Ibrahim Desooky: Finding a World Where the Heart Belongs

Ibrahim Desooky is a student of Architecture at Cornell University, where he was a group fitness instructor for Cornell Fitness Center. He is also passionate about fashion design, music, photography and dance. Born to Egyptian parents, he comes from a family of  extremely talented creators and designers who held a large sway over art and design in Old Cairo. In his story with MALA, Desooky shares his compelling insights about how mindfulness and an authentic, brave assessment of the self leads to the most fulfilling, enjoyable, and purposeful life experiences.

“Who am I?” isn’t the question we ask to the self within us when we first rise in the morning. Perhaps if we rose in the night, that question would be more common. In the darkness, we see and feel our identity very well. Eyes become wider, edges become clearer, and everything falls into two categories. Useful, useless; dangerous, benign; visible, invisible. The most important skill in darkness is the ability to render a realistic visualization of light.

To share a story is to share a vision of the past, a critique of the series of events that most influence a perspective. To paint a picture from memory, it will be warped. The details will be skewed, some standing out more than others. But one must put effort in documenting the memories that aren’t immediately visible in hindsight. These can be crucial to the interpretation of the future. One cannot only learn from darkness. The grey memory and the white are valuable, if not more.

I don’t think my childhood was especially bad or good. It was complex in many ways, dealing with parents who were more mature than most parents. My father had me at 40, which makes me feel bad for the two boys he’s having now at 61. My mother had cancer before I was born, and I grew up accustomed to the lifestyle of a cancer patient. My father worked for the City of New York, an engineer who made ends meet creatively. He spent spare time working on homes and land, building extensions to homes and renovating others, as a hobby and a source of income. This taught me a few things about construction that I happily use today in my studies. Mom was a house wife, who cooked better than most Middle Eastern women, which I did not take for granted. I shadowed her in the kitchen and while gathering tastings of sauces and delicate creations, I learned to cook.

Television taught me English at 6 am every morning, beginning at age 3. Arabic was as natural as my 5 senses. Clothing was usually my brother’s, except when I bought it with my savings. Music to me was about rhythm, a celebration of pattern and expression. At 8 years old, I invested time into learning percussion, and at a certain point I was so serious about it that my father had to stop me in my tracks. Control is a big part of parenting in my case that probably worked in some ways but hurt in others. Going to Egypt meant meeting people who shared my interests and talents; playing the doumbek drums, cooking with family and seeing different interpretations of classic recipes, and most importantly developing a visual library in my mind that is directly related to my ancestry.

To walk through Khan el Khalili in old Cairo is a style lesson; for every designer it is a school with no teacher. You memorize patterns and color combinations and your mind develops an understanding of the movement of the line in space, upon a material, against a texture, with strength and distribution. This means something else to most people. This means everything to me.

In the very streets that display these divine formations of artwork for commerce is where my family thrived as designers and creators. A family of big names in the area of Al Azhar, a long line of leather tanners, drapers, patternmakers, and surface designers specializing in hand and machine embroidery of fabric and clothing. A family of designers that held ground in the most dangerous, competitive, and highly renowned design district of Old Cairo. They were extremely talented and built a sub empire in the community that attracted people from outside of Cairo, from Giza to Alexandria. This is how my parents met. Naturally they were fierce, respecting their trade, competition, and their customers. This area of the city was also known as a market for narcotics, which hindered the educational development of most of the youth living in the area. My father and his siblings were first in many to gain their college educations, on very little financial support.

My grandfather was rather talented and his talents were recognized and respected. It is known that he played doumbek so well that any woman would dance once he played. I did not know he was a talented musician, until I picked up the doumbek and family members noticed a trend. More importantly he was a master clothing designer.

Similarly, I didn’t understand my proclivity for design until I reached college and was well into architecture school. A mentor in high school, one that has a tremendous influence on my personal development, told me it could be the right direction. At this point my mother had passed away just months beforehand, and my father had remarried. This is when I started to feel truly alone inside myself, but I took strength in my aspirations. I took introductory classes at City College of New York during high school, and it was enjoyable to learn about something so visual and creative. Commuting through the city daily was also a form of education, being exposed to the aesthetic of the international world with new eyes, evaluating architecture, fashion, music, and performance. After this I couldn’t return to normal education methods. I no longer wished to write, but instead to draw and construct, to make things with my hands, to capture images, to imagine worlds, to narrate a story through concept and texture.

The end of high school was not interesting to me. Everything seemed useless and pointless. It was very strange for me to do badly in school, and my grades plummeted. After a childhood of real passion for studies and reading, this was not normal. I spent the year indifferent about many things and resorted to drawing and bike riding for entertainment. Then on the morning of my graduation day of high school, the most important thing that could possibly happen to me happened.

