6 Arab Women Who Are Shaping New York's Creative Scene Explain Why They Love The City

BY Alex Aubry / Dec 5 2017 / 21:29 PM

Bazaar meets an intrepid group of women to find out what makes NYC special

As New York continues to reinvent itself and welcome newcomers from around the world, Bazaar discovers a new generation of Arab women who are contributing to the city’s creative scene within the fields of art, fashion, film, graphic design and publishing. Like those who came before them, each has a unique story to tell about their own journey of self-discovery, one reflecting the complex and nuanced identities of young Arabs who increasingly see themselves as global citizens.

Alaa Balkhy: Saudi Fashion Entrepreneur, Graphic Designer & Co-founder of Minaa Zine

Alaa Blakhy

Saudi fashion entrepreneur Alaa Balkhy seated in the library of women's social club, The Wing

“I came across this place by chance on Instagram and was immediately attracted to its branding and mission,” says Alaa Balky as she takes the elevator up to The Wing, the women’s-only club that’s been described as a feminist version of the Soho House. Located in the Flatiron District where many of the city’s original all-female social clubs were born, its interiors are decked out with pastel-hued mid-century furnishings. “It’s very different from the women-only spaces in Saudi in that members are here by choice in a city where few spaces exist for women in creative fields to build a supportive community and network,” says the Saudi entrepreneur, who pursued a degree in graphic design at Dar Al-Hekma University before launching her own line in 2011. Called Fyunka, it featured witty canvas totes printed with drawings of iconic handbags by Chanel, Hermes and Celine as a satirical nod to the Gulf’s consumerist culture.

“I knew my business model wasn’t sustainable, so I decided to pursue a Masters in Design Management at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in New York,” says the graphic designer, who initially took courses in fashion business at NYU, before enrolling at Pratt in 2013. “It was a very challenging program, but I learnt a lot, especially how to collaborate within groups and improve my public-speaking skills,” adds Alaa, who met her husband Issam Hamididdin during her third week in New York. Since graduating from Pratt in 2015, she’s now focused on transforming Fyunka into a different brand reflecting her evolving concerns. “I’ve always wanted to create a collection centered around feminist slogans in Arabic. Even though a feminist movement emerged in the Middle East at the same time as the West, we’ve only recently begun to develop a vocabulary to describe what it means to be an Arab feminist amongst my generation,” says the entrepreneur, who hopes to use her brand to start up conversations around social issues in a more nuanced way.

“Young Arabs are more open-minded today and we’re seeing age-old taboos slowly disappearing thanks to social media,” adds Alaa, who recently teamed up with Nadia Azmy to launch Minaa Zine, a cross-cultural publication highlighting young Middle Eastern creatives around the world. “We called the publication Minaa, which means port in Arabic, because port cities such as New York, Jeddah and Alexandria have long served as cosmopolitan hubs,” says the Saudi creative, who hopes to highlight a third culture experience that rarely gets covered within mainstream publications.

Samaher Bayazeed: Saudi Digital Fashion Entrepreneur & Founder of Everyday Silver

Samaher Bayazeed

Samaher Bayazeed stands under the arch of Brooklyn's St Ann's Warehouse Theatre

“My maternal grandmother is half Indian and grew there before her family eventually settled in Jeddah, while my paternal grandmother is Egyptian and raised my late father and his siblings in Cairo,” says Samaher Bayazeed, noting that most Jeddawis have similar mixed backgrounds, a cosmopolitan legacy that has long defined her hometown by the Red Sea. “I think that’s why I eased into life in New York because it’s also a very multicultural city,” says the Saudi creative, who graduated with a degree in accounting from King Abdulaziz University in 2000. “Even though I was good at math, I soon came to the realization that my true passion was in art and design,” says Samaher, who shortly after getting married moved with her husband to San Francisco in 2013 to be close to Silicon Valley where he worked as a software engineer. It was there that she would find the space to figure out her next career move, and began studying for the GMAT to pursue a Masters in Design Management at Pratt in New York.

