An conversation with Salem Al-Qassimi in Arabish
Transcript of a conversation between Noor Aldabbagh and Salem Al-Qassimi in Arabish
Salem Al-Qassimi is Assistant Professor at the American University of Sharjah and Founder of Fikra Design Studio
This interview is an example from 30 similar interviews conducted as part of Banafsajeel’s Reinventing Heritage programme in the lead up to the Once Upon DESIGN exhibition. The following conversation has not been edited or translated in order to reflect its original cultural context. The writing in English of the sounds of Arabic words reflects a way of bilingual writing commonly used in the Gulf region; numbers are used for Arabic sounding letters that don’t exist in the English language.
ترجمة الحروف العربية 3 = ع 6 = ط 7 = ح “9 = ق 2 =ء
The Espresso Lab, Dubai, U.A.E.
October 3 2015, 4:00pm
Noor: Can you talk about the design environment here?
Salem: I think it’s growing. I wouldn’t talk about design in general, cause graphic design is my field so I would rather talk about it. I think graphic design in general is the form of design that is most available in the UAE and the Gulf in general cause it’s used in everything through branding, and its everything printed; every company needs to register its logo… you know a lot of that.
I think the last ten years people started to understand the value of it a little bit more. A lot of design studios started popping up. It was interesting in 2006 Fikra was the only experimental design studio in the UAE. There was like multimedia kind of advertising or design studios, things like that. So I think now there are more design studios including experimental, and people that understand graphic design specifically more.
The appreciation will probably take more time. People do not give it the value that it deserves; design has really changed the way that business functions. I think that people think that design is purely aesthetical, but its not. Design is about the process, about the functionality of it, it’s a lot of different things. For the aesthetic part – the design of the look and feel of it – is just the way design is able to communicate, but that’s not a sense of what design is. And if we’re going to talk about like fairs like Design Days Dubai, I think design there is showcased as art and not as design.
There is a huge conversation about, what is design… and what is design in an exhibition space? Because design is to solve a specific problem, so for example, I design an identity for a company. Once I put that identity on the wall in an exhibition, it no longer serves that purpose because it is no longer being created to solve the problem of having an identity for a client. Now we can view it as art. Anyway maybe I went too deep.
N: No I don’t think you went deep. You brought up this point before when we met in the Ramadan Iftar in 1971 Design Space. You mentioned that when you do produce work for an exhibition context, that you’re interested to provide a solution for that particular exhibition.
S: Its really interesting when you were describing what you’re doing for Maraya, I was like Hamdillah somebody gets it. You mentioned you’ll create something for design and designers, something like that, and it really felt very relevant.
N: Mmm. You know I was inspired by Tashkeel’s programme as well when I saw their products that they did in the booth in Design Days I thought, this is thought provoking, interesting, well designed. And the programme that they had set up was well thought out. 6ab3an they brought a company men barra o salfa… but we can do the same thing ourselves if we understand what the challenges are.
S: I agree. So if we’re going to speak about graphic design it in an educational or university context, ne7na we need a lot of work because we’re in an environment that requires bilingual design, something that is contextual. Unfortunately our educational curriculum does not support that, it’s just English. Because most of the people who are able to teach it are not Arabs. So there’s a problem there.
This also applies to architecture. But from my perspective at AUS, a lot of students who graduated from AUS came back later and started teaching there, which is really nice. You can see there’s a change and even in the quality of education, it’s changing, its becoming better I think.
N: You’re quite positive in terms of terms of the options available here.
S: I think it’s starting to happen but we’re wayed wara. La2ana we’re not teaching, we’re borrowing the curriculum, the American, the British, ya3ni the Western we’re not teaching Arabic, 3arafty, and I think we need to teach Arabic. Also if we’re going to talk about type design, there isn’t a place where you can actually do your Masters in type design in Arabic in the Arab world. So if you wanted to do your masters in type design you’d have to travel abroad. I think we need to have more people like Riem Hassan, who teaches graphic design, and Faysal Tabbara, who’s teaching architecture, who understand this culture and understand the language and things like that to teach.
And in terms of commercial I just want to say one more thing in terms of the appreciation. A lot of huge businesses, huge companies who are able to afford and to invest in for example branding, don’t. They think that going with a cheaper option is better. They don’t necessarily understand that we don’t just think about the way that a logo looks like, you have to think about the way that the business function and how we can improve that business…
N: Through design…
S: Through cultural consultation and business development in general, but all of that is part of branding. But also branding is no longer about designing a logo, its about the entire experience that you can provide. It’s difficult when you have huge organizations that come to you and are like, ok we want you to design a logo, 3ady 3ady bas 7e6, ekteb el kelma o 5ala9. We try to explain to them what branding is.
