Transcript March 6th, 2017 — Interviewee: Ramia El Agamy Khan
Note: This is a transcript of a recorded interview — all speech as is, except for common filler words removed. The full episode is available here.
So can you just start by briefly introducing yourself?
Okay, well, I’m a classical immigrant story, so we’re Dutch-Egyptians who were born and raised in Switzerland, and who currently operate a family business so my whole family’s involved in work between Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. We have a education solutions company, we have a profit organization that specializes in family businesses, and we have a media company which I head, which basically has publishing credits, also provides content strategy services to private enterprises, so that’s what I’m doing. So I’m a media person if you will. That’s what my main job, but I would call myself more of a serial entrepreneur I guess, and it’s been a great ride for the eight years since I’ve been out of school, I don’t think any day has been the same, but I have been consistently working on the same goal which is building a big company with my family.
Okay, wow, quite a diverse story of where you guys are working, so you said you’re working particularly in media, so is that content creation, or —
Yeah, so we have — it’s a fun story, we started 8 years ago, we very naively thought it would be a great idea to start a print publication in 2008…yeah…I let that one sink in, stupid idea obviously, print was already on its way out, but ironically the product we started then has become the best product by now, so we are the publishers of Tharawat Magazine, which is probably the leading publication in the world on family-owned businesses, so, we’ve profiled big names that you might recognize, like the Lamborghini family, Caran D’Ache, those big family businesses, family-owned companies, so we’ve been profiling them around the world, we’ve done hundreds of those profiles, so we’re on print and digital, so that’s a big one, and we have another content portal which is for women in and around private enterprises, called Womeninfamilybusinesses.org, so yeah we have various brands, content brands, and on the other side what we do, we advise companies on how to create content strategies, so we’re sort of in the business of creating content culture for businesses, because they tend to not realize how to create content around what they do, so this is where our storytelling ability comes in, like getting the same the narrative across for everyone, so that’s what we do on the other side, so our media company is called Orbis Terrae Media, which orbis terrae is the latin word for global everywhere sort of a thing and that’s truly what we are. We don’t believe in borders and nationalities, we believe that content and storytelling is what brings us all together a lot, so that’s what we do, yeah, in a nutshell.
Wow, amazing, I mean, considering that, I feel like this question is a bit redundant, but do you consider yourself an artistic person?
Okay, I would not ever claim that. I think I am probably a creative survivor, like you know, when you have the background that we have, which is still very privileged but still, my Dad comes from very different kind of starting point, and I think we come from a perspective of you have to make something out of everything, and I think there’s a big aesthetic drive for us behind everything we do, so everything that’s around us, we want to make it beautiful and the only way that we know how is through entrepreneurship. So I guess in a way that’s our art form is we try to make everything more beautiful through the way we create businesses around it, and the way — in my particular case we create content around it, so I would say maybe we are creatives in that respect, I wouldn’t call it art because for me art encompasses another type of life choice, you know what I mean, which would mean like an actual dedication to a craft and a skill that I would then perform myself as opposed to enhancing — we’re more creating platforms and facilitating products that allow other people to do such things, so I would say creative is more the word that I would apply to us, if that.
Okay. So, you’d consider yourself a creative survivor, but do you participate in the arts? I mean, do you have that as part of your life at all?
