Founder and CEO of Zaha Startup:
With the diverse backgrounds and experiences lived by Palestinians, one starts to ask, what does it mean to be a Palestinian? Questions similar to this makes us evaluate how we as a community express our shared identity, in terms of our struggles, triumphs, perseverance and resilience experienced as a people. How do these factors shape our shared identity and affect our self-expression as Palestinians living in Palestine and around the world? Rather, with an abundance of backgrounds, a global community of Palestinians express their identity and cultural heritage in different ways. The infusion of personal experiences through cultural manifestations within our art, cuisine, values and traditions continues to add to the wealth and depth of experiences of what it means to be a Palestinian.
It is within this backdrop that Asma Ahmad’s social enterprise Zaha emerges, “I see it as a journey and a cultural movement that reshapes the way we relate to each other, we do so by tapping into the intangible heritage of cultures, the emotional and human aspects of culture,” says Asma.
Asma’s journey began when as a child growing up in relative security in Kuwait, her family was forced to return to their home in Palestine due to regional instability. Back in her native Palestinian village of Tammun, Asma struggled to acclimate to her family’s new living conditions. However, Asma was not deterred and despite feelings of social isolation, she was determined to do the best with what she had and fought to overcome. Asma recalls this time in her life by speaking fondly of her parents and their pride and perseverance as Palesstinians to do the best for their family, she says “I remember climbing mountains with my father, and my mother’s passion for learning.” Asma continues, “My parents especially my father gave me and my brothers and sisters our own space to be ourselves, this really shaped my outlook and approach to life.”
Striving to be her best self and prove that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to, Asma excelled at her national university entrance exams and earned herself a full scholarship to the Arab American University. Asma’s academic ambitions did not end there, recalling her mother’s passion for learning and struggles to uplift her family, Asma was determined to make her mother proud. Her hard work and merit paid off again, earning Asma another scholarship to attend a prestigious university in the UK. While studying in the UK, Asma had a tough time attempting to integrate into the local culture, but realized soon thereafter that she wanted to not only challenge herself but to open herself up to new experiences in order to grow as a person. To Asma’s surprise at the end of her term and as a result of the strides she was making, she was honored by her university with a nomination for the Women of the Future Award.
Back in Palestine, Asma spent the following six months searching for a job which would allow her to develop professionaly, but finally received the great opportunity to start a career with Ernst & Young’s global branch in Kuwait. Asma brought the same determination and eagerness to her professional career as she did with her academics and laddered up at Ernst & Young in no time. In 2016, however, Asma felt like she needed to find a job where she could continue her professional and personal growth journey and boldy moved to Dubai to join Grand Thornton LLP.
Despite finding success as a career woman in Kuwait and Dubai respectively, Asma decided to take some time out to reconnect with her family as well as to focus on her personal growth journey and moved back to Palestine in 2017. However, during this time Asma’s personal life took a hit, with her father falling ill, an unexpected split with her fiancé, and leaving her job, she relates, “My security system got smashed, it was very hard, and I was questioning where did that sense of power, that authentic power, that I was bragging about all the time, where has it gone now.”
As a result, Asma needed the time to internalize the pain she was feeling and rediscover her authentic sense of power. Inspired to take a journey to find not only the true meaning of her life, but a new purpose, Asma took the time to redirect the trajectory of her life to bravely take a new path that would allow her to find a sense of self-fulfillment and growth as a person.
The turning point came while during a life-changing rejuvenating trip to Georgia, Asma explains, “I went to the mountains of Georgia with strangers, to hike out the pain, and there I learned how to have empathy for myself, to allow my body to experience the pain, to comprehend it, and to move into life with my pain and confusion.” She continues, “This process of comprehending the pain is an ongoing process, and it gives you this sense of lightness in your heart like you are not suppressing your emotions, and you actually build the courage to face your-self and your emotions to better understand yourself.”
With this renewed sense of self, the empathy to process her feeling and reach out to others around her and the courage to tackle her fears and emotions, Asma was inspired to take a leap into the unknown and follow a new path. It was from within Asma’s newfound sense of empathy, the courage to face her emotions, that she decided to create something that brought people together to share their personal journeys, and their unique expressions of culture, creativity and heritage, and thus Zaha was born.
