In a fast-forward world of social media, where we are used to seeing trends and styles that are short lived, Noha Zayed, an Egyptian self-taught photographer and creative entrepreneur, finds comfort and inspiration in heritage, tradition and culture, and inspecting how these are perceived and continually changing.
Born in Cairo and raised between Egypt and the US. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in business in 2001, Noha spent several years working and pursuing her interests in desert travel, training, creative direction and design.
In 2006, She co-founded Zafir T-shirts, Egypt’s first local T-shirt brand with a mission to create a truly Egyptian T-shirt, one that reflected and featured Egyptian pop culture and Arabic calligraphy. Ultimately Zafir became a platform for Egyptian artists and designers; showcasing Egyptian creative talent in a wide variety of mediums beyond T-Shirts and was one of the recipients of the Pioneers of Egypt Award in 2015. Her interest in photography flourished while living in Libya in 2009 and since then she has been using her camera to explore and capture the world around her with a specific focus on Egypt.
Noha’s love of calligraphy inspired her travels, documenting found examples of Arabic calligraphy around Egypt, and building a photographic archive of vernacular Arabic calligraphy and graffiti.
Her first photo book Khatt: Egypt’s calligraphic Landscape was published in London in 2019 by Saqi Books. The book surveys and features the continued use of hand-painted calligraphy throughout Egypt.
She co-curates the popular Arabic Typography Instagram blog, which currently has over 130 thousand followers, and participated in group exhibitions in the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennale, Dubai Design week, and in a solo show in Kodak Passageway in Cairo. Many of her images have featured on digital photography platforms such as Everyday Egypt and FeatureShoot.
Noha’s other creative endeavors include documentary film, music projects, and helping her mother manage their family’s banana farm in Cairo. For us, she is the perfect ensemble of art.
WHAT WOULD MAKE YOUR SOUL SING? WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?
Being on the road, exploring new places and rediscovering old ones, but nothing makes me happier than being in nature. I love the vastness of the desert, being in the mountains, and sailing the open sea. I firmly believe that nature brings solace to the soul.
A CHILDHOOD STORY THAT ANNOUNCED THE CREATIVE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY
My mother kept us busy with creative activities all the time. I remember that I spent a lot of my childhood experimenting with art, learning to sew, designing and creating things at home. I was mainly obsessed with Lego and used to remove all the carpets from my room to build model cities that covered the entire floor, My brother and I would spend days working, planning layouts and building our ideas, it was my favorite thing to do.
BEST CONTEXT EVER FOR INSPIRATION WAS
For me inspiration comes from anything and everything, I’m an avid reader of historical texts, I love scripture which is full of inspiring stories, I love music and architecture. I’m interested in religion, philosophy, history and the narrative of life. I think the more difficult question is what doesn’t inspire me
THE PROJECT YOU LOVED MOST
An ongoing personal photographic project documenting journeys following my favorite Munshid (performer of Sufi religious songs) and healer of my soul Sheikh Yassin Al Tohamy. Since 2013 I have driven thousands of kilometers all over Egypt on his trail to attend his Layali (nightly performances).
THE PROJECT OTHERS LOVED MOST
My photo series on Egyptian Truck art is always very popular. Egyptian truck drivers are not minimalists and it is rare to see a truck of any size that is not richly decorated. Driving through Egyptian roads, the common practice of decorating truck with calligraphy, stickers and all manner of object, is hard to miss. The truck itself becomes a medium for self expression, essentially the driver’s heroic alter-ego, producing writing which includes expressions of faith, movie & song quotes, witty declarations, the driver’s stances on love, women and life, declarations of advice, warnings and anything else that reflects the driver’s philosophy, dreams and grievances, essentially his public voice. I love chasing trucks on the road.
THE BEST THING ABOUT EGYPTIAN CREATIVITY IS
It has no boundaries and follows no rules.
BEST STATEMENT OF EGYPTIAN HUMOR
“We are the ones that painted the air Duco”.
ADVICE FOR INTERNATIONAL HEADHUNTERS, RELATED TO EGYPTIAN CREATIVES
People in Egypt are used to working in very difficult and challenging circumstances with little or no resources so they have developed very creative mechanisms to work and solve problems, their ideas can be boundless, they work hard and can be very passionate. Provided with good resources and financial compensation, they can achieve great things.
BEST PLACE IN CAIRO
Our family owns a banana farm on Al Warraq Island which is located very close to the center of the city and is the biggest island on the whole of the River Nile. It is mostly farmland and till now the only way to it is by boat. I spent a lot of the time there as a child since our family has been farming there for almost 100 years. I remember being on the Nile, walking under the shade of the banana trees and the sunlight piercing through the canopy of leaves.
A true urban oasis where you can very easily forget you’re inside the city. For me it’s a refuge and a place of happy memories.
BEST PLACE IN EGYPT
This is a very difficult question. I spend a lot of my time traveling extensively around Egypt and every corner has its own beauty and charm but if I had to choose it would be either the coastal desert area west of Marsa Matrouh. I call it the wild north, it is sparsely populated by the local Bedouins and it is basically a desert on the sea, so what more can I ask for? The South (Saiid) is also beautiful, the intermesh of glorious landscapes along the Nile and physical/historical records of human habitation is magical.
MOST DISTURBING CLICHÉ ABOUT EGYPT, IN THE MEDIA OUTLETS OF THE WORLD IS
That it isn’t safe.
EGYPT SHOULD BE KNOWN FOR
The creativity and resilience of its people and beauty of its landscape.
YOUR VIEWS ON SPIRITUALITY
The conscious connection between the created and the creator, the means of coming close to Him and knowing Him. Wandering the world, viewing the beauty of creation and finding in it the traces of divine power. Using the world as an object of meditation and remembrance of God.
YOUR VIEWS ON MONEY
Francis Bacon once said “money is a great servant, but a bad master”. I agree.
AN INSPIRATION SOURCE YOU RECOMMEND FOR A YOUNG CREATIVE
One has to just keep their eyes open and senses alert, inspiration is all around.
AN EGYPT BASED FEMALE TALENT THAT DESERVES TO BE PROMOTED AT INTERNATIONAL LEVEL, AS EXPONENT OF LOCAL CREATIVE SPIRIT
Hana Gammal, an extraordinary photographer.
Photography courtesy of Noha Zayed’s personal collection.
If you want to be kept up to date with Noha Zayed’s posts, follow her on Instagram.
For a catalog on Arabic lettering from all corners of the world, co-curated by Noha, click here.