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Posted:  |  Updated: 08/09/12 05:08 PM ET

50 People Shaping The Culture Of The Middle East (SLIDESHOW)

Even as world headlines from the Middle East focus on upheaval and violence, the region's culture continues to thrive. Here's a look at some groups and individuals making their mark on arts and culture in the region, in no particular order.

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  • Mohammed Kanoo, Bahrain

    Bahraini contemporary artist <a href="" target="_hplink">Mohammed Kanoo's</a> playful images of President Barack Obama and Hollywood actors like Will Smith and John Travolta garbed in traditional Arab menswear was a viral sensation. This piece, called "A Question of Identity," was part of his recent solo exhibition in May at the <a href="" target="_hplink">Meem Gallery</a> in Dubai, dubbed "Fun w/Fen" (Fun with Art). Reviewers have likened his pop-art style with Andy Warhol's. In addition to his digital prints, Kanoo also works in paint, calligraphy and other media. (Photo:

  • Khadija Al-Salami, Yemen

    Khadija Al-Salami is considered the first female producer in Yemen. She was married at age 11, but later divorced and pursued her education, eventually becoming the press and cultural official at the Yemeni Embassy in Paris. Women's lives figure prominently in her 20-some documentaries, including one about a female prisoner. After filming during Yemen's unrest last year, she told <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>The New York Times</em></a> that she wanted to compare Yemeni and Tunisian women and "the roles they played in the revolutions." (Photo: Photo by Filippo Zambon,

  • Aghiles Issiakhem, Algeria

    There aren't too many galleries in Algeria, but artist Aghiles Issikhem has found plenty to inspire his creative expression. Working in charcoal, pencil, acrylic and oil paints, Issiakhem has captured the faces of disenchanted Algerian youth in his portraiture. His great uncle was a seminal modern art figure in Algeria, but he's making his own mark. One reputed <a href="" target="_hplink">Algerian painter, Dokman</a>, has called him "a very promising talent" and said, "He's not in it for the money. It comes from his gut." (Photo: Radio Netherlands Worldwide)

  • Youssra El Hawary, Egypt

    With more than 170,000 hits on her April <a href="" target="_hplink">YouTube</a> hit, "El Soor" (The Wall), singer Youssra El Hawary has been hailed as more than a passing Internet sensation. In the video, the skinny-jean-clad El Hawary, in her 20s, sings sweetly with accordion in tow, against the backdrop of a graffitied wall, ubiquitous in post-revolutionary Cairo. An actress and singer with local troupes, El Hawary is seen as an up-and-coming star of Egypt's alternative music field. (Photo:

  • Ahmed Mater, Saudi Arabia

    Ahmed Mater is considered one of the most significant artists in the Saudi contemporary art world. His range spans painting, photography, installations, video and calligraphy and have been displayed extensively. Motifs from traditional and globalized culture often live throughout his work. He is also a founder of <a href="" target="_hplink">Edge of Arabia</a>, an independent arts initiative that nurtures a network of artists in Saudi Arabia through exhibitions and educational programs. (Photo:

  • Naif Al-Mutawa, Kuwait

    Look out, it's Widad the Loving and Jaleel the Majestic! These new superheroes on the block are the brainchild of Naif Al-Mutawa, the Kuwaiti founder and CEO of Tashkeel Media Group. Billed as <a href="" target="_hplink">THE 99</a>, they are do-gooders inspired by Middle Eastern tradition and Islamic archetypes. Al-Mutawa's vision of kids having new role models has burgeoned from a comic book series to a theme park and a TV series. (Photo:

  • Bahram, Iran

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Bahram Nouraei</a> is among a group of young Iranians who have turned to rap to express themselves. He's been spitting weighty lyrics for the past decade, even addressing President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in his track "Namei be Raees Jomhoor" (A letter to the president). The rapper's outspokenness landed him a stint in jail, but won him a large following. Last year, he released his latest album, "<a href="" target="_hplink">Sokoot</a>" (Silence). (Photo:

  • Ali Ferzat, Syria

    Syrian political cartoonist <a href="" target="_hplink">Ali Ferzat</a>, influential across the Arab-speaking belt, took the government and elite to task in his drawings. Previously, Ferzat didn't directly chide Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, only addressing him symbolically. But following the popular uprising and the bloody crackdown, his depictions have changed. The veteran cartoonist was <a href="" target="_hplink">kidnapped and badly beaten in 2011</a>. His hands have since healed and he's back at the drawing board, partaking in what he's called Syria's new revolutionary art. One of the many works featured on his Facebook site is pictured here. (Photo: )

