The Dubai of Benedetta Paravia
Our interview with the Italian who is very popular in the Arab world
The Italian, versatile artist, writer, creative producer and philanthropist Benedetta Paravia has been living for years in Dubai, where she acts as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe through culture, university education, music, books, television shows and transmedia storytelling, fashion shows, art exhibitions and charity events. She is the most popular Italian woman in the Arab world. She is Vice President and Ambassadress of A.N.G.E.L.S. (Associazione Nazionale Giovani Energie Latrici di Solidarietà), the non-for-profit organization through which she has been doing social work and taking care of sick children in war zones. She was described by the Arab press as ‘Google’s pride’ with 100% of positive news devoted to her. She works as journalist with several newspapers, including the Italian La Repubblica and the Borghese. She has recently launched her mini ‘inclusive’ Princess Bee collection at Yamamay stores, devoted to the skin color of every woman.
How did your path wind its way to the UAE?
On a holiday trip to Dubai in 2002, I had just taken my law degree. I remember that the moment the airplane’s door slid open I breathed in the desert’s air and my face lit up with a smile. It was the place for me. At the time, I was trying to get over someone I had loved and had made me suffer, but as soon as I got there I stopped crying and kept smiling.
What do you remember about your first day in Dubai?
As I was walking down the airplane’s steps, I noticed a red car with only the national falcon on its plate. There were no numbers. It was the car of Sheikh Falah bin Zayed, the son of Late President and founder of the nation Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and brother of the current President, H.H. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The car had come to pick me and my two friends up and drive us to Ghantoot, the Polo Club where the Sheikh’s birthday party was taking place. It was November 9 and, as I walked inside, I noticed young people of all nationalities and religions speaking in different languages, but mostly in English. I was captured by that multiethnic and multicultural vision and I immediately thought that that place could be better than London or New York City for me!
And how did things go in the end?
The trip, which was supposed to last only two weeks in the beginning, became a 3-month stay. Then, on the evening before my trip back to Italy, while I was walking along the Jumeirah beach- deserted and full of pink and white shells and pale-colored clams back then- I found a dirhams. I picked up that coin, which I still have, and said to myself: I’m staying here”.
What was it about that great city that still intrigues you?
Dubai , in those years, was a peaceful yet lively and already very positive city. The desert was everywhere and camels crossed the highways. People were optimistic and relaxed, the foreign community was small but of the highest quality and the relationship with the royal families was simple and continuous, without too many protocols.
What was your first job in Dubai?
I worked as a fashion model for big international brands but, at the same time, I planned classes for female Emirati students in Italy, at the Antonio Genovesi - SDOA Foundation, of which my father was the head. Those classes were successful and the families were very grateful for the way the organization took care of their daughters. In those years, it was not an easy task to bring hundreds of female students, barely of age, on an educational trip abroad; and I had done it all by myself, even former Ambassador Domenico Pedata congratulated me on having achieved such great results in just a few months. I remember the mothers and grandmothers at the airport hugging me while they were entrusting their daughters and grand-daughters to my care.
Your popularity is tied to two shows aired after the evening news on Dubai One, of which you are producer and host. What are they about?
Actually, I was already well-known to the locals and media because I was the face of Emirates and well-known fashion brands, in addition to my job in the university education field, which had made me very popular amongst the local families. Hi Dubai and Hi Emirates was such an innovative and popular show that we were granted prime time following the national evening news. It is based on stories of Emirati and foreign women living in the Emirates. The role of women in the multicultural Islamic society and the government’s guidelines are the main themes. I appeared on bills all over the city for 9 months, a record time for Sheikh Zayed Road. After airing on television, the show was distributed online on Dubai Post and on all the Emirates Airlines’ flights.
Please tell us about the most significant stories of women among those you dealt with on your show?
The Lebanese Dareen Barbar lost a leg at the age of 15 to cancer. She was obese and she broke her hip after her first pregnancy. Then her life changed. Today, owing to her iron will, she is a celebrity. My show launched her to stardom and now she appears on magazine covers such as Vogue Arabia. She also became a fitness model by working out hard at the gym. The Tibetan Tenzin Choeyang was born in India into a very poor family, but by moving to Dubai she too changed her life and now she is the queen of gadget marketing. She is a Buddhist and her community is made up of only 6 people.
Please tell us about your Dubai: the walks, the seaside, culture, free time, shopping and good food.
My Dubai changes constantly! Every time I go back after summer, there are hundreds of new venues….but my favorite place is Medinat Jumeirah. My father and I were the first guests of the Mina A’Salam when it opened in 2004 and, since then, new resorts have been added to the Medinat Jumeirah. It’s my favorite place, I enjoy looking at the Burj al Arab from the beach and take a swim by night in the complex’s big pools; nobody does it and I don’t know why: it’s so beautiful to look at the moon in utter peace. From there during the day, towards evening, I also enjoy taking the abra, the typical wooden electric boat, while on the Creek the abras are gasoline-powered and they take you from one shore to the other, between the Gold Souk and the Spices Souk. The royal palaces are also very beautiful. When you’re a guest of a royal palace, you feel this idyllic sensation as if nothing and nobody could threaten your peace: the utmost feeling of safety and comfort. I also enjoy the simple places like the fish and vegetable markets scattered all over Dubai and the Louvre, which I’ve visited at least 20 times, including an advance viewing with women from the Al Nahyan family before it opened to the public. A beautiful place off the tourist path, in the desert, is the oasis of Sweihan, from which you can watch the sun go down from very tall dunes.
Your plans for the future?
I’m working on the pre-production of a film: the story of a great feminist queen of the past, a strong and daring woman, yet sensitive and fragile, who kept going forwards thanks to her willpower. I’m also working on a project with the collaboration of the Ministry of Culture of both countries to strengthen the relations between Italy and the UAE. I helped the Yamamay brand find a business partner: the Etoil Group of my friend Ingie Chalhoub, a leading company in the fashion field, and so I’m also designing a second women’s collection.