Hero for hire: Meet Saud Al-Hazzani, Saudi Arabia’s first professional cosplayer

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Saud Al-Hazzani as Prince of Persia. (Image supplied)
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Saud Al-Hazzani as Gambit, from ‘X-Men.’ (Image supplied)
Updated 13 April 2019

Hero for hire: Meet Saud Al-Hazzani, Saudi Arabia’s first professional cosplayer

  • The basic gist, Al-Hazzani explains, is that you pick a character you like and ‘become’ them
  • Just as important as the creative side of cosplay for Al-Hazzani, though, is the sense of community among its participants

DUBAI: “Being creative in general, I think, kind of fades out as you grow up. It’s there, still, but it’s untouched.”

Saud Al-Hazzani is discussing his, let’s say ‘niche,’ hobby —  cosplay —  and the reason why, in his early thirties, he quit his job to focus on making a living doing something that, to all intents and purposes, is what —  if he were a child —  would be called ‘playing dress-up.’

Al-Hazzani, born and raised in Riyadh and now based in the UAE, is a professional cosplayer (under the moniker VEGA Cosplay) —  to the best of his knowledge, he’s the only full-time pro in the GCC.

Cosplay is a hybrid of ‘costume’ and ‘play.’ The basic gist, Al-Hazzani explains, is that you pick a character you like and ‘become’ them. Could be someone from a movie, a cartoon, a videogame, a TV show, a comic book (Japanese anime is particularly popular), or any other fantasy world.

“It’s similar to Halloween, I guess,” Al-Hazzani says. “But you can do it every day.”

Al-Hazzani was a fan of Japanese anime growing up (and as an adult), so he “had some idea” what cosplay was. But, he says, “I never thought it would happen in the GCC.” Sitting in his office one day in 2011, however, aged 25, he saw an ad for an event in Bahrain.

“I got excited,” he says. “Bahrain’s, like, a three-hour drive. I invited my friend who I thought would enjoy trying this new thing that we knew about but never thought would actually happen here. We picked a couple of characters, made our costumes and went to the event. We went there not expecting, or knowing, anything. But we got hooked straight away.”

For that first event, he went as Ace, a character from the wildly popular anime “One Piece.” Ace is always shirtless, wearing a pirate hat and with a pirate tattoo on his back and a beaded necklace.

“So I got some shorts and a hat and painted them, I got some small toy balls and painted them. I tried to get as much detail as possible —  with the knowledge I had then,” he says. “It was more assembled than made. But it was done properly, I can tell you.”

He went to that event “anonymously,” he explains. “I didn’t tell anyone about it at first. Even people taking my picture, I didn’t tell them my name. I was hoping it was secret, but then somebody tagged me somewhere on Facebook. Then everybody knew.”

Cosplay, for those who aren’t into it, can seem like kind of a weird hobby for adults. A bit like taking part in historical re-enactments of the American Civil War, perhaps. Or taking role-playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” seriously. It seems like a lot of time and effort to invest in something for anyone who’s not into that thing themselves.

“I couldn’t really explain it to family and friends, or (colleagues),” Al-Hazzani admits. “It was the first time they’d even seen me shirtless, obviously, let alone in costume. So it was double-weird. They really didn’t understand it —  it wasn’t bad or anything, it was just confusing for them. I mean, I wasn’t under any pressure, it was just hard to explain. But in time they understood it.”

After that first event in Bahrain, Al-Hazzani discovered more and more opportunities to indulge in his newfound passion. Like most dedicated cosplayers, he makes his own costumes and accessories. And that is where he has rediscovered the creativity that was such a large part of his childhood, but which “was shut down in my teenage years.”

“I used to love experimenting (as a kid). I did a lot of random stuff. I’d open up anything electronic and try to fix it, or come up with new inventions,” he says.

He cites a sixth-grade inter-school science competition as an example. He created, he says, a “thing that could cut glass with electricity” by repurposing a machine that killed bugs. “I opened it up, rewired it and built a base. It was similar to a taser gun, I guess, but it cut glass.”

That sounds kind of dangerous for a sixth-grader, I say. He laughs.

“It was. I don’t even know how I was allowed to make it. I suppose no one actually knew what I was making (until the competition).”

