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Olives, pistachios inspire young Gaza designers

Two students from the Gaza Strip won a regional package-design competition using sustainable materials to meet local needs, and their work is now being evaluated for world recognition.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — For two young Palestinian designers, inspiration came from objects close to home: a pistachio and an olive leaf.

Ahmad al-Zoum and Saher Abdel Hamid, both 20 years old, are the winners of the Arab Student Starpack Award in the Structural Packaging category for Palestine. The contest, organized jointly by the UN Industrial Development Organization and Lebanese packaging center Libanpack, is the first regional packaging competition in the Arab World for Arab university students.

As the winners from Palestine, they are now eligible to compete for the wider WorldStar Awards. The judging is currently underway and the winners will be announced in January.

The two students were informed about the contest by Mohammed al-Halabi, their graphic design instructor at the Gaza Community/Training College, and entered the contest together with six other students in the college. The entrants faced tough competition from other Palestinian participants studying for bachelor's and master's degrees.

Zoum was inspired by the shape of "fustuq halabi," Arabic for "pistachios of Aleppo," whose shells crack open into two parts. So he created packaging for nuts that divides into two parts — one for the nuts and the other for disposing the shells without littering. “I designed a creative box for nuts with a separate compartment for shells to facilitate shell disposal in public places,” he told Al-Monitor.

Abdel Hamid created an attractive cover for olive oil bottles. “I created an oil package that would prevent oil from dripping, in the shape of a beautiful olive tree leaf,” Abdel Hamid told Al-Monitor.

Halabi told Al-Monitor that the students produced original ideas to meet local needs.

The competition urged the students to come up with a new or improved packaging design for existing products using sustainable materials. The two students used recyclable cardboards. They sent off their work and waited about three months before they were informed of their victory by email in February.

Abdel Hamid was sitting in a coffee shop when his friend Zoum called him to tell him that he had won the competition and finished first in Palestine, urging him to check his email. When Abdel Hamid saw that he won second prize, he jumped up shouting, startling the people around him. He left the coffee shop eager to travel to Lebanon.

The two men were supposed to go with their project supervisor to the Lebanese capital Beirut last May to attend the ceremony honoring the winners, but they could not.

“The students did not have passports, and the process of issuing passports requires a long time given the complicated means of coordination between Gaza and the West Bank and the difficulty of leaving the Gaza Strip through the closed crossings, so we couldn’t make it to the ceremony,” Halabi said. A representative from the Palestinian Embassy in Lebanon received the awards on their behalf.

Despite their victory, Abdel Hamid and Zoum were disappointed as they failed to make it to Lebanon to receive the awards themselves.

“We would have liked to go to Lebanon to participate in the ceremony, to meet our judges and fellow participants and enjoy a well-deserved celebration, but we couldn’t,” Zoum said.

Abdel Hamid added, “I was hoping to be able to travel. I really wanted to visit the exhibition held following the ceremony to check out the creative designs and chat with the designers and draw inspiration from the creative ideas that come from many countries of the Arab world.”

Asked whether they would start working as freelance designers, the two students, who graduated a few months ago, said that design jobs are more commercial than truly creative, and companies that employ designers are not interested in original and unique designs.

Despite a statement on the school's website by director Jamil Hamad, who wrote of an urgent need for their specialization in universities "because the market requires it,” the two young designers noted that need does not necessarily translate into demand. According to Hamad, the Gaza Strip faces a decline in investment opportunities and a scarcity of resources, leading a large number of enterprises to neglect to cultivate new talent. In these harsh conditions, artists are further constrained by utilitarian approaches with no room for creativity.

“At a time when creative people find no interest in their talent and potential, these innovators remain scarce and most of them are forced to find whatever freelance work they can. Even when they can find full-time employment, designer salaries in Gaza range between 500 and 2,500 shekels a month [$143-$716],” Halabi said.

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