Meet Palestinian Illustrator & Interior Architect, Narmeen Hamadeh

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

Hey everyone! This week I had the privilege of chatting with Illustrator and Interior Architect, Narmeen Hamadeh. Narmeen is a self described "full-time creative Arab woman." You may or may not have seen her work featured in Vogue Arabia. Or maybe you have mask with one of her designs on it? — Neither would surprise me. The whole Full Potential team is obsessed with her. Everything she creates is as meaningful as it is beautiful. Narmeen is the first Palestinian woman to be featured on the #swanawomxnseries AND the first to be based in Saudi Arabia. I grew up in Iran and have traveled around the swana region a far amount. But I've never been to Saudi — and let's just say, my lack of keeping up with Saudi news showed! Throughout our conversation, Narmeen and I touched on everything from her personal background and life in Saudi Arabia, to her career.

Part I. Personal background

Alin: Where are you based?

Narmeen: I’m currently vacationing in Dubai, but I’m based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Alin: Is your family from Saudi Arabia?

Narmeen: No, my family’s originally from Palestine! Like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, my grandparents fled Palestine in 1948 and sought safety in Lebanon. After staying in a refugee camp for a couple of months, they decided to start over somewhere new. That ended up being Saudi Arabia. So I was born and raised in Riyadh — and have actually never been to Palestine!

Alin: That’s pretty surprising to hear. You incorporate Palestinian elements in your work and focus on Palestinian issues and culture so frequently. Why is it that you've never been to Palestine?

Narmeen: As much as I wish I could visit, Palestinian refugees and their descendants are prohibited entering Palestine. And on my travel documents my status is, “Palestinian Refugee."

Narmeen's IG Post & Caption July 1, 2020

"I have so many feelings about today anger , the feeling that the world is so unjust , and the feeling of total clueless-ness as I have no idea what to do other than informing people what is going on and to raise awareness. For the last month the world has slowly started to wake up to the fact that Palestine will lose even more land. We have watched as the word Annexation has become more and more prevalent on our social media feeds. What is important to remember about all of this is that 1. The state of Israel is built on stolen Palestinian land and based on the premise that Palestinians do not have the right to exist. THEY ARE WRONG 2. Israeli’s have been stealingAnnexing our land for 72 years, this is nothing new and it remains illegal. 3. This is more than land, this is about people losing their homes, their dreams and in many cases their lives.”

Here's a quick, very necessary, deep dive...

By the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced and made refugees. Zionist forces controlled 78% of historic Palestine, ethnically cleansed and destroyed about 530 villages and cities, and killed about 15,000 Palestinians in a series of mass atrocities, including more than 70 massacres. Displaced persons were never allowed to return home. Today there are over 7 million Palestinian refugees scattered around the world. "The Palestinians displaced in 1948 were not allowed to return to the places from which they were displaced because their presence was seen as a threat to the maintenance of a sustainable Jewish demographic majority in the new state. This was made clear to AFSC during an August 9, 1949 meeting between AFSC employee Don Stevenson and Eliahu Elath, the Israeli Ambassador to the US. When Stevenson asked Ambassador Elath if Israel would accept the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes Elath told him that Israel would not because “Israel would commit suicide if she took back all the refugees.”



Alin: How’d you end being so passionate about a place you’ve never seen?

Narmeen: My grandparents lost everything when they were displaced. The only thing they had was their culture and Palestinian-ness. So they were adamant about preserving our culture and passing it out to their kids and so on. And it worked!

Narmeen's IG Post & Caption September 6, 2020

"'Teta, coffee, and the yellow bird' 'قهوة تيتا'

Woke up yesterday with one thought in my mind, my Teta ( grandmother ) Turkish coffee and our talks. She taught me how make and drink my coffee , always black and with No sugar. As a little girl i was mesmerized by the gold bird carrying a heart necklace it looked like something i imagined reading in a fairytale, sparkly and un realistic . Let me tell you a bit about My Teta. She is the perfect example of a strong Palestinian woman she raised 2 girls, 5 boys, and a lot of grandchildren. With all the responsibilities and large quantities of food she needed to cook for us , she definitely made it look all easy. She loved us all with no favoritism and taught us how family always comes first.

I miss you teta jamal , you taught me so much about life." [click here to see full post]

Part 2: Life in Saudi Arabia

Alin: I understand that 1000000%. I'm Armenian and between the genocide and displacement, my family always emphasized the importance of maintaining our culture. So you were born and raised in Riyadh and are now based there. How’s life in Saudi Arabia?

Narmeen: Honestly, it's great. The media exaggerates the restrictions on women quite a bit. Especially in the last 5-6 years, the country has really started progressing in the right directions. Necessary steps are being taken and I can almost say that women and men have somewhat equal rights. Mandatory hijab laws were abolished last year! You no longer have to wear hijab and wearing an Abaya is optional but a lot of women (including her) prefer to wear an Abaya simply for convenience!

Alin: Honestly, I had no idea the mandatory hijab was abolished!

Narmeen: Yeah — and to add on to that, in the last 2-3 years there has been a noticeable emphasis on and appreciation for the arts. People are progressing and they’re progressing quickly. It feels like month-to- month you feel a difference.

