Meet the Disruptor Behind the Movement to Increase Arab Representation

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Reemami x ILNA Collective | Photo: Courtesy of @ilna.collective

Before the region rippled with tension surrounding the lack of Arab representation in media, before the #HireMoreArabs movement started, before Alaa Balkhy created her ‘Arab Creatives Directory’, Savoir Flair had the honor of meeting and working with someone who would soon prove to be a vital and disruptive voice.

Saif Hidayah, the founder of ILNA Collective – an independent creative hub driven by SWANA (South West Asia and North Africa) talent – reached out via Instagram. Calling attention to Cecilie Copenhagen’s appropriation of the Palestinian keffiyeh design, Hidayah asked Savoir Flair to write about it. But he went even further, and contacted Cecile Copenhagen directly, as well as their stockists, and provided “receipts” of the conversations. Intrigued by his passion and spurned by our own longstanding commitment to social justice, we proudly published an op-ed that confronted the cultural appropriation of keffiyeh designs. And a friendship was born. 

Soon after, Hidayah found himself at the forefront of a movement that vocally urged media titles in the MENA region to increase Arab representation.Though he has never claimed to be a leader of the movement, and the movement happened organically on Instagram with many people joining together, his voice has been integral in moving the needle.

In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Hidayah details his fascinating journey, his passion for human rights and social justice, and the pioneering work he is doing to center Arab talent in the greater narrative via social media and ILNA Collective. Listen in.

Saif Hidayah
Photo: Courtesy of Saif Hidayah

What’s your background?
I am a human rights lawyer. I feel like that’s where my activism comes into play, because I’m very passionate about having free creative spaces, and representation. I went to university in London and majored in Law, and I then majored in human rights law and human dignity. I worked in London for a bit, and also worked in fashion. All of my friends in London worked at KCD, Karla Otto, and Alexander McQueen. That was my life in London, and I became a part of the fashion culture without having realized it.

I came back to Jordan, and wanted to see how I could better help the community here. I realized there was a lot of undiscovered talent. I aimed to bulldoze that aspect. I created ILNA Collective, and everything we do is pro bono. We don’t monetize anything. It’s a networking collective for Arab creatives that connects designers to photographers and models and makeup artists, etc. That has allowed me to build a community here.

ILNA Collective has partnered with Amman Design Week. What does the partnership yield?
After meeting with Rana Beiruti, who runs Amman Design Week (ADW), which is the design week supported by Queen Rania of Jordan, we decided to help the local community in collaboration with ADW.

We launched that this year. We host around eight creatives a day, no specific discipline, and sit them down, listen to what they have to say, what problems they were facing in the country, and listen to how we can help solve these problems. 

I actually quit my corporate job a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to do corporate law anymore. I majored in human rights law, so I want to go into full-on human rights work. I want to start some sort of movement in terms of quality change, as it relates to women and marginalized communities.

Amman Design Week primarily focuses on curation, exhibitions, and on emerging creatives. Sadly, fashion design isn’t offered as an undergraduate course in Jordan; it’s not looked at here as a respected discipline. That is something I want to change. When you study the sociopolitical environment in the Middle East, you’ll see that countries here don’t recognize design, photography, and other creative disciplines as a legitimate career path, so people can’t study it at university. That forces people that are interested to remain underrepresented and inexperienced – on paper. That doesn’t mean they’re not good enough, but that the cultural and social environment they grew up in doesn’t allow for that.

How is ILNA Collective funded?
It’s not. I personally don’t get anything. If designers reach out and have a budget, I give that budget to the photographer, model, etc. What we do at ILNA Collective is build up résumés. There are no opportunities in Jordan for instance, and so creatives here don’t have the chance to build a portfolio. I started to reach out to everyone, to build a community. As a result, certain creatives in Jordan have been able to monetize based on the work they’ve done for ILNA Collective. 

How long has this been in the works?
It has been in the works research-wise for three years, and in operation since November 2019. Our relaunch was in June 2020. 

You can literally see the social gap in Jordan.

