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Breathing centuries worth of culture back into the evil eye tradition with Sayran Open in fullscreen

Maedeh Sharifi

Breathing centuries worth of culture back into the evil eye tradition with Sayran

Jewellery by Los Angeles based designer Sayran Barzani

Date of publication: 4 March, 2021

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LA-based jewellery designer, Sayran Barzani, is reclaiming the Middle East's evil eye tradition with her eponymous label Sayran.
From high-street to high end, the jewellery industry in the West loves the evil eye emblem. The amulet can be found on necklaces, earring, to bracelets. What is missing most of the time, however, is the cultural context and this is where Los Angeles based designer Sayran Barzani comes in.

"I wanted to own these traditional pieces but from someone who knows and appreciates the cultural history of this symbol," she tells The New Arab. "This prompted me to sort of do it myself."

She has spent the last seven years working on her label Sayran, with February marking the fifth anniversary of its official launch.

"I've always been around the symbolism of the evil eye, from my elders — my mum, grandma, aunts, their friends," Sayran says, adding that she comes from a Kurdish background. 

"It was something we always saw growing up. I wanted to highlight it in a new way, a way that mixed traditional with new." 

The evil eye itself is understood as being a curse inspired by envy from another person. The belief is that someone successful can attract the envy of those close to them, the envy will manifest itself as a curse that will make the person lose out on their good fortune.

But the concept of the evil eye transcends borders. Blue evil eye beads were used by many ancient civilisations including the Assyrians, Ottomans, Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the Romans. 

I've always been around the symbolism of the evil eye, from my elders — my mum, grandma, aunts, their friends

The earliest version of eye amulets dates back to 3,300 BC in a Mesopotamian city called Tell Brak, modern-day Syria.

Today, in places such as Turkey, tourists are guaranteed to find a strong supply of evil eye amulets. 

Sayran's collections are a reminder of the tradition's stronghold in the Middle East, but also give the evil eye amulets a brand-new makeover, carefully questioning the conventions of tradition, giving herself no limit to what she experiments with.

Where the traditional evil eye amulet is in blue, Barzani has also tested it with other colours ranging from green, red, to even black. 

"I want all my pieces to have a traditional homeland feel to them but in a new generational way," Sayran says. 

Speaking to The New Arab, Sayran gives an insight on how her upbringing influences her designs, "All my collections are heavily inspired by growing up in a super traditional Kurdish household in the United States. I enjoy creating things that remind me of my whole self, and that means mixing together both my upbringings."

The amulet of the evil eye has become a universally recognised symbol of protection against insidious forces and intent.

For the Middle Eastern diaspora, sporting it can be for that reason, but not always. It is also worn as a symbol of heritage, or sign of a person's belief in the concept of the evil eye. 

Yasmine Tebib, an Algerian born and Omani raised currently studying in the United States says, "Evil eye jewellery makes me personally feel connected to my Arab roots. 

"I wear these symbols because they help me express my heritage, however I do not believe that with them I am protected completely. I am protected by God's grace and mercy. They are cultural self expression tools more so than anything for me," she adds.

Evil eye jewellery makes me personally feel connected to my Arab roots

Sayran is a part of the diaspora in the West that can often find themselves on a journey of navigating their identity. Her inspiration reflects her own experience of this.

"I really wanted to intertwine my Kurdish upbringing in the United States with the feelings I carried in my soul for my ancestral homeland," she says. 

She has channelled the challenges of such journeys into creating the most unique, and stunning pieces. 

Sayran's pieces, however, are not just highly personal to her, wearers of her brand carry their personal stories and she honoured by the responses she receives.

"It makes me happy when my work resonates with someone who maybe grew up in a similar way — a lot of us who grew up in the diaspora carry the weight of our homelands, being away from them, learning how to navigate our identities in worlds that choose not to understand them, so I really wanted my work to celebrate all of that," she explains. 

While Sayran's creative connects the diaspora to their roots, it also exists to change the narrative on the Middle East — a region that has always been misunderstood.  

A lot of us who grew up in the diaspora carry the weight of our homelands, being away from them, learning how to navigate our identities in worlds that choose not to understand them, so I really wanted my work to celebrate all of that

"The region is much more than its trauma and many creatives within and outside of the region seem to be putting in work to shine a light on this. My grandfather's collective work is a reminder that you can do both, be both as an artist. You can paint the beauty and you can also share the struggle."

Sayran's late grandfather has been a source of great inspiration for her jewellery.

"He was a Kurdish painter and used his work to depict both and beauty and tragedy of the Kurdish people," she reveals to The New Arab. "He passed away in October and I hold his work even tighter now than ever before."

The Kurdish identity has been through phases of erasure and cultural assimilation in the Middle East, but Sayran's jewellery is a testament to their existence. 

While Sayran's social media account showcases her creations, it is also used as a platform to educate buyers on the rich history of the region.

Lyst reported that the search for 'evil eye jewellery' saw a 58 percent increase last year. Amid the pandemic, and with what has become an overwhelming collective need for a sense of protection, Sayran's evil eye collection brings you just that. 


Maedeh Sharifi is an Iranian-Arab journalist and writer with an interest in international relations and the Middle East region. 

Twitter: @maedeh_sharifi

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