The Responsibility of Representation with Hajar Azzam
In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Disney’s Hajar Azzam.
Creative industries are constantly and rapidly changing. One of the key reasons is that emerging young creative leaders are breaking through and bringing their own ideas, perspectives, energy and enthusiasm to the space.
One great example who I recently spoke with is Hajar Azzam, a 23-year-old Palestinian who grew up in the UAE and moved to the US to study as a teenager, and now works at Disney.
I first learned about Hajar via a mutual friend at Disney, who introduced us and suggested that our ideas would resonate. She was right. I was curious to find out more about her approach to creativity and spirituality, and she kindly agreed to a Zoom call. As we started talking, it was clear to see her desire to broaden her horizons, and the reason behind such drive.
“Growing up in the UAE, I was always in a bubble: In my community, attending my classes, doing my Qur’an lessons, being that ‘religious kid’. And then I moved to the US aged 16, and I really took it as an opportunity to learn more,” she said.
“I challenged myself to connect with folks who had very different backgrounds than mine. Because to me, exploring new perspectives not only help you grow, but in many causes can bring so much hope.”
“To me, learning and understanding things from different perspectives is hope.”
“But it wasn’t easy, putting myself into a group of people who were very different. Especially coming to the US, with the media representation that isn’t great.”
Hajar explained that she had to prove to people that she was different to what they had seen and heard about Muslims – a common challenge for Muslims in the west.
A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 48% of Muslim American adults said that they had personally experienced some form of discrimination because of their religion in the previous year. This included a range of experiences, from people acting suspicious of them, to being physically threatened or attacked. This was higher than 2011 figures of 43%, and 40% in 2007.
Pew also found that 75% of Muslims in the US said that there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims there, while 62% believed that American people do not see Muslims as part of mainstream society. This despite the fact that 53% of non-Muslim Americans said they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim, and 52% saying they know ‘not much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about Islam.
Against this backdrop, Hajar explained that her first year at the University of California Los Angeles, which she attended from 2016-2020, was defined by her attempts to challenge perceptions.
“A lot of my work was centered around my Muslim identity, and how “relatable” some aspects of it are even for folks who don’t share that background” she said about her degree in Design Media Arts, with a focus on Animation.
“For example, I took a motion capture animation class where we 3d modelled puppets and performed them at the end of the semester. My character was an Arab mum, dressed in prayer clothes, talking about her kids’ accomplishments, and so on. I just thought it would be really funny, and I made her rap to a Nicki Minaj song.
“You know, it was a joke, a silly performance, but oh my goodness. I had professors coming to me saying ‘we didn’t know you could do that’. Do what exactly? I wanted them to elaborate more on ‘allowed to do that’. I mean, it’s good that people were trying to ask questions and learn more, but you could see the really sad impact of the media – terminology like ‘allowed’, reflecting that I’m oppressed and can’t express myself.
“So in my last year, I was really adamant about making work with Muslim representation that was more about universal experiences. A struggle that lots of groups feel in the US is that they have the pressure of ‘representing’. Representation doesn’t necessarily mean talking about your roots and where you come from – although that’s very beautiful and I definitely cherish that. Sometimes it’s just about existing and being yourself. And I felt like that was something that was very hard for people to wrap their heads around.”
For Hajar, design gave her an opportunity to not only represent Muslims in a very honest, authentic, and human way, but also help non-Muslim audiences better understand Muslims.
She explains that she sees this as a responsibility born out of her talents, her opportunities, and her experiences; a responsibility she honed at UCLA.
“Before I attended this program, I was making art on my own, doing graphic design. And my thinking behind my design process was, I would say, very spiritual.
“I’ve always thought of design as a tool to help others. It’s a tool that can clarify communications. It’s inclusive in the sense that everyone can look at a sign and understand what it is, per se, versus say a language, or a certain word you might not understand. So to me it was always like, how can I take something that comes with certain challenges, and make it easier? How can I put it in a way that’s easier for people to understand? That was always my work.”
“How can I take something that comes with certain challenges, and make it easier? How can I put it in a way that’s easier for people to understand?”
Hajar explained that it was during this period that representation and service really emerged as a primary focus.
“When I came to the program and started making work that represents just me – thinking only about myself – it was difficult. It was hard to think of design as something that isn’t in service to other people,” she said.
“So I started to think about what representation can look like. How can I represent in different ways? How can I use my technical skills in service to the Muslim community, for example? For all four years as an undergrad, I was a part of the Muslim Student Association, designing all the flyers and anything else they needed with graphic design.
