It started as murmurings among friends. For years, conversations have quietly happened behind the scenes regarding the lack of Arab representation in the fashion industry. However, when the police murdered George Floyd in broad daylight on video in Michigan, it sparked an international civil protest against racial injustice and police brutality. This historic moment united the world in protest, and also had ramifications throughout communities who have — until this point — been unsupported by society in calling attention to microaggressions, tokenism, racism, and mistreatment. There is strength in numbers. Buoyed by a unified cause, social media became the forum for calling out injustice wherever it was rooted.
In launching the directory, Balkhy didn’t create a moment — she created a movement.
This has been especially meaningful in the fashion industry, which ostensibly represents the zeitgeist. In the region, there has been a visible movement on social media to call attention to a lack of Arab representation across the board. Saudi Arabian entrepreneur, content creator, and cultural consultant Alaa Balkhy saw what was happening, and decided to do something about it.
A common excuse for a lack of Arab representation is that “there isn’t enough Arab talent in the region” to justify not using Arab photographers, art directors, videographers, stylists, and other creatives on Arab-facing projects. Balkhy’s response to that misguided notion was to compile a crowdsourced ‘Arab Creatives Directory’ via a public Google Sheet – one that anyone could add their name to. In five days, it has over 2,000 entries, with categories spanning “Animators”, “Food Creatives”, “Podcasters”, “Poets”, and “VFX Artists”. In launching the directory, Balkhy didn’t create a moment — she created a movement.
In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Balky discusses the catalyst for her decision to act, the issues in the regional fashion industry, the importance of accurate representation, and more. Listen in.
View this post on Instagram
What was the catalyst behind starting the Arab Creatives Google Doc?
For the longest time, I’ve been working in this industry. I started my blog in 2010, before I even knew what a PR agency was or what it was like to work with brands. It was a very new, albeit growing, industry at the time. I recognized that representation was important from the first campaign I did with a consumer brand. For a consumer brand, at least back then, the biggest market was Saudi Arabia.
This happened around 2012 or 2013. We had to shoot in a limo, and inside of it there were crystal whiskey glasses and a carafe. I told the director, ‘You can’t have this in the limo, this isn’t socially acceptable for a campaign in the Saudi market.’
The conversation has always been ‘there aren’t enough of us’. That was especially true 10 years ago, when it was a small industry. When I went to graphic design school in Saudi Arabia in 2006, there were only six graduating classes before me because the program was so new. The instructors were all Westerners. We had to navigate through creating this industry on our own, whether it was graphic design, interior design, videography, or filmmaking. I’m talking about Saudi Arabia, because that’s my circle and that’s what I know. Dubai is more global, but regardless, you have to understand how your actions affect the market that you’re selling to.
At this point, it’s about a systemic issue. We are not being spoken to. It feels like they [brands and the media] are speaking to someone else. I’m so tired of it, because there is so much talent in the region, whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the camera.
There is so much talent here that gets overlooked, dismissed, and ignored. There is a pervasive, Westernized idea of how people should look. I could see that you would be very frustrated with that.
It’s frustrating to see this colonial mindset. We still have this ideology that Western is better, white is better, straight hair is better. Even when luxury brands do work with people from the region, they use people as a token; they use them to check a box. Or they might use someone who is Arab, but also Western-looking at the same time, so it’s not an image that is ‘too Arab’ for them. They want it to look good for their Western audience, like, ‘look how progressive we are’, and also it fits with their unrealistic brand image. I think the conversation changed when the racial injustice conversation and the conversation around privilege happened in the US. It went global because of social media. It caused everyone to look at their own space and see how [these issues are] affecting them.
It’s frustrating to see this colonial mindset.
When did the realization really strike you that there is a dire need for Arab representation in the region?
This was always the conversation. We see it over and over, that we’re not there, that we’re not represented. I think it struck a chord after a four-month pandemic, an economic crisis in Lebanon, and a crisis in Yemen. The region was waiting, and seeing very few magazines [in the region] address those issues was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We’ve seen a lot of global magazines that are addressing the pandemic, how the industry is changing, how the world is changing, and how we need to reset. In the region, we didn’t see that reflected as much. It was heartbreaking.
