From Abdel Halim Hafez to Umm Kulthum: how Dubai is poised to become the 'capital of hologram entertainment'

A taste of nostalgia is winning over audiences across the region

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Dubai is going to be the hologram entertainment capital of the world, according to the team behind this weekend’s Abdel Halim Hafez concert.

After premiering with a pair of sold-out shows at Dubai Opera earlier this month, the digitalised version of the Egyptian crooner, who died aged 47 in 1977, returns to the Downtown venue with a live orchestra this weekend.

The show not only allows an audience to enjoy Hafez's influential hits again, including Ahwak and Abo Oyoun Garee'a, but it also comes as part of a series planned for the city, featuring holograms of great Arab singers from the past.

The Hafez concert, which will also take place in Egypt later this year, follows one of Umm Kulthum that showed at Dubai Opera in August and has toured the UK.

Bringing these legends back to the limelight are pan-Arab broadcaster MBC and Dubai’s New Dimension Productions (NDP).

NDP was founded in 2010 in Amman, before it relocated to Business Bay to pioneer hologram entertainment across the region.

The company's previous projects include a hologram of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, for 2018's Year of Zayed celebrations, as well as Saudi singer Talal Maddah. A show by Yemeni singer Abu Bakr Salem is next in line.

"I feel that we are only scratching the surface," NDP chief executive Hasan Hina tells The National.

“I believe this is going to be part of the future of entertainment. It's going to help us break boundaries in that we are bringing people from the past with people in the present to create new visions for the future.”

How the hologram was made

It's a lofty vision underscored by a lengthy and laborious process that Hina says is similar to movie and music production.

We are already in discussions with the tourism authorities to position Dubai as the capital of hologram entertainment

With the Hafez hologram, first they had to secure an agreement with the singer's estate and record company, allowing them to use his songs and physical likeness for the show.

“I have to say that his family were absolutely wonderful to deal with," Hina says.

"Through their representative, they helped us a lot with information about Hafez and provided feedback about his accessories like clothing, colours and personal details.

“They gave us more of an insight into his life and demeanour on stage.”

With a team of technicians studying hundreds of hours of concert footage, a casting call was also held in Egypt, Syria and Jordan for a Hafez lookalike to become the model on whom the hologram is based.

The chosen talent, Jordanian Yousef Kallani, then worked with the production team in Dubai to recreate Hafez’s signature mannerisms on stage.

This includes his trademark on-stage posture: erect, eyes wide and glistening, head and shoulders swaying along with the strings section and both palms outstretched to the audience.

Hina says the production process took up to five months, which was three fewer than Kulthum's hologram.

“We managed to cut down the time frame as we developed more tools to help us keep pushing those timelines. But, at the same time, Hafez was much more difficult to create than Umm Kulthum because he interacts more with the audience.

“Umm Kulthum is less interactive because she is in absolute control of the stage and audience. She was a very dominant figure.”

The Hafez Dubai Opera shows run for nearly two hours, featuring 14 songs (vocals are taken from concerts spanning 25 years), but Hina says a bigger repertoire of songs have been recorded to ensure no concert is the same.

More than entertainment

Despite its promising start, it's too early to predict whether or not hologram entertainment will take off across the region.

MBC project manager Imad Salibi, however, believes it's still a worthy investment, as the hunger for nostalgic content in this part of the world remains strong.

“Nostalgia is not some fad or new style in the region," he says. "We were born with the music, understood the value of the songs and the importance of the stage. When we see these new shows it helps to remind us who we are,” he says.

"The only irony of this is that we are using the most advanced technology to bring back the best moments of our past and the golden days we want to see again.”

NDP is intent on rolling back the years, and Hina confirms they have a number of hologram projects in the works, with Dubai as the launchpad.

"We are already in discussions with the tourism authorities to position Dubai as the capital of hologram entertainment,” he says.

"The city will be the base and then it will tour the world from here. This will make Dubai and the UAE an exporter of not only entertainment but the kind of content and culture that will build bridges with others."

The Abdel Halim Hafez First Hologram Concert will take place at Dubai Opera on Thursday and Friday, at 10pm. Tickets from Dh350 at