N: That’s really interesting. I feel your sentiment that people don’t really understand the value of creativity specifically, like, when it’s not tangible material like a brochure that’s produced. They don’t appreciate the value of the thought put into it, and therefore the cost of that. What some companies do to get around that is they shift prices around, like “oh we’re doing your printing, it costs this much”, but really what they’re doing is paying for the creativity and experience that goes into it.
S: Yeah, yeah, yeah! With us, ne7na we charge, now we started breaking it down for our clients, pay by hour. But we involve them through the entire process, everything from the beginning to the end, from the brainstorming to the end, all the research, they’re part of it, so they really see the value of what comes out.
N: What’s your best experience of design in the region?
S: I’m trying to think of an experience that really made me feel that whoa this is amazing.
N: a couple of things that you did… like teaching?
S: I don’t want to talk about me.
N: Or it could be, what’s the biggest challenge or hurdle?
S: I think explaining what design is, but you know that’s a process and it will take time. And also now I realized there are less guys doing design than there were before. Lamma ana kent fel jam3a there were guys doing design, a7eena, in my class, my fourth year; last year I had one guy, this year I have no guys.
N: Oh you’re saying there are a lot more women doing it. That’s interesting.
N: It’s socially acceptable. Cause as you said there’s a misconception that it’s an aesthetic thing right…
S: Yes. (sees someone and gets up to say hello)
Sorry. That guy is Maryam my wife’s cousin.
N: Ok let’s little more specific, we are talking about reinventing heritage.
S: Ok since we’re speaking about heritage, we need to clarify that heritage is not a falcon, or the Emirati flag, or the burgu3. Those elements are so over used to represent cultural heritage. So first of all, we need to clarify that it’s not just that.
N: (laughs) I totally get what you’re saying about what it is not… How do you feel about traditional heritage here in the UAE or here in the Gulf and what do you view as heritage?
S: If we’re going to talk about heritage, so many different aspects are intangible. So for example a way of life, poetry, knowledge and heritage traditions, those are all part of heritage. But I think heritage is always in the making, it can’t be that we’re reinventing heritage, through the culture that we have. So I think we need to identify that cultural heritage is not just something in the past but something in the present and in the future also.
N: Ok. But through your investigation of bilingual typography you’ve been focused on dress, language, and urban landscape. So that’s the kind of “heritage” that you’re interested in.
S: Yes. I’m looking at the possibility of what our language would look like because now you can use technology and embed type and written language into fonts and things like that. So what happens now that you have bilingual culture, you have bilingual lettering, things like that? All those things are hybrid. What happens to language, would you lose language? My work is really commenting on that, whether its reinventing heritage or not, I don’t know, but its commenting on it.
N: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ok, so why do you engage with Gulf heritage the way you do?
S: For me it was kind of a chance, it wasn’t planned … When I was going to do my Masters I was looking at bilingual typography specifically, as an element of graphic design that I was very interested in. But what ended up happening is that I started questioning, why? Why am I doing this? Eventually it was being in Providence that made me look at my own culture as an outsider, I was not living in it. That’s where I looked into Arabish, which is my investigation on what is Emirati culture specifically, Khaleeji culture in general…
I wanted to question my own identity, who I was… why? I was looking at what people were doing, the things that they were talking about, the things that they were posting. Me coming back here, making sure that I didn’t get lost cause of all the changes that are happening in the streets. You know things like that… it made me question…
N: Mmhmm. Were you focused on Sharjah?
S: No, it was in general. The UAE in general but also the Khaleej be shakl 3am. Bas also um, another thing was, when I was there, it was introducing the culture to people who did not know it, so it wasn’t fair that I would go into like showing them elements of my culture without, you know, giving a precedent of what is the UAE.
N: Do you think it’s valuable to engage with artisans and crafts? Why or why not?
S: Absolutely I think so, but I think that we shouldn’t just limit it to traditional crafts. Take advantage of what we have access to today in terms of using technology or digital. I remember reading a book about globalization by Arjun Appadurai and he said something along the lines of, that if a culture is not advancing then there’s a problem. If its stagnant, there’s a problem there, mob yalis yet3’ayar, and I think that’s really interesting. I remember thinking before that we’re losing our identity in the UAE, and I remember that my stance then became, actually we’re not losing our identity, we’re constantly creating a new identity.
