Young, Arab and Proud

“I Hate the Cultural Shaming of Women”

Maha Haider answers Pulse’s questions.

“Fashion is where I belong, it’s in the middle of everything interesting! To me, you’re really at the center of the universe when you do fashion. You can relate it to anything and it combines everything I care about and helps to define me: people, archives, art, design, lifestyle, cultures, movies…”

Maha Haider is a multi-disciplinary creative and art director of Palestinian origin, who is currently based in Milan after having lived in the UK, the Netherlands, Lebanon and Syria. She has been working in the advertising and design industry since 2017, and has proven experience in the fashion industry, collaborating with brands on campaigns, experiences, and communication strategies.

She has directed projects for Vogue Portugal, Harper’s Bazaar Italia-Germany, Gucci Beauty, Marie Claire, Philosophy, Armani, Sony Music, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, Salvatore Ferragamo, GQ, Elle Mexico, and more.

PULSE TALKS TO… MAHA HAIDER

What is the one thing you wish people would stop wearing?
Nothing in particular, I only wish to see more people using fashion as a way to express their true and unique selves; to be bold and fearless by deviating from the current trends and norms that they are exposed to in their circles or on their social media feeds. So in simple terms, I’d actually like to see people stop wearing the weight of other people’s expectations and judgments.

What creation of yours are you most proud of?
I cannot help but speak most fondly and proudly of my latest work. At the moment, it is the Summer Obsessions digital campaign for Gucci Beauty shot by Riccardo Apostolico, but in 10 days time it will change because I have a very exciting project coming out. 

What was your worst fashion faux-pas?
I can’t think of one, but possibly the worst style mistakes anyone can make are clothes that look terrible or fit badly once worn. Looking at some of my streetstyle images during Fashion Week, I judged how some pants fit me, so now l almost always adjust/re-tailor all my clothes after purchasing them.

If you were to choose one of your looks, or that of any other designer, to wear everyday for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Anything by Miuccia Prada, or Yves Saint Laurent.

Who do you dream of dressing/working with?
My current dream for 2021 is to direct a project for Miu Miu. As for the future, I’d really like to enter the music industry and start directing music videos. I’ve been working on improving my audio and video skills. My ultimate dream, however, would be to start working with more Arabs and Middle East-based brands.

When was the last time you pulled an all-nighter?
Even though it’s rather unhealthy, I tend to do it very often. I personally can’t fall asleep if my mind is occupied by something, especially if it’s a creative process. So the first day and night upon taking an important brief, my mind is actively brainstorming and spurring creative thinking.

Name five people, dead or alive, that you’d like to invite to a private dinner party at your house.
Audrey Hepburn, Cher, Anna Wintour, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marry Quant.

What does the word “sustainability” mean to you?
I think we are overusing this word and that it has lost its meaning, but to me sustainability is balance.

What would the title of your Netflix documentary be?
Haha! I do not know… I have never thought about it, I had to ask people around me and I actually got some pretty funny titles… maybe “Maha: Definitely Extra”.

Describe the MENA region in 3 words:
Rich, Revolutionizing, Hidden Gem…

How is “Young, Arab and Proud” translated in your work? 
I’m proud of being an Arab woman in modern times despite the struggles that come with it in terms of oppression, stereotypes and attacks against our culture, unity, and language. These hardships haven’t defined who I am today, but the way I’ve dealt with them all has. The one that’s helped me the most is storytelling, which directly translates to the process behind producing my work. Storytelling was a very important part of the Arab world, and it is still integral today in Arabic pop culture, so I’ve always made sure to embrace its power to the fullest. Being young also means that every new piece of work I put out must be a breath of fresh air.

What is Arab DNA made of?
Many things; some positive, some negative. To me, it’s a mixture of diversity, resilience, family, generosity, war, unity, loyalty, pride, and warmth…

What is the most common misconception about being an Arab ?
It comes from the way we are shown in most Western mass media: terrorists, close-minded, religious, that we live in deserts, or that we are extremely rich… These stereotypes cannot be used to cover an entire region or its people.

If you could time travel to meet any Arab icon, who would it be, and why?
Sherihan, I am obsessed with her and her story. I wish to work on set with her sometime.

What is something that makes you uncomfortable in the MENA fashion industry and that you would like to see changed?
What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that we have to actually leave the region in order to build a successful career… While the fashion industry in the MENA region is so fresh and new, it has always been a creative and inspirational reference point for the world. With its rich potential, established brands and vibrant fashion community, I hope the industry in the MENA region continues to evolve for the better.

How is the gender-neutral trend translated in MENA fashion?
I wouldn’t choose to call it a trend as the “gender-neutral” concept is a necessity in the industry. We can clearly see it growing day-by-day around the world. The growth in the MENA region is definitely at a slower pace, however, in the past three years the people’s freedom to express themselves has become more powerful and prominent than ever in the Arab world and it’s only going to increase moving forward. That being said, I truly believe that we’ll be seeing a larger impact by the “gender-neutral” concept in the very near future.

What is one Arab tradition you would want to change, and what is one you adore?
I absolutely love the generosity that is omnipresent in our traditions and is embraced across the entire Arab world. It’s often overlooked by people in the West, as they rarely ever get to see that side of Arabs unless they visit our countries, which is a pity.

On the other hand, I hate the cultural shaming of women, negative judgments, restrictions and the gossip. This ideology of having to live and conform to society’s conventions is mind-blowing to me… People should have the freedom to live and express themselves however they choose to if our main aim is to collectively progress as a society.

Unfortunately, in our culture, a girl or woman is always told what she can’t do before what she can do. There’s a perpetuated pattern that she is told to follow in order to belong to her society. I am beyond fortunate and forever thankful for my father’s support and how he let me live the life I wanted, but I know he is an exception.

What is the Arab dish you could eat every day?
It’s a tough question… I adore every part of Arab cuisine, but if I had to choose, it would probably be wara2 3enab (stuffed vine leaves).

What is your favorite Arabic song, that is often stuck on repeat in your playlist?
Helwa ya Baladi by Dalida

Um Kulthum or Fairuz?
I cannot choose, let’s say Fairuz for the daylight and Um Kulthum for the moonlight.

What is this one city in the MENA region you could live in forever, and why?
I would choose Beirut, without a doubt. No amount of words could ever describe the love I have for this beautiful city. It’s like an open-air museum, so magical with its endless contradictions. It has a very special place in my heart, and I definitely see myself going back one day.