"For Westerners, squinting at Saudi Arabia across a vast landscape of stories about oppressed women, ultraconservative Islam and human rights abuses, the desert kingdom often leaves a single, damning impression: Here is a country that women are desperate to flee. But the changes driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, have complicated that image over the last few years, codifying for women the right to drive, attend sporting events and travel without a man’s permission, among others. As the social codes that long governed their lives relax their grip, more women are wearing their hair uncovered and mingling openly with men — at least in larger cities." (NY Times)

Alin: Do you have any plans to leave Saudi Arabia in the future?

Narmeen: No. I mean, I moved around a lot and could really live anywhere. But like I said earlier, I've had a great life in Saudi Arabia. My family's close by the future is bright.

Alin: Where else have you live?

Narmeen: Lebanon and Milan while I was in school and spent some time in Dubai post-grad.

Alin: Very cool. Why'd you decide to go to college in Lebanon? Did your family support the decision?

Narmeen: Like you said earlier, I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. By the time I turned 18, I really wanted to experience something new. I ended up choosing Lebanon because I already knew Arabic, was somewhat familiar with the country. Plus, with a had a handful of prestigious universities to choose from, it felt like the right move! I lost my mom at a young age but my dad has always been very supportive, even when it came to my choice to move away.

Alin: What did you study during undergrad?

Narmeen: Architecture.

Alin: Did you take any time off before starting your Masters program?

Narmeen: Yes — after graduating, I worked as an interior designer in Lebanon for a while. In that time I had a couple corporate gigs and quickly realized it wasn't my scene me. The demands and culture of the corporate world felt like a hinderance to my creativity. Which is actually what led met to apply for Domus academy's living and interior design Masters Program in Milan.

Alin: How was that?

Narmeen: Amazing. I absolutely loved my time in Milan. The program was great but honestly, my favorite part was having the opportunity to meet so many incredible, diverse people. I now have friends all over the world! And I learned a great deal about humanity in the process. I realized how much humans have in common. Despite where you're born or what you grew up eating, at the end of the day, we're all human. We're all part of humanity. And I love that.

Part III. Professional background

Alin: Help me connect the dots between your interior design background and current work as an illustrator?

Narmeen: After finishing up my Masters program, I moved to Dubai and started taking steps towards opening my own studio. I had a space rented out and everything. But after a series of contracting issues, it sadly ended up falling through a year later. Then, well, I had an existential crisis. I started drawing to express myself and put my creativity to use. Fast-forward, 3-4 months later I decided to rent a booth and showcase some of my illustrations at an exhibition in Dubai. I was nominated as one of the Top 10 artists, out the 300 present. That gave me the validation I needed to take my passion for illustrating seriously.

Alin: What inspires your work?

Narmeen: My illustrations are obviously inspired by my Palestinian background. I want to address issues that I care about through art beautifully and without harm. I call it a modern day revolution. Rioting and fighting does not get the job done anymore. Also, I still work in interior design! I ended up opening a multidisciplinary studio, dedicated to interior and landscape design, Skalmah. ( on IG)

Alin: Tell me about a time you addressed an issue through art?

Narmeen: I was buying hummus at a supermarket in Milan calling it an “Israeli dish”. I was very frustrated! All I could think was, “Do whatever you want and eat as much hummus you want but don’t say it’s your culture. It’s an old man because Hummus has been there forever!!” So I decided to draw old man hummus.

Narmeen's IG Post & Caption March 15, 2018

"Let's talk about hummus for a bit, since for me hummus is a symbolism for a much bigger issue. Hummus is a known Arabic Middle Eastern dish that's made mainly of chickpeas and tahini another very Arabic ingredient, and is said to be started originally in Egypt and then in the rest of Arabic countries as Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. It get its name hummus in english because chickpeas in Arabic are called hummus. So as a lot of my friends abroad know hummus is promoted in non Arabic country as an Israeli dish, and this is another example of the Israeli government promoting for originally Palestinian heritage items , dishes, history, etc... as their own in their continuous trial to extinct the Palestinians in all forms as humans, as a culture , and a spirit"

Alin: I'm a huge fan of your quarantine series on Instagram. How'd you get it going?

Narmeen: I've always loved illustrating how people respond to their environment. When the co-vid lockdowns started happening, I started talking connecting with more people. Hearing stories about how they were feelings and creating illustrations. It ended up being therapeutic for me too!


Alin: Tell me about one of your favorite collaborations.

Narmeen: I got to collaborate with @amiranimerawi, a Palestinian nurse and the founder of, Ballare-co, a female led social enterprise dedicated to empowering women in Palestine. We creates masks for Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, Palestine. It’s really crazy how you can meet people virtually, find out that you have the same interests, and collaborate with them towards a cause you both care about! Which is exactly what we did! The masks were designed by me and produced in a local factory in Bethlehem. Right now, we're getting ready for a new round, that will once again be made in Bethlehem. It was amazing to have an opportunity to work alongside Palestinians. Plus, the collaboration not only provided masks to the local community, it created job opportunities.

Narmeen's IG Post & Caption July 10, 2020