I was sleeping in, because graduation was in the afternoon, but at 9 am the phone rang and I thought it was someone like telemarketers or an annoying friend. I picked up half asleep, and the voice of a happy young woman says to me, “Would you still be interested in coming to Cornell University?” I laughed hard for a bit and told her to send the acceptance letter. It was very shocking and I felt humbled by something that felt so great. I had applied very late to Cornell, and missed the portfolio submission deadline, but they told me to send my work regardless. Receiving this call was magical.

I told no one. The news was inside me, like something you protect from evil with all of your powers. After walking through graduation, watching the sun showers pass over us and dismissing the congregation of monkeys that were my classmates for one last light hearted time, I pulled my mentor aside and told her, “Cornell accepted me. What do you think?” She said “You have nothing to lose. Go for it.” With no belief in myself, or my chance at being able to attend this institution, all I needed was these words.

Architecture school has helped me become who I’ve always wanted to become: an independent creative individual. This is where I gained freedom from the opinions of those who showed oppression and judgement. I fought to free myself from the burden of finances, the burden of choosing to be who I want to be. Nothing feels better than making a confident choice, and seeing the positive consequence of the choice. I see people my age struggling from being under the grasp of their parents and peers because of things like finances, sexuality, relationships, and career aspirations. The only thing I can tell them is that success depends on strengthening your own voice until it is the most powerful one in your life. It is okay to make mistakes in your choices. Nobody learns anything by being correct all the time. Think for yourself, make your own decisions, push for what you believe in, and if you happen to be wrong, realign your goals so that you are moving in the right direction.

It has not been easy being in an Ivy League school. I see others with 4.0 GPA’s because they go to less competitive schools or they are in less demanding majors, while I struggle to pass classes at times and I swim very hard to survive in this school. I have failed and retaken classes, and I am not ashamed. I am proud to have made it this far, and I can only go further at this rate. Failure to me means understanding weakness and overcoming it. Excellence to me means talent and genuine ability to do something great. I am happy to have dealt with both.

Last year was tough for me because I was at the climax of the war for my independence from my father and those who wish to control me. The fight was destroying me and I took the year off from school. I became reserved and focused on trying to survive. I found that architecture as a profession was rather unhealthy and became depressed by the idea of dedicating a large portion of my career towards drawing on a computer for long hours during the week. Many do not know this, but this is the typical emerging architect’s life. You spend 60 hour work weeks in the office meeting tight deadlines and iterating through designs, which is something that needs true dedication and heart.

I decided to move to another position and worked on graphic design in the realm of fashion and learned a lot about managing a company and ideas of marketing and branding a designer label. This is something I may revisit at a time when I am ready to put my work on the market.

I was interested in becoming a model for a while, because I thought that it was a great thing. But after investing myself in it very briefly, I realized that it’s fleeting and there are better things that I can invest my time into, with more fruitful results. A designer once told me, “The world opens doors for attractive people.” This is a useful idea to keep in mind. I was a regular at the gym and focused on becoming more muscular. This was slightly boring for me, like eating vegetables, so I decided to take a Zumba class and try dancing it out. I appreciated music and dance already, but here is where I started to develop a large part of my life.

I stood in the back of the class and was intimidated by the presence of so many women in one room. I felt insecure and embarrassed when men saw me in the class. But it was too much fun! It taught me how to let go, to stop worrying about anyone else, and focus on what I’m doing and BE MYSELF. It was a new form of expression that broke so many barriers in my development. I danced at the bus stop, in the subway waiting for my trains to arrive, and I became so confident in myself that I took a bus back to Cornell and auditioned to teach Zumba for the upcoming school year. My boss said my audition was the most fun Zumba class she had ever been a part of. I then became a group fitness instructor for Cornell Fitness Centers. Through this I was able to connect with many people on campus and strengthen the community through dance, music and being active. My students range from youth to professors, and they all love and work out together equally. I have never had a better job or learned so much about myself and others. People recognize me for my work, which in my opinion is the greatest way to be inspirational and lead a purposeful life.

Advising the youth who have similar cultural backgrounds, I’d say education is everything. It will take you far, if you decide to work hard and learn from those teaching you. Learn what you want to learn. If your studies don’t deliver you the knowledge that you seek, you must seek that knowledge independently. Don’t wait for answers to come to you. I only started taking courses in fashion design because I finally understood that it is something I am genuinely interested in. The further you dig, the more you will find. And one last thing: appreciate those who push you very hard to be excellent. Do not let sexuality drive your decisions. It may ruin you and do tons of damage to your direction. Countless peers fall prey to that one.

I speak to God for guidance and I accept whatever He delegates to be my fate. I look up to his creations for strength and inspiration. After all, he is the best creator and architect of all.

I’ve designed a special place in the heart for my mother, and I use the knowledge she left with me to dictate many of my choices — especially my cooking!! Every meal I make, every day, it is in her essence. This brings me joy, and she will always be my best friend. Her spirit is a part of me that lives on. Those who we love are never truly lost.

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