I am a fighter personality who turns every wound into a weapon. I am not the type that gives up. Despite often being subjected to suffering, I take every obstacle as an opportunity to forge ahead. Not even the war can stop my life. -Fairouz Belkheir
Have you ever wondered how possible it is to live in a war-torn area yet top the list of everything one lays hands on? This is the story of a Libyan girl, who despite society’s restrictions, is fighting her way to the top of the fashion ladder. It is a story of and for the brave. Even after losing close relations and a bosom friend to Libya’s civil war, Fairouz Belkheir maintains that all wounds can be turned into weapons. She tells me ‘the revolution was totally worth it’ .
The war is by no means over. It is still heated in Benghazi, Fairouz’s birthplace and hometown which she was compelled to leave in 2010. She now lives in Albaida, only two hours away. The sound of gunshots and the sight of violence have ceased to be surprising. She tells me that the situation is still chaotic. From unannounced power cuts, to internet suspensions and restricted movement, the war’s impact is omnipresent.
Though turbulent, Albaida is the cradle of her success: the place which saw an electrical engineer transform into a world-class, award winning, fashion designer. The birthplace of ‘Rosa Belkheir’, Fairouz’s artistic persona.
Dreams that Never Were: The Loss of Jad Assary
Being born and bred under Libya’s former dictatorship, Fairouz had grown to know a traditionally restricted society, in which both intellectual and creative freedoms were constantly tampered with. She saw no possibility of becoming the international fashion designer of her dreams until 2011 when Libya’s ‘terrorist regime’ was overthrown. “I was very excited because I thought we, finally, could live like free human beings with full humanitarian worth. It never crossed my mind for a second that everything would turn out to be like in the movie ‘Hunger Games’”, she says with a wry smile.
Five years after Libya’s regime change, a lot still seems to be amiss. Of course, some degree of freedom has been won but the material and human loss is enormous. For Fairouz, the wounds were almost unbearable. She lost relatives and her bosom friend, Jad Assary.
‘He was a very brave and creative person who had the potentials of a change maker’, Fairouz says of Jad. He had been at the forefront of Libya’s 2011 uprising. His only weapon was the internet. He opposed the regime through blogging and trained other Libyans to blog for change.
His passing on was tragic. After sustaining injuries during a gun battle, Jad was kidnapped by pro-Gaddafi forces from a hospital in Zlitan and is believed to have been killed. No news was ever heard of him. For more than a year, youth activists, members of his family and friends searched in the hope of finding him: Jad is missing.
To date, the only trace of Jad Assary is on social media. On his Twitter Page , last used on 03 March 2011, signs of his activism are clear ‘Libyan Blood: Red Line’, it reads. Jad’s family eventually gave up the search. Fairouz did too but refused to let his death be in vain. Her involvement with Doctors without Borders in Libya is an earnest attempt to heal her soul while helping others in distress.
An Electrical Engineer’s ‘illicit’ Romance with Fashion Designing
Fairouz discovered her love for fashion at a tender age. Her obsession with making clothes for baby dolls awoke in her dreams of pursuing a career in fashion. She fed the dream by following the works of reputed designers like Elie Saab, Roberto Cavalli, Valentino and Alexander McQueen. However, Libya did not seem to be the right place for a fashion career. There was no school to help develop talent and few people thought fashion designing worthy of attention, ‘it is very tough for a woman to pursue fashion dreams in this closed society where customs and traditions are very restrictive. Besides, there is little or no value for arts’, she says.
In alignment with society’s standards for success, Fairouz settled for the next best alternative of her career choices: Electrical engineering. It was not long before she realized that ‘work’ was not necessarily based on academic trails. There had to be a passion involved. Then, she went for the things that make her happy: humanitarian action and Fashion Designing.
She tells of sometimes being scornfully looked at when she voiced her intentions of making a career in fashion. Designing had never been a big part of Libyan culture but she pressed on, making clothes out of whatever she deemed beautiful. With absolutely no experience in designing, Fairouz took up the challenge to rise to the top. Her greatest investment was in time and research, ‘I spent a lot of time googling stuff that could help me develop my passion for fashion. I sketch and paint stuff, then look for new ways of making them real,’ she confessed.
Online research contributed greatly to Fairouz’s growth in fashion. She started contacting all great designers who were willing to help achieve her goal. Then she found a mentor in Mohammed Midani, a fashion designer of Lebanese origin. From him, she has learnt a great deal about taking her passion to a professional level.
Then it kicked off. With neither a professional studio nor a brand name, Fairouz gathered the momentum required to shake the world of fashion. Her ability to tactfully mix elements of Libyan dressing with western style makes her stand out, ‘inspiration is the key to my creativity and my inspiration comes from my Libyan heritage: warm colours and beautiful contrasts. I want to take rough things and smooth them out’ she tells me. Traditional fabric, colourful prints, jewels and scarfs make up the Fairouz movement.
Her transition from engineering to fashion designing did not come easy. She experienced being judged not by her works but by her gender, ‘sometimes you get supported because you are a beautiful lady and at other times you get ignored because you are just a lady’ she laments. Even that did not stop her. Fairouz defied Libyan norms through hard work.
And the Winner is….
Then, a golden opportunity presented itself in the Fashion Crowd Challenge awards. Despite being a novice in the trade, Fairouz dared to subject her works to international public appraisal. It no doubt paid off. Of the thousands of applicants for the 2015 FCC award, Fairouz won contest’s dream award. She was one of the 15 international fashion designers honoured. And of course, she was the only one from the Middle East. You can find her listed as Rosa Bel-khier.
She considers winning the FCC award as the final endorsement to drive on. Not even the war could stop her from rising to the top. Nothing ever will. She maintains that, ‘despite being surrounded by negative energy and unexpected obstacles, you alone are the secret to your own hope. Even the deepest pain can be transformed into a strength if one stays positive’.