“I wanted to put my energies into creating an environmentally sustainable and socially conscious clothing line reflecting the issues I felt passionate about,” notes the designer, who moved to New York in 2014 with her husband to attend Pratt. “What I loved about the school was its focus on sustainability and being surrounded by people from a variety of backgrounds in the fashion industry,” says Samaher, who shortly after graduating in 2016 landed an internship at Lemlem’s design studio in downtown Manhattan. “I was very strategic in terms of where I wanted to work, because it’s a brand I’ve always respected. Although thoughtful, purposeful design is a growing conversation in the fashion industry, brands like Lemlem are still pretty rare,” says the Saudi creative, who on this particular day in Brooklyn is wearing Lemlem’s gauzy striped caftan over a slip dress and suede boots. “A lot of charitable brands can feel gimmicky or grungy, which isn’t the case with Lemlem, where I learnt about the challenges and rewards of working with African artisans,” notes Samaher, who while a student at Pratt in 2016, began to discreetly test waters with a capsule collection of minimalist structured caftans called Zaina Silver.

“Its wasn’t difficult to start the line, because one of the wonderful things about living in New York is having all these resources at your fingertips that you can easily get to by subway,” says the fashion entrepreneur, who collaborated with a designer, sourced high-quality fabrics locally and produced the collection at a factory in Bushwick. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a designer, because my job is to look at the larger vision behind the brand and make sure all the components from design to production reflects its mission. So it was important for me to learn how designers think and how to produce garments at a high quality in terms of details and finishing because my pieces tend to be very minimalist,” says Samahar, who has since re-named her brand Everyday Silver; a thoughtfully designed line of sustainable luxurious dresses and separates made from hand loomed fabrics sourced from Ethiopia.

Nadia Azmy: Egyptian-American Art Director, Style Editor & Co-founder of Minaa Zine

Nadia Azmy

Egyptian-American art director Nadia Azmy at The Wing's rooftop lounge

“I can relate to my father’s experience, who first moved to New York when he immigrated from Egypt to the U.S. to start a new life,” says Nadia Azmy, as she looks out onto Manhattan’s skyline from The Wing’s rooftop lounge. On this particular sunny day, the Egyptian-American art director is reflecting on her own journey of transformation from the small Midwestern town she grew up in to her new home in New York City. “My parents always made sure we grew up with a strong sense of Egyptian identity, not only through speaking Arabic at home but also the many summers we spent in Cairo,” says Nadia, noting that like most third culture kids, her identity is a fusion of the many cultures she feels at home in. “You’re never questioned here about having a multi-hyphenated identity because New York has always attracted people who defy labels,” says the art director, who initially majored in Political Science at the University of Michigan from 2008-2013.

“I’ve always wanted to do something creative from a young age, but I didn’t think I could pursue fashion or design as a viable career,” says Nadia, who moved to New York in 2015 to study graphic design at Parsons. During her last semester she landed a position as a graphic design intern at Moda Operandi, where she worked with its design and marketing team to create visual content for the luxury e-commerce site. “Working at Moda Operandi was an amazing experience, not only in terms of professional growth, but it also made me realize that it’s worth taking risks in life to pursue ones dreams,” says Nadia, who married her husband Husam Odeh shortly after graduating from Parsons in 2016. Today, she oversees a creative team in her role as the art director of Maison MRKT, a digital marketing company.

Since moving to New York, she has also taken part in a number of talks and interviews with media outlets such as the New York Public Radio, Refinery 29 and National Geographic to discuss issues impacting young Muslim women. “It’s important to take part in a conversation that’s ultimately going to influence the way others define you,” says the art director, who recently joined a panel discussion hosted by the Joan Foundation for Diversity in New York. For Nadia, it was an opportunity to have a seat at the table and share her own experiences as a Muslim woman, instead of having someone speak on her behalf. “I look back over the last few years and feel incredibly lucky that I was able to carve out a path for myself with the support of family and friends. It’s so important for us as women to create communities around us in order to grow and come into our own, and I hope that I can do that for others as well.”

