Exhibition: Short sharp treats

Yemen Festival, various venues
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Indy Lifestyle Online
He may not be obviously linked with the world of culture, but as a cultural ambassador to Yemen, boxer Prince Naseem Hamed has credentials it would be pretty tough to beat.

The two-time world champion, and current holder of the WBO crown, not only counts the Yemeni President, Ali Abdulla Saleh, among his close friends - he rings Hamed before every fight - but the 23-year-old from Sheffield also features on Yemen's national stamp.

Despite being born in England, the little featherweight with the big persona is so popular in the Arab states that his face adorns milk cartons and fruit juice bottles. The Yemeni people, he says, have given such a phenomenal response to his successes in the boxing ring that the least he could do was put his name to the Yemen Festival, which starts on Thursday. He is the patron of the six-week event, which takes place at venues in London, Cardiff and Sheffield, and features the best of Yemeni music, dance, poetry and photography from this little-known country.

"Obviously I'm a world champion and I'm a big hero to the Yemeni people. They say I've lifted the whole profile of Yemen - I feel like it's doing me proud, so I want to help do it proud," Hamed, never known for false modesty, says.

His parents Sal and Cira emigrated from the Yemen before he was born, in an effort to find work, and his father ended up running a corner shop. But Hamed's links with the country remain strong - and Yemen is obviously keen to strengthen its links with him.

The featherweight recently received a sumptuous villa in Yemen from the President. He had already presented Hamed in the past with a collection of other prizes, including a Rolex watch, a BMW convertible and a beautiful beach house.

"I visit Yemen a lot," says Hamed. "I've got a very good relationship with the President. He's a wicked, wicked President. I've got a lot of respect for him."

In fact, Hamed often goes to stay with Ali Abdulla Saleh and in return, the boxer gave him his WBO world title belt.

Hamed is not just involved in raising Yemen's profile abroad. At the President's request, he recently helped boost democratic efforts there. "I did an advertisement to encourage Yemeni people to vote," says Hamed. "It was really successful. They had the biggest response in over 25 years."

Hamed is obviously devoted to his homeland, and quite clear about what he wants Britain to know about it. "It's renowned for its hospitality, its rich culture and I want the Western world to appreciate that. People should realise that Yemen is one of the oldest countries in the world. It's still untouched and beautiful."

The festival features such diverse aspects of Yemeni culture as dagger dancing, Yemeni banquets and documentaries on aspects of Islam. Hamed himself features in the festival, in a photographic exhibition of Yemenis in Britain by Monica Fritz.

While Hamed himself is "not allowed" to attend the exhibition, being just weeks before his next big fight, he is sending his brother instead.

But the wealthier visitors to the festival may actually get to take Prince Naseem home. "There will be life casts of me in bronze called Second Skin, on sale for pounds 10,000, pounds 25,000 or pounds 50,000," he says. "So I'll be there in bronze if not in person."

Call the Yemen Festival hotline on 0171-354 4141

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