Yeah, I would say very much — I mean, for me, define the arts —
That is the question —
That is the question right? Like for me, I grew up with a very extensive musical education, and I have always been someone who likes — music for me is a huge part of my life, at the same time it’s a huge source of energy, whether as a performer or whether as a consumer of music, there’s a huge part of me that lives there, I would say, in a big way, and that probably will never be entirely able to deal with the outside world as it is, because it just lives in there. I’ve always been a great admirer of art in the sense that my understanding of it I think as an intellectual area is extremely limited, but I’m deeply deeply appreciate of the sensations it provides me, so I’m a big museum goer, I’m a real Impressionist if you will, for me Monet’s paintings can — put me in front of a Monet painting I will very likely cry, and for me the performance arts, like dance has played a huge role in my life, I danced most of my childhood and throughout adulthood as well, but I think one of my favorite performance art is definitely the stage, theater, theater is huge in my life in the sense that I enjoy it so much, and as a consumer though, purely as a consumer, so in terms of — if you ask me difference between where I participate in, it’s more like music, etc, as someone who’s receptive to art, I think for me, as I said, the impressionism and theater, if you want to add literature, I don’t know if you would consider literature to be an art form — for me then that would be the other big area next to music. So music is extremely important, literature I would say overall, on average, saves my life about six times a week. Literally like that. Stories, and like the authors behind those stories, they do, that’s the most accessible type of art form in a way, and I think I have a whole world outside of this world that goes on in there with me and my books and my stories, it has nothing to do with you or with whomever I’m talking to right now, and for me — I don’t like the word escape, because I have nothing to escape from, but I’ve consciously created that world that I can go into also to gain perspective on what’s happening on the outside, so I guess — so I guess I do have a lot of art in my life actually when I think about it! I never thought about it in a way, it’s actually true! But as a consumer, as someone who benefits from other people’s artistic endeavors, like I derive a huge benefit from it, that’s how I see it as a consumer of art.
Okay, yeah, interesting. So, do you have a particularly memorable experience of art?
Any art in particular you want me to talk about, or like —
I just mean, like an experience that was particularly memorable for you, but like a performance, or something, that really stuck with you after, kind of a big moment in some way, if you have one.
Okay, I did think about it a bit before we spoke today — actually, I’m able to identify when I understood what art means. Like when I said that moment which was of course triggered by a Monet, so I don’t know if you know, but Monet has done these paintings of the woman with the sun parasol, and he’s done I think two or three of them, I don’t know if you’ve seen them, she’s in a field, and she’s holding this parasol and there’s one where there’s a child next to her and I think two of them where there’s no child, and the child is in the background, and I remember I think as an 11, 12 year old, we got to copy a painting in class, we had to copy, and I chose that one, so I chose the Monet, and because it was so, it was so moving, even at that age I understood that it was very moving, so I got really — I loved it very much, and from that painting, I just looked at it and I was like, as a child I understood that it’s so sad — why is it so sad? I could feel how sad he was when he was painting that, and it’s really weird and it took me a long time to actually look that up, because after that I became very obsessed with Monet, I used to have these Monet postcards all over my room and stuff like that, all his paintings, and it was only years later when I went to the Louvre, when I saw one of the originals, not the one I was copying that is very close to my heart, but another one of the ladies with parasol, and the description somehow said that this had been Monet’s wife who died, and it’s just I think that’s when I made the connection, the fact that he had been able, I don’t know how many decades after he was alive, and he died, to convey that emotion to me, sitting in a classroom in a totally different context, that he was able to convey that love to me, that made the connection in my head, so that’s what it’s supposed to be about. You know what I mean, like that was like okay, and I measure every single art form and the sensations it’s supposed to awaken in me to that moment in time, I feel like I’m able to make the connection with the emotion that is trying to be conveyed to me in that sense.
I can have it with watching the Nutcracker ballet, for instance I can have it with that, Tchaikovsky’s music is huge in my life as well, but the performance of the ballet as well, I understand what they’re trying to do and I understand what they’re trying to convey, and that’s like I said, you know that connection point I think I’ll compare everything, every single art form with that moment where I realized, that for me is art.
