CLIQUE TALK: “Arab is The New Hype”: we meet Rime El Khalidy and Chama Tahiri
Chama and Rime were students in France. Two years ago, they decided to leave. Back in their native Morocco, they founded Lioumness, a design studio and the first webzine dedicated to the cultural scene of their country and the wider Arab world.
How would you describe Lioumness?
Chama: Lioumness is a design studio. There is an agency part, which takes on cultural and creative projects in fashion, music, broadcasting and publishing, and a not-for-profit section too. Our webzine, which has the same name, explores the world of culture in Morocco and the wider Arab world. We also help festivals and artists with their communications.
We work with people who have limited resources. We consider it our duty as good citizens to help them… and we hope that we can help to build a market for culture in Morocco.
Photograph © Lioumness
What projects have you been working on recently in that regard?
We worked with Fidadoc, the Agadir International Documentary Film Festival, which was struggling. We also worked on a Danish initiative, the Billboard Festival. For two weeks, the work of Moroccan and Scandinavian photographers was displayed on the streets of Casablanca. It had a huge impact. The New York Times even covered the event.
It seems like things are going well for you.
Rime: It’s not always straightforward, but we’re still here. Making a living out of it all isn’t easy.
We work in culture, in a country where culture is pretty low on the list of priorities. But that’s the challenge for our generation: building new models, drawing on what has gone before and making an impact.
The idea is not only to create value, but to create meaning.
Let’s talk about the magazine. What prompted you to create it?
Rime: Intuitively, we felt there were things going on in Morocco and the Arab world that weren’t being written about or given the prominence they deserved. We realised that the information available was very fragmented. There was no single platform containing all the latest news about young people. It was very difficult to access that information. People didn’t have sites, books, etc. Finding out what was going on culturally was no easy task.
Photograph © Lalla Essaydi – Harem Revisited #46ab via Lioumness
The idea was to write what we wanted to read about the Arab world. We like to read and keep ourselves informed. We wanted to approach cultural news in a more contemporary, more attractive way, while still producing something meaningful.
Above all, we aim to be storytellers, not journalists. We don’t put out news wires – we tell stories and paint portraits, as if we were saying to friends, “I went to Morocco for two weeks and this is what I saw”.
Chama: But it’s not aimed solely at the Arab world; it’s not just some crazy Moroccan thing. We really want our message to be universal.
So would you say you operate at the frontier between journalism and communications?
Rime: For us, communications is the fourth estate. The front page of Le Point [a conservative French weekly] about Arabs, for instance, is a glaring example of ill-conceived, poorly handled communications. I can’t believe those people are contemporaries of Edgar Morin, a French philosopher who is now 90 years old and yet insists on viewing the world in all its complexity and diversity.
What did you think of Le Point‘s front page on “the Arabs”?
Rime: That kind of thing is just not acceptable in France in 2015. That said, I’m not going to start an association to fight it or anything. I’ve got other fish to fry. When I saw the cover, I just said to myself, “another bunch of morons”. Covers like that are so typically French.
Rime: We prefer to see the funny side.
Chama: We’re at a stage where we see things differently. We’re building something else. We’re freeing ourselves from that “Western” view of us.
In 2013, when you were finishing your studies at business school in Reims, you left France to come back to Morocco and develop Lioumness. What prompted you to do that?
Rime: I loved being a student in Paris, but I hated working there. I was working ridiculous hours. I had no life. I sent an email to my manager saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I quit.” I felt it in my stomach. I booked a flight, packed up all my stuff and came home. My parents didn’t understand.
Chama: It was really intuitive for me too, although it wasn’t as brutal as it was for Rime. I had to go back to Morocco for a few months, and we had already started to set up Lioumness in France a few months earlier. I said to myself: “Either we manage to get something going, or I go back to France”. I came back to Morocco and since then I’ve never gone back (laughs).
Would you have come back if the Arab Spring hadn’t happened?
Chama: At the start, when we left Morocco and arrived in Paris, we discovered a lot of stuff. We didn’t come back too often. From 2011 onwards, we began to see what was going on in our country. Just in our inner circle of close friends, there were people who pursuing their own projects, budding artists, designers, photographers.
We realised that it wasn’t just in Morocco that this was happening. And we wanted to become players on the Moroccan cultural scene. It was the right time.
Before you created Lioumness, which focuses on the culture of the Arab world, I know that you were passionate about culture in general. But were you already cultivating that interest in the culture of the Arab world?
Rime: Absolutely not – not when we were in France.
Chama: We were members of the Moroccan Society at our business school. But the things we did to promote Moroccan culture were extremely basic. We ate tajines and couscous, organised kaftan fashion shows, stupid stuff like that. We really did convey a clichéd image. We conformed to the image the French had of us.
Rime: Basically, we showed them the side of Morocco they wanted to see: the exoticism, the oriental dancing. We don’t do that anymore.
How does returning to Morocco after living in France change the way you see things?
Chama: If you come back to Morocco with your French habits and expect to have the same freedom and the same life, but you just complain about everything, it’s not going to work.
A lot of people come back reluctantly. We have come back and we stand by our decision. It’s the best decision we’ve ever made.
You see girls who lose it because they don’t feel at ease in their everyday life here. But look at me: I’m wearing a skirt and heels and I don’t have any problems. One of the challenges for us is to reshape the city the way we want it to be.
Rime: Still, you’ve got to be really careful not to overgeneralise. We’re pretty lucky in Casablanca. It’s not like that everywhere in the Arab world…
Chama: I know why I came back, and I don’t want to limit myself to that kind of stuff.
I get the impression that the French public is increasingly open to the Arab world that you want to showcase. What do you think about that?
