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Meet the Egyptian Woman Transforming Palm Trees into Modern Art

Farah Hosny heads out to Om Khenan - where the magic happens for architect, product designer and artist Manar Moursi, as she continues to put a spin on Egyptian culture through her work at Studio Meem.

By the time I arrive to meet Manar Moursi, the creative mastermind behind Studio Meem, I have a firmly established, rather well-developed girl crush on her. The Princeton graduate and architect founded the interdisciplinary studio back in 2011, and its work spans the fields of architecture, art and design. The endlessly compelling factor about the studio though, and the woman behind it, is its ability to abandon the obvious, take things that are deeply embedded in Egyptian heritage and culture and bring them to the creative forefront in one way or another, whether it's simply tossing a spotlight on a borderline invisible element, or reinterpreting it in a modern vernacular.

Working either independently or through collaborations with others in relevant fields, Moursi has delivered project after captivating project, starting with the studio's inaugural product line, Off The Gireed, and moving to a photographic exploration of street chairs in Cairo, designing a gender-segregated yet ultramodern family home in Kuwait, and urban scale projects such as her current revamping of a passageway in downtown Cairo.

The entire studio was conceived as result of Moursi's award-winning Off The Gireed project, a product line that incorporates the traditional 'gireed' or palm fibre crates seen scattered throughout Cairo's streets, and uses elements of it to create innovate and edgy furniture pieces. "I was obsessed with this object," Moursi says, as we head out to Om Khenan - the source where the crates are initially created - to get a glimpse at  the process of turning strips of palm into criss-cross containers, and the artisans behind it. "I also liked the potential of using something that was local, very Egyptian," she continues. In a flowy, perfectly bohemian, Aztec-print kimono, stonewashed jeans, and bronze accessories looped through her ears and adorning her fingers, Moursi definitely fits the image of a free-spirited artist. But she doesn’t live in her own little artistic bubble; an architect by trade, she's also so culturally aware and knowledgeable, she chats casually with the driver about the geographical demarcation lines between El-falla7een and sa3ayda and how to distinguish the two based on their attire. It's obvious that through the course of her various intrinsically-Egyptian projects she's immersed herself in the intricacies of our culture.

The road to Om Khenan, and to the specific artisan she now works with, is a winding maze of dirt roads and raw brick buildings. And her own road to finding the specific workshop, and 3am Mahmoud, who is now her go-to guy for crate-infused creations, was just as elaborate. After decidedly fixating on the crates, Moursi started buying them from fruit and vegetable sellers, obsessively collecting them in her home, and experimenting with furniture prototypes. Her pieces caught the eye of international product design institutions winning several awards, and formally validating her work. "I became more and more curious after I made these first editions," Mouris says. So she took on the task of re-tracing the trail that lead to the crates' final resting spot on the streets. "I took a toktok and I kept going until I found these guys that make the crates!" Once she uncovered the source, "it opened up kind of a whole world of possibilities in my mind," Moursi says. "It's not only that normal kind of grid that I was really fascinated with to start off, but they also make different types of patterns – I started to think that I could custom-make things in different sizes."

Products from the 'Off The Gireed' collection.

It was also unchartered territory when she first headed out there; a random girl from a completely different background, wandering into a rural workshop in Egypt, requesting a constant supply of gireed-patterned palm fibre. "They always reacted positively. But I think they were just…they weren't sure what I was going to do bel 2afas da – am I going to sell oranges?!" she laughs. Eventually, through trial and error, they sort of landed on the same page. "For both of us, it's a learning experience, to communicate with each other," Moursi explains. Once the artisans saw the final products (because the raw crate templates are only the first step in an extensive process of creating a single piece), it became more of a team effort. "They were really impressed with what I did with the stuff that they made. They were like 'Oh, ok, so that's what you're doing' - or that's what we're doing together. Because they're a part of the process."

But what she gained from delving into this world of artisanal gireed carpentry went beyond the physical work. Though she found skilled allies in terms of creating – " I didn't know that it was possible to produce such beautiful things with your hands and your feet" – she also gained insight into Egypt, or more specifically, a side of Egypt, that the average city-dweller is rarely exposed to. "That year was very interesting to be going out there, because it was between 2011 and 2012, so for me it was like going to a parallel universe in terms of political opinions. The people that I got to know over the course of the year had a very different outlook on how the country was changing and it was a really great experience in that sense, and in the sense of the work itself," Moursi says.

