Image Credit: Zaynab Mourad

Artist spotlight: Zaynab Mourad

Zaynab Mourad is an artist, social activist, and storyteller at heart who moved to Beirut in late 2018.

Born and raised in Tripoli, north of Lebanon, Mourad had artistic tendencies for as long as she could remember.

“My mom used to forget that she had a daughter. I would just be in my room drawing and coloring and I was just interested in doing artistic stuff,” she said.

“Growing up, I always had different kinds of [hobbies].”

Mourad is passionate about climate action and body politics, and the underlying themes in her work have been about defying social norms. 

“It’s always been some form of disobedience,” she said. 

She has worked in a variety of different sectors, from local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the humanitarian sector to ad tech firms in customer success. Mourad has also worn several hats at small startups led by her friends and has done freelance writing, photography, and graphic design. 

She studied for a few years each in architecture and sociology, but soon dropped out for logistical reasons. 

“I didn’t really like the system. And I disagree with how a piece of paper would put me in a position with someone else who might be different in actual competence,” said Mourad, who admits that her decision to not continue school did have consequences. 

But her decision to drop out didn’t stop her. During her summer break following a year of architecture school, Mourad was looking for a new craft to learn and practice. That’s when she discovered origami — this was almost a decade ago. 

“I love the fact that it’s a simple sheet of paper that is turned into something beautiful by precise and intentional folds, which also sounds like a simple skill ‘to fold,’” said Mourad, who finds creating complex geometric shapes and kinetic models out of origami extremely satisfying. 

Mourad’s love for origami goes hand in hand with her love for upcycling and regularly teaches kids and adults how to upcycle paper using easily accessible tools.  

“Landfills in Lebanon are overflowing and giving things extra lives helps slow down the growth of the trash mountains,” she said.

“I think it’s a great skill to have to be able to come up with as many uses as possible for something before ‘killing it.’” 

Her recent projects include three photo essays that were featured in Jeem, a body, gender, and sexuality magazine concerning the Arab-speaking diaspora, about body hair, body piercings, and women’s lives during Ramadan. 

In recent years, her love for photography has also grown, though she admits she could never afford to buy a camera of her own until now.

“My family was poor. The whole city [of Tripoli] is known for extreme poverty, so I would use someone else’s camera or the phone camera until last year. I really wanted to document my own personal story with body hair because I’ve been challenging myself for a few years to overcome that insecurity and social pressure,” said Mourad.

“I am a very hairy person by nature. … Almost every woman goes through body hair removal all the time because we feel pressured to act as if we are hairless. That was bubbling and I really wanted to get it out.”

Mourad’s latest artwork is a series of six illustrations that were transformed into stickers. They consist of “very violent” and “very brutal” quotes said by Lebanese politicians.

She came up with the during Covid-19 lockdown, amidst the ongoing economic and financial crisis of the 2019 revolution and the increasing number of deaths due to the pandemic.

“The people in Tripoli went to the streets to protest. They were hungry. They were unable to afford to live… all basic needs were non-existent. They could not afford food. They had kids. They could not pay for electricity. They could not pay for meds. People were dying because of poverty. It was very extreme,” she said.

Witnessing the struggles of the people in her hometown, Mourad wanted to do something. During the revolution days, a Lebanese woman started a soup kitchen where she would bring tea to the political discussions held on the streets — later turned into desserts and warm meals she would cook and deliver to those who were hungry. Inspired by her efforts, Mourad decided to create and sell stickers to raise funds and support her initiative. 

This was Mourad’s second time making stickers. Back in 2019, during the revolution, she made stickers with QR codes so that one could scan the code and easily download the Lebanese Constitution and learn about the country’s legal system. Stickers are powerful tools of political expression. One can easily stick them on laptops and/or streets, according to her. 

“As Lebanese citizens, we are kind of indirectly taught to not learn about politics like the opposite of political education, … and it was only during the revolution that it was the first time I ever read my own country’s constitution,” said Mourad.           

Today, Mourad’s stickers are a viral sensation and are featured in the Echoes from Lebanon virtual exhibit among a rich mix of emerging and well-known artists.

“I feel silly in a way, but like that sneaky silly. They are very satirical so it’s like dark humor but I also made them to support a cause and it came from a very passionate place in my heart but like a sad one and they just were meant to make fun of the politicians,” she said.

 “My stickers are scattered around on the bench and on the floor. It feels funny as if I went to an actual exhibition and I just left my stickers there for people to see.”

Through her artwork, Mourad hopes to change the narrative of how Lebanese people are portrayed in the media. 

“I don’t like the narrative of ‘Oh, Lebanese people are resilient.’ So that wouldn’t be my goal with presenting these stickers or these illustrations. I would hope people recognize the problems; they see them clearly because the media is controlled by power. The people don’t have enough power to overpower who is controlling the media. So I hope this exhibition would be an alternative to the narratives that are promoted through public media.”