, that instead of writing about Susan Sontag’s seminal essay here, I will share the email I wrote to my sister.

Darah Ghanem

Fri 10/5/2018, 12:18 pm

rama ghanem; rama; Rama Mustafa Alghanem

Hey sis, 

I don't know if you've already read the work of Susan Sontag at art school but I've been reading a lot of her essays recently and I am so enamoured. 

There are two essays I recommend you read: 

1) Notes on "Camp" - Camp is an elitist aesthetic style that everyone in Dubai (and probably Goldsmiths) is obsessed with. Imo its the aesthetic of the ****** crew, and how it's so exclusivist and so elite and lacks any meaningful content or message. I never thought that aesthetics were political until I read Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag. She basically explains the politics behind why certain aesthetics are "in", and why "Camp" becomes a vessel for upholding the status quo. This is my interpretation of her writing anyway, pls take it with a grain of salt. Here's a link to the essay:

2) Against Interpretation - I imagine you've already read this at art school but I thought I would share it anyway. I only read it last night so I don't know what to make of it but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What I understood was that art doesn't need to be interpreted and by having armies of critics interpreting your work it essentially loses value. She says that we should focus on critiquing "form" rather than interpreting meaning in art criticism. What is form btw? does she mean aesthetics or does she mean technique? Lemme know. Here's a link to the article:

Anyway sis, I am sending these to you because I miss you and because I miss having someone to discuss these things with. I want to know what you think. Notes On Camp gave me so many ideas to create a parody zine. I think we can make the most hilarious parody zine -  "HOW TO BE A COOL ARAB". 

Lav you 


graffiti in Dubai

I recently sat down with long-time Dubai resident and photographer Jalal Abuthina to talk about his photobook series “Inside Dubai”. Inside Dubai is a project that aims to document a unique account of Dubai - something that few photojournalists have attempted to do in the past. Jalal decided to start project after noting the lack of resources that gave an authentic account of the city - and also the need to break away from stereotypical and one-dimensional images of Dubai. I spoke with Jalal about his project, representation and the city we both grew up in, for Sekka Magazine. You can find the interview here.

Images courtesy of Jalal Abutina

At the end of the interview, however, Jalal pulled out a white book/catalogue and gave it to me. It was a gift - a incredibly thoughtful one that has been in my thoughts since he gave it to me. It’s one of his earliest books, before the creation of “Inside Dubai”, that documented graffiti around the city. It particularly looks at a neighbourhood Al Badra also known as district 333. Al Badra is sandwiched between the more popular areas of Jumeriah 1 and Satwa, and is often times assumed to be part of either one. The book is a beautiful account that archives the history and phenomena of “street art” in Dubai (and the UAE at large).

As you can tell from many of the images, the writing is very simple, short, to the point. It is the complete opposite of everything we “know” about graffiti - it is the opposite of what you see in European or American cities - and the book presents it as a complete genre of its own. This project immediately took me down memory lane; images of graffiti from the neighbourhoods I grew up in came flooding back to me and I instantly blushed. I remembered how embarrassed I used to be of this overly simplistic graffiti. Seeing it on the walls of my school and near my apartment building used to make me cringe. I always assumed that our "overly-simplistic” graffiti was the result of our “backwardness”. Our communities were unable to coherently build a “proper” street art scene because we are in a way “primitive” and don’t understand the sophisticated rules of street art.

The book didn’t only bring me back to my childhood but it brought me back to myself - why was I so critical and so embarrassed? The answer to that, I of course, know very well. I now know that we have been taught from the very beginning not to understand our history. Not to understand the complexity and layers and multitudes of our communities. We have been taught not to think twice about WHY the graffiti is so simplistic (because vandalism is a serious crime in the region and therefore the writing has to be quick and short before anyone gets caught) and to just assume that everything we are part of is INVALID. That its not witty or clever or meaningful in its own right. That nothing we make organically of our environment can have meaning or validity.

Seeing this project restored my feeling of pride that I worked so hard over the years to gain. Its taken me so long to break down the stigma inside me and to truly see who we are with understanding and empathy. This is why its so important to archive our communities - we need to be creating works that help us understand ourselves.

Tarane Parniani: this month's featured artist

commissioned for follow the halo

commissioned for follow the halo

This artwork is by Iranian illustrator Tarane Parniani titled "Under The Moonlight". Tarane created a 100% digital painting using photoshop for the newsletter. Tarane is inspired by moonlight, since its often associated with feminine energy. 

Tarane considers herself a feminist artist. In her own words she says: "I consider myself a feminist artist not because I draw women but because of the message I am trying to send. Even if it's not the main focus of the piece, I try to keep a wide range of body types and people of color in my works. The positive feedback I get from women, that seeing small "flaws" like stretch marks or a tummy in my art has made them more accepting of themselves. It means a lot to me you know?" 

Tarane says that she wants women to "find themselves" in her work because she often doesn't find representations of women like herself (curvy, Iranian). As for culture, she notes:  "I used to be super obsessed with Western culture as a lot of people my age were back then. But then, growing up, studying art, and especially with this wave of reclaiming one's own culture which is quite huge in Iran, I've begun to reclaim it myself." 

When I asked her to elaborate on how culture influencers her work, she added: 

"Fact is, my culture is not something I can separate myself from, its part of me. My background and lifestyle growing up in Tehran and in the current age - with the contrasts and paradoxes it has - for myself and for the women around me, with all the struggles it might have on a daily basis, its all part of me and honestly I love it Tehran. It's my home. And Iran is home to a lot of diversity in culture and background, there are a lot of different types of people I see every day." 

Tarane says she is inspired by other cultures too, particularly Japanese art. She says she would love to visit Japan more frequently and get a more in-depth view of Japanese culture. 

