I was sitting in a favorite cafe in Cairo’s Khan el Khalili with one of my dearest friends. We were finishing off our coffees when I saw a woman sit down across from us. I admired the unique jewelry she was wearing and her intricately detailed leather bag; she later shared that she picked it up while traveling in Morocco.
As it turns out, Menna Tarek Khalil is an inspiring artisan and visionary. While in the depths of the ancient bazaar, we spoke about her work as a jewelry designer in Egypt, traveling and, of course, Egyptian-American politics; which will not be mentioned further, for fear of spoiling the creative magic that Menna’s craft will surely weave throughout your bones, just as they do in the busy streets of Cairo. I hope you enjoy the following exchange and learning more about Menna and her work:
Menna, where were you raised and why did you decide to become a jewelry designer?
I was born and raised my first nine years in Kuwait as an expat, then I returned to Egypt. Since I was a little girl in middle school I used to accessorize my friends and myself.
Then, in high school, I started using more advanced materials until I was exposed to the world of Khan el Khalili in Cairo. I fell in love with the gemstones and silversmith, and how I could create jewelry with my own hands.
I apprenticed in Khan el Khalili’s workshops in 2009 and I created only a few collections until 2012. By the end of 2012, I made the decision to take a leap of faith and started my own business as jewelry designer. I launched my brand in January 2013.
Today I can proudly say I have created a brand name with an identity of my own. My journey has been comprised of thirteen collections, which were featured many times on television, as well as in newspapers and magazines.
As I stated earlier, we met by chance in a cafe in Khan, it was such a wonderful meeting! Do you often meet people by chance while you work in the bazaar? What does your average work day look like?
Yes, I always meet random people that comment on my jewelry that I am wearing, and sometimes it turns to a strong friendship later. My average day starts from morning to evening working in the workshop, buying stones, roaming these old streets of Cairo to get inspired, and meeting new people; like what happened with you.
Where do you find inspiration for your jewelry? Do your designs tell a story?
I find inspiration mainly from stories, civilizations that I have explored through traveling and books that I read. Indigenous cultures that colonizers tried to demolish always inspire me. Resistance inspires me!
Nature and colors also play a big role in this journey. Love stories, death and rebirth with all their psychological depth entangle me. Sometimes I try to put these feelings in designs.
Is it difficult to be a female jewelry designer in Egypt? Are you able to express yourself without worrying about harassment, sexism, and/or misogyny?
No, actually most of the jewelry designers in Egypt are women. What is difficult is to be the maker herself, as it is a hard job that ruins your hands. It isn’t an easy job to actually make jewelry. When I apprenticed in 2009, I was the only female in the workshop. However, now there are many female apprentices in jewelry.
What’s your biggest goal for 2018?
My biggest goal is a career shift that I am sure will enrich me and my identity as a jewelry designer. I decided to pursue a masters degree in Women Studies and Law, and start a new journey with a stronger cause that will have an impact on my community.
This new challenge was made clear after the creation of my latest collection, “Voice of Anonymous Women”, which focuses on tackling women issues in the MENA region. The collection rang my inner bell and made me even more aware of the fact that I want to work for women, and help them have a voice of their own.
What would you tell other women in Egypt and around the globe who want to be jewelry designers and creatives?
Jewelry is a luxury to most of people.
Anyone can create a beautiful piece of jewelry, but not everyone can create an identity, tackle a cause, reflect books and paintings in their jewelry.
So, whatever you want to create…BE EXPRESSIVE! BE DIFFERENT! BE YOURSELF AND LISTEN TO THE VOICE WITHIN! Because after few years, this is how you will be remembered.
Do you think jewelry can bring people from different cultures and religions together? If so, how?
YESSSSSS! This is what happened in my journey, luckily. In my 8th collection, “Radwa Ashour”, many Palestinian immigrants sent me emotional and nostalgic messages that said I reminded them of their homeland.
People who didn’t know Radwa Ashour, an Egyptian writer who I studied under, started reading her books and became acquainted with the history of Granada in “Granada’s Triology” and Tantoreya in “Tantoreya”. After all, these cities weren’t lost. People still remember them and moved them; they were reborn again!
Also, in my latest collection about women issues, many women from all walks of life and different countries connected to the issues and the pieces I proudly created. This is mainly my ultimate goal: everyone can connect to my art.
Throughout the West and Middle East, many governments are growing more conservative and wants to silence freedom of expression (and, in a sense, freedom of creativity). Having lived in Egypt through the uprisings, what would you tell creative people to do in order to remain hopeful and dedicated to their craft?
Art should be mysterious. This is how profound it is, that we all can connect to it on different levels.
However, you should always resist and be different no matter how people are trying to silence you. Fear no one! They will never own you unless you fear them, because the moment you fear any entity you wont be an artist anymore.
An artist should be the conscience of her/his community and encourage them to be expressive too.
Who (or what) is your biggest inspiration from the West and from the Middle East?
My inspiration is more collective, similar to what I mentioned before regarding civilizations, nature, art, stories, psychology, literature, resistance, etc. However, if I would mention a living person (which is difficult) it can be Oprah Winfrey from the U.S.A. Hers is a story of survival, resistance, and bitterness that really inspires me.
Come to think of it, another muse and favorite fashion icon of mine is Iris Apfel. Also, all start ups that are resisting and listening to their own voices against all odds are the real inspiration, not that glamorous figures around us.
Anything else you would like to add?
Art is my weapon to create a world of my own; full of colors and magic. Art is my Voice! Art is my diary where I jot down my days: happiness and bitterness, love and loss, dreams and nightmares, and my different characters.
A reminder: Art starts on a personal level, yet a successful creation ends collectively, where as many people as possible can connect to it. Namaste.
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