People are demanding accountability.
People are more informed now. I refuse the idea that ‘Arabs are lazy’ or ‘Khaleejis are lazy’ or ‘Saudis are lazy’. We’re not. This is such a new industry, we’re still navigating it, and we’re doing it at such a fast pace. In Saudi, the idea that we have a film festival and a music festival is amazing. People are hungry for these opportunities.
So, this was the right to time to pull your ‘receipts’, so to speak, to prove that there is a ton of regional talent here, and to shine a light on them.
There is a wrong perception that there aren’t enough Arab talents here, but nope, there are. Instagram has shown us that. Next time someone says that, here’s the list.
The next time someone wants to do a shoot in Saudi, which is great, they should be hiring stylists from Saudi, photographers from Saudi, location scouts from Saudi, production teams from Saudi. More than that, bring in people from the specific locations you are shooting in.
As a person from Jeddah, I need to give space to people from other cities. If someone approached me about shooting a campaign in Riyadh, I need to let them know that I am not from that space; I am not the right person to represent Riyadh. The campaign will be more meaningful that way. If someone shoots in the old historic town in Jeddah, where I used to go and buy candy for Eid, it makes sense for someone like me – with my connection to the area – to be in the shoot. We have to think, even within Saudi, which is a huge country with so much diversity, that representation is important.
There are people on the list that are experts, and people that are just in the beginning of their career. Everyone on the list has potential, but I’m not going to turn anyone away. Maybe they just need time or opportunities to show what they can do.
I think you really nailed it. People treat the Middle East as a monolith, as a single entity. The MENA region is 20 countries, and then there are divides within those countries down to the zipcode, down to the neighborhood you live in. When you attempt to address the Arab world as a single entity, there are huge problems with that.
Your Arab Creatives Google Doc launched four days ago. Were you surprised by how fast and huge the reception was to it?
I am definitely surprised. One factor in why it got so big so fast was because it was crowdsourced. People could add their name to it, instantly. There wasn’t an application to be on it or a filtering process. Now, we’re trying to organize the list and attempting to standardize the categories. Initially, I left it open in terms of categories, and let people add their own categories.
It was so interesting, because I started with four categories of things that I know, things like ‘art director’, ‘stylist’, ‘photographer’, ‘designer’, things in my field. People kept adding things like ‘music producer’, ‘researchers’, and ‘cultural consultants’. I didn’t even know we had all of that! It also showed what we need more of. We need more cultural consultants, we need people that can do the work and research, that can say ‘this dialect is wrong’, or ‘this isn’t how a girl from Jeddah would wear her hijab’.
How are you implementing quality control with the list?
I think it’s the responsibility of the brand or publication to do the work. We can’t hand everything to them on a silver platter. This is a resource, just like the Internet. These are people that, even if they aren’t experts, are willing to learn. The brand or the publication needs to do the work to investigate the people they’re interested in from the list.
There are people on the list that are experts, and people that are just in the beginning of their career. Everyone on the list has potential, but I’m not going to turn anyone away. Maybe they just need time or opportunities to show what they can do. The thing I can do to help is to categorize them.
There was clearly a need here that you were filling. You have gotten 2,000 entries to the list in four days.
There are so many things that can be done with it. Right now, I’m putting the categories together, and I am also speaking to a data scientist who is going to create a searchable database that has all of the information that can be filtered more accurately, like by location, industry, and more specifics.
Where do you see this going? What do you hope happens because of this document?
I hope to have an online resource and creative directory for the region. I would like it to be more detailed. I want for the small circle of creatives to discover each other and be able to connect, to grow the networks in their cities.
I also hope it becomes an opportunity for mentorship, where experts can be paired with emerging creatives, and offer their time to help them. There’s so many things that can be done. But, right now, I’m just taking it all in.