‘Zaha’ brings cultures together through food

Founder of unique social enterprise explores journey of breaking cultural barriers through storytelling and food

Dubai: For Asma Ahmad, 34, climbing the corporate ladder at one of the world’s biggest consultancy firms was not her true calling.

In 2017, the Palestinian national did what many people fear to do. She quit her nine-to-five life and career at the office, following what “her heart enjoys and dances to.”

Ahmad, who moved to Dubai almost a year ago, is the founder of a unique social enterprise called Zaha.

Her project aims to encourage and develop cultural intelligence that follows three main social values: acceptance, empathy, and involvement.

“Zaha is an immersive cultural experience that provides an opportunity to connect and engage with people from other cultures, through co-created food experiences and storytelling,” said Ahmad.

She described her project as an experience, providing the guests — known as “explorers” — with the privilege of growing their knowledge and empathy towards other cultures.

The project gathers eight guests for the “tasting experience” and around five for the “co-creation experience,” both lasting two hours each at the host’s house, known as the “Mystro.”

“Zaha is the name of my grandmother, who is over 94 and still looks after herself; she is known in our village for her emotional and physical resilience, and this is how I see the world: sophisticated, pretty and full of life,” Ahmad told Gulf News.

She pointed out that Zaha means “the growth journey” in Arabic, which signifies one of her goals in life, to develop the growth that stems out of humans coming together.

The Zaha Experience incorporates three components: the first being the tasting of authentic food, which offers explorers a moment of bonding with people from the addressed culture. The second is storytelling by the host along with the explorers, which drives deeper engagement and participation in the experience, allowing a cross-cultural bonding to evolve at the human level. The third is co-creation, which leverages a key food ingredient of the addressed culture to create dishes for other cultures.

“This happens in a casual setting and allows the audience to develop the sense of exploration and relevancy towards whatever looks different in the other,” explained Ahmad.

The Zaha journey

The journey of Zaha was not a product of one single idea from a brainstorming session, it is the product of Ahmad’s life experiences and lessons learnt.

Ahmad’s journey began in Kuwait, where she was born in 1983. Living with her parents and seven brothers and sisters, her idyllic family life came to an end after the Gulf War in 1991, when they were forced to return to Palestine with close to nothing.

“My father was a school bus driver in Kuwait, and after the war we went back to Palestine empty-handed: eight children with eight Kuwaiti dinars,” she said.

Ahmad and her family returned to their village Tamoun, located between Jenin and Nablus City, where they lived on her father’s farm.

Working hard to fit into the community, Ahmad decided to work even harder and made it as one of the top 10 students in high school on a national level, receiving a scholarship to do her BA in Computer Information Technology.

“When we got to Palestine, the eldest of my siblings was ready to go to college; however, my dad found it challenging to even secure food for his family. I knew I had to work hard,” she said.

Two years after graduation, Ahmad quit her job at a youth centre when she was granted a scholarship to pursue her MBA at one of the UK’s top four business universities.

“The first few months in the UK where very hard, but after I put myself out there things changed. I started making traditional dishes like freeke for other students in the dorms, and this is when I discovered that I had the skill of bringing people together,” said Ahmad.

Lessons learnt

Throughout her experiences of learning and adjusting to new and unfamiliar environments, Ahmad was quick to remember a valuable lesson from her dad.

“My father never judges people’s experiences, efforts or looks. Despite coming from a village and being a shepherd with little education, I have always been amazed by his capacity to embrace and accept others,” she said. It was then that Ahmad really understood the meaning of empathy and power behind cultural exchange.

“All these experiences transformed the way I relate to myself and the way I relate to others. I started to focus on developing a power that comes within. You have to empathise with yourself first and then with others,” said Ahmad.

After her studies, Ahmad returned to Palestine before moving to Kuwait to take on a demanding consultancy job. She quickly climbed the corporate ladder, but after three years of battling a male-dominated work environment, she decided corporate life wasn’t for her and eventually moved to Dubai to find her true calling. “I came up with Zaha as a reminder to people that what unites us is greater than what can divide us,” said Ahmad.


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