I met with Hana Sadeq, the Ambassador of the Arab fashion in Amman. Honoured by one of the world’s fashion capitals, Rome, as the “Ambassador of Arabic fashion”, Hana is the first designer to integrate Arabic art and calligraphy with the best of contemporary haut couture. Hana’s kaftans and abayas represent business success. However, by opening a window to the all-too-often hidden charm of Arab women, she has also made our culture accessible to a global market place. It is thus, by embracing her heritage, that Hana has created a global environment for growth.
Her collection is a combination of tradition and modernity. She has published several books on Arabic jewellery and fashion and has also received numerous international awards for her exceptional work. An example of the international recognition for her work is the award she received from by UNESCO for preserving the Arab heritage through her unique designs.
Hana is a prime example of a pioneering Iraqi woman; as such we were delighted to feature Hana Sadeq on Nina second issue’s cover and a shortened version of the interview below within our pages as our lead ‘ Moment in Time feature
This issue is all about creating the right environment for growth so I explore with Hana what she identifies as the key things that have led to her success.We start by discussing the crucial role of a strong personal identity – as well as the support of the men in her life who helped define it.
“I had a protected childhood. I was the eldest, a big sister to two younger brothers. My father absolutely believed in women having freedom to make their own choices. His thoughts and ideas were way ahead of his time. He used to tell me that raising me to have a conscious mind was more important than any other teachings.
He also believed that self-confidence was at the heart of freedom. He taught me that being criticized by others was in fact a compliment. My brothers and I were brought up to be equal, regardless of gender. This meant we all grew up flying free. Understanding equality was a powerful lesson not just for me, but also for them.
This success of this ‘policy’ was particularly evident in our formative teenage years. Instead of being subjected to constant criticism we were praised and things were clearly explained. This meant that we were able to explore without fear and so grew up with an understanding of the world around us. The style of my upbringing of course also made it far easier to transition my studies to France when the time came.
To sum up then, my father supported my talent and my brothers enforced the environment in which I was able to grow as a woman and an artist – assured of my place in the world. Finally, I also need to mention my husband, who insisted I continue my studies in France, despite the fact that I was a wife and mother by then.”
We go on to what Hana considers to be another pillar in her creation of a positive environment for growth – education.
“Family is all important. In fact if all Iraqi fathers operated the way mine did, we might discover a whole host of latent talent! However, we do need to add another consideration. I believe schools and families need to work together to provide an appropriate environment for developing and refining the talents of our young people. They need to be allowed to gain independence but, within a frame-work of security. It is worth considering that at this time a lot of Iraqi talents explode and excel outside their country.
To ensure that we correctly support our young talents in Iraq it is essential that the curriculum reflects national need. I believe that we urgently need to open platforms that develop the capacity to help students think. Iraqi people are passionate about to learning. We couple significant energy with the ability to absorb. So, with a well-designed curriculum we might just create the kind of creative geniuses we need to help us grow and develop as a nation.”
The passion for reading among Iraqis reminds me of the old proverb “Egypt writes, Lebanon prints and Iraq reads”. Hana remembers this also and goes on to reminisce about Iraqi theatre and its components.
“Tradition has always been important for me. Even as a child, every time we visited Najaf, I used to make sure I attended the ’Tashabeeh‘. This massive open theatre and performance allowed me to enjoy the performance of ’Alwaqe’a’. There were beautiful clothes and trained horses would stand and in a harmonic way. It reflected all elements of theatrical art, fashion and art.
My passion for tradition is linked to a passion for the theatre. Again from childhood, I attended theatrical performances. My father would take me. This early exposure led to me growing up with full admiration of the school (and performances) of the great Iraqi artist Yusuf Al-Ani.
Hana continues to share the impact ‘old Iraq’ had on her. For Hana it was particularly defined by the beauty of her grandmother.
“My childhood was a golden age. Different generations overlapped and learned from each other by living under one roof. This multi-generational living allowed us to learn about our heritage and cultural from an older generation.
Our family consisted of a father, mother, grandmother and grandfather. These living arrangements allowed me to watch my grandmother, an Iraqi woman of great beauty woman, pay attention to even the tiniest details around her appearance. Her style of dress (hashemi, sheila and abaya) was very influential. I used to imitate her by dressing up in her abaya. I remember visiting the ‘Hadra’ in Karbala like this. At the end of the visit, my grandmother would try to take the abaya away but I wouldn’t let her! Hana cites this exposure as key in terms of developing distinctive design ideas – which of course gave her a flying start when she made fashion design her career choice.