His love of working with his hands and found material now finds an outlet in cosplay. “That creativity has somehow resurfaced,” he says. “Cosplay allows you to do everything, if you want —  you can sew, you can paint, you can use wood, you can use electronics. There are no limits. Just your choices of character.”

It was this that convinced Al-Hazzani to quit his job two years ago and dedicate himself to making a living from cosplay.

“When the time was right, I just decided ‘This is it. I have to invest all my time.’ It’s very exciting, because there are so many options,” he says. “There’s no particular way of doing things. You have to create your own market — especially in this region. So I’m trying different stuff like production or making a costume for a commercial, or organizing cosplay competitions. The last two years, I’ve been investing in all these fields.

“Money isn’t great,” he continues. “I’ve been struggling. But I know that I’m at the start. If it’s going to work out, I knew I’d have to suffer for a few years. And, you know, no risk no reward, right? Nobody’s going to give it to you. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Yeah, go do what you want.’ You have to do it yourself.”

Just as important as the creative side of cosplay for Al-Hazzani, though, is the sense of community among its participants. Particularly at Middle East Film & Comic Con, which is taking place this weekend in Dubai.

“It’s the most important event. And I’ve attended every cosplay event in the GCC since I started. So I know how much MEFCC has impacted the region,” he says. “It grew pop culture tenfold. It somehow initiated pop culture in the region. It’s almost like a cult —  something I have to attend. I met most of my friends in the GCC at MEFCC. I’m talking about cosplayers, artists, gamers, booth owners, photographers… a huge amount of friends that I’ve made at this event over the past seven years.”

He even met his fiancée, Sumi Aya, through cosplay. She’s also a judge at Comic Con this year.

“She saw a small event that had a picture of cosplayers. She didn’t know events like that existed. She saw my name tagged on the picture, so she messaged me. ‘What’s the deal? How come this is happening in the UAE and I didn’t know about it?’ Stuff like that,” Al-Hazzani explains. “I helped her, told her about some of the events, gave her a basic guide about how to start with costumes. And then we met at the next event, for the first time. I introduced her to people. And it became a thing, you know? We’d go to the events together. And feelings developed. And we shared those feelings and committed.”

So cosplay has helped Al-Hazzani find a career he loves, numerous long-lasting friendships, and his future wife. Not bad for a game of dress-up.


REVIEW: Second season of Sacred Games mirrors the ills of today's India

Updated 18 August 2019

REVIEW: Second season of Sacred Games mirrors the ills of today's India

CHENNAI: The first season of “Sacred Games” last year was a hit, and the second edition, which began streaming on Netflix on Aug. 15, may be even more so.

The eight episodes explore some of India's most pressing current issues such as a nuclear threat, terrorism and inter-religious animosity dating back to the country's 1947 partition. It. It also addresses how religious men can indulge in the most unholy of acts, including helping corrupt politicians.

Some of the greatest films have had conflict and war as their backdrop: “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Ben-Hur” and “Garam Hawa,” to mention a few. The second season of “Sacred Games” also unfolds in such a scenario, with terrorism and inter-communal disharmony having a rippling effect on the nation.

Directed by Anurag Kashyap (“Gangs of Wasseypur,” “Black Friday”) and Neeraj Ghaywan (“Masaan,” which premiered at Cannes in 2015), the web series, based on Vikram Chandra's 2006 novel, unfolds with Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) escaping from prison and finding himself in Mombasa. He has been carted there by an agent of India's

Research and Analysis Wing, Kusum Devi Yadav (Amruta Subhash), who forces him to help find Shahid Khan (Ranvir Shorey), the mastermind behind bomb blasts and terror attacks.

In Mumbai, police inspector Sartaj (Saif Ali Khan) has just two weeks to save the city from a nuclear attack, which Gaitonde had warned him about. Both men love Mumbai and do not want it to be destroyed. But religious extremist Khanna Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) and his chief disciple Batya Ableman (Kalki Koechlin) believe that only such a catastrophic destruction can help cleanse society and bring a cleaner, saner new order.

A narrative of deceit, betrayal, love and longing, the second season has a plodding start, but picks up steam from the fourth episode, with Sartaj and his men racing against time to find a nuclear time bomb that could wipe out Mumbai. Crude dialogue and a constant doomsday atmosphere could have been avoided, but riveting performances by the lead pair – Khan and Siddiqui (though he is getting typecast in this kind of role) – and nail-biting thrills make this Netflix original dramatically captivating.