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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - ALKHOBAR: Ask any Aramcon where to find quality Saudi souvenirs and they will point you to Desert Designs in Alkhobar. Once there, you will likely be greeted with a warm smile by the shop’s vivacious founder, Qamar Ahmed. She is the heart and soul of Desert Designs, which is shuttering this week after 33 years of collecting and selling crafts from across the Kingdom.
Speaking to Arab News, Ahmed explained the origins of Desert Designs: “The idea of the shop never came; it started as a need for myself. It was very organic in the sense that what I wanted was my ‘home.’ When I got married to a Saudi and came ‘home’ to Saudi Arabia, I fell in love with the quaintness of the city. It felt like coming home.”
Ahmed’s habit of finding items began when she started to decorate her home in 1984. “With the very little money that I had — which was basically zero — I’d find things in the city. My home became a reflection of my touring around the area … I just wanted my home to be a reflection of the city I am living in.”
From Dammam and Qatif to Hasa, she made a habit of buying handmade items wherever she went in Saudi Arabia. Then, a serendipitous encounter changed everything.
“One day, a friend’s friend came over for dinner. He was American and he said he loved my home. He was in charge of opening a store in the American airbase to cater to the people who aren’t allowed to leave the base,” Ahmed said.
He proposed that she collect some items to sell using a table provided for free. She had studied commercial arts in India for six years and had an eye for spotting treasures in the desert. Since she had some free time, Ahmed jumped at the opportunity.
She went to the local shop and bought a few items, picking things that were light and easy to pack. Ahmed took a palm leaf and spray painted it gold, adding little touches to the items she had found. The space was she was given was tiny and she even lacked a chair to sit on. But the items sold out quickly and her stand became so popular that customers filled the room and blocked the entry.
Within a month, Ahmed was given a tent, at no cost, to fill up with items. She went back to the market and put her finishing touches on even more wares.
I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of the artisans, of their life, of showcasing their beautiful work and getting to know the people of the community.
Qamar Ahmed, Desert Designs founder
One day, her husband, Farid Bukhari, came to pick her up and saw a crowd of about 400 people gathered around, waiting to buy from his wife. She was a one-woman show: The curator, artist, salesperson and promoter.
After seeing his wife’s success and the joy the project brought her, Farid asked Qamar if she wanted to open a shop. She said yes.
But the young couple, who were 24 and 25, lacked the funding to do so. Ahmed went home and took out her wedding jewelry. Without hesitation, she sold the gold as collateral and paid the first month’s rent on a premises. Giddy with excitement, they started to set up shop.
About a month later, the 1990 Gulf War broke out. The city of Alkhobar became a ghost town.
“Just when we opened the store, literally there was no one in the city. Everyone ran. What should we do? We had little Raneen (their daughter),” Ahmed said.
• Founded in 1990, Desert Designs grew from humble beginnings into a sought- after destination for Saudi heritage items.
• The store includes an art gallery, interior design department, and cafe.
• The store will open doors for the last time on July 31.
“I said to my husband, ‘this is your city, where are we going to go? If we are going to live, we will live together, if we are going to die, we will die together.’ We stayed.”
The nameless kiosk became Desert Designs. “Everybody believes that the desert is a barren space which has no color, that it has no life. What is a desert? It’s a space of nothingness. But, actually, it’s full,” she added.
The only customers at the time were US military personnel who were deployed in Dhahran. They paid in US dollars, which Ahmed gladly accepted. Speaking about the expatriates or Aramcon in Alkhobar, she said: “Instant appreciation. They were our best customers until this date. They built us. They came, they bought, they never haggled.”
Word quickly spread that Desert Designs was stocking “heritage items,” so people began ringing the shop from around the Kingdom, offering wares from demolished traditional homes or personal collections. Ahmed’s family, with children in tow, would drive to pick up and load their car with the goods.
“This word ‘modern,’ every generation has it … people want ‘new.’ Your idea of beauty changes. I’m an artist and love art in all its forms. I find art in any place,” she said.
Throughout her decades in the business, many Saudis she encountered questioned her business model and asked why she did not simply use Chinese manufacturers to mass produce items.
But flooding her shop with imitation copies was never the point of the Desert Designs — she wanted to find authentic objects to breathe new life into.
As the business grew, it expanded to include a thriving art gallery that hosted talks and open mic sessions, an interior design department, along with store space rental options for other vendors. Desert Designs also produced costumes for local events and was commissioned for custom works. But most of all, the shop engaged local communities through partnerships with charity initiatives, and paid skilled women from small villages to create crafts and receive a cut of sales profits.
In 2005, Desert Designs moved to its current location, a building modeled after a traditional home in Sharqiya. On the day of Arab News’ visit, a giant red sale sign was wrapped around the premises. A potential customer expressed interest in purchasing an art piece. Ahmed personally unpacked about 50 pieces that were already wrapped, patiently explaining to the gentleman what each piece showed. The man left without buying anything, but Ahmed was not discouraged. Although everything had to be tediously rewrapped, to her, it was part of the process. She wanted every person who stepped into Desert Designs to feel like they were at home.
All three of Ahmed and Bukhari’s children have been involved with Desert Designs in some capacity.
Raneen Bukhari, the eldest, was three when the project began. After graduating university, she took on key roles, such as becoming manager of the art gallery and strategist behind Desert Designs’ cafe.
“When I opened the cafe in 2008, we started getting a young audience. I think after 2012, Loud Art and Saudi Design Week, we started seeing people come in and they were curious,” Raneen said.
Perhaps if the shop was in Riyadh or Jeddah it would have thrived under the more recent movement of Saudi pride, she added. But in Alkhobar, the loyal customer demographic was always, and still is, non-Saudi.
“I love ‘Desert Designs.’ I’d love to have it in my life forever. I tried to work in the family business. It’s difficult for my parents to be laissez-faire about their kids and I don’t think any of the three of us are equipped to be the kind of people that my parents are. I feel like the way that they are diplomatic with people, none of us have that patience or sales experience,” Raneen told Arab News.
Speaking about the deep connection she has with the store’s history and growth, Raneen added: “I remember every iteration of it. It’s not just a story for me. I remember when we were a tent at the American airbase … I remember when my parents decided to buy this property and expand into this space.
“I’ve been pretty been involved, from being just a spectator to actively having my opinion asked. Even the fountain in the middle of the space — me and my mom sat and put all the broken tiles on it.”
Despite the nostalgic feelings she has, Raneen recognizes that it might be time to turn the page. Now a new mother, she and her actor and comedian husband, Hisham Fageeh, live in the US. They are ready to embrace the next chapter in their lives.
She remains optimistic that Desert Designs will live on in different forms.
“I don’t think Desert Designs as it is will exist, but we still have our online store and the social media platform,” she said. “The whole thing was a learning experience. It was a great ride.”
Desert Designs sought to use its iconic premises — which is something of an unofficial landmark in the area — as a community arts and crafts space, showcasing works and offering classes. A proposal to seek funding from the government in order to keep the building functional after the closure was not secured. The family took it as a sign.
For now, they are focused on their shop’s grand finale, offering wares at a steep discount of 50 percent off or more. Desert Designs was on the brink of closure many times, especially during the last decade, but the family always found a way to keep the shop open.
However, they are adamant at making this their final run.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of the artisans, of their life, of showcasing their beautiful work and getting to know the people of the community. I can’t even say ‘customer’ — they are much more. They are like friends and family. I appreciate all of these wonderful people. It’s not just about selling. I care that you are going to love it and treasure it like I do,” Ahmed said.
For now, the legacy of the store will live on in every item it has sold. The doors of Desert Designs are set to close on July 31.
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