From little puddings to the cardiac defibrillator. Women artisans/designers and entrepreneurs in the Arab world: this could be the title for a conference on the theme of female creativity in northern African countries. The point of reference, here, being the beautiful exhibition organized by Anty Pansera and Tiziana Occleppo, entitled: From laces to motorbikes. Women artisan/artists and designers in XX century Italy (Pansera, Occleppo, 2002), promoted by Unione Donne Italiane di Ferrara for the 10th edition of “Biennale Donna”.
The comparison helps us to highlight some differences, similarities and even some paradoxes.
Nowadays, Egyptian women are trying hard to found the Union of Egyptian Women, in order to follow Huda Shaarawi’s footprints, the woman who in May 1923, back to Cairo, after attending an International Feminist Movement conference in Rome, while getting off the train, took off her veil, thus challenging the dominant male chauvinist culture.
We wonder whether, when Huda Shaarawi put up the emporium where the girls from the poor areas of Cairo learnt the art of sewing and embroidering, she knew about Aemilia Ars merletti e ricami (1900-1935). However, the art of lace embroidering was born in the Mediterranean coasts. The great textile legacy of the Middle East is well known and it is still conveyed and renewed by such events as the recent” Fashion Week Tunis” in Carthage, which started a debate on religious themes, because of the brightly coloured dresses (not welcomed by the Salafi), the bushy beards sprayed with silver and gold by the designer Salah Barka and Ahmed Talfit’s models who provocatively wore either nude look or niqab that has recently started covering women’s faces through the streets of Egypt.
From northern African fashion to jewellery handicrafts, where male and female roles are neatly separated: men create whereas women put together; at least until the first half of the 60s, when Azza Fahmy, a young woman from a wealthy bourgeois family in High Egypt, who had previously moved to Cairo to study and get a degree in Fashion Design, managed to get in Khan El-Khalili’s old suk as the first woman trainee, thus giving up a respectable job in the public administration to become a hand worker.
Nowadays, Azza Fahmy’s company produces more than 4 million dollar annual sales and gives work to 170 employees who make about 11.000 handicrafts a year, worn by international stars and distributed all over the Middle East and in the UK. Having entrusted the company to her daughter, Fatma Ghali, Azza Fahmi has recently co-funded the “Nubre” project with the EU, promoting workshops for Egyptian and European students and she is also planning to build the Azza Family Design Institute in partnership with Alchimia (School of Contemporary Jewellery, Florence).
The idea (often a female one) of fostering applied arts for ethical, pedagogical or social purposes, is a constant theme both in the West and in the East, often reoccurring in the course of time. Sarah Beydoun, while working on her MA dissertation in Social Studies in 2000, met the women from the female prison in Baabda, near Beirut, and quickly switched from research to entrepreneurship, pushed by her own social commitment. Those women needed support (they were mostly charged with the accusation of prostitution) and Sarah convinced them to make some bags to be sold in the markets, in order to earn the money which would allow them a proper legal assistance and, once out of prison, to face the isolation and the social stigma.
Sarah’s Bag is the name of a company that gives work to 150 women, some of them still convicts, some others already out of prison, now manage the specialized departments or cut and sew in different regions of the country, but all of them earn a regular salary above the minimum legal threshold.
Over time, Sarah’s bags, with their Arabic/Retro/Pop charme, obtained by putting together bits of velvet, damask brocade, old recycled tapestries, beads and sequins, have conquered the Gulf, America and Europe, even Queen Rania of Jordan.
Beirut, a city full of contrasts, lively, cosmopolitan and unpredictable, can adapt itself to any kind of experiment, in the arts, in fashion and design, to the point of giving it an extraordinary prominence in the media, like it happened with the success of Bokja sofas, a phenomenal brand, a mixture of art, craftsmanship and design, created in 1999 by two women, who became designers by chance: Hoda Baroudi, formerly a journalist, fond of old tapestries and fabrics, and Maria Hibri, an economist who was passionate about antiques and handicrafts.
There are two Lebanons: one is noisy and brightly colorful, and one is more intimate, thoughtful and shy. Nada Debs, the new icon of middle eastern design, perfectly represents Beirut’s soul. The style of her project is well summarized by the logo with her name, blending the Japanese calligraphic tradition with the Arabic one. Nada Debs loves playing with contrasts, both in the choice of materials and in the style of her furniture, meeting both the local and the international market tastes, thanks to the clever and innovative mix of the Arabic tradition seductive patterns with the minimalistic Japanese austerity. Born in Lebanon but grown up in Kobe, Nada Debs studied Interior Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US; in 2000 she started her activity in London, and later, back in Beirut, she founded the brand named after herself.
Another Lebanese designer, with an eclectic education, (a degree in Film Directing at Esra in Paris and an MA in Product Design and Design Direction at Domus Academy in Milan in 1997), is Karen Chekerdjian who worked in Italy with Edra. Back in Beirut in 2001, Karen, not being able to use sophisticated technologies or materials and counting only on the great tradition of the local craftsmanship, had to deal with and often fight against the traditional vision of her collaborators, sculptors, carver masters, artisans very skilled in blowing glass or working brass, but very far from her cosmopolitan and contemporary mentality. In 2010 she opened her emporium in Beirut’s port industrial area, which has now become a refined centre for design, where her and other designer’s products can be found, together with fabrics, books and a selection of the best Italian food.