Farah Al Qasimi: Lebanese-American/Emirati Visual Artist, Filmmaker & Photographer

Farah Al Qasimi

Lebanese-American-Emirati visual artist and photographer Farah Al Qasimi

On a sunny October morning, Farah Al Qasimi is seated in a cozy corner of The Elk, a West Village cafe not far from the Westbeth Gallery, which organized her first solo show in New York. The award-winning visual artist discovered photography while an undergraduate student during her third year at the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut, where she studied with photographers Lisa Kereszi and Ben Donaldson. “They taught me how to express humor through photography and connect with the world around me in ways that felt immediate and raw,” says Farah, who returned to the UAE to establish her art practice after graduating from Yale in 2012. “When I began photographing there, it was almost like being a tourist in a place I had known my entire life. It was as if I was exploring Abu Dhabi or Dubai with fresh eyes and a new sense of understanding that I’d never engaged with before,” says the artist, who captured mundane elements of domestic life, bringing into sharp relief the concept of home as somewhere both foreign and familiar.

In a short period of time she would establish herself as a respected artist, whose work has appeared in galleries and exhibitions around the world. She would also pursue a prolific career as a photojournalist, in addition to teaching photography at Dubai’s Higher Colleges of Technology, one of several academic positions she held over the years. “I’m very aware of the privilege that comes with being a highly visible, Yale-educated, young Emirati woman. At some point I began to question the early success I experienced and I needed to go somewhere I could prioritize learning,” she observes, noting that she still felt a need to grow and be challenged as an artist rather than rest on her early accomplishments. In 2014 she left her teaching position and relocated to New York for a year to figure out her next move. While taking on photography assignments, she worked at a gallery, interned for an artist and served as a teaching assistant at the International Center for Photography, before going on to receive an MFA from Yale in 2017.

“That was an important year for me, because I was around so many artists with goals that were similar to mine,” says Farah, who throughout her career has found herself being mislabeled in order to fit a neat category. “I’ve often been asked about being a ‘female Arab artist,’ something that many of my friends deal with when being labeled a ‘Muslim artist’ or an ‘Asian artist,’ which is very reductive. It’s a burden of representation that’s seldom placed on the shoulders of white men,” she adds, noting that although such tactics may work for the purposes of a quick sound bite, they ignore the multiple facets of an individual’s identity that ultimately informs their work. It is a point of view that Farah will continue to explore throughout her journey as an artist who defies categorization.

Abir Haronni: Moroccan-American Singer & Songwriter

Abir Haronni

Morocoo-born singer/songwriter Abir Haronni in Brooklyn

Although she recently moved into a spacious apartment at Mercedes House in Midtown Manhattan, Abir Haronni has returned to her old neighborhood in Queens on this particular day for lunch at the unassuming Chinese-Indian restaurant, Tangra Masala. “It’s my comfort food because I love the unexpected mix of cultures and flavors,” says the songwriter, who was born in Fez before moving to Arlington, Virginia with her family at the age of six. “Growing up bicultural was probably tougher at a younger age as I just wanted to fit in, but the older I got I began to appreciate how unique my background is and that it’s ok to be different,” says Abir, who credits her father with introducing her to one of her earliest musical inspirations, the 1950s soul singer Etta James. “My father ran a limo business where he would play jazz and soul in the car for his clients, so I listened to these artists while he drove me to and from school,” recalls the songwriter, who also counts Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Umm Kulthum amongst her influences.