  • Deena Amr, Jordan

    Jordan isn't famous for its cinema, but young director and screenwriter Deena Amr is helping change that perception. Her first feature film, A <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>7 Hour Difference</em></a> made a splash at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival. The film portrays the struggles of Dalia, who is back home in Amman from her studies in the United States for her sister's wedding. When her American boyfriend shows up, the relationship thrusts questions around women, culture and religion. Amr's film screened in June at the Manhattan International Film Festival in New York. (Photo: )

  • Shadia and Raja Alem, Saudi Arabia

    Saudi sisters <a href="" target="_hplink">Shadia and Raja Alem</a> combine visual arts and words. Shadia is a visual artist who has exhibited in several countries and Raja is a well-known author, who has worked on novels, plays and other pieces. Raja creates narratives off the artwork Shadia creates and, through various projects, the sisters aim to promote creativity for Saudi youth and women. (Photo:

  • Aynur Doğan, Turkey

    Aynur Doğan's soaring voice raised the Kurdish folk tradition's profile on the world music platform. Born in Turkey, Doğan has spent the past decade performing Kurdish and Turkish classics while unveiling her own creations as well. A court issued an order to ban her 2004 album, Kece Kurdan (Kurdish Girl) because it allegedy encouraged separatism. Last year, at the Istanbul Jazz Festival, audience members booed her so severely for performing Kurdish songs that she left the stage. Even so, her tour schedule remains busy as she travels around Europe. (Photo:

  • Adel Al Mshiti, Libya

    As Libyans rebelled against Muammar Gadhafi's decades-long rule last year, Adel Al Mshiti's song, "Sofa Nabqa Huna" (We Will Stay Here), became their soundtrack. The song repeatedly implores staying put, which served as a much-needed morale-booster as Libyans fought for their revolution. It's a strong message from Al Mshiti, who was imprisoned for six years under Gadhafi. A doctor by profession, Al Mshiti told <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>USA Today</em></a>: "My music is my weapon." (Photo: by Portia Walker for USA Today)

  • Joseph Cedar, Israel

    In Israeli director Joseph Cedar's film, <em>Footnote</em>, a father and son are pitted against each other as competitive Talmudic Studies professors. Cedar's fourth feature, it received both popular and critical praise and has been described as satire, comedy and even tragedy, defying a single form, and exhibiting Cedar's versatility. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

  • Emel Mathlouthi, Tunisia

    Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's government threatened to ban Emel Mathlouthi's music. She was a student activist who sang about freedom at the time and the intimidation forced her to <a href="" target="_hplink">leave for France in 2007</a>. A few years later, Mathlouthi triumphantly sang "Kelmti Horra" (My Word is Free) in downtown Tunis, inspiring the revolution crowds. Earlier this year, Mathlouthi released her album, named after that very song. Singing mostly in Arabic, her voice has been compared to Joan Baez and her music has hints of electro and trip-hop that combine to create a uniquely Tunisian sound. (Photo:

  • Qusai, Saudi Arabia

    Rapper Qusai (Kheder) grew up in Jeddah and is proof that Saudi Arabia and hip hop aren't mutually exclusive. Qusai went from being a DJ to a successful MC and even co-host of the MBC show, Arabs Got Talent. His new album is titled,"The Inevitable Change." <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>Hot Arab Music</em></a> called the album's verses "uplifting" and said as Arab rappers have emerged over the past 15 years, "no one has worked as hard as Qusai." (Photo: Reuters)

  • Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, Iran

    Brotherly duo Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh paint bold, fantastical pieces -- at times pulling imagery from traditional Persian art and customs -- that carry commentary on their society and culture. They have used partially nude figures in some work and a few years ago, they fled Iran for the United Arab Emirates after being targeted by authorities. A profile in <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>W</em> magazine</a> said they were "creating some of the most complex and provocative art in the Middle East." (Photo: Self portrait,

