Interview – Azza Al Sajdi

Interview – Azza Al Sajdi

Azza Al -Sajdi Interview Transcription

Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about yourself

Azza: I’m Azza Al Sajdi and I currently live in Toronto. I was born in Nablus, in Palestine and I lived in Jordan for most of my childhood. I moved to the UK for my studies and then to Dubai, where I worked for ten years in marketing. I moved careers into design as I have a passion for it and this is what led me to this project.

Interviewer: So how did you get into this project, and how did this project come about?

Azza: Basically, a friend of mine wanted to open a restaurant. She was not sure at that point that it is was going to be a Palestinian restaurant, but she knew that I was looking into a career move and she liked my taste in interior design and, in design generally. So, she asked me if I could help her with the restaurant.

Interviewer: Can you tell us about the thought process behind the career move?

Azza: Yes, so art and design is central in my life. It is a big part of my life, and it is also a big part of my family’s life. I have been surrounded by art and design my whole life and I realized that It’s something that gives me a lot of hope and a lot of beauty and happiness. I felt that perhaps, it might be a way for me to look into something else that would give me more pleasure than the business world. So, this is how I thought about moving.

Interviewer: All right, so if we go back to the project specifically, was there a kind of specific approach or philosophy about the design for SimSim? What was the main idea behind it?

Azza: Ok, so the main idea was that I would do something in terms of a fit-out structure that was very minimal, contemporary, airy and raw. Something that would give the warm accents of folklore and the traditions of Palestine a better emphasis and highlights. And, I wanted something that was different, so when we think of Palestinian or a Middle Eastern Arabic house, we tend to think of something that is more traditional, like the tent-like feel and I wanted something a little more modern so my thought was to mix modern with traditional and to try to take what is traditional and to twist it to something more modernized. So, that was the original high level thinking behind the vision of the design.

Interviewer: All right so, what inspired the design or the idea?

Azza: Unfortunately, what inspired the design was something that eventually did not come through at the end in terms of the design, and the execution of the project. But it was very much what started me off and it was mostly the Palestinian embroidery motifs and so I zoomed in on the motifs and thought of them in abstract forms and that is how the actual design concept came about. There was also the “hatta”, or the “kuffieh”, which is the Palestinian black and white head scarf. It also gave me a canvas to work on as well.

Interviewer: So there’s this idea of modernizing old traditions, Are there other design elements that you found that you wanted to bring back or that inspired you?

Azza: The truth is, that as soon as I knew that this was going to be a Palestinian project, I went back to the inventory to look at the archive of what Palestine produced in terms of handicrafts and I started thinking of each item and how I could modernize it. Of course, the first thing that came to me was the motifs of the Palestinian embroidery as it’s the thing that surrounds most of us and of course the “kuffieh”. But, then I thought straight away of the Hebron work because as you know, Hebron has an industry of manufacturing and handicraft. It’s not huge, but relatively huge for what is produced in Palestine. I thought of the Hebron glass and Hebron ceramics and I thought about how I could take one or two and put them in a more modern context. I was able to produce something more contemporary with the Hebron glass.

Interviewer: So what were some of the approaches in terms of modernization? Can you reference some specific elements to help describe what you did?

Azza: Sure, yes, there are a few of things that come to mind. When I thought of the “kuffieh”, I imagined it as a background for some of the cushions that were used in the restaurant. I didn’t take the actual pattern of the “kuffieh” as is, I simplified it and made it more abstract so when you looked at it, for sure it looked like a “kuffieh”, but then you realize it was much more modern and raw than its traditional form. The second thing that I did, was I used large amounts of Hebron glass on big structures. The structures are very contemporary, very raw, very steel-like and almost industrial. I put them in a number of permutations and combinations and although there was nothing different about those glass balls, they were put in a very contemporary way that I’m sure, well I’m almost sure, hasn’t been done before. A few other things that I did were the raffia chairs and trays. The trays, known in Arabic as “atba’ elash” were very difficult to source. What I did was, I asked for them in the “ash” raffia substance and then I just dipped them in colors. These and the ash chairs. I dipped both of them in very striking colors, which gave them a very different look to what they originally were. 

Interviewer: You did so much research about Palestinian design, what did you find that excited you?

Azza: So, what I found interesting was that it could be said that the designs haven’t progressed much in the last 70 years, ever since 1948. I think not too much has been done to change the way they look. The way the “khazaf” is made or in the way the embroidery is made. Some changes have been made but still relatively very little and I feel that this a call for people to take these original forms and try to modernize them. There’s a lot of room for innovation on these designs. Another finding was that, while I was doing the research for this project, I was sad to see that some of the handicrafts, I wouldn’t say they were extinct but there was limited demand for them. That was quite sad to see. The Hebron glass, for example, I wanted to supply straight from Palestine, but I couldn’t because they said that if I wanted the glass in different colors, I would have to wait about a month and a half until they changed the coloring inside the oven. Whereas, I was able to do it all in Egypt in about three weeks.  Obviously, Palestine isn’t able to produce as quickly as Egypt because of the circumstances that it is under. And, “atba’ elash” are also no longer available, I actually went to Ramallah and they told me that I will not find them, and the lady there said they don’t do any of those anymore so I had to have them custom made in Ajloun in Jordan and it was not an easy task. I had a group of women text each other to find out who was willing to do it. So there’s a lot of things that are becoming extinct and I think it is our job to try and promote their use in order to keep them alive because really this is clearly an identity thing that we have to preserve.

Interviewer: On that point, why is it important? Can you elaborate more on why it is important to preserve the Palestinian identity?

Azza: I think heritage art in all its forms and identities are extremely tightly knit. People’s culture and arts are a part of their identity so we need to preserve that and to keep it alive. Working on this project for me brought so much joy because I felt I was doing that. I was ensuring that our identity is alive and our history is still there.

Interviewer: Let’s go back to specifics about the restaurant and the thinking behind it. There is a wall with olives. There are plates on the wall. There is even the chairs, so there’s almost a bit of an abstract approach to some of that design work. Can you tell us about that?

Azza: Sure, I thought of these more like art installations, again as I said, I wanted the restaurant to be as plain, raw and contemporary as possible so that when I added those handicrafts and heritage and folkloric items they were given the emphasis that they deserved. So, I thought of them as art installations. When I did the olive wall I wanted it to be a statement wall because olives to us as Palestinians, is a statement. It is a  symbol of the deep-rooted connection between the Palestinian farmer and the land and the issue that we are facing always of our olive groves being ruined by the Zionists. So, I thought it was an important wall to have. I also had a lot of Hebron ceramic plates put next to each other on the wall as another statement piece. I like things in abundance to show as a statement and I did the same thing with the chairs.

Interviewer: There are also the old photos that you used. You brought those in. What was the thinking behind them?

Azza: Actually, collecting the old photos was a painstaking project for me. I even got in touch with the Arab image foundation in Beirut to see if they were able to provide me with any old photos. There were a lot of people who lived in Palestine, pre-1948 but it was not easy for people to give their photos and for them to be hung in a restaurant. Perhaps if it was a museum, people would be more proactive, but the whole point behind that was to show that there was life and that there were people, inhabitants in Palestine pre-1948. So, it wasn’t a country without people as the Zionist agenda claimed and still claims. It’s a country with people, with its own people, and its own happy lives so I made sure to present pictures that showcased that.

Interviewer: So sourcing the photos was one of the challenges you had. The sourcing of some of the materials like the atba’ elash and the Hebron glass. Are there any other challenges that you faced?

Azza: There were a lot of challenges because of the different concepts in the sense that they were both traditional and contemporary. So, a lot of the furniture, for example, had to be customized and made to order from scratch. There was hardly anything that was bought off the shelf as such, except for the embroidery cushions and the “khazaf”, the ceramic plates and of course the Hebron glass balls. Everything else was custom ordered so it made things a little more difficult. Of course, trying to get them from Palestine, for a business with time constraints meant that we also tried to get the items from neighboring countries. Like, when it came to the cushions, they came from refugee camps, women who worked in refugee camps. So the sourcing was a bit of an issue. A big constraint with the project was the commitment to the original idea of zoning-in on, or taking the Palestinian embroidery motifs and putting them into abstract forms. That was something I wanted to do in the restaurant but with the fit-out contractor, we couldn’t do it. We had to change that contractor and that part didn’t end up happening. That is something that I would love to do some other time because I think it is something very beautiful and worth doing.

Interviewer: What would you want the person visiting the restaurant to experience?

Azza: I wanted them to feel that they were discovering something. I would’ve liked the curious person to discover something. Not everybody gets excited by such things so it’s very heartwarming when I know someone got curious and asked questions and tried to understand the story behind it all. What do these items mean and where do they come from? 

Interviewer: What advice would you give to people from a design background who may find Arabic design elements interesting, but may also feel that they need to be modernized.

