Hisham Samawi – APRIL 2015

By Kate Hazell

From the developing art scene to the art of the perfect breakfast, Hisham Samawi is contributing to the changing face of Dubai's landscape.

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An integral part of the cultural scene, 37 year-old Jordanian Hisham Samawi has lived in the city for eight years, having first made a name for himself by launching Ayyam Gallery and more recently Clinton Street Baking Company. Founded with cousin and partner Khaled Samawi, in Damascus 2006, Ayyam's roster has now grown to include some of the most regarded Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, Saudi and Iranian artists. One of the originals to open in Alserkal Avenue (back before it even had that name), Ayyam then opened in DIFC, as well as Beirut and more recently New Bond Street in London. The self-confessed foodie talks art, kite surfing, hidden spots and more…


What’s the story behind Ayyam Gallery?


“We felt that there was a need for a platform to celebrate the urban lifestyle culture that we identify with. We were frustrated with the lack of place for regionally for likeminded people to gather and express and be a support to the culture we are trying to create.”


What are you most excited about for the event?


“I started Ayyam with my cousin and partner Khaled Samawi, in Damascus 2006. At that time there was no contemporary art scene in Syria, simply a few older artists that would sell out of their studios at low prices. There was however a really good art school there but the artists who graduated were forced to abandon art and get normal jobs because there was no market to support them. At that time Christie's had just started in the Middle East and the art scene was developing in Dubai, so we went to Syria and launched a competition to discover artists. We had over 150 submit works and we were blown away by the level of talent. From this group we selected 15 young artists and launched Ayyam Gallery.”


What made you move from the art world to F&B?


“I'm still in the art world but my passion for and also recognition of an opportunity, got me into F&B. I'm a big believer that when people complain about something in Dubai that means there is an opportunity. For years when I was living here people always complained that there was nowhere good to have breakfast. When I lived in New York I lived next to Clinton Street and thought it was the best breakfast I had ever eaten. One day I decided to reach out to them to see if they had any interest in expanding and after three years of work here we are. I really had no idea how challenging it would be to open a restaurant. It's been very rewarding personally but also very humbling.”


What do you think of the current food scene Dubai?


“It's pretty amazing as there is a ton of variety and some of the best restaurants you can find anywhere. Dubai has such an international demographic that has experienced the best the world has to offer. I think it is only a matter of time before all of the world's best concepts are represented here which will make this a global dining destination second-to-none. I would like to see the level of service improve in some of the more casual concepts. It seems like cost is the driving factor and so they go for the cheapest labour possible, which has an effect on service.”


What's different about Clinton Street?


“I have noticed that there seems to be a lot of concepts trying to target the top one per cent with fine dining. I brought Clinton Street to do something that I didn't think had been done yet. Our entire menu is certified organic and we place a great emphasis on service with a completely Western staff, which matches our concept. We provide top quality food in a casual environment. When we do our lobster benedict we actually bring in Maine lobsters from the States.”


How do you like to spend your time off?


“As a big foodie I tend to go to a lot of the same restaurants because I am a creature of habit. If a place is good, consistent and treats me right then you will find me going back again and again. I also love to play golf, which is amazing in Dubai.”


How would you like to make a difference in the region?


“I never really set out to make a difference I just saw things that I felt needed to be done and decided to do them. I love what we have accomplished with the gallery over the past eight years. It's been an honour to work with so many great artists and to give them a platform to share their creativity. The art scene that has come out of the region is one of the positive stories and it's great to be a part of that.”


What is your favourite piece of art in Dubai?


“I have a beautiful view of the Burj Khalifah, I see it every morning when I wake up. I've seen it in almost every weather condition so it's special to me. The buildings that impressed me the first time I came to Dubai in 2004, were Emirates Towers. I was here on a DJ gig from New York and driving down SZR for the first time and I remember how those towers blew me away. I think that was the first moment I thought to myself that Dubai had something special going on.”


Can you tell us about the Young Collectors Auction?


“The Young Collectors Auction is something we started in 2008. We always found that the toughest threshold to cross (with new collectors) is getting them to buy their first piece. There is this preconceived notion, by many, that art is intimidating or they don't understand it. The Young Collectors Auction is a way for people to be presented with a nice diverse range of art from emerging and established artists at affordable prices. From time to time we will have some lots in the auction in which the proceeds go to charity. In our last sale we did 10 lots to support Syrian refugees. The YCA also helps support young artists who are in the sale (as an artist needs to be able to support him or herself in order to continue making art).”


(Apart from Ayyam, obviously) which would say are the galleries, you feel, are bringing the most to the region?


“I've always respected my friend Sunny's gallery, the Third Line. We collaborate on things from time to time and I love what they do and what they are about.”


Where is your ‘special place'?


“My special place is usually out on the water kite surfing. There is this place I go to near the unfinished Palm, Jebel Ali, to go surfing. It is so nice and peaceful and I love going there with some music in my iPod. It's an amazing escape and so beautiful.”


What do you like most about living in Dubai?


“I love how diverse and international the demographics are here. I used to live in New York and thought that was a great mix but it doesn't compare to Dubai. I also love the location and how easy it is to hop on a flight and be practically anywhere in the world. A lot of people complain about the hot weather but I love living near the beach and enjoying sunshine most of the year. When I lived in New York I remember how long and cold the winters were and how the lack of sunshine would depress me.”


Where do you like to shop?


“My friend Priya just opened a cool athletic wear store called Hautletic, which I like. My favourite store to shop at is in London and Paris, called Design by Loft. I hope one day someone brings it to Dubai because I am obsessed with it… Or if nobody else does maybe I will. It's funny but I rarely go shopping for clothes here in Dubai… I usually do my shopping when I am in London or New York for some reason.”


What's the last thing you bought?


“I bought a really cool new artwork from Random International at Design Days called “Self Portrait”. It's a piece that actually takes a picture of you, then displays it on the canvas using heat technology which only lasts for 30 seconds…. It's really cool.”


Tell us three hidden secrets/places about the city that we might not know?


1. “I'm a big fan of this Goan Indian restaurant called Eric's in Karama. The owner Eric even named a dish after me, so order “Chicken a la Hisham” for a nice spicy chicken dish.”
2. “There's a really crazy North Korean restaurant (called Pyongyang) I went once, that was one of the strangest experiences I have had here. The waitresses were dressed in long beautiful gowns but then at some point they disappeared and came back with musical instruments and started rocking out in some crazy hybrid Korean/English rock music. It's close to the clock in Deira and worth a visit with a group of friends.”
3. “I know most people have probably heard of Alserkal Avenue but it's worth mentioning. I think it's one of the most amazing places in Dubai because it is one of the only things to happen in Dubai organically. There are so many exciting things happening all the time there and it's only going to get better with the expansion that is happening soon.”


What guest list should we be on?


“I'm a fan of the Night Vibes (formerly Electric Days) as well as Deep Like. I'm into deep house and techno and they are the best two parties pushing that music in a cool outdoors environment. I'm also a bit biased because I also DJ at both of them. I'd also probably say that 40 Kong is my favourite lounge to go to on a regular basis. You can usually find me and my friends there.”


Your latest Cherrypicked Dubai?


“Ever since I was a child I have had an obsession with Le Relais de L'entrecote. I used to go to the one in FestivalCity but I'm happy now that they moved closer to me in Downtown. Anytime I travel to a city that has one I always have to eat there.”


Any tips for surviving the summer?