Chama: Yes! For the Nuits Sonores, an event that started in Tangiers two years ago, there are a whole bunch of people from Lyon who come over and who love it. Old France is getting bored. They’ve seen it all, done it all. The Arab coast intrigues them. We’ve definitely seen a sort of neo-orientalism emerge over the last few years. It ranges from Céline, who ran a campaign on zellige walls in 2013, to Vuitton, who collaborated with Tunisian graffiti artist El Seed in 2014.
Céline campaign, Autumn-Winter 2013
Rime: But it’s not the exoticism or Orientalism of old. It’s not just bourgeois Parisians seeking a dose of exoticism. It’s not neocolonialists. These are people who are genuinely interested in “the Other”. Of course, there are still some dickheads. There always are (laughs).
Chama: Yes, but I think there’s also a subversive side to it. When Balenciaga revisited the keffiyeh, the Palestinian tagelmust, in 2007, it was no accident. There was an element of “let’s borrow from Arab culture because the Arabs are getting a bad press”. For some brands, showing the “cool” side of these issues is a way of capitalising on them. Some are more cynical than others… We don’t necessarily condemn that neo-orientalism. It’s a different kind of resurgence in interest. We certainly prefer it to people saying, “Oh, Arabs are all kamikazes, thieves and tragedies”.
Two years ago, you wrote a manifesto on the subject, Arab is The New Hype.
Chama: The two of us wrote it together. We had been going for nearly a year, and we began to realise that it had become cool to be Arab. All the brands – take Tom Ford, for instance – were starting to use an Arab touch. Falafel… All that shit, you know? (she laughs). That was our starting point.
Corso Como, by Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, via Reorient Magazine.
Rime: And at the heart of it all is the idea of regaining control of the discourse – the way the Arabs of today talk about themselves…
Chama: We were inspired quite a lot by Younes Duret, a Franco-Moroccan designer. We divided our manifesto into three parts: first, how Arabs are perceived, all the clichés.
The famous “three Bs”: “Billionaires, Bombers and Bellydancers”.
We then go on to describe this slightly different new interest, this “neo-orientalism”, and how Arabness is used by those who want to be “cool”.
Lastly, we set out our idea, which is that Arabs should find their voice again and make peace with their identity, which is multi-faceted.
That identity has been defined by orientalism, too. Orientalism defined the early days of modern Moroccan painting, for instance. There is a huge amount of complexity involved and we wanted to reflect that.
Rime: It’s not particularly long. But it reflected what we were thinking at that point in time. Both of us felt that we were engaged in a process of shedding light, building things, creating things.
We are thinking about what kind of society we want to build: as a country, in Morocco, as a region of the Arab world, and as co-citizens of a planet. We’re not going to spend another 100 years going on about colonisation, what the French did, what they didn’t do, what they should have done. It’s about bringing people together, not pushing them apart.
Chama: Kalimat, another webzine, has the same philosophy. Its name translates as: “By Arabs for everyone”. It aims to get Arabs talking about their own lives as they see them. That is exactly what we are doing, too.
Producing identity is quite a challenge. But don’t you sometimes get tired of having to justify your position in relation to your own identity?
R: In France, yes
I worked in a firm where there were only men. Every time, they would ask me, “What do you think of the National Front? What about the veil? What about halal food? What about this? What about that?” You have to deliver a press conference every lunchtime. It’s wearing.
Chama: You have to have an opinion on everything.
Rime: You’re not allowed to say “I haven’t thought about it”.
Chama: During the Charlie Hebdo attacks, my mother, who is French but has lived in Morocco for 25 years, was insulted by a friend she had been at university with. She said to her: “But you’re an intelligent woman with Muslim children! How can you not react to an attack like this?” First of all, she assumed that we were Muslims without really knowing what she was talking about. My mother had spent the day at work and she hadn’t been on the Internet yet. As an Arab, you become a standard-bearer. You have to pick sides. That made me sick. There comes a point where you don’t feel like you’re being yourself. It’s insidious. You are always a representative and you feel like you’re carrying the weight of the entire Arab world on your shoulders and that you have to show it.
And how much does the Arab world weigh, in kilos of cous cous?
Rime: It weighs a lot in kilos of bullshit, in any case (she laughs).
Chama: That kind of justification is not what we’re about. There is an element of protest that might be perceived from the outside, but in reality, we are strongly rooted in our community. We are building a community.
Rime: It’s true that there is less pressure in that respect, when I think of the image that Europe and the West have of the Arab world, which is that we are suffering from internal conflict.
Chama: Some people are.
Rime: Yes, but that’s something that exists the world over. Everyone is going through an identity crisis – that much is clear. There are more problems in the Arab world today because of the religious dimension.
Why is this process of producing identity so important today? When you talk about it, it seems like you consider it your duty as good citizens.
Chama: In Morocco, culture is still seen as something you do on the side. It’s leisure, not business. We tend to take the view that, as a twentysomething in Morocco, you have a mission. That mission is to take an interest in what is going on, to be curious. There is so much to do. You can’t just settle for bog-standard activism, where all you do is criticise and rail against things that don’t exist or don’t work.
Do you feel like you’re part of a movement? I’m thinking about Reorient, or even the magazine Ustaza à Paris, which presents itself as “the Arab cultural calendar”.
Chama: Yes and no. There is definitely a degree of emulation and competition. We are part of something, but there isn’t really any feeling of belonging. There isn’t enough interaction. We’re actually quite a long way from one another and there aren’t any links between us.
Rime: Yes, there are loads. There is Mashallah, in Lebanon. We still haven’t got enough perspective on things to talk about a movement, but individually we’re all out there on the ground doing more or less the same thing. It’s not a formal movement. Lioumness is apolitical and non-religious. The way we see it, culture is activism in itself. It is enough for us. There are so many other things to explore, so many things that affect people in their everyday lives, so we already have plenty to do in that field alone!