My age mean that I was part of the ’hippy’ generation. I revelled in their broad and diverse clothing, particularly the colours. Inspired by their fashion, I recall one funny incident when I made an ‘Olaqa’ (a kind of Iraqi hand bag). As you know, this kind of handbag is usually made from leather. I had a lovely piece of material with vibrant old graphics on it, but I was missing the leather. So, resourceful as ever, I cut piece of leather from my dad’s coat to complete my bag! My family liked it at the time but it was only when winter came and my father put on his coat, that the true origin of the leather for my handbag was discovered. My father was shocked and I remember him looking into the mirror and asking my mother whether he had become taller as the coat seemed to have shrunk!”
Do you consider yourself to be a rebel?
“I have always been naturally receptive to modernity and the power of change. For example, I remember as a child, painting my nails black – even though it wasn’t possible to buy black polish at the time. I had made my own polish instead. I remember everyone was asking me, why black? I replied by asking them why they painter their red! I think this actually marked the beginning of my discontent with the prevailing limits set for us as ‘female’ community. I will never forget how someone hit me with stones, just because I was wearing jeans while visiting a rural village.
I was the first to integrate Arabic calligraphy in fashion design. Initially my designs puzzled people but intellectuals showed interest and then women gradually starts to wear my designs. Now, I design dresses for royalty as well as celebrities from Arabic and foreign countries. Royal patrons, such as Queen Noor of Jordan, have been important in developing the prosperity of my business. I first met Queen Noor at the Jarash Festival in 1982. I was wearing an abaya of my own design which drew her attention. She met with me later and encouraged me further as well as, providing me with a great deal of support. This directly led to the growth of my business.
I worked hard and was determined to be successful. My aim was always to focus on the beauty of the abaya and the caftan as well as the tradition and culture behind these garments. I have received several awards from different global organizations. When I was honoured by UNESCO in Paris for example, I was asked to present to the concept behind my unique designs to an audience of academics. I told them about my desire to preserve Arab heritage by linking it to the modern. My lecture was based on how each piece of Hana Sadeq fashion represented a piece of history, rather than just being a pretty design.
The Golden Award I received in Rome was a big surprise, as there were many other great designers participating. However, the Italians explained to me that my work helped them learn about a kind of ‘folklore’ that they thought they would only found in museums. The Mayor of Rome shared that it was because I managed to accentuate the beauty of the woman without disclosing wide areas of her body that I was being honored as the “Ambassador of Arabic fashion”. My success had another positive side-effect also. People wanted to find out more about our region’s countries so they visited us and thus supported the tourist industry!”
Hana also explained that fashion is part of civilization. She goes on to speak of the invention of weaving and integrating colors in fabrics.
“The invention of weaving and its evolution through time is an integral part of our culture and civilization. The skills required to make the fabric and the introduction of various colors are all signs of different cultures and civilizations. The fabrics that were used by ancient Egyptians were made of pure cotton and were only in white. Then the art of dyeing was developed and we were able to mix colors to get the aesthetics in the fashion that we wear today.
We, as Arabs, haven’t sufficiently documented this heritage. In France though, it has been preserved, with many French museums carefully documenting the cultures and civilizations of Asia as a whole. Museums in Paris tell the history of fashion, fabrics and even insect species found all over the world! These small details are all documented so that people do not need to travel to these countries to learn about their civilizations.”
Hana goes on to highlight that fashion design should be seen as a science in its own right. Furthermore, if individual designers were to specialise around certain themes greater innovation and creativity could be achieved overall, thus driving business success also. She explains that this focus – just women, rather than children and men also – is the key for success.
She also calls for critique and commentary to be applied more widely in the Arab fashion design industry. Critique aims to highlight the merits as well as the faults of a designer. In Hana’s opinion, this type of constructive feed-back will help the fashion industry to evolve.
“I often hear words of praise during my fashion shows; this may satisfy my pride but will never add to my creativity. I recall a French critic who told me that the details in my fashions made him focus on the design and not on the women wearing these dresses. This was so helpful and has been something I have always considered since when there is a need to ‘cover-up’ for example. “
We’ve discussed family, education and old Iraq as key influences – was there something else that helped you make that final leap?