And it's her openness to experiencing the country and all its different facets that has sparked most of the work that’s emerged from Studio Meem. Each project has somehow inadvertently triggered another, all of them rooted in Egyptian culture. "I walk a lot for all my projects, and I'm inspired by things I see on these walks," she says simply. It was through these walks that the book she and David Puig are currently working on, Lessons from the Sidewalk: 1,001 Street Chairs in Cairo, was forged. In the book, which should be out sometime in November, she and Puig highlight the street chairs of the city; items so innocuous they border on irrelevant. The book is a photographic compilation using their own photos as well as contributions, each accompanied by the story behind the chair and its owner. Once the project took form for them, the chairs, rendered almost invisible by their abundance, suddenly lit up the sidewalks for the photography duo and the two of them spent the next three years doing a series of city walks, capturing the objects on the pavement. 

Kursi #253 from '1,001 Street Chairs in Cairo'. A contribution by Soha El Sirgany

Again, Moursi would venture into areas far from comfort zones and societal bubbles. "For me is very stimulating and exciting to go to all these different neighbourhoods and discover, through walking, the differences between them but also finding these objects that are somehow the thread that's in common like the chairs, or the palm crates, and those are objects that you see repeatedly." And again, her work would have a ripple effect on future projects, because during the "chair walks," as she calls them, she started to notice the tiny, wedged, and rather run down amusement parks that find themselves squeezed in leftover spaces like under highway exits. The dusty funfairs, which instantly spark a sense of nostalgia but are rarely given a second thought, became the focus of her next photography project. The amusement parks intrigued Moursi due to their "seemingly vulnerable position because they're children's parks." The visual aspect of the project - "there's bursts of pastel colours on this very brown and grey landscape," - served as another appealing element to it. But also, the project served as an opener to a discussion about public space; a topic she's avidly interested in. "They're always very tiny swaths of land that are left over," Moursi explains. "A lot of times people say that there isn't any public space in Egypt or in Cairo, but there is and there are a lot of self-built initiatives to provide spaces where these spaces are lacking, and these parks sort of symbolise that to me."

A shot from the 'Parks Under Siege' photography series.

But Moursi and Studio Meem's choice and focus of reflecting Egypt in most of her work was not a passive one; though initiated by walks, it was entirely intentional. "I feel like we have a lot of rich things in our culture, and I'm definitely context-driven in my work. I'm very fascinated by the things that exist in our context and I try to bring them out in a contemporary kind of voice or meaning." Even her architectural work so far has managed to imbue structures with elements of Egypt's history. Currently working on designing a home in Kuwait, she deliberately chose to have the exterior of the house reflect the mashrabeya pattern so intrinsic to historical Islamic architecture, but give it a modernised interpretation. Aesthetically ingrained in Egyptian heritage, the mashrabeya also serves a functional purpose "to control the amount of light and heat that enters," so the house's different sides face different directions and have bricks that are less or more porous dependent on the temperature.

All of her work, different mediums though they may be, reads as a reflection of her hometown; "it's all derived from this process of walking and reading about the city." Her latest project directly alters the city's landscape though, tackling public space. The urban renewal that she's working on with Cluster will see them revamp the street in front of the synagogue in Downtown Cairo. "It's a huge throughfare that people pass by and we're doing a lot of cool upgrades," she gushes.

So far, her projects keep propelling her forward, though that isn’t to say that the studio hasn’t endured its own struggles. Though as a more established artist, funding can come rolling in, as a fledging newcomer, it’s a more challenging task and "in terms of governmental support, forget about it..." Moursi laughs. But regardless, initiatives and independent organisations have eased the way for art in the city and Moursi hopes to eventually carve out a space for Studio Meem to be able to forge more collaborations on various art, architecture, or design work.

And whatever she plans on doing next, we have no doubt it'll be stamped with her signature style. Her ability to notice and take things that are so mundane and yet so integrated into our culture; so clearly present and yet so ubiquitous that they've often been relegated to the recesses of our minds and peripheries of our conscious, and then create something worthwhile out of them is the driving force behind Studio Meem and what makes it exceptional, interesting, and quite frankly, really damn cool. 

You can check out Studio Meem's Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram