Full Potential 

Meet Bahia Shehab: artist, historian, author, and educator based in Cairo, Egypt

Hello everyone! My name’s Sara (she/her). I’m another one of the womxn behind Full Potential, and I had the honor of interviewing this week's Swana Womxn: Bahia Shehab!


Bahia Shehab is an artist, historian, author, and educator based in Cairo, Egypt.

She’s the director of TYPE Lab, a research space dedicated to the exploration and development of Arabic script. She was the first Arab woman to receive the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture, in addition to being chosen as one of BBC’s 100 Women Initiating Change in 2014. Currently, Bahia’s been busy preparing for the release of her book, You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution, which commemorates the 10-year anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath. I was lucky enough to squeeze into her packed schedule.

We spoke over FaceTime audio as she made her way across Cairo for yet another interview.

Part 1. Growing up during Lebanon’s Civil War

Sara: Well, first of all, how are you? How's your morning?

Bahia: It’s actually afternoon for us, and I’m trying to drive quickly to make it to a 5 o’clock interview in [Cairo] about the new book I’m authoring for the 10-year anniversary of the revolution, so I’ve been conducting a lot of interviews for that.

Sara: Ah. See, when you’re 24 and you hear the word “interview,” your mind thinks of something different. *Laughs*

Bahia: *Laughs* Yeah, I can imagine.

Sara: So, I’m going to dive right into the questions. Everything I read about you says that you’re Lebanese-Egyptian. I’m assuming you were born in Lebanon, but can you help me connect the dots?

Bahia: Yes, I was born in Beirut and lived there for the first 20 years of my life and the next 20 years I spent in Egypt.

Sara: So, I know you were a street artist during the Egyptian revolution, but it’s not like the years you were growing up in Lebanon were perfect, either. How did the events in the region impact your upbringing?

Bahia: Well, I grew up during the civil war in Lebanon, so for me, priorities in life were very different from other people who might not have had a childhood similar to mine. You value the little things more. Your perspective on life is different. What is important in life is different. I think growing up, the experience of surviving a civil war has been an important life lesson. I consider myself very lucky because I had loving parents who were able to make me appreciate beauty in spite of all the ugliness around me.

Sara: I can’t even imagine. Something I always think about that region - I don’t even know if this is a question, or if I’m just asking you what your thoughts are - but it feels like it’s just been one revolution after another. At one point, are the lessons exhausted? Like you said yourself: there’s nothing civil about war. But at what point does the entire purpose of life shift?

Bahia: I think it’s different for each person. Maybe a friend loses a father in an explosion. Maybe a neighbor gets hit by a stray bullet. Maybe you just see people in Palestine being killed and oppressed everyday. You see the misery that’s taking place in Syria and Yemen right now. The invasion of Iraq that I witnessed as a young woman when I was living in Dubai. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that a country like Iraq was being invaded. So I can’t really remember when my own priorities shifted, but I know it was very early on.

Part 2: Borders and Migration

Sara: How do you identify- both in terms of your gender identity and your ethnic identity?

Bahia: I really don’t believe in borders. We draw these lines on maps and in the minds of the people who live within them. You look at birds, and they can fly freely, and you look at fish, and they can swim freely. Then you look at us, walking around with pieces of papers and borders and stamps, allowing some to roam the whole earth and limiting others to a plot of land that they are not allowed to leave. So for me, first I belong to this planet, and I’m a citizen of the world. Geographically and genetically I belong to the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq. And I identify as an Arab woman.

Sara: I’ll never forget an experience I had during my junior year of college. One of my professors was challenging a student’s concepts of immigration and borders. Asking him, “What’s the purpose of borders? Who do they help, and who do they hurt?” I found it so tough to grapple with. Especially in our day and age where we have a mass refugee crisis and so many nations upholding rigid policies defending their borders.

Bahia: Exactly. And who is creating this forced migration? I mean, people don’t abandon their families, their homes and their histories because they want to.You run away from a war, because you want your children to survive, because you’re starving, because your country has been colonized, because you have a dictatorship in your country, because you’re being killed on the street of your country. This is why people flee. Why are there underdeveloped parts of the world in the first place? Can we ask that question, please? And how did the developed nations become developed? Very few people ask these questions and reflect on their history. Everyone takes for granted the big highways and the efficient school and healthcare systems. But are there countries throwing food on daily basis in the garbage when there are nations who can’t even afford a meal for their family. I see so much injustice; it's exhausting.

Sara: *Sigh* Yeah, it’s tough. I’m Iranian-American, and one of things I’ll never forget my mom telling me is that she would have literally never had children if she didn’t immigrate to America. Because at the time it was that hard and that difficult for people living in Iran.

Bahia: I can completely understand.

Part 3: Forced into becoming an artist

Sara: So, in a lot of videos, I heard you say that you didn’t have plans to become an artist, which makes my question pretty silly, but I want to hear your take anyway. Did you anticipate becoming an artist?

Bahia: No, no. Never. I always wanted to, but I didn’t think I would be forced or thrown into it the way I was.

Sara: When you say “forced or thrown,” what do you mean?

Bahia: I mean, being part of the revolution, I didn’t feel like I had a choice because what was unfolding was historic. And I had the tools that I could use, which was art, and I started using them. I started looking at all these doctors and all these lawyers who have their own tools to help people, and here I was with nothing but spray cans and stencils, and I felt like this is the only thing I can do, but at least I will be doing something.

Sara: So, I have a couple honorary questions here from one of the girls on our team. Her question is: “As someone who recently graduated from a design program in America, there’s been a lack of diversity in representing newer forms of design outside of the US. I want to hear from you and your critique of Westernized design curriculums.”

Bahia: Thank you for this lovely question! We just wrote a book about the history of
Arab Graphic Design,
and it was published in November. So this is my reply to what I read in the canon of Western design. My reply is a book.

Click here to buy: A history of Arab Graphic Design

Sara: Yeah, so she actually goes on to say, “Did you face barriers when gathering your research for writing about design history?”

Bahia: Yes, of course; there were a lot of challenges. The first was the lack of archives. We don’t have enough archives. Very few institutions have preserved design work, so that was one problem. Another problem was the designers in the diaspora. First the Palestinian cause, then the Lebanese civil war, then the war in Iraq, then the turmoil in Syria, and the revolution here. This led to a mass migration of artists, designers, and thinkers from the Arab world. So we had to trace and travel to find their work. And unfortunately, it was easier for us to go to London, to Paris, to Berlin, to meet with designers in the diaspora than it was for us to meet with designers in Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, or Yemen, for example. We weren’t able to access those countries. But we were able to access designers who were from the Arab world living in the diaspora. Other challenges we faced were, some artists refused to give us their work in the first place because they were skeptical about our project. Others lost their work. For example, one designer in Syria sent me a picture of his studio, and it was completely burned to the floor. Another problem was selection; we only displayed a small percentage of the images we found. So yeah, these are a few of the challenges.

Sara: So, in one of your Ted talks, you described street art as a conversation that is both alive and ephemeral. Can you elaborate on what that means?

Bahia: Well, nothing confirms that street art will survive on the streets. It is open to the weather - it is open to vandalism. Being in the outdoors, exposed to elements, makes the artwork ephemeral. Unless it’s being maintained by an institution, it tends to disappear, so this is why I call it ephemeral.

Sara: That’s interesting. My boss uses the word ephemeral a lot, but in a very different context. So when I heard you refer to street art as an ephemeral conversation, I understood it as how words and ideas sort of fade away. How people move on to the next thing.

Bahia: That’s a beautiful metaphor actually. That meaning really resonates with me because this is how my art feels now with the revolution. I’ve been painting in different parts of the world, but when someone covers your art, it feels like they’re saying, “I’m not interested. I don’t want to hear what you’re saying.”

Sara: In your view, what was the role art played during the Egyptian revolution?

Bahia: We were trying to translate emotions and retaliating to the events that were unfolding around us. A woman gets beaten, we go down and we paint. And I wasn’t alone. There were hundreds of artists who were painting on the streets. It was so beautiful to see the collective reaction to events that were unfolding on the streets. Artists were translating and simplifying messages. Then,
someone photographs these
messages, someone uploads them on social media, they go viral, and it drives more people to the square. So it was also being used as a tool to rally people.