Highlighting offbeat subjects from across the region with a distinctively discerning perspective from the indigenous plants of Socotra to the Assyrian diaspora of Sweden. In this section, we aim to introduce the Middle East to itself again, and meet people with businesses, big ideas, friendly faces and a plan for the future.

Arwa AlBanawi

Arwa Al Banawi is a hardworking Saudi fashion designer who believes that fashion chose her and not the other way around

Faissal El Malak

Faissal, a Palestinian fashion designer in Dubai who has a brand that creates mainly women’s ready to wear

Basma Abu Ghazaleh

“The woman defines my brand, that wears the brand, she’s someone that doesn’t take fashion too seriously, she is effortless in the way she dresses

Feryal Al Abbasi

Feryal, a working mother who has her own workshop that is dedicated to creating and designing outfits that are effortlessly stylish,

By Laha

Three Emirati successful women are behind the success of ByLaha, which is a brand that designs unique Abayas for women. Hamda Abbas, Sara Mustafa, and Zainab Al Shaikh

Tariq AlHajri

Tariq describes himself as being at an age where he knows nothing and everything at the same time and uses photography as a means to express his own take on the world and its diversity. In conversation with Tariq Alhajri, a young Omani photographer who describes his work as being inspired by Omani suburbia, culture and memories. Tariq’s fascination with natural light and his ability to remember every intricate detail from his childhood village is most admirable and alluring and is what inspired him to shoot the series “The Rejuvenation of Past”.

RO: What inspired you to shoot the Rejuvenation of Past?

TA: To be honest, there was this postcard of an Omani lady crossing her legs, shot by A.R Fernandez back in 1901. There was barely any information about this photographer but I loved that picture because it fit my photography standards and motivated me to shoot this concept I had in mind since high school. I wanted to bring back some characters from my past, and relive the moment of how they would have lived their youth in these modern days, and still do the same traditional tasks.

RO: How much do you think have your experiences and memories inspired your photography?

TA: A lot! Most of my concepts are based on my memories and experiences. I’m not good with words and talking, so I use photography to interpret my own view of my experiences and my memories in an artistic way.

Dr. Azra

It fascinates me she said, the power, the strength we all have within us that we need to explore. Dr. Azra, a Dubai based chiropractor and designer explains her fascination with the powers of the human body, so complex that scientists till today keep trying to comprehend it entirely while learning more but never everything.

“It’s amazing what your hands can learn”, she explains. “Of course there are other senses involved but the hands, they remember, they can feel pain, heat, inflammation. It just reflects on God’s creation and the perfection of what he created”. The healing powers of the hand is what inspired her even as a chiropractor.

At the age of 8 Dr. Azra started designing jewellery and selling it out of her house and then her fascination with what the hands can create never stopped. An artist can do beautiful things with their hands she said, while looking at the henna on her hand at the very moment. She explained how her love for expressing her art through henna developed when she did an Emarati henna design for a friend on Eid. The photographs of the hands came so beautiful that she could not help but do it again, slowly drawing inspiration from nature and travelling.

Her designs were soon appreciated by people on social media and she gained recognition for her aesthetic. “Instagram as a community loves art, something different, something attractive & new” she exclaims! so when she started posting her work solely with passion, without looking for money or fame it was just appreciated by people. Also handcrafting bespoke bags for herself at the age of 15 drew her friends attention, which has over time turned into her own design label, “Azra”.

Ola Allouz

Ola Allouz realised she was a photographer in 2006 while at Hajj with her family. It was her relative Najat Makki, UAE’s celebrated painter, who picked up on her natural knack for capturing moments, despite only shooting with a low-res phone camera and small Canon at the time. Twelve years on, Ola has taken the hobby and built it into her full-time job. Shooting with both film and digital, today she stays busy spearheading photography workshops, leading photo-walks around the UAE and has exhibited everywhere from inner Mongolia to Oman.

Amira Asad: Your photos can be very intimate, spacialy. You often navigate space thats are considerably conservative, such as the medina in Saudi Arabia and Nizwa souq in Oman. How do you get this sort of access and make people feel comfortable?

Iran Khanoom

Chic in a nonconformist manner, 89-year old Iran Khanoom is a style icon for all ages with her unique silhouetted looks and print and texture mash-ups. Unlike New York’s fashion-favoring older crowd, Khanoom’s wardrobe doesn’t rely on outlandish or bright, nearly blindingly so, color palettes. The Iranian style star is known for her social media profile, Sweet Sixty, which documents her various looks that surpass any confining definitions. The newly minted fashion blogger and model moved to Paris three years ago to spend more time with her family. While Khanoom does not come from a formal fashion background, the socialite-now-influencer traveled often, citing her various trips and cultural experiences as the main influences of her style. Over email, we chatted with Khanoom about her thoughts on social media’s effects on fashion, ageism, and trends.

Can you tell me more about the story behind your fashion persona and Sweet Sixty?

Sweet Sixty started as a fun project to challenge the common belief that women over their fifties could no longer pull off styles that are not conservative.

How do you feel about Instagram (or social media) as a platform for fashion?
To me it’s all about a world with no limit and boundaries. [A world] where people can share their ideology and talent with each other. It’s all very exciting.

Do you have a background in fashion? What made you interested in fashion?
Not really, I used to dress up since I was very young. I married a diplomat and on different occasions we were invited to grand ceremonies. This was the time I was most excited to dress up. After the Iranian revolution things changed and obviously I have aged too!

