This is hard.
Dreaming up beautiful things, drawing them, sewing them with my hands, that’s happiness.
Writing about myself, not so much. Really, not at all.
But I’m going to take a shot at it. Not because my story is unique. It is not. I am an unremarkable person with a big dream. But this story is worth telling because It’s the story of millions of unremarkable women just like me, with little dreams, big dreams, and very big dreams.
There’s something magical about creating.
You like-hearted creatives know the deep fulfillment that comes from making something beautiful; a sketch, a sculpture or a piece of clothing. Ah...the joy we get from surrounding ourselves with beautiful things! In the Muslim tradition, there is a saying “Allah is Beautiful and Loves Beauty”.
My love of clothes and all things creative goes back to my earliest memories.
As a little girl, I remember mom bent over the sewing machine late into the night. Rummaging through her sewing basket was an exciting activity, stealing scraps of brightly colored fabric, unraveling spools of thread. Every scrap and every spool was so full of possibility. Age eight, I created my first collection of bedazzled fashions for my doll. An elaborate doll wedding followed, complete with a full trousseau and hand-made jewelry.
When I was ten, Dad moved us to Yemen from our native Pakistan. Mom’s sewing machine went along. We lived in a noisy apartment building where mom became resident seamstress, creating couture fashions for aspiring fashionistas who’d bring pictures cut out from the latest Egyptian fashion magazines. I was enlisted as her trusty assistant, going along to the local souq in Taiz to buy fabric by weight, untangled out of huge mounds lying on the ground.
Our apartment was on the third floor of an unpainted cement block building that looked like the construction crew might be back to finish it, but forgot. The kids 'playground' was the roof. We'd run around and play games of tag among overflowing water tanks and rusty iron poles as tall as us, sticking straight up in a perpetual salute to the blue sky. The best part was the view: Jabl Sabr in the distance with terraced green fields that glistened after a rain. (That is if you looked past the graveyard just down below and made an effort to look out in the distance). Funeral processions were a fascinating for a little girl to watch from her window, nose pressed against the glass. All men, holding the draped body aloft on their shoulders, rhythmically chanting La-ilaha-illah-Allah, La-ilaha-illah-Allah. Like a parade or something.
Though electricity was spotty and our apartment flooded when it rained, this was such a happy time. My siblings and I picked up Arabic and love for Yemeni culture. We attended the American school, where we were probably the only kids (proudly) wearing home-sewn uniforms.
Clothes are special, because they’re our second skin, our identity. When we meet someone in a split second we decide who they are, based on how they look and what they wear. My mom taught me to make clothes piece by piece, but also to have pride in who I was.
Fast forward a decade and three countries, and I arrived in America on a sunny June day. A freshly minted MBA, and a new mother.
Like most Asian parents, mine played it safe. The arts were for pleasure, the MBA was for ‘real’ work. I got a respectable job as a banker while trying to be a reasonable mother and a passable wife. That, in the forty-below-zero Minnesota winters, was a majorly daunting undertaking. Some days I was barely treading water.
On top of that, work clothes were a challenge. The go-to female banker dress was skirt suits and pantyhose (yes it was a thing, ladies!). Not finding skirts long enough, I began wearing pantsuits to work, to the sideways glances of colleagues.
In a dual working parent family, only one person’s dreams could thrive. Someone had to be Lead Parent. What kept me sane in those years were trips to the fabric store, that yielded countless clothing creations for my real little doll, my daughter. My dreams stayed on the back burner and my career meandered along with my husband’s. A few more winters and two children later, life led us to California.
Raising Muslim kids in the West is an interesting experience. Being a parent is hard enough, let alone parenting kids while straddling countries and cultures. It’s like you’re a transplanted tree, trying to lay down roots in a new biosphere while staying true to your DNA. Growing up, I’d never really had to answer the question ‘Where are you from?’ (which is code for ‘You’re unfamiliar...Who are you?’). My American-born kids got asked this question routinely.
Yes, there’s nothing like your kids asking you ‘Who am I?’, to really get you thinking.
The weeks following 9-11 are vivid in my mind.
The Muslim community had been just another minority community in the great American mosaic, making ends meet and quietly minding their business. All of a sudden this tragedy flung us into sharp focus. ‘Who are Muslims?’ was now the question on national television.
Soon after, in November, it was Ramadan, the month of fasting, prayer, and reflection. One night after suhoor, I couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, suddenly, it was as if someone whispered in my ear…
‘Start an Islamic lifestyle brand’.
This was a pretty wild idea because no one in my family had ever started a business (That was for crazy people, who took risks and lost lots of money). Plus, it wasn't exactly an ideal time. I was taking a break from banking and our son had been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. But the voices wouldn't go away. I lay awake as the voices got louder and more excited, pointing and saying...Muslim lifestyle brand..see, see, creating this is what you were born to do! This is the answer to the ‘Who am I’ question!
‘Let the Beauty of what you Love, be what you Do’ said Rumi. And so, Artizara was born, right in my garage.
I love the deep richness of our heritage. Have you ever been to an ancient mosque, and gazed up to see the intricate, interlocking patterns that go on forever? For me, they’re a metaphor for the universe. How we are all interconnected and intertwined. Life is complex, it is beautiful, and we’re in this together.
The fluid lines of Arabic calligraphy, the jewel tones of zileej mosaics, the ancient art of embroidery, they tell a beautiful story. They give meaning and color to my life and tell the world who I am. From the clothes that I wear to the gifts that I give, I want to envelope myself in artful, meaningful things that tell this story.
And I want to invite you into this story. A story of beauty, of warmth, of meaning. It’s a humble story, but also a powerful one.
Come with me.