Wow, it’s a beautiful story. So we were kind of talking about this earlier, but I still want to ask it, which is that moment is a huge moment, obviously, but in your daily experience, does it include art do you think? I mean, is there art around you right now, as you’re going to the subway or your car or wherever…
Well yes, as I said, I think that music is there every day for sure, that’s almost an essential part. I wouldn’t say that I would die without it, but I would just be considerably worse off as a human being without music, so music is there every day. I think that, how shall I say it, it sounds really weird, see for me art doesn’t just stop with what you produce for others to see, I see a lot of people who for instance who’ve made a good life under very difficult circumstances, and for me that’s an art form that I witness every day. You know what I mean, just the art of how they live, that’s almost like the most touching kind of performance art in that respect because I see how they make — again, this idea of making something where there’s nothing, or where there’s negative and making it beautiful, so that kind of stuff I see happening every day, whether that is being exhibited in a museum or not, or being like performed on the stage or not is a different matter, but that kind of art I see every day, it’s very subtle, probably no one will call it art, if I talk to you like that right now I will probably call it art, because it’s the art of living, which is primary to everything else.
Otherwise in terms of consumption, yeah, I’m a huge musical fan, I love watching a musical, I love films, I’m a huge black and white movie fanatic, absolutely, my Humphreys, my James Stewarts, for me cinematic art is huge on my thing, so I guess yeah, on a daily art I interact with it in some shape or form but without always thinking of it as art, but if you ask me like that, yeah, in that case, it has a place in every day life for sure.
Okay. So, the next couple questions — you said something about — without music you wouldn’t die, but your life would be extraordinarily worse off, and I kind of want to take that a step further, that if we were to remove the art the from the world, we wouldn’t die, but what would life be like, if we were taking all that art out?
Oh. Well, I mean, I was talking for myself, I meant if there’s a day or a week when I don’t have access to music, I’d probably just hum it in my head, I think however to imagine a world without art…is to imagine a world without the most important, or I would say the most visible way of expressing our humanity. You know what I don’t like about art sometimes, or what I don’t like about the conversation around art is how over intellectualized we’ve made it, like I don’t like that, I don’t generally like that about human beings, we tend to take something that is actually very raw and very primitive and is actually very beautiful in its purity because it’s the expression of ourself, and we take it, and we make it into this elitist, society thing — like a lot of people feel like they’ll never have access to that, and they’ll never be good enough — I mean it’s happened to me, I’ll be in a room who call themselves artists or like art lovers and I’ll be there, you know people stand next to me and next to a painting, and be like, I love what he did with the negative spaces, and I’m like, okay? You know what I mean, I understand within your industry is interesting but I feel like makes it very much less accessible to other people.
I think art, if you were to take it away from the world, it would mean that human beings have probably stopped feeling, because if you are a human being, and you have to deal with emotion like everybody does, then you need some sort of expression, and for a large percentage of us, that type of expression is in some shape or form going to be in an art form, because we can’t — the problem with combining the mammal basic instincts and emotions with intelligence is that it’s created this grey zone, where we are intelligent but we are instinctive, and I think that’s where the art lives, where we’ve found ways to express what we feel and channel it into something we can share with other people, and I think that maybe probably the only difference between us and animals, if we’re being very honest, so I think in its most basic sense, if you ask me would we exist without art, probably, if we were to switch off — if we were to find a way to switch off emotions in human beings, probably, if we were purely intelligence driven, purely data driven, which a large part of our lives is starting to be, then I would say yeah, that would result in a world without art forms, because we would no longer have to deal with — because art in a way, it’s really weird, I’ve never had this conversation before, I’m so interested by this, art in a way is a huge way of dealing with conflict, and I think as human beings we’re so conflicted all the time. I mean I don’t know how many conflicts I go through on a daily basis, and if I think about it, if you were to protocol how many of those conflicts you actually deal with through an art form, be it I’m sad, I’ll listen to music, or be it, I’m pumped, I’m going, I don’t know, go to a concert, I’m going to a musical or ballet or all those things, I think there’s a huge overlap there in how we deal — probably how we deal with being human. Does that make any sense? It sounded really weird to me.
No, it does, it makes perfect sense actually, I was glad that you went on that, it’s a different perspective from what I’ve heard before. So, kind of taking it a bit and twisting it, you said humans — would we exist without art. So, the next question is, would we exist if art still existed, but we weren’t able to experience it as such?
