Be Creative, Save the Children: A Syrian Designer’s Quest for a Better World

A couple of days ago, I found an invitation in my inbox, forwarded to me by one of my in Riyadh living relatives, with the line “for your information”.

As I went over the text of the invitation, coming originally from the German- Arab Friendship Association (DAFG), I was cordially invited to join a fashion show by Syrian designer Manal Ajaj, on Monday night at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski.

I have actually never been into fashion that much. I can’t stand spending too much time applying make- up, buying shoes is a form of torture for me and I am surely not going to dress like a princess just to go buy a carton of milk, so I wondered why I received this in first place, not being anything like the average young woman my age.

Then there was the location of the event. The Adlon. Hotel Adlon of all places. What was a simple woman like me going to do at one of the most luxurious hotels in Berlin after the Ritz Carlton?

What sparked my interest though, was the description of the designer’s work, which promised that the exhibited clothes bore elements of Middle Eastern culture, not only in their designs alone but also in the accompanying music. Now that is a different story, said my inner cultural anthropologist and I registered to attend the event.

On Monday night I walked down the ‘Unter den Linden’ street, with linden trees illuminated by Christmas lights to my right and left, which is where the street got its name from, as it means ‘under the linden trees’. The Adlon was in sight pretty quickly, and just before I passed the square in front of Brandenburg Gate to get to the other side, I remembered how a little less than a year ago, I was sitting on one of the benches, watching as more and more journalists formed a huge crowd at the entrance of the hotel.

“What’s going on there?”, my friend asked me and gestured to the journalists.

“Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison camp in Siberia. Now he lives in the Adlon and every journalist would probably die for a glimpse at him and an interview”, I told her back then.

The floor was covered in thick carpets, expensive armchairs, and tables with Christmas decorations were standing in the corners.

Entering the palais, I found myself surrounded by people with drinks in their hands, dressed in clothes that would let all outsiders know that these people spent their time in places like Adlon. I should correct myself in terms of what I said about fine feathers make fine birds unless you are German. When it comes to the Adlon, according to what I saw, even Germans put in some more effort into how they look like.

Never have I felt so underdressed in a suit and a dress shirt. I felt as if everyone who looked at me could immediately see that my suit was from H&M and not Chanel. Well, luckily my boots cost a fortune and my family has kept the tradition of making me gifts of expensive jewelery every few years, including my watch from Saudi Arabia.

The thing about these cocktail receptions before the actual event is that if you don’t know anyone, you look kind of silly just standing there on your own. So I kept walking up and down, pretending I was looking for someone while watching the people around me, trying to avoid all the cameras and trying some of the popcorn that stood there in little bowls on the tables. Here you are, ladies and gentlemen! Apple cinnamon flavored popcorn. Looks like we have lived to this day.

Among the women in headscarves that probably didn’t cost any less than their dresses, and men in black suits and ties, I spotted two young women in what I would call very extraordinary and beautiful Arab style gowns. Those of you who are somewhat familiar with the Middle East may know the term abaya for such gowns. So imagine an abaya that is made of a very silky and rosè-pink fabric with a puffed skirt. An abaya for a (Disney) princess so to speak. Motivated by my fascination for the gowns, I made sure to compliment the girls on their outfits.

Not long after I arrived we were asked to take a seat in a huge room with rows of chairs, a podium and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Ms. Manal Ajaj greeted us all in fast, fluent Arabic.

The longer I listened to her, the more I understood that Arabic is probably not a language for me. It is one of those languages that makes me question whether I actually qualify as a real polyglot speaking 4 languages that are actually almost too common to be seen as something special nowadays, while this lady next to Ms. Ajaj, who turned out to be Greek, translated what was just said into English. Yes, look at this lady from Greece who is fluent in Arabic. And I am just sitting here in the first row with my German, English, Russian and Spanish. Shame on me.

Before I could indulge any more into my self-doubt, the lights got more intense and the show began.

Some of the dresses were very beautiful but just like any dress that one might see at any other fashion show, while others did a great job at hinting at Arab culture. The most fascinating things for me, aside from the dresses, were the oriental music and the video footage in the background that showed landscapes, people and the architecture of Syria. The talent of the young Syrian designer was indeed very, very remarkable.

Say what you want but by actually attending such a fashion show I understood that sometimes wearing a particular kind of dress really requires skill. Like the wedding dresses, for example. I still can’t figure out how the models managed to walk up and down the stairs in them. One false step and there breaks your leg or neck or both. One of the models even presented some sort of (traditional) dance after she finished her walk back half way through the podium. Models have some artistic skills indeed.

At the end of the show there was an auction during which the audience was told about the actual purpose of the event. The first dress of the collection

was to be auctioned to raise money for the children of Syria, as the designer was Syrian herself. In her final speech Ms. Ajaj said that she chose Berlin for her show because of the city’s history of war and destruction, hoping that, just like Germany, Syria will be able to get out of the ruins one day.

This event was “a message for peace because we [the syrians] deserve a better future”, said Ms. Ajaj and the dress was bought by an Arab doctor sitting in the crowd for, believe it or not, 50.000 €.

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