A memoir befitting a journey

Rania H. Bedeir, Tuesday 11 Jan 2022

Muthakarrat Azza Fahmy: Ahlam La Tantahi, Al-Dar Al-Misriyya wal-Lubnaniyya, 2021, pp.399

Muthakarrat Azza Fahmy
Muthakarrat Azza Fahmy

The first words in renowned regional and international jewellery designer Azza Fahmy’s memoir Never-Ending Dreams (2021) depict who she is at her core: “I have never taken a moment to stop and think of myself. With the wind in my hair, I am constantly on the go. A fast train moving to the speed of light.”

To know her is to witness the embodiment of her story: Her years of perseverance through the early mornings and late nights. Her long research excursions and twenty-year apprenticeship at Khan El Khalili (Egypt’s traditional Souq and craftsman district). She is a woman ahead of her time and the mentor who never stops seeking and exuding inspiration.

When I last met with her, she had tears in her eyes as she explained how time was not on her side: “There is so much more that I want to do if only I had the time.” Fifty years ago, she uttered the same sentiment: “If only my hands were capable of translating what’s inside my mind.” That was the flame that set off her fifty-year journey and continues to ignite the fire under her skin today.

Fahmy’s writing, like her work ethic, is detailed and well documented, meticulous and highly organized. She always saw her story as a simple one, a series of unpremeditated actions that made her who she is. She never stopped in her tracks to think about where each decision will lead her. “I was just living my life, I was just being me,” she says as she tries to explain the reasons behind the decision to compose her memoir. She adds: “But everyone around me told me it was important for the young generations to learn from my experience.” In her mind, the only way to go about doing so was to retrace her footsteps: “I asked myself the most fundamental question: what has brought me here?” She could only answer that by weaving Egypt’s history with her own. For she is the product of everything Egyptian and so in telling her story, she entwines the stories of her ancestors.

Fahmy is keen to recount every detail that shaped her. She dedicates full chapters to her roots, the city she grew up in, her school, her summers, and to the family members with the most influence. Her Sudanese grandmother, whom Fahmy learns fifty years later had twenty-four jewellers in her family. Her Egyptian-Sudanese father, the cultured man who instilled in her the love of country and allowed her the freedom to see the South through progressive and liberal eyes. Her mother with the braided hair taught her the value of being content with what is available in the face of any storm. In Sohag, she lived a comfortable life surrounded by a cosmopolitan intelligentsia in her father’s entourage and her mother  who played tennis at the club--things that are unheard of in the rural south. That kind of freedom opened her mind to have the curiosity to explore, to look around in wonderment, and to take in everything from the cooking traditions to the trees that shaded her home to the inscriptions on the temples. The Coptic, Muslim, and Pharaonic mélange around her left an imprint on her craft and art. They were all engraved in her heart as the building blocks that would unfold in her journey.

Readers will be surprised to learn that passion for jewellery design was not on Fahmy’s radar. She was only concerned about finding her passion. After fumbling through various endeavors, she refers to what happened next as poetic divine intervention. “It was 1969 and I can still remember the moment I stumbled upon a book that would change my whole life,” she recalls with a sparkle in her eyes “I don’t know what brought me to the German section of the book fair, I don’t even speak the language, but once I saw that silver piece of jewellery on the pages, I was hooked for life.” And so, without hesitation, she put on her jeans overall, headed to Khan El Khalili, and for the next twenty years, trail blazed her way under the apprenticeship of Egypt’s male-dominated and traditional craftsmen. “I didn’t take off my overall for almost fifteen years,” she says with pride, “in fact I still have them tucked away along with all my fond memories and deepest gratitude.”

After being endowed with a scholarship at the London Polytechnic College in the late seventies, her hands finally caught up with the inspirations of her mind. That is when things really took off for her. She began to sell her pieces, first to the entourage of cultured men and women that comprised her inner circle and then, as her name and designs resonated, to others that saw something they had never seen before. She underlines a special moment in her apprenticeship, “I remember sitting on my tizga (craftsman table) in El Khan workshop and looking across the window at the inscriptions on the minaret of Sultan Qalawun mosque. Like a light bulb that went off, I thought to myself: what if I use this magnificent calligraphy to adorn my pieces.”

That was the moment that catapulted her research and design journey. Fahmy would spend the next thirty years perfecting not only her craft but nurturing her curious spirit. She set out on a journey to catalog the traditional jewellery of Egypt, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula and, along the way, attained her greatest inspiration: that every piece of jewellery tells a story. That became the ethos of her design: a storyteller who crafts pieces that tell of ancestors, of local craftsmen who keep old techniques alive, and of design precision that is local in flavor and international in standard.  She points out: “My message is a cultural one but I am not a copier of culture. I am inspired by it. I have to be true to my ancestors and their legacy.” That is how Fahmy views the responsibility that she laid upon herself. She proudly gives the example of the Pharaonic collection launched in 2012 which took eight years to research. To her, accuracy resides not only in design but in every aspect, from research to final execution: “You cannot enter the international markets with local standards anymore. It takes years of study and preparation.”

The road ahead was not easy. It never is for those who pave the way. Fahmy is careful and deliberate in documenting the amount of work, perseverance, and dedication it took from that moment on: “I sacrificed a lot, I slept little and I worked continuously. And like a moving train, never looked sideways. Only ahead.” To those who are close to her, to anyone who worked with her, the analogy of the train is precise and befitting. Perhaps that is the most striking aspect of this memoir, that within the creases of her storytelling, Fahmy reveals every nuance of herself as she retraces her story across five decades of unrelenting determination.

Fahmy does not dedicate specific chapters to

the business though. Anything that is related to building the brand is weaved within her odes to the people and places that have shaped her. Like building blocks, together they tell the story of not only who she is but what the brand stands for: “My journey is the fusion of love and friendships formed along the way. My immediate and chosen families whom I consider life and business partners. Each has had an imprint in the dreams that never end.”

In the chapters dedicated to her daughters, she sentimentally intertwines their personal stories with how they became an integral part of her passing the baton to the next generation. Through those chapters, Fahmy documents her belief that young and well-educated caliber, along with her daughters, will be the pillars to carry the brand forward. She is the first to admit that some found that kind of thinking as risky as it is progressive but, as her memoir reveals, her intuition was always her guide: “I always believed that in order to grow, we must look ahead and that was scary at times because of all the risks involved. But I always believed in the youth. I knew they would help me write the next chapters in our company’s story.” This meant adapting what she likes to refer to as a “continuous learning methodology” as well as learning every aspect of international brand standards which incorporate years of research and intricate craftsmanship into wearable and contemporary art--making the pieces sought-after by local trendsetters and international celebrities alike. It also resulted in esteemed collaborations with designers such as Julien Macdonald, Thornton Bregrazzi, Matthew Williamson, and the British Museum. Her dedication to continuous knowledge extends to independently funding and establishing ‘Design Studio by Azza Fahmy’ (DSAF), the first design education hub of its kind in the region.

Fahmy’s level of detail in her memoir is indicative of someone who understands the value of storytelling. Perhaps out of all her accolades as an artist, chief designer, avid researcher, and entrepreneur, the one that embodies her the most is a storyteller. At times through design, and most often as the simple Egyptian girl with big dreams.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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