  • Ahmed Asery, Yemen

    The dreadlocked <a href="" target="_hplink">Ahmed Asery</a> heads the reggae and blues band, <a href="" target="_hplink">3 Meters Away</a>, in Yemen. Their songs became protest anthems as students revolted against the regime last year. With song titles like "Inhale Freedom" and "I'm Staying 'til the Regime Leaves," Asery and his bandmates write socially-conscious lyrics and are among the first to sing reggae in Yemen. (Photo:

  • El General, Tunisia

    Rapper El General's song, "<a href="" target="_hplink">Rais Le Bled</a>" (Leader of the Country), released in December 2010, is noted for <a href=",8599,2049456,00.html" target="_hplink">pumping up Tunisian masses</a> as they rose up against former President Zine El Abidine Ali, and was later adopted by Egyptians. He took the risk during Ali's repressive rule to speak out against corruption and was arrested. He popularized hip hop as a genre within Tunisia, and elevated Tunisian hip hop on a global scale. Beyond his revolutionary anthem, El General performs live and is working on an album called "The Voice of the People." (Photo:

  • Khalid Al Zadjali, Oman

    Khalid Al Zadjali is working to put Oman on the cinematic map. He directed what are considered the country's <a href="" target="_hplink">first two feature films</a>, including the recently released <em>Aseel</em> about an eponymous Bedouin boy. As he works to transfer the Gulf state's narratives onto the big screen, he also oversees the annual Muscat International Film Festival. (Photo: Omani Association for Cinema)

  • Idan Raichel, Israel

    Combining seemingly disparate sounds has never been an issue for <a href="" target="_hplink">Idan Raichel</a>. For the past decade, the Israeli musician has blended Ethiopian, Latin, Middle Eastern and Caribbean beats, with his group, The Idan Raichel Project. Raichel, who is credited with redefining Israeli popular music, continues to tour and collaborate with diverse artists, including India Arie. (Photo:

  • Oday Rasheed, Iraq

    As Iraq emerges from nearly a decade of war, filmmaker Oday Rasheed is committed to jump starting the local cinema scene. Rasheed's first feature film in 2005, <em>Underexposure</em>, was the first one made in the country after Saddam Hussein fell from power. In 2010, the director and screenwriter released his next feature, <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>Qarantina</em></a>, about a troubled family in gritty Baghdad. In addition to making his own films, he co-founded the Baghdad Film Production Center with Mohamed al-Daradji in 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

  • Hoba Hoba Spirit, Morroco

    Ten years ago, the band <a href="" target="_hplink">Hoba Hoba Spirit</a> was an underground act -- rock outfits were not so welcome in the Morrocan music landscape. Today though, the band attracts huge audiences as they fuse rock, reggae and traditional Gnawa music of North Africa. They credit the Internet with connecting them with fans, both at home and overseas. (Photo:

  • Hazim Faris, United Arab Emirates

    Violinist and composer Hazim Faris' first album, "1001 Violin Nights," topped regional music charts upon its release last fall. With contributions from Turkish musicians, the album is dubbed a "musical journey from Baghdad to Istanbul." Though based in the United Arab Emirates in recent years, the Iraqi musician continues to produce lyrics and music for famous Iraqi singers. He's going international, with performances scheduled in coming months at music festivals in Europe. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Lalla Essaydi, Morroco

    Lalla Essaydi, who was raised in Morocco and has lived in Saudi Arabia, illuminates large photographs of women, sitting in Moorish settings or draped in flowing cloth, with endless hennaed writing in Arabic. Her mixed media pieces often incorporate questions of gender roles. Essaydi has exhibited her work (including Silence of Thought # 2, pictured) the world over and is currently on display at the <a href="" target="_hplink">Smithsonian's African Art Museum</a> in Washington until February. (Photo: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution)

  • Raeda Saadeh, Palestine/West Bank

    Jerusalem-based artist <a href="" target="_hplink">Raeda Saadeh</a> has been likened to renowned conceptual artist Cindy Sherman for her installations, performances and photography. Saadeh says her work examines ideas of gender, identity and displacement, as in this work, titled "Hospital." The Palestinian artist, who had her first solo exhibit in London earlier this year, often puts herself as the subject of her pieces -- be it in an absurd position or clad as Vermeer's "The Milkmaid." (Photo: )

This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared on Al-Monitor. For the rest of the list, and a look at the 50 best Twitter feeds of the Middle East, head to Al-Monitor. If you think anyone was left off the list, let us know in the comments, or tweet @AlMonitor.


Filed by Hallie Sekoff  |