“I started in fashion design in Jordan, motivated by the need for money. Financial need gives impetus to creativity. However an underlying desire to push the agenda of gender equality and women’s empowerment was also important. I wanted my work to be seen, to be an example of what women could achieve.
I believe in gender equality both in rights and duties. However, I always emphasize the need for a woman has to be ‘Female’ in all sense of the word. A woman is a woman, and she doesn’t need to adopt male qualities to be recognised or successful.
I am a member of several women’s rights organizations in Jordan. Not because I feel oppressed, but because I believe that that Arab women are denied opportunities, either through their own actions, or that of society. For example, if a family faces economic difficulties, parents often chose to spend money on their son’s education rather than that of their daughter. That is not right.
Things are changing though, although in my opinion social changes are being driven by technology. I would go so far as to say that freedom for women has been driven by technology, not society. On a basic level it has created more time to spend on personal development and ideology. For example using from using washing machine instead of washing by hand or using gas instead of using firewood saves hours, which can instead be spent in other ways.”
I ask Hana to elaborate on the power of technology in terms of supporting opportunities for women.
“The Internet has allowed us women to roam the world while sitting at home. We are also motivated – and so change has happened. We have had to fight for more positive lifestyles. The internet has given us tools to do so.”
So how does Women’s Economic Empowerment manifest itself in terms of fashion?
“Well I discovered that although in Iraq abayas were made/ designed by men in the past, the weavers of the material were generally women. These women were forbidden to work outside their homes. Recognizing this cultural barrier, I have tried to create a win-win situation, using this ‘hidden’ workforce to support the Hana Sadeq fashion label.
Today many Jordanian, Iraqi and Syrian women help create my designs. Forbidden from working outside their homes, they create beautiful sewing and embroidery. Our work is like a music recital; I am the maestro and the ladies around me are the players in sewing and embroidery, together we are Hana Sadeq.”
Iraq is a generous land…
Towards the end of our interview Hana describes her homeland Iraq as a “generous land”.
“ I remember one of the old play by famous Al- Ani, which pictures the extent of the tender of our home land … a lazy man was lying under a palm tree waiting for dates to fall down from the palm to his mouth … This is the coolest description of the good and generosity of our land in Iraq …”
Hana: Every Iraqi woman should have a statue
Interrupting Hanna, I tell her about our theme for Nina 2 – the environment. Is her concept of a ‘generous land’ linked to one of a green environment?
“We have a saying, ‘healthy mind in healthy body’. In order to be able to make full use of our senses we have to be within an environment free from pollution and artificial substances. For example, when touching a fabric made of silk or cotton we get natural sensation; this is completely different from when we touch nylon, an artificial material.
On a personal level, despite all the temptations around us I still like to eat dates and yogurt, it’s a nutritious Iraqi meal that was a product of our generous land. A friend of mine, who is nutrition, explained to me it is a perfect way of intestines washing. This meal is a type of washing toxins in the body. Ensuring a ‘green’ environment leads to the beginning of a new human being with healthy body and mind.
We come to the end of our time together. Hana believes that the decency and generosity of the Iraqi people will conquer all. This hope and underpinning belief in her people is the final pillar of what Hana defines as ‘her’ environment.
“I have travelled a lot but did not find a fusion of different shades of community and diverse races and religions, as it exists in Iraq. Turks, Turkmen and Iranian all form the beautiful tapestry; similar to what we call in Iraq “Alsudda & Luhma”. Alsuddaa to me are the diverse communities that live in Iraq and Luhma is the land of Iraq itself.
In my opinion the ‘Via Dolorosa’ that Iraq is going through, is all the more sad because we have ourselves created it. Iraqi women are suffering from enormous pressures and constant pain.This strength, beauty and resilience must no longer be hidden, but shown to the world. What continues to drive me is my passion for creating this legacy. I believe every Iraqi woman should have a statue – a story that is shared, a soul that inspires. It should stand in the light and be admired by all. “
Hana ended our meeting by sharing that working with Nina ’will enrich our mutual goals, enabling us to reach the whole world‘.
A challenge and an inspiration, something it seems that has defined Hana’s environment of growth and success.
A shortened version of this interview is published in Nina 2