22 year old design student Ayham Musleh has only ever been to the beach once.
The seaside town of Haifa is a mere 45 minutes from Ayham’s Ramallah home. Finally in 2019, with all the necessary paperwork in hand, Ayham and his family ventured out for this once in a lifetime experience, and although they did eventually get there, it took them a grueling 6 hours thanks in part to a random selection at an Israeli checkpoint.
As Ayham describes to me the phenomenal joy he found at the beach, he says something strange, “It was so much fun that for a second I was able to forget the inhuman journey, but I must not forget!” Ayham reminds me that to affect change, we must continue to resist. To normalize such inhumanity, is a dangerous path to acquiescence, and that to Ayham Musleh is unacceptable.
Actually there is a lot of things that Ayham finds unacceptable, the 22 year old honors design student from Beirzeit University intrigues me to say the least. I find myself wanting to holler from the highest of towers, ‘He’s right here’. This perfect specimen of the future of Palestine, if the world and fate will allow him.
The thing is, Ayham Musleh has been accepted to Central Saint Martins College of Design, an honor bestowed on the likes of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Stella McCartney to name a few. The prohibitive tuition is an issue though, he will need a ball park figure of $200,000 over a three year period to attend. And the question remains, will our ‘Free Palestine’ Instagram chants, and shared videos translate to tangible change? Ayham is tangible change. Are we ready to dig into our pockets and invest in a vibrant Palestinian voice?
In his personal statement to the prestigious college, Ayham states, “As a designer, I aim to transform and re-design this reality by challenging it through fashion. I believe design to be a source of power and improvement, and a means of manifesting a better world.”
They say ‘ignorance is bliss’ but they also say, ‘knowledge is power’, and in the land of Palestine, where so much is beyond one’s control, it is easier to subscribe to the former phrase. Ayham however believe in the notion that knowledge is power. During our three-hour-long conversation over a series of days; because seriously a single zoom call was just not enough with Ayham. Question after question I throw at him, hoping to unfold his thought process. What makes him who he is today. An assertive, well-informed, ambitious young man who first and foremost knows what serves him and what doesn’t. As I delve into the mind of this Gen Z that sounds more like a Gen X with his wisdom and vision, the word assertive continues to crop up. And so I ask him, “What makes you so assertive?” His answer to me feels like an aerial view when you are lost. He explains that when you live in daily conflict, surrounded by a number of cultures and ideologies, unless you can decipher who you are and what you want, you can be lost at sea forever.
As he walks me through his last few years in the world of design, there is a dance of words, those of praise and unfortunately disdain for those around him. At once singing the praises of those that supported him such as his first year college professor Omar Joseph Nasser Khoury (also a London College of Fashion student) and Nöl Collective’s Yasmine Majali who’s Go Fund Me initiative will pave the way to Ayham’s future. Ayham equally voices a surprisingly mature opinion of those that didn’t do enough.
Starting off in the school of Marketing, Musleh was off to a rocky start, his grades failing to impress; Ayham confidently acknowledged the fact that him and a degree in Marketing were just a really bad fit. It is that rapid acknowledgement that I respect, I wish I could turn into a red pill and hand it out to all those youngsters out there. Things aren’t always good or bad, a success or a fail, some things just fit better than others and there is no shame in acknowledgement and change.
Ayham then moved onto Beirzeit’s School of Design where he has been an honor student for three years straight. A curious 22 year old that is willing to invest time in his pursuit of knowledge. Ayham has spent countless days, months and perhaps even years investigating the design world, what it means to him, and how he can voice his opinions and messages through the process of design. A year ago, Ayham came to the realization that in order to have a more vibrant and assertive voice he would need to expose himself to more, and there is no ‘more’ in Palestine for him. In order to progress he will need to leave his beloved land. How interesting it is, that we often need to venture out, see what the rest of the world has to offer in order to return and be the best version of ourselves to our country.
For Ayham design is a platform, a universal language that he can speak to the world through. As I pour over his portfolio, my paradigm of Palestinian design changes and I find myself overwhelmed with pride for this young man. I myself has two beautiful daughters similar in age to Ayham. As a mother I want to give my daughters everything, and although I have afforded them every privilege, I know that I cannot give them Ayham’s strength of character, determination and perseverance. An incredible power bred from hardship. A power so potent, that it allows me to be hopeful for the future of Palestine.
Ayham’s designs have little to do with our layman’s understanding of Palestinian traditional costume and fashion. His work reminds me of a young Martin Margeila, Yoji Yamamoto and Hussein Chalayan. His design sophistication so astute that you won’t find any obvious Palestinian connotations.
Ayham’s work is shocking, it’s graphic and often times uncomfortable. As I tell him; we have spent so much time preserving our Palestinian culture and heritage, that the Israelis have attempted to eradicate. That we have spent less time depicting the present Palestinian reality, perhaps because the past is so much more romantic and beautiful. Fashion has always been an escape, a celebration of beauty and creativity. For years, and until his untimely death, Alexander McQueen’s work was considered too dark, too morbid, too depressed. It is only after his passing that his true genius and his work’s meaning came to fruition.
I see an uncomfortable truth in Ayham’s work, many of his pieces are not for commercial use, he is an innovator, intrigued by the unusual and unexplored. The medium he has chosen to elicit change is uncommon, it is design in the form of art and poetry, and in an environment where the basic instinct is survival, many find his work a luxury. Some say, with the funds you need for Ayham you can educate a dozen other Palestinians, but I urge them to acknowledge his talent, and his ability to speak to the world in a language not readily available. In a proverbial world of English speakers, he is fluent in Chinese, “how powerful is that!!” I shout. Always with the same message at the forefront of all that he does, ‘We are the Palestinians and this is our reality.”
Ayham has a mind of his own in everything that he does, and I have utmost respect for his process, I just hope that the world will give him a chance, because the language he speaks will fall on deaf ears in an unspecialized environment. He needs his ideas and designs to be read by those that can understand them, and mentor him to his greatest potential and in that comes a pathway to affecting change.
Until recently, we have as Arabs championed the Palestinian cause amongst each other, as if we needed reminding. Palestine will always be the elephant in any Arab room. It is only since we have taken to social media, that our voices have been heard and we are starting to see miraculous changes of opinion where we least expected them. The thing is, the Palestinian cause can and must be championed across all platforms, and genres. Not just political and humanitarian, we need to affect change through international languages such as design, art and poetry. Unfortunately they are not often enough considered a necessity, or a powerful enough language, a grave mistake in my opinion, and I have Ayham Mosleh to prove it.
They’ll tell you, getting accepted to a prestigious college isn’t the only hurdle, staying in is just as demanding. So let Ayham show us, and the world at large who he is, what he is capable of, and what he deserves in way of support. But until we put our hands in our pockets, Ayham is once again, at the mercy of others, this time though it is his fellow brethren, not the Israeli occupation. Give generously.