Juman Malouf’s World Of Infinite Possibilities

BY Alex Aubry / Jun 5 2017 / 20:56 PM

Born in Beirut, her childhood spent between Saudi and the UK, illustrator, author and designer Juman Malouf welcomes Bazaar into her wonderful world of cross-cultural creativity.

Juman Malouf’s World Of Infinite Possibilities
Sebastian Bottcher
Author Juman Malouf, seated in the period splendour of the Lady Islington room at Home House in London, wearing jacket, Dhs6,550; skirt, Dhs8,600; shoes, Dhs4,250; all from Gucci's Pre-Fall '17 Collection.

“There’s a crack in the marble floor of this room from a German bomb that went off during WWII,” points out Juman Malouf, seated in the period splendor of the Lady Islington, one of a handful of appropriately named suites at Home House, a discreet London club housed within three interlinked 18th-century Georgian townhouses. “I like a place with history and stories to tell. There’s supposed to be a ghost here, too,” says the Beirut-born designer turned author and illustrator, to partially explain why the members-only club has become a home-away-from-home for her while in London. 

For Juman, the idea of home and the process of defining ones identity is a complex journey, one she tackles in her debut children’s novel, The Trilogy of Two. It explores the struggles of twin sisters who don’t quiet fit in; an experience that mirrors the author’s own life spent navigating different cultures and expectations. “Even though people can fly all around the world and have friends in any corner of the planet over the internet, we obviously still put people in neat boxes so they fit our preconceptions,” notes Juman, whose West Coast accent wasn’t honed from years of living in California, but while attending an American school in London. “I think it’s kind of freeing to not seem like you come from one place or another in particular.”

Juman was only six months old when her family fled the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 on the last plane bound for London from Beirut’s airport. The daughter of noted Lebanese feminist writer Hanan Al-Shaykh, Juman and her older brother Tarek would spend two years in London before the family moved once again to Saudi Arabia, where her father Fouad Malouf worked as an engineer. Based in Khobar, they lived in a compound that was home to expatriates from around the world. “On weekends we used to drive to the sea or explore sand dunes. I remember a beautiful day we spent with a family of Bedouins my father was friends with,” recalls Juman, who attended a British school with her brother while in Saudi, which exposed her to worlds beyond the Kingdom’s borders.

In the dramatic bathroom of the Lady Islington room, Juman wears a vintage '70s marbled-satin dress by Richilene New York.

Photographer by Sebastian Bottcher

“We also lived in a compound with Irish, American and German families, and I loved learning about their different traditions and foods,” she remarks of those formative years, which sparked her interest in cross-cultural encounters and individuals who defy categorization. “It definitely made me want to see places. It reminds me of my mother listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones when she was a teenager in Lebanon, and feeling she wanted to get out there into the world,” says the author, who eventually moved back to London at the age of seven with her family. While her father continued to travel between the British capital and Saudi Arabia, her mother found a community in London amongst an Arab diaspora of writers and artists who became a part of Juman’s life. “By the time we moved to London in 1982, it had replaced Beirut and Cairo as the intellectual center of the Middle East and we were very aware of that growing up with all these amazing people coming to our home,” recalls the author, who together with her older brother attended the American School, which boasted a large number of students from across the Middle East. 

When it came time to pursue her bachelors degree, she considered majoring in neuroscience at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “I switched majors about two weeks into my first semester when I realized I was in the completely wrong department. Then I started signing up for art courses,” says Juman, who graduated from with a BA in Fine Arts and Art History. She went on to receive an MFA from the Tisch School of the Arts for Set and Costume Design. “I understand why people want to push their children to be doctors and engineers. Middle Eastern families in Europe and America, especially, are like that. But dynamic societies and economies also need creative thinkers and dreamers, and it’s important to show that there is value to a career in the arts. I was lucky to have a great example in a mother who was able to carve out a successful living as a writer,” she adds of her own inner struggle, which also informed one of the underlying themes of her book. 

Reflecting her passion for history, Juman pairs a Geoffrey Beene floral print dress with a Victorian brooch.

Photographer by Sebastian Bottcher.

“In college I was surrounded by creative people who were passionate about music and painting, and then they put their dreams aside to pursue degrees in law or finance. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write this book,” says Juman, who designed sets and costumes for the opera and theater before launching a line of knitwear in 2002.  Today Juman has found her calling as a novelist and illustrator, who devoted several years to conceive The Trilogy of Two, a coming of age story that references historical and current events ranging from the Industrial Revolution to environmental degradation and the ongoing refugee crisis around the world.  Set in a fantasy world, the book takes readers on a visual journey through an enchanted forest, a golden underground and a towering Dickensian city; all seen through the eyes of identical 12-year-old twins, Charlotte and Sonja, who grow up in a traveling circus. Lately, their musical talents have caused strange things to happen; audience members levitate in the air, rain starts falling inside the circus tent and instruments begin playing on their own. The twins grapple with controlling their new magical powers and set out to discover who they are and where their extraordinary powers come from.

Juman based the book’s main characters on her closest friends in middle school who were identical twins. “Although they were very close to each other, they both struggled to define their own identities, which is a universal experience. I think many of us have a non-biological twin in our lives or competing personalities within us fighting for dominance,” says the author, who wanted to reach a young audience through her book. "I wrote it for who I imagined myself and my friends to be when we were 11 and 12, which is a magical time because you feel like you can do anything. Kids are often less judgmental and have a freedom of imagination that usually gets extinguished when they grow up,” adds Juman, who set out to recapture a sense of infinite possibility through her book. “I think fear often paralyzes creative people, but I never wanted fear to stop me from pursuing my dreams or doing what I’m passionate about, and that’s ultimately the message I want to convey to young readers.” 

The Beirut-born author in her latest finds that include a lace-accented cotton dress and a vitnage Gucci scarf from the Paris boutique Laure Bassal.

Photographed by Sebastian Bottcher.

To compliment her writing, Juman brings to life the book’s eccentric characters and the worlds they inhabit through rich and detailed illustrations. “I began drawing the characters like costume renderings to figure out who they are and what they wear, which may have something to do with my background as a costume and set designer,” says the author, whose illustrations also reflect her personal approach to dressing. ‘‘I think I probably choose clothes the same way I pick a certain picture to draw,’’ says the author, who wears her hair in a half-pinned updo vaguely reminiscent of the 1940s. “In my teens I was obsessed with the 18th century and wore a corseted Vivienne Westwood dress to my high school prom. I later shifted to more Victorian looks in my twenties,” notes Juman, whose style has since evolved to include a combination of vintage 1940s tailoring and ‘70s era high-collared gowns accessorized with 1920s brooches and crocheted handbags unearthed from antiques shops during her travels.

Another individual who would leave a lasting impression on her as an artist and author was her maternal grandmother, a great storyteller who welcomed a steady stream of visitors eager to hear her often-humorous tales. “Despite being illiterate, she was of a generation that found inventive ways to navigate obstacles and get on with life,” says Juman, who grew up in a multi-religious household with a Christian father and a Muslim mother. “At the end of the day, they taught us to just try to be good people,” says the author of an approach to identity that mirrors many of the characters in her debut novel. “If there is one main underlying thread in my book it’s this: accept people, whether they are like you or not. It’s a theme I’m also exploring in my next book, which is probably all the more relevant in the atmosphere we’re currently living in. Maybe it could be a reminder to young people that there are good things about being different and to try to be happy in your own skin.” 

Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the May issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, available on iPad and in-store now.