Azza: I think my advice would be, that if they could, to go to the source. In my case I was able to go into Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus because I have a Palestinian identity so I can enter the west point region and to me, that was important because when you go to the source you are able to look at things in a way where you say, things can change. When you know the foundations, you are able to know how you can change or make amendments to the foundation of things. Another piece of advice is, it would be worthwhile to see how these things can be modernized. It’s about people giving the time and the attention that the project requires. I would urge people to do that.

Interviewer: Any advice for someone coming from a very different career background to design, just like you did?

Azza: I think you have to be able to talk to people who have knowledge in certain areas. For me, in every aspect of this project, I was trying to tap into people who knew about the industry and handicrafts. When we came to Palestinian proverbs, amthal, I spoke to my aunt who was a teacher. She collected amthal. Where it came to joinery work, I spoke to a friend who owned a joinery actually. So, it’s trying to tap into what surrounds you in terms of resources to make it easier. Also to try and ‘own’ your tasks because there is usually a project manager and that person is you in this case. Try to always tie the loose ends and make notes of all the information that you have coming in around you.

Interviewer: How about the bricks in the mezzanine?

Azza: Those bricks are known as “toub” and they symbolize for me the urban movement in the 60s in Amman and that region so I wanted them to be featured. They are not so Palestinian but they are from the region. 

Interviewer: Can you talk about the area that you set as a living room area?

Azza: It looks like a normal living room. Considering that peasantry is the backbone of Palestine, I am not sure how representative this urban living room is. As soon as you enter there is a lounge area with chairs and Palestinian embroidered cushions and on the wall, we had all those pictures of families pre-1948, mostly in Nablus and Jerusalem and other cities in Palestine. You can see the “namliyeh”, which is literally translated as the anti-ant cupboard. They had mesh wire which prevented insects and ants from coming in. The “namliyeh” was used to keep zaatar (thyme) which was eaten dipped in olive oil and the sukkaria which are the sugar containers, jams, and “labaneh” balls. So, anything they needed on a daily basis was put inside those “namliyehs”. There was one in my grandmother’s house, so you are talking about a couple of generations ago.

Interviewer: How about the modern looking chairs?

Azza: So, not the lounge chairs, the other chairs. The idea was to mix modern items and folkloric items and everything was custom made in terms of furniture. I had the general dining chairs made in a very modern way and had them dipped in different colors, the same colors that were governing the entire restaurant. 

Interviewer: Can you tell us about the placemats?

Azza: Yes, the placemats and the brand, the logo, were made by a marketing agency in Jordan. They were briefed by us. The briefing was that we wanted something contemporary. Palestinian, but contemporary. They were able to come up with this beautiful placemat that had kitchen knives and forks with the pattern of the “kuffieh” and I think they were a beautiful feature in the restaurant. One more thing that I would like to mention, which is related to heritage and identity and all. I think with both the embroidery and the olive trees, both of these were things that the peasant of Palestine used to undertake more than in the urban cities. Palestinian peasantry is the backbone of the Palestinian society and keeping these things alive is basically keeping the Palestinian identity alive. Because I really feel, that the Palestinian “fallah” farmer is not given much credit and if you think of both of these two things which are really big, if you think about the olives and the Palestine embroidery, they are the strongest two things that I feel are coming out of Palestine and the credit goes to the Palestinian peasantry, basically. And if you look at the “khazaf” and the Hebron glass which come from the urban side of Palestine, they are not so much a symbol of Palestine, they are, but not as much as Palestinian embroidery.

One more point about the Palestinian embroidery is that Palestinian women have been doing embroidery for generations and generations. Girls, as young as ten years old, would start working and learning how to embroider and they started making their own jackets, long dresses, their cushions, their shawls and they would excel in these artistic works as much as their eyes could serve them, so it’s very important. Those motifs usually symbolize the geography, the flora and the fauna of the environment, nature, the belief system and the current events that are happening. So, it tells the story of people, the embroidery.

Interviewer: Any advice to the Arab or Palestinian youth of today?

Azza: I would reiterate how important it is to preserve the heritage and the folklore as it is critical to any national identity. In the case of Palestine it’s even more important as we are facing threats and the Palestinian identity is facing threats so I feel it’s not just my duty, but my calling, and it should be a lot of other people’s calling to preserve the tradition and the folklore. It could look to some people as old, old style but I think everything is open to changing, evolving and progressing and if one looks deep into it and owns it, the sky's the limit. 

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