Well, if you look at the story that I told you before, then — my question then becomes, but then is it still art, because if we can’t experience it, what’s the point then, do you see what I mean? Because that’s what I learned from the experience with the Monet, of like, for me, very subjectively, if I can’t experience it any more, then it is nothing, it isn’t, I can’t call it art, I can’t call it anything. I can’t — when that connection isn’t there, it loses the fulfillment of its main purpose, which is to somehow connect me with either the feeling that is behind or the message that is behind, or sometimes — I really think it comes back to really raw emotions in many ways, like imagine being able to see a painting, and to experience grief on that person’s behalf, hundreds of years later. That is like the most insane thing ever, I still don’t understand how he did that. Because you could just as well say that that painting is beautiful — and oh, it’s gorgeous — but it made me sad, which means that he — so that’s what I’m saying, if I can’t feel that anymore, then it becomes quote unquote just a painting and then probably you just have appreciation for the technicality of it, and I don’t know if I call that art, I don’t know because it feels like art should still be about — because we have a lot of technical things in our lives, I mean this phone works for technical reasons, but if it doesn’t convey anything to me that is emotional, I wouldn’t consider it in an art, I would consider it an engineering product, so for me there’s a difference there.
Okay, okay. So the last question is pretty simple, and that’s just what do you think it means to live an artful life?
An artful life, so a life full of art, or an artful life? I mean, I’m an editor…
(Laughing) Nobody’s asked that question before! The reason I ask is because I’m calling this show It’s an artful life, so I ask artful life.
So you’re asking how to live an artful life?
What do you think it means, really.
I think it’s interesting, it’s really interesting how we’re being raised, sorry I just have to go back to that, we’re being raised and you grow up and I remember a lot of my teachers, interesting teaching mode, obviously, telling me that it would be very hard for me to keep up my idealism as I grow older, they were very disillusioned already by that time, and they were telling me it’s going to be hard to life by the standards that you want to live by morally, ethically, and just in line with who you want to be, and I remember them, thinking first of all what a weird thing that is to tell a young girl but then also to think that, I’ll show you. And how I’ve actually spent a lot of my life fighting against the indifference that a lot of people associate with growing up, so we’re supposed to toughen up, we’re supposed to become more matter-of-fact, now don’t get me wrong, Gillian, I’m a huge fan of common sense, I’m common sense central, absolutely. But I also don’t believe that life is worth living unless you explore your vulnerabilities and what they open you up to feeling, because if your aim is to become — what do you call it — impermeable — in English…that you become — that nothing can touch you, because you’re so strong and you’re so grown up, I think that the experience of life is totally lost on you then. I think for me artful living, and probably also a way of having a life full of art is to understand that your vulnerabilities are the things that open you up to receiving the beauty of art but also to living your life in a way that it could be considered the ultimate art form, because if you don’t understand that’s essentially what makes human, that’s essentially where you connect with other people the most, through, and even as an entrepreneur, my job is to solve problems, I see a problem, I have to solve it. I have to solve it! So all I do really is to work with vulnerabilities, is to work with things that are not there, and that should be there, because it will help people and it will create a more — hopefully a better society, better world, whatever, longer term goals are. So yeah, I would say it’s about stopping to see vulnerability and also idealism and dreams as something we need to stop, as something we need to inhibit, but you understand that has to continue to live with us and to grow with us and that it’s again, and that does not make you a non-pragmatic, it doesn’t make you a non-realist, it just makes you someone who has an artful life, I guess. Yeah.
Such a beautiful answer, thank you so much for talking with me, I really, I found it really interesting.
Thanks. I’m really glad!
“It’s an artful life!” is an experiment on how people see and experience the arts on a daily basis. New interviews are released weekly on Mondays. Be sure to follow the podcast on Soundcloud here!