Shaikha Al Qassemi

Shaikha Al Qassemi doesn’t want to talk on the Instagram fitness world. ‘That will get me in a lot of trouble,’ she laughs. She’s just arrived from a fitness conference in Abu Dhabi and runs straight to the bag of Haribo gummies before jumping straight into the interview. A CrossFit athlete and trainer, founder of Dubai’s The Platform Gym, and a Red Bull athlete, Shaikha is exactly the person you’d trust to speak on the online fitness and health world that often times ripples into peoples lives in dangerous ways, from the promotions of diet fads by unprofessionals to exercise posts with improper form. But she has her core followers who’ve supported and followed her journey, both in the virtual world and in reality, and it’s apparent that with Shaikha what you see is what you get – authenticity.

Shaikha’s career path is far from conventional. Publically, she’s the first Emirati CrossFit athlete (though she says there are a few, who she can’t name, who practiced and trained others both locally and internationally before her). ‘I was the first one to put myself out there, to take pictures and videos and post myself actually training online,’ she says. ‘It was unheard of in the Arab world and a lot of people were shocked by it – everybody was kind of like what is she doing or how can she put herself out there like that? She’s not covered? A lot of these things were coming up, it was pretty hard for me in the beginning but seeing how social media has changed this [mentality] now is pretty amazing.’ She credits her life coach Sultana for encouraging her and helping her change the way she thinks and uses her energy. ‘When I first started I was always fighting to prove myself to people, and then slowly over the years I started putting my guard down and being myself instead of fighting against something, because there was nothing to fight against.’

Mthayel Al Ali

Mthayel Al Ali reeks of confidence and cool. Observing her, whether through her Instagram account that’s garnered more than 700,000 followers or in the flesh, the Sharjah-native has a style that’s unique, but eye-catching, calculated but effortless. A 27-year-old entrepreneur known for her social influencer status and trendsetter, who even Harper’s Bazaar Arabia has acknowledged for her tasteful approach to playing with the the abaya and being part of its evolution in the gulf, it’s imagination and a curiosity for the ways we currently spread knowledge and information hat are the driving forces behind everything she does.

‘I was always interested in the creative ways and different ways of influencing people about a certain topic… whether it was teaching, an art piece, an event, a theatre performance – it didn’t really matter to me,’

she says, explaining that this drive is what pulled her to social media five years ago as a media and mass communications student at Dubai College. ‘I keep saying social media happened to me. I downloaded a couple of apps and began expressing myself as time passed by the content I created was interesting enough for at least the Emirati community back then, which brought enough attention to my page.’ Since her online persona began to grow in its reach, her page has caught the attention of brands such as Nike, Lancome and Clinique who’ve reached out for collaborations.

Afra Atiq

‘I started talking when I was eight months old and according to my mother, I never stopped,’ says Afra Atiq, breaking into laughter. A golden coin, inscripted with a verse from one of her poems, hangs from her neck and catches the lights reflection as she throws her head back. ‘I think that kind of lets you know why I’m so into spoken word.’ In a conversation with the award-winning Emirati-Japanese-American spoken-word artist, no more than two minutes can pass without her breaking into fit of laughter. A hard and serious figure on paper, who wears the many hats of teacher, poet, PhD student, and scholar, Atiq is personable, easy to connect with –– but also dangerously sharp and confident. Her spoken word talent has awarded her the 2017 ADMAF Creativity Award and taken her to stages including the Dubai Opera and The Louvre Abu Dhabi. Now teaching her craft to students from kindergarten (‘they were my most intimidating crowd’) to university level, she’s changing the way young Emiratis see the often neglected and battered-down style of writing.

‘It’s important to keep poetry alive in our schools… and to change this idea that poetry is boring and stagnant and nobody wants to learn, or that you just learn it for your English exam and that’s it,’ Atiq says. ‘[Spoken word] is poetry that’s been liberated from the constraints of rhyme and leader,’ she explains. ‘I love when I go to schools and do what I do and I get messages from these kids saying I love what you do I’m gonna try and write poetry. A lot of my inspiration comes from them and seeing the impact that poetry has on their lives… it’s that drive to create.’

Nada Taryam

Browsing through architect Nada Taryam’s collectively-made creations of objects and furniture, it’s impossible to not feel impulses that mimic that of a child in a candy shop. Oddly-shaped iridescent blocks fit with copper pegs, awkward and wildly designed 3D rendered wooden stools, explosive evolutional coronel-like spheres made with morphogenetic principles. Each of these pieces produced as part of the UAE-based multidisciplinary design platform Architecture + Other Thing, a collective she co-founded with architects Faysal Tabbarah and Khawla Al Hashimi in 2015. Nada, in her presence very composed and poised, is filled with an explosive creativity that feels intangible, creating eccentric designs from the natural – making us rethink the everyday object, be it rubbish or local raw materials, and its potentials.

Much of Nada’s dealings are with the environment, whether on a smaller, more experimental and playful scale or a larger one that involves more rules of structure and planning. Her collective is a research-based practice that explores alternative models of sustainable design. And at her day job, Nada acts as the Director of Civil and Architectural Projects of Bee’ah, Sharjah’s fast-growing environmental management company, which its new headquarters are currently being developed by Zaha Hadid’s firm. Within Bee’ah, where Nada has worked since 2013, the early 30s architect has worked on a waste management master plan, the design and execution of recycling facilities, and the landscaping and beautification of the waste complex. ‘People have a preconception about landfill sand waste management and we’re trying to change that,’ she says. Her position with Bee’ah came after seven years of study,

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