“So, starting off with that, I gained more skills and thought about how I might have a bigger impact, and build something more.
“I felt so privileged to be doing what I was doing, and with that privilege came responsibility. I’ve been given this opportunity, so I want to make the most out of it, and give back. This is something I grew up on, and hold dear to my heart.”
It’s no surprise that Hajar was awarded a Chancellor’s Service Award in her graduation year for her work with the Muslim Student Association. Here T-shirts and flyers with the slogan ‘Unapologetically Muslim’, and posters for the university’s solidarity event, Hijab Day, drew particular attention.
And no doubt helping to sharpen her creative skills, and talent for representation was her 2019 internship at Sesame Workshop – the nonprofit behind Sesame Street.
Working as a production intern, she helped with content feedback on the Arabic language translation, as well as Arab and Muslim representation, for an episode about refugee children for Ahlan Simim – the Arabic language version of Sesame Street.
It proved to be a taste of things to come, as Hajar joined Disney earlier this year as executive assistant to the vice president of team RISE (Representation, Inclusion Strategies and Engagement).
I was fascinated to know what it means to her to be part of such a huge, global organisation – especially considering her mission to reach people through her work.
“With Disney, I’m able to see the huge impact representation can have on audiences all around the world,” she said.
And it's clear that impact is important to Hajar, especially from a spiritual perspective. I asked if there are any aspects of spirituality that she tried to include in her professional practice, and she explained it’s an area she’s been exploring and seeking to understand more; separating spirituality and culture.
“Growing up in a Muslim household, in a Muslim majority country, and being taught Islam from a very young age, there are certain things that I love and cherish. But there are other things that I think, well, is this cultural rather than Islamic?
“It’s very easy to follow certain things because people say you should, but it’s important to be critical. So in the past few years, I’ve been really trying to think more about that – challenging my thinking process.
“I think the concept of Ihsan is one that really sticks out to me the most. I want to do things in the best way possible. It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is; I just want to do my best and put my all into whatever it is I do.”
“I want to do things in the best way possible. It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is; I just want to do my best and put my all into whatever it is I do.”
I asked whether there is anything in particular that she would like to ‘put her all into’, and she explained that “making narratives inclusive is front of my mind”.
“As I’m starting my career at Disney, I’d love to get to a place where I create stories about belonging, being a part of something bigger.
“Not just that, but also stories that represent the background I come from – being Palestinian, being immigrant, being the daughter of refugees; presenting that through a Muslim lens and understanding the spirituality behind that. That’s something that would be really dope to put out.”
Being at Disney, you would imagine that these stories are absolutely doable. The entertainment colossus has been heavy on representation in recent years, and have gone out of their way to ensure authenticity.
Movies such as Raya and the Last Dragon, Moana, and Encanto are a far cry from Aladdin and Pochahontas, for example, while the Eid Mubarak song on TV show Mira, Royal Detective generated a lot of conversation last year.
And Hajar is grateful that she’s been given a platform that supports such representation, with bosses who encourage her to be ‘unapologetically Muslim’.
“It’s crazy to me how things have worked out,” she said. “Just last week we were working on this team offsite. My boss, Marya Bangee, is Muslim, and we have our director of Talent Pathways on the team, Mahin Ibrahim, who is also Muslim.
“I was making the agenda, and in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘well, I’m going to have to pray dhuhr [midday prayer] at this time, so let me try to put lunch around that time…’ But my boss said, oh, just put ‘prayer break’. And I thought, oh, it’s that easy? Just like that?
“And that alone, seeing their way of making being Muslim so easy, it always brings tears to my eyes. I am so thankful to be here.
“I never thought in a million years that my first career in Hollywood would be under a Muslim boss, and somebody who is really wonderful and has a mission of bringing more Muslims, and letting them be comfortable in their spiritual path in a creative space.
“And just having this discussion now, knowing that there are other people who have navigated their way through these two paths, is really special. It’s really important.”
This is a sentiment I fully share. For all of us walking the two paths of creativity and spirituality, knowing you’re not walking alone really is important. Which makes people like Hajar so inspiring.
Her work to include people; to make them feel seen, heard, valued, and much less alone, is a beautiful expression of service, and I’m excited to see how she’ll bring this inclusivity, spirituality, and Ihsan into the mainstream in the years ahead.
Peter Gould is the founder of Gould Studio, and advocates for Heart-Centered Design to inspire meaningful products & brands that align with spiritual aspirations. He teaches The Heart of Design program and is currently writing a book on the subject. For more interviews, news and insights, please sign-up to the Gould Studio newsletter.