N: This was in RISD?
S: Yeah this was in RISD. Maybe people disagree with me but that’s what I think. And I think that if we lose the craft – and that’s why everything is hybrid – if we lose the craft that we then with technology something else might come up. I don’t think that we should completely neglect something, neither do I think that we should completely stick to it. I think we should just let it be, what it is, use it for whatever you can use it for… but don’t be sooo kind of…
N: “Preserve the past!!” and all of this..
S: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I think its fine, cause preserving the past can be in a museum and that’s it.
N: What from your perspective is the biggest benefit of engaging with heritage in the way you have in the past or in the way that you might moving forward?
S: I think development is what makes you unique. Because no one shares your exact experiences and your culture except for you. So for me I think doing the project that I was doing, it could not have been done anywhere else… because of the kind of experiences that I have.
N: And the biggest challenge of engaging with heritage in the way you have?
S: I think it’s only natural that people kind of look at it in a way that’s very uh.. “oh you’re supporting that we’re actually losing our identity” or things like that. I’ve heard that.
N: But identity is constantly evolving…
S: I know I know!
N: So what does that even mean?
S: I’ve gotten that!
N: Where’s your falcon?
N: So, we’re reaching the end here. If you were going to reinvent heritage in your own way, what are the top 3 aspects or elements that you might work with? Or that you’d like to work with?
S: Difficult question. It’s very difficult to kind of reimagine cultural heritage, because we’re a nomadic culture. Ne7na kenna nestabdel one place for another. Fa a lot of the things we’re talking about are temporary, like the tents are temporary you set them up and then, you know what I mean?
S: A lot of our heritage, our cultural heritage, are ashya intangible, like poetry, 3adat o ta’’9aleed in general, 3arafty. Fa I think this is what I’m… and I think language is one of the aspects. And when we’re looking at intangible things, these are not necessarily things specific to our region; a lot of them are borrowed from here and there.
S: Fa I don’t think that we can say that something really belongs to us, 100 percent. We’re making it ours by reinventing it or repurposing it.
N: So the last question is: how do you see your involvement or lack of involvement in a design programme on reinventing heritage? Ya3ni what could you offer or contribute, or what could you get out of it, or what would you want to avoid?
S: I would love to see how design specifically is used as a tool of investigation. What I mean by that is that instead of just being like “oh, I want to put this on the wall… because it looks pretty..”, I’d like to question what is a wall, why is it a wall, why is it here on this wall, and how could that benefit the discipline itself and the culture? If that makes sense.
N: Well these conversations that we’re having now, we’re doing about 30 interviews like this one with yourself, and each person seems to have their own subjective opinion on what is heritage and why it matters. Designers in the region are also very different, you know, some people much more commercial. Like I’m meeting Mohammed Kazem after you now.
S: Mohammed Kazem the artist?
N: No not the artist. The guy who started Tamashee… el na3lah.
S: No! You know he’s one of my best friends? Where is he?
N: He’s coming he’s coming you’ll see him.
S: Mohammed Kazem is amazing, I love him.
N: So I found these conversations very enriching and there’s a wealth of knowledge. And I’m thinking how to share them now. Like the easiest thing I could do is if someone’s open to it, is to transcribe and put it on the Banafsajeel website. But I also thought, well, we’ll do a workshop in Dubai Design week in a few weeks and we’ll share some of our most interesting findings, things that were repeated a lot. We’ll even share our method, like we’re doing a 2-hour workshop on human-centered design. What is it, why did we use it? So that people can learn it for themselves.
S: That’s amazing I love that. What’s really nice about having a lot of people involved is that then its very broad. And when you put them all in a library, like you archive them in some way, then it becomes a collective of expressions of what people think about this. You know the book Wabi Sabi? Wabi Sabi is a Japanese word to describe the beauty of things from nature. But what’s interesting is that the word itself is like the word culture or heritage. You can’t actually describe it in one word. They wrote the entire book of different experiences to describe what it is.
Just like riding a bike. You know, you can’t teach someone how to ride a bike by describing it physically; they have to do it and practice it. So it’s the same thing with understanding this, 3araftay? So you have a collection of essays, of recordings, things like that. People can then start listening to different things, learn different things from it, and use it as a reference kind of for future projects.