The world has discovered Shamma Hamdan, the first Emirati woman to make it to the finals of the hit reality show Arabs Got Talent. Fame has had its ups and downs for the 18-year-old, but she is unbowed by criticisms and promises to surprise at her next performance. Rym Ghazal reports
Shamma Hamdan is relaxing in the majlis of her parent's home and ready to reveal one of her secrets. "I love to dance Zumba,"she says.
It's the sort of inconsequential nugget of information about her life that is likely to be seized on by the growing number of fans - and detractors - of the newest star of Arabs Got Talent.
At just 18, the schoolgirl from Dubai suddenly finds herself in the full glare of the celebrity spotlight after becoming the first Emirati woman to make it through to the finals of the hit reality TV show.
Her performance - strumming a guitar while singing in Gulf Arabic style - was described as "breathtaking" by one judge. But at the same time her decision to appear uncovered has sparked a backlash among some of her fellow countrymen and women.
For the moment, though, she seems untouched by the ups and downs of fame. Recalling her audition for the show, she says "I have accomplished one of my biggest dreams. My voice and music reached people, and they listened."
As for the criticism of her appearance, much of it on social networking sites like Twitter, she explains that her outfit of comfortable trousers, a suede purple jacket, wavy short hair, and a bandanna around her neck, what she calls "a very relaxed guitar look" was inspired by her father, who first taught her to play the instrument.
"That is just one side of me the world saw, there is a lot to me besides that one style of performance. They couldn't attack me on my singing and skills, and so they found something else to criticise and attack," she said. "My clothing."
For her exclusive interview with The National, Shamma presents a more feminine side, introducing herself with a shy smile but a confident handshake. She is dressed in a silky white shirt with a horse head pattern, black suit trousers, a pair of loafers and a gold Fendi necklace. She apologies for her unkempt hair, explaining she has just taken a quick nap after an exam. Unmistakable though is her dimple and a pair of startling green eyes, speckled with blue.
At the time of the audition she was only 17 and celebrated her birthday on April 28. "I am a typical Taurus. I go chasing after my dreams," she said.
In her final year at Dubai Modern Education school, Shamma will graduate at the end of this month after taking her final exams.
Before her appearance on Arabs Got Talent, filmed in Beirut, Shamma admits that she was particularly worried about Ali Jaber, the Lebanese journalist and academic with a reputation for being the most critical of the three judges.
As it turned out there was nothing to worry about. As the audience applauded enthusiastically, another judge, the legendary Lebanese singer Najwa Karam told her: "You were breathtaking. You are still very young but your singing in Arabic is amazing."
Then came the verdict of Jaber. "Your voice, Shamma, is clear. I like you," he said. "I like your performance and I liked your show a lot."
At that moment, Shamma says: "That is when I knew. I have passed."
None of this would have been possible without the support of her family, including her four sisters and brother. Her father works for the Civil Defence and her mother at the Ministry of Education. At home, the whole family loves music.
"We are a musical family, where when we don't play musical instruments, we sing and dance to music," she says. "Music is in our genes."
Currently she has ten guitars, a piano and drums in a special music room at her family home.
Her introduction to music came through her father and his brothers, who were a band that played in the privacy of their homes and for their friends.
At the age of eight, Shamma picked up one of her father's guitars and never let go. "My fingers were raw and in great pain in the beginning, but now, they can't rest unless they are resting on a guitar's chords," she says. She has never had a professional lesson and even today, cannot read music.
Pausing to search for that original inspiration, she points out a family photograph of her father from his days in the band. "I always like to look at that photo, my father looked so happy and comfortable in hippie style clothing and wavy gypsy hair cut, playing on the guitar," she said. "It looked heavenly and so I wanted to find out why he looked so happy."
That look, she says, helped inspire her outfit on Arabs Got Talent.
When the show was broadcast earlier this week, Shamma says she was prepared for "some" criticism, but not for the level of abuse that followed from some quarters.
Her Twitter account went to 87,000 followers, many complementary, but others less so. Some tweets slammed her for her "un-Islamic" and "un-Emirati" appearance. Others were more cruel, making comments like "Shame on you. You don't represent anything Emirati. You should be pulled from the show." Still more made fun of her appearance.
"It was like fire, rumours spread about my origin, that I am not 'originally' Emirati, that I am from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, even Afghanistan, cause, hey, I don't look like the typical Emirati," she said. In fact the family is from Al Raisi tribe.
"I am not a tomboy, not a boyat, not anything. I am just a musician who is a bit sporty," she says. "I like to surf when I am not playing music."
"Imagine I performed in an abaya and shayla while playing on a guitar? What would they say? I would be called the biggest sinner in the world."
As for wearing the hijab, she says her family accepts her the way she is, and when she is ready, she will cover. For now Shamma wears the abaya when she goes out in public.
Her next appearance will be in the first of the elimination rounds. She will fly to Beirut for the live show just days after finishing her exams and promises the world will see a different side and performance.
"An artist is always rediscovering themselves. I am going to surprise you yet," she says, hinting that she may use an electrical guitar.
None of this would have been possible, she says if it wasn't for her "personal manager and make up artist", her 20 year old sister, Salama.
"I want my sister to look and be her best," Salama says, adding red lipstick, concealer and a bit of blush and mascara on her sister for the photo shoot for the National.
"I know how judgemental the world is and that it doesn't understand laid back people like her who are more focused on the actual music," she says. In fact Shamma's appearance on Arabs Got Talent is down to her sister, who works as a photographer but has also posted YouTube videos of her sister and gathered support around the Arab world.
"I applied on her behalf and then surprised her the day of the auditions last summer saying she must go and perform," says Salama.
Saudi women are currently her sister's biggest fans, Salama says, with the biggest backlash coming from Emirati women, particularly from Abu Dhabi.
"I knew my sister was talented," she says."I just wanted the world to meet her."
When she is not on stage, Shamma spends her time on the beach, surfing at Wild Wadi or among books in bookstores and cafes. Whatever happens in the show, she plans to study international politics and hopes to become a diplomat one day.
"There is so much to do in life, people are just too focused on appearances and on negative stuff, not giving their own hearts and souls enough attention," she says.
In addition to Arabic, Shamma has composed songs in Spanish and says "I dream I am in Spain when I play them, and so, I am going to Spain soon."
Her other dream is to hold a concert."A real concert, where youths like me and even maybe my father and his generation can come and play and sing without any worries and restrictions," she said. "It will be about music, and not about who and what one is wearing."