In preparation for The Nida’a Show, my upcoming one-hour talk show for Arab women with the Discovery Network/TLC Arabia, I have decided to wear only soulful outfits. My definition of soulful is any product that has a story of social, cultural or environmental consciousness behind it. For me, this includes brands like Urban Zen and Maiyet, and many local Arab labels from the Middle East and North Africa whose designs incorporate cultural narratives in beautiful ways, and engage local communities in production.
I aim to be as consistent as possible in my values, in as much of my daily behavior as possible, including in how I select my wardrobe. After all, how can I advocate for fair treatment of poor and marginalized people if I don’t shop responsibly? As a consumer, I have the duty and the power to ask who made the dress I am buying, and whether they were fairly paid and treated. Is the fabric supporting organic farmers? Did the garment or accessory honor the cultural narrative or artisans of a people or a nation?
This selection process is not easy for those who like clothes and fashion as much as I do. But just like organic food, once you get the taste for it, you become addicted, losing your tolerance for inauthentic substitutes.
On a recent reporting trip I discovered Karim Tassi of Morocco, an elegant man who designs for both women and men, fusing Moroccan embroidery motifs and funky modern designs, and Rabih Kayrouz of Lebanon, whose boutique was full of young hopefuls from an institute he has created to encourage the training of emerging designers in the region. Shopping at Maison Rabih Kayrouz was a vibrant experience — every young designer and every piece had an inspiring backstory.
When the news traveled that I was searching for Arab designers with soulful products, I learned of another world. It started with a dinner event in Abu Dhabi when my friend whispered to me: “Would you like to check out some of the Abayas I have?” Without ever meeting her clients, she sells her creations by word-of-mouth trunk shows in private homes in the UAE. Her embroidered shoulder abayas incorporating long trails that drag behind a woman as she walks, make the wearer feel like a princess. If you like what you see, you take a picture of the product and the price tag, send a WhatsApp message to the designer and wire the money to her. Some women designers in the region are never photographed or quoted in the press. While some — like Azza Fahmy of Egypt and Nadia Dijani of Jordan — operate out of boutiques, others create only in the privacy of their own homes and sell through social media or trunk shows.
Not all of my friends share my enthusiasm for authentic fashion. When I talk about it many just listen with a gentle smile waiting for the subject to change. In stark contrast to that reaction, some of them lit up recently when they heard about a trove of counterfeit luxury goods — from Gucci to Chanel — at a secret venue in Dubai.
I discovered it by accident. I had asked Karim, my Pakistani driver in Dubai, if he knew of any place where I could get a suitcase. “Oh yes ma’am. I know an excellent store.” He had been quiet the whole day but now he became animated and pushed on the pedal to get me to the destination. I was perplexed when we arrived not at a mall but at an office building.
“Don’t worry ma’am, I will show you an excellent place. You will love it,” he said as we entered an old elevator in a shabby, neon-lit building.
When we arrived on the third floor, I was both confused and suspicious. How could a suitcase be found in such a place? “Don’t worry ma’am, come come,” Karim assured me as he knocked a secret knock on a white door with only a small lens to view the visitor from the other side. The door was then opened up, Karim kissed the Pakistani man who greeted us, and I saw a few boxes of products here and there, but still wasn’t feeling confident about this shopping adventure: “Sir, I just want a suitcase. Where am I?”
“Come with me ma’am,” said the young man, who held a walkie talkie and communicated to another person that he was coming to the suitcase section. I was then escorted to an underground world of copied products – every brand imaginable. The shoe showroom packed in hundreds of pairs of all brands, colors, and styles, as did the other sections of dresses, shirts, skirts, and men’s garments. Clients varied from Lebanese men with gold chains on their exposed chests to women from all over the world — Russia, Lebanon, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even the U.S., some with headscarves and some in mini skirts, all shopping, bargaining, and buying up the faux Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and other counterfeits. It was like a Disneyland for bootlegged products, an underworld of illegal vanity.
The place exemplified everything I was trying to oppose in my own shopping behavior. I felt embarrassed to even be there. “Thank you so much,” I said to the salesman, “You don’t have what I am looking for,” and I stared at my driver Karim to get me out of there.
“Where is this place? I need to go now. Take me now!” a friend exclaimed at a dinner later that night. “I don’t care about food, this is the most exciting thing I have heard of since my arrival to Dubai. Please take me now!” she persisted.
But I don’t know the way to that secret place. “Only Karim knows the whereabouts of the store,” I answered.
“OK, give me Karim’s number. I’ll go now to shop. This is so exciting.”
I was left dumbfounded. If my discovery of fake products was more exciting than the soulful, talented designers I have discovered in the region, then society’s attachment to brands is stronger than its attachment to cultural authenticity. Go figure. The next day I got myself a cheap suitcase, packed a dress designed by Aysha, a local Lebanese-UAE designer, and few other pieces and left Dubai determined to keep it real.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoirBetween Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.