Also from Beirut and from the food sector, Hala Audi Beydoun, an English teacher, turned her passion for patisserie into an innovative adventure. With a well cared image Beydoun’s Cocoa & Co. has conquered international customers all over the Middle East, Europe and North America. Cocoa & Co. cookies are little pieces of art, a bit of Gaudì, a bit of baroque, Pop Art and Keith Haring, there is one for every festivity and celebration, but on Husband Cookies, ignoring the polemics, she keeps writing mottos on current news and political slogans.
From Lebanon and its dramatic experience of the civil war, to Egypt which is now going through tensions with no predictable solution. In 2007, the Financial Times spoke about Shahira H. Fahmy,
the first Egyptian woman designer to be hosted at Salone Satellite in Milan. With a BA and an MA degree in Architecture at the School of Engineering in Cairo, Shahira Fahmy, slightly over 30 in 2005, founded her studio, with other young architects and professionals, expert in different fields, such as landscape and urban architecture, interior and product design. Among the people who made the project for Designopolis, a huge shopping centre, near Cairo, entirely dedicated to design, Shahira H. Fahmy, one of the most interesting architects in the Middle East, was awarded several prizes for design and architecture, the last of which in October 2011 at “Andermatt Swiss Alps Design Competition”.
Also Dina El Khachab and Hedayat Islam operate in the fields both of architecture and design. Dina El Khachab got two degrees, in Architecture and in Interior Architecture at McGill University in Montreal. Hedayat Islam, a graduate in Political Sciences in Cairo and in Interior Design at New York School, she owns an MA in Islamic Art and Architecture. The two women started their project studio Eklego Design in 2000. In 2001 there were already more than 80 projects by Eklego all over Egypt; in 2005 the first Eklego showroom was born in Cairo, followed by Designopolis Shop and Heliopolis Shop, where several international brands are distributed, together with Eklego furniture and furnishings, some of which sprang out from the collaboration with other women designers and entrepreneurs.
Egypt has already been showing interest towards design for a while. In June 2010 in Cairo, along old El Muiz street, the event “+20 Egypt Design” took place.
Paola Navone was asked to put the local masters together with some international brands and handicrafts, creating a fascinating mix of tradition and innovation. In the prophetic press release one could read: “Cairo is changing and the main promoters of this change are the young Egyptians”. A few months later the Mubarak era came to an end.
“Design will save the (Arab) world”, writes the Jordan Ahmad Humeid, founder of Redesign Arabia, in his manifesto/call for the creative designers of his country. Probably that challenge should have a female focus, as there is a large number of Arabic women who are conquering the international scene of design.
Samar Habayeb, born in Amman in 1984, is the young manager and head of projects at Silsal, a pottery company, founded 20 years ago by her mother Reem and Rula Atalla, in order to preserve the local art of pottery. Samar, a graduate in Architecture and Economics at Tufts University, Massachusetts and an MA in Pottery at Cardiff School of Art & Design in Wales, went back to Amman to manage Silsal and give it an innovative twist, making the collection larger with a new line of furnishings. Thanks to her, nowadays, Silsal pottery can be found in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and she has gained the praise of several international customers and the attention of the media.
A different approach is that of Sahar Madanat Haddad, a freelance designer who claims that design is only innovative if it creates a correct balance between science and art. The aim of Sahar Madanat, who got a degree in Industrial Design at the California State University in Long Beach in 2004, is that of starting a company which can contribute to the development of the culture of projects in Jordania. Winner, in April, of the “Hand Made Objects Design Contest award”, promoted by UNESCO and Alhoush, the award which Sahar is most proud of, is that received last year at
“A’Design Awards” in Milan, for the project Heart Aid, a portable cardiac defibrillator for old people, which can improve the chances of surviving of 50-74%.
In conclusion, let us make a notation at the end this non-exhaustive review on the projects made by women in the Arab countries: on the one hand, there are many Arabic women working and designing nowadays; on the other, the Italian designers/entrepreneurs are very few, or at least they were until the half of the last century. In the Atlante del design italiano 1940/1980 (Pansera, Grasso, 1980) there are only six profiles of women, and 20 years later, in Design del XX secolo (Fiell, 2000) the international women profiles are not even 20 out of 200 names; 10 years or so later the situation barely changed. The famous Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi, during the last International Women’s Day, with regard to her country, claimed: ‘We have women who are more patriarchal than men, socialists who are better capitalists than the leaders of the extreme right, and atheists who are more fanatic than the fundamentalists’. This is a claim that somehow applies also to our country.
Grassi, A. & Pansera, A. (1980). Atlante del design italiano 1940 – 1980. Milano, IT: Fabbri Editori.
Fiell C. & Fiell P. (2000). Design del XX secolo. Colonia, DE: Taschen
Pansera, A. & Occleppo, T. (Ed.). (2002). Dal merletto alla motocicletta. Artigiane/artiste e designer nell’Italia del Novecento. Milano, IT: Silvana Editoriale.