I have a lot of knowledge about designers in the UAE, KSA, Lebanon, etc. However, you’ve been instrumental in introducing the region – and myself – to creative talent in Jordan. It’s been a pleasure to discover them.
A lot of people don’t understand why talent from Jordan is underrepresented, but that’s because there’s a huge social gap. For example, the luxury mall that hosts international fashion brands is in a location that is a three-minute drive away from a refugee camp. A woman might shop in that mall and buy a bag for JD3,000 while the refugee family just minutes away lives on JD90 a month. You can literally see the social gap in Jordan. That aspect of being an Arab in the Middle East is so misrepresented. It’s so easy for someone to think that everyone in the Middle East is rich.

I come from a very privileged background. My grandmother led the women’s rights movement in Jordan. She was one of the first people to create a woman’s rights organization. That was back in the 90s. I feel like that part of my family, and always being activists and seeking social activism, is where that comes from in me. But I also thought about how I need to use my privilege in Jordan to seek out and help marginalized communities. 

Can you paint me a picture of the creative community in Jordan?
It’s very much an underground scene, very up-and-coming. We have a bunch of cool designers who are emerging, like Xia the Label, Tania GeorgeFadi Zumot, Zeid Hijazi, and Trashy Clothing.They are all young, modern, and doing something unique. I’ve tried really hard to work with these cool, contemporary artists who are experimenting in their own way.

In contrast, we have traditional embroidery houses, which is where the money is at. They are at the forefront of the market. There is a strong manufacturing industry here. [Major global brands] all manufacture in Jordan. The one thing is, when we put the factories in touch with these small designers, they refuse to produce collections for these designers, because they don’t want to take on something where they’d only make a few thousand where they could be billing bigger brands for millions. We are trying to change that. 

I noticed on the ILNA Collective website that you have a business vertical that dispenses free advice to emerging creatives on how to build their brands. Are you also offering mentorship to them along the way?
Yes, that is something we are currently looking into, and hopefully we will be able to launch it by the end of the year. Since these creatives can’t study their interests at university, they may have the design skills to create, but not the business skills to succeed in the industry. I always tell designers that I work with who are financially strained or don’t have the means to invest in a photographer or shoot a lookbook: ‘If you have the means to produce a 10-piece collection, produce a five-piece collection instead and invest the rest in marketing’. Short-term you might sell more, but long-term you’re going to build a name for yourself and be able to monetize your business properly.

uSfuur x ILNA Collective | Photo: Courtesy of @ilna.collective

You have been advocating for more Arab representation. Do you see it being responded to by the people you’re requiring that from?
We’re not trying to cancel anyone; we’re just trying to shift the narrative. We’re not saying ‘get rid of non-Arabs’. That would defeat the purpose of the entire movement. We are simply asking for representation. Just because you’re not Arab doesn’t mean you’re unqualified; we’re just asking for more Arabs. It’s not personal toward any single individual. But, if you live here, we’re asking for you to learn about us, hire us, talk directly to us. 

That’s often not a thing because fashion is nepotistic and elitist. People are more concerned with who is sitting front row, what shows are they going to be invited to, and what gifts are they going to get. I’m looking at it from a much bigger, much different perspective. 

A white or Western person in the industry here can help marginalized communities. You’re in a unique position to be able to use your voice, and your voice is often prioritized over local voices. Join forces and help change the system. We can change the system if we all work together.

Let’s normalize speaking up.

It’s good to hear because you are instrumental in empowering people to ask for what they need. Before, without the strength of numbers and the strength of a community sharing the same idea, there were just a few scattered voices. People unifying around this cause will provoke change.
Exactly. The whole purpose of the message is that creatives have been able to connect overnight. Latifa Bint Saad, a stylist in Saudi, asked for a bunch of Jordanian designs to be shipped to Saudi for a shoot. That wouldn’t have happened before the movement. It’s great that our regional talent now realize the impact that they could have on the community.

How do you feel about being an integral disruptor?
It’s so surreal. When my post first went viral, I was anxious, which I think happens when you grow up in a society where speaking up about social change is often not permitted. I wondered what was going to happen to me, but I feel like it became a lot bigger than me, and that’s the most important thing. I’ve tried to take ‘Saif’ out of the equation, and center people who need the exposure. My Instagram has been closely monitored by a lot of people in the fashion industry, and knowing that, I’ve been posting about stylists, photographers, brands, designers — all of the people that need the spotlight more than me. 

Let’s normalize speaking up. What’s the worst thing that can come out of it? Great exposure for regional brands? Good, I’m glad. Let it be at my expense. Let there be representation, and let’s invest in our culture. That’s the most important thing.

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