Tarane is currently based in Tehran. You can follow her work on Instagram at @t.arane

on my shelf: salt houses by hala alyan

photo from

photo from

(This content was originally curated for my monthly newsletter follow the halo. sign up here.)

Written by Palestinian-American Hala Alyan, Salt Houses is a book about the Palestinian exodus in the years after the illegal formation of the state of Israel. The book focuses on the stories of the women in a Palestinian refugee family, and exposes the "intergenerational trauma" that is the result of mass displacement. Alyan writes based on experience, and in an interview with NPR interestingly shares: 

"When I wanted to get married, one of the things that I didn't really have the luxury of was asking my mother if I could wear her wedding dress, or asking my grandmother if I could wear her wedding dress. My grandmother lost hers when she moved to Kuwait. My mother lost hers in Kuwait after the invasion. They're lost in the rubble of time and movement and displacement. We don't have heirlooms." 

Personally, I can't relate more to this. As a Palestinian, I can't think of a more fitting way to explain the trauma of being 3rd generation displaced - that there are no heirlooms, no photographs to go back to, no love letters, no documentation of our personal histories. For more on Hala Alyan and Salt Houses click here



update: i'm back from sudan

I got back from Khartoum last week and I am having major withdrawals. I miss the busy-ness of Khartoum, the traffic, the heat, the noises and the crowded streets. I miss the smell of Sudanese incense (which is overpowering in some parts of the city). I miss how lovely everyone is - so kind, graceful and appreciative of a good joke. But most of all I miss how I did not have a care in the world when I was there. Life is so simple in Sudan. 

In any case, photos from my trip are now up. It only took a week. Also, a bunch of Sudan articles and travel writing is coming. I'm trying to make them all happen before the end of this month. I promised myself that this time I would pace myself and not rush - I usually put so much pressure on myself I actually start to lose the plot. 

Anyway, hope y'all enjoy my photos. Much love. 

Darah xx

update: i'm in sudan


Khartoum is just next level. I never expected to be so *surprised* at life in Sudan, yet here I am re-evaluating everything I know about this country. It's full of mixtures, fusions and beautiful contradictions. Everything is so diverse from the food to the dialects spoken. I think the theme of this trip is that Sudan is "diversely diverse". 

Khartoum is nothing like I expected and more. Unfortunately due to lack of access to the internet as well as not having my laptop charger with me, I won't be able to update my blog regularly like I planned to. Although I do promise that there will be posts once I'm back as well as something published here or there. 

In the meantime you can follow me on Instagram and Twitter to get updates on my time here.

Love, Darah xx

Hassan Sharif: the uae's iconic contemporary artist

This morning I woke up to a fabulous review of the late Emarati artist Hassan Sharif in the New York Times. I highly recommend checking out the article, and visiting the Sharjah Art Foundation (before March 2018) to experience the most comprehensive exhibition of Sharif's lifetime work. 

The New York Times article inspired me to share my love for Hassan Sharif. I really think it's worth noting that contemporary art in the Arab world, and particularly the Arab Gulf, did exist long before the discovery of oil. Unfortunately, our region lacks an authentic and comprehensive historical narrative. But I digress. Hassan Sharif is arguably the most iconic artist in UAE history and is the founder of the UAE's avant-garde art scene (Emirates Fine Art Society) in a time when the Emirates was still considered the small Trucial States. As you might figure from my newsletter, I have an affinity to artists that send a thought-provoking message through pattern and color. Sharif's work is critical of consumerist culture in the Gulf post-oil development - one of few artists I know that makes such a bold statement about contemporary life. 

I also loved the exhibition currently at the foundation. Curated by the Sharjah Art foundation founder, Sheikha Hoor Al Qassimi, it is basically the largest solo exhibition for an Emarati artist inside the UAE. I really admire and respect Sheika Hoor's work who has shaken up arts scene in the region. 

Check out the exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation and I highly recommend reading this review by the New York Times. 

Thank you to my dear friend, art-lover and architect Salaheldin Shams for the photos (above) that he captured while exploring the exhibition with me. 

Dar Al Naim: this month's featured artist

The first time I came across Dar Al Naim's work was on Instagram. I was instantly taken away by her use of color and form and quickly wanted to know more about who she was. Dar is a multi-media artist and illustrator from Sudan. Each piece she creates takes from her Sudanese roots, and is fused with color, often questioning the universe and our place in it. Her work is light-hearted yet thought-provoking - inspirational to no end. 

I commissioned the above artwork from Dar for this month's issue of follow the halo. The piece, titled "Halo", uses acrylic, ink, collage, and felt-tip (mixed-media). Dar was inspired by the title of the newsletter for the creation of this work, and explains in her own words: 

"My Sudanese culture has everything to do with my work when it comes to visuals. I use Sudanese inspired colors and symbols in most of my pieces. The simple fact of being Sudanese is what makes my work different from my fellow European colleagues. The use of color is by far the most obvious bit, but also my direct reference to my country touching on all topics affecting it can be seen in my work."

Dar also says that her work is inspired by the vastness of the universe, and how human interaction is shaped by it. She explains: 

"We are all alone with the universe, we should be happy to be here and appreciate the vast and wonderful world around us. I tend to work a lot with the universe in mind. As a way of expression, it portrays the multiple aspects of human interaction. The stars the sky the planets the size of it all, the scale of our being and our knowledge. The idea of being in space but looking at it from far is very interesting to me. The distances we create to make sense of it all."

Dar Al Naim resides in Ibiza (Spain)  and is an obsessive list maker. You can follow her artwork and travels on @daralnaimart on Instagram. 

The above images (other than the one comissioned) are part of Dar's work and were used with her permission.