“Zaha, for me is a growth journey and a cultural movement that reshapes the way we relate to each other, we do so by tapping into the intangible heritage of cultures, the emotional and human aspects of culture,” explains Asma.
Zaha is a social enterprise which allows people from all over the world and different walks of life to come together and uniquely express their heritage and culture through arts and crafts as well as distinctive interpretations of local cuisines. Asma further elaborates, “Zaha was started in January of 2018 in Dubai, and it reshapes the way we relate to each other through offering immersive cultural experiences; delivered by qualified maestros who are our experience leaders.” In order to diversify experiences, Zaha’s maestros come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.
Asma explains how Zaha was originally initiated to share her experiences, culture and heritage as a Palestinian to the rest of the world, as well as to reflect upon the beauty and richness of other cultures. The overall message Zaha conveys at least on a Palestinian level is that Palestinians are so much more than the occupation and political strife that has come to define and overpower their narrative. In fact, Palestinians the world over have made the world a richer place wby sharing their goodworks, stories, history, heritage and passion to persevere and overcome.
Asma has poured her heart and soul into making Zaha resonate on a personal level with all experiencers. In addition to training the diverse range of eight maestros currently leading the Zaha experience, Asma has developed all the technical components including, manuals, qualification process and the engineering behind the cultural experience.
Asma explains how each of the Zaha’s four offerings revolve around three core social values, which are, “Acceptance, to accept those who have different cultural norms. Empathy, the kind that resides in the heart, mind and body, where you can build the courage to enter the world of other people and understand where they are coming from, and cultural intelligence, where you leverage understanding and knowledge in a mutually beneficial way.”
The Zaha experience is all about both the internalization and expression of cultures as a unique manifestation of personal journey and life challenges that when combined makes up our sense of self. As a result, each Zaha experience is unique and dependent upon the participants cultural and ethnic background. Zaha offers four distinctive experiences including Tathawaq, Mazig, and Yadawi. In addition, these experiences are especially tailored to empower refugees to not only share their stories and culture but to learn about others.
Tathawaq (to taste), is a two-hour experience which features a group of eight strangers who visit either Asma’s or the maestro’s home to create an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and trust. According to Asma, conducting the experience in the maestro’s home allows the individual dimension of culture to emerge. The first hour of the Tathawaq experience is reserved for storytelling. The maestro begins by relating their own story in order to create a bond with the participants of the celebrated cultures. Asma explains that she likes to share her grandmother's story, the namesake of Zaha, “She is 94, and she still looks after herself, she remains in the village for her emotional and physical resilience, she reminds me of the world, pretty, sophisticated and definitely worth being explored with its different cultures,” says Asma. Storytelling sessions are recorded in order to create the largest searchable directory of human and cultural stories. After personal storytelling, the experience moves on to the food for the soul componant, in which each dish is cooked based on the interpretation and experience of the maestro, and of course accompanied with a personal anecdote.
The Mazig experience is a twist on Tathawaq, in which the storytelling component remains, however, participants introduce an ingredient or spice from their cultural background to infuse with the prepared meal. The Yadawi, experience allows participants to articulate their culture through artistic self-expression. These experiences allow participants to overcome cultural boundaries and contribute to a melting pot of experiences that resonates on a human level. Furthermore, organized experiences can actively contribute to refugee empowerment as they can be leveraged towards displaced individuals or communities trying to make a place for themselves not necessarily in a foreign country but somewhere far from the comfort of home. This experience allows refugees to not only communicate their culture but learn about their new environments and to bridge the gap between communities.
"The power of Zaha, lies in its universal mission to bring people from different walks of life together. As such, Zaha can be applied anywhere and act as a unique social experience allowing us to rejoice in our shared humanity and persevere through our distinctive expression of culture," Asma.
In the Palestinian context Zaha becomes even more relevant and essential, with Palestinians residing in all corners of the world, the sense of cohesion in terms of identity may seem disrupted or at times fragmented. However, Zaha allows us to understand that despite the different ways we articulate our culture, or infuse it with our new experiences in different communities, we are still a strong and resilient community that celebrates a Palestinian heritage as we convey it to the world. Zaha teaches us to celebrate our heritage and past, and to find the courage with which to take on the future.
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