Although her parents didn’t encourage her to pursue music while growing up, she nevertheless developed a passion for singing from an early age. “They initially saw it as more of a hobby than a viable career path,” says the singer, who while in high school, landed a three week internship at House Studio in Washington DC, where she began recording her first songs at the age of 14. “It was an amazing place to come to everyday because I was meeting interesting musicians, singers and songwriters coming out of DC at the time. It also sparked a desire in me to work within the industry even more,” says Abir, who first had to convince her parents of her career choice. “Although they were hesitant they also wanted me to live my dreams, so we reached a compromise that I could pursue singing as long as I went to school first to get a degree as a backup plan,” notes the songwriter, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in PR and Communications from George Mason University.

While still at university, she would take the train to New York each weekend, to explore the city’s music scene and network. “I felt I had no time to waist and wanted to be smart in terms of how to navigate a very competitive industry as a young woman,” says Abir, who by the time she moved to New York almost two years ago, had already been invited to record tracks with several emerging and established artists in the city. “Living in New York definitely gives you a certain work ethic and drive, because everyone around you is working towards reaching their goals, so every decision I made early on related back to furthering my musical career,” says the singer, who uses her platform to champion causes dear to her heart. Shortly after releasing her single Girls, the Moroccan-American orchestrated a series of gifs on social media in response to Trump’s Muslim travel ban. “I felt the need to make a statement as an immigrant Moroccan Muslim woman living in this country, so I got almost 40 immigrant girls who were either born outside the US or grew up in immigrant households to participate in the campaign,” says Abir, who has released a string of hits since Girls, which has become an empowering anthem for young women of her generation.

Razan Al Sarraf: Kuwaiti Visual Artist

Razan Al Sarraf

Kuwaiti visual artist Razan Al Sarraf in Brooklyn Bridge Park

“You find a lot of women artists from the Middle East in New York who are pushing boundaries with their work, because it’s a city that attracts individuals from across the world. For artists in particular, it serves as a neutral space to help amplify the very issues we’re trying to explore back home,” says Kuwaiti artist Razan Al Sarraf, as light streams through the windows of her Chelsea studio. Leaning against its walls in neat stacks, are dozens of small canvases onto which she’s painted portraits with childlike strokes. It’s a cheerful and almost naive style, which serves to camouflage the art’s more serious subject matter. “Each one of the men and women depicted in these paintings is actually a member of ISIS, whose images I sourced from news sites as well as selfies posted on social media,” says Razan, who wanted to confront western fears of the Middle East by giving a face to a threatening topic through the traditional medium of portraiture.

“There’s something unsettling that happens in that split second when the viewer is trying to decide if they should have a positive or negative reaction to the work. It’s something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from old master portraits, which don’t have the same immediacy of an instagram feed,” says the artist, who spent he childhood between Kuwait and the small town of Aigle in Switzerland, where her grandparents have a home. Shortly after graduating from high school in 2014, she moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, located in Chelsea’s gallery district. “Since moving to New York I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the history of where I come from, and I suppose I needed that distance to see it with fresh eyes,” adds the artist, who has participated in group shows at galleries in New York, New Jersey and Kuwait.

Since creating her series of ISIS portraits, the artist has shifted her focus to a new body of work in which she inserts herself into her paintings to reflect her experiences as a Middle Eastern woman, as well as the collective experiences of Kuwaiti women. “I’m also interested in untangling the conversation around identity, particularly within the context of the Gulf region, where there’s traditionally been an emphasis on ethnic purity, despite the fact that most people can trace their roots to many places,” says the young Kuwaiti, who initially questioned her responsibility as an artist to tackle topics impacting the Middle East.  “I debated whether or not I was supposed to make work about my culture, because that was the expectation, particularly for an Arab artist based in the West. But I’ve come to the conclusion that my role as an artist is to start up conversations and create spaces for dialogue between cultures,” says Razan, who hopes to establish a career in the city. “Anyone who has lived in New York will tell you it’s character building, but it’s also incredibly enriching because you’re exposed to people with different backgrounds and beliefs,” she concludes, as she continues to carve out a space for herself in the global art world.

Photography: Mahaal Alasaker