This post is the inspiring story of Qirtas and the beautiful, brave and intelligent woman who founded it. I think you know the saying: Behind every great man is a great woman. Well, in this case, it is behind every great woman is an equally great man.. as we will see haha.
I first discovered Qirtas through the Muslim crowdfunding platform, Launchgood. The platform itself was introduced to me through its’ founder, Chris Blauvelt and what a gem of a post that story will be one day, too.
When I took a look at the projects on the platform, there was one in particular that really made an impression on me, because of my other life in education. It was a campaign to raise funds for an educational toy that told the story of a great invention from the golden age of Islam. The toy was a replica of the famous elephant clock, invented by the celebrated inventor, Ismail Al-Jazari. Born in 1136, in modern-day Turkey, Al-Jazari was best known for writing The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and having mastered the earliest skills and knowledge of China, India, Egypt and Greece. Using his research, he transformed traditional techniques into new inventions which are still being taught to modern engineers and inventors to this day.
I loved the purpose of the company who made the clock, Qirtas and its mission to shine a light on the greatest contributions of the Islamic world to our modern civilization. I was also delighted by the engaging, interactive and accessible way they had approached the sharing of knowledge through toys and products. And, of course, each of the toys was accompanied by its story, connecting and inspiring us. I went on to support the project and bought a few different items as gifts for my 8-10-year-old friends. I must say I enjoyed the feeling of anticipation and being part of something with such meaning in the making.
I met Saja, the founder of the project during a forum we both attended in Dubai, and was struck by her beauty. I knew I was in the presence of a gem when the impact of her physical beauty was doubled by her spiritual beauty. She had such a clear, positive and ethically clean energy that I felt revitalised in her presence. This is just what we need from our cultural ambassadors.
Since then, Qirtas has added some simpler product lines, such as t-shirts and miniature scrolls of famous paintings that can be colored-in. I have also gifted the scrolls along with the story of the chosen painting. I was delighted at this choice because my love for miniatures goes quite deep.
I asked Saja if she would do an interview with me for the blog and I knew with her energy that she would respond quickly. She surprised me even further by saying she could talk the next day! Thank you for that Saja.
Saja grew up in Riyadh, like me. She loved arts and crafts and was always creating but she never thought her interest would go beyond a hobby, as she was expected to go to university and study engineering or something equally important. She ended up studying at the German University in Amman and this revelation made me chuckle, as whenever the words German university pop up, then excellent design never seems to be far behind. Read the Menn Baladha post to see what I mean, lol.
Saja studied graphic and product design and then went on to do a one-year exchange program. It was during this year-away that she truly started learning and being exposed to more skills and crafts in terms of product design.
She also took a course on Islamic art and was introduced to the elephant clock and was upset she hadn’t known about it before. I have to say, that I made a silent salute to Saja at this point, as this sense of being upset at the fact that my education was missing major information and skills was one of the main drivers for the educational work that I have done all along. It was my way of identifying useful knowledge and making sure that I shared it. The passing along of knowledge has been critical to my sense of finding peace with what I missed. The feeling of kinship to Qirtas and Saja kept growing.
Saja wanted to complete her graduation project in Germany and for that, she had to find a professor who would advocate for her. One liked the idea of the elephant clock but said it would be hard to execute. And, although Saja had never worked with the materials needed to make this clock happen before, she accepted the challenge. It was in that phase that the raw version of it was made. Saja’s next step after making the prototype was to take it to Amman, where they loved it too.
Saja was demonstrating a faith and spunk, that I wish for all Muslim and Arab youth, well honestly, all people out there. She took a decision to pursue a goal that she was passionate about and figured out the way, one step at a time.
Although Saja could see the success of the clock, she went back to her family in Riyadh following her graduation and searched for a job in product design. When she couldn’t find one, she was not disheartened but took on roles in graphic design to gain further experience.
This period was all about meeting new challenges to build her network of support and continue towards her dream of making Qirtas a reality. She participated in an MIT entrepreneurial forum in Saudi, becoming one of nine finalists out of thirty thousand, and joined a KAUST accelerator program, where she actually moved to their grounds in Jeddah for six months. These experiences taught her a lot about the business side of things, which were foreign to her.
Saja's mentors advised her to seek a business partner. After much trial and error, she started working with a friend from her network, a man called Aws. He started helping her with the social media aspect and gradually became a partner. Such a great partner in fact, that they got engaged! I laughed with Saja about that delightful turn of events. Aws is a smart, hardworking and lucky man, and I truly hope Saja is lucky too as she deserves nothing less. But, by her description of the kind support and encouragement that Aws gave her from the beginning, I think she found a keeper. Ma sha' Allah, another future wife and husband team! It brings me so much joy to encounter the successful families that work together, as we all know how hard it can be to work well with family. I have worked happily with my sister for many years, so I am always rooting for family teams out there!
Even as a successful team, Saja and Aws have faced their fair share of adversity, with issues of production, storage, shipping and all other details of logistics. Although Saja really wanted to produce their products close to home and in the Arab region, manufacturing a toy turned out to be too costly, so they went to China with an agent and after a few trips they had a product to sell! They were able to manufacture other simpler products in the Middle East region later on, which made the follow-up process much easier. All the products were well received wherever Saja went and she shared how interesting it was to see posts and articles published about Qirtas in languages she didn’t even understand! I loved the fresh and open attitude that Saja exuded when speaking about the world and how it was responding to Qirtas.
Now, having built a strong start-up, the next challenge is how to successfully scale the business. Qirtas is looking for a big investor to fund the large inventory they’ll need to make a sizeable profit and to make the business sustainable. I really wish them all the best as I feel so passionate about education that still involves good old-fashioned toys and puzzles with stories which illuminate young minds and engage them on a physical level too.
On an ending note, I want to share the beautiful focus that Saja shared with me for Qirtas. She spoke of how Qirtas doesn’t fall strictly into the field of education, culture or arts. It’s a storytelling project that transcends all age groups by focusing on sharing inventions from the Islamic golden age through different products, not just toys. She likened the approach to that of Disney, who create stories and the associated merchandise around those stories. Qirtas has the stories and is now developing products around them. LEGO is also a big storytelling platform and has created the NASA women range, for example.
I have thought long and hard over the twenty years that I have been working in education, about what makes an excellent learning experience. And, this kind of project definitely meets the criteria. It fulfils the basic tenets of fundamentally sound education by following developmental and psychological principles that facilitate interactive learning, the absorption of knowledge and goes on to build character and a good value system in learners. I wish Saja, Aws and Qirtas the best. May their storytelling adventure unfold in the most beneficial and ease filled ways.
We aim to reconnect you with the glory of the Innovative Islamic past, through easily accessible toys, merchandise, workshops, combined with contemporary aesthetics for a global audience.
Saja introducing Qirtas and fundraising
LEARN about Launchgood
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STRETCH with the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF)
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To Qirtas for the contribution of images to this post from their Instagram account.