“I’m not a talented artist who draws elaborately or a prolific writer who writes poetically, but with the right pen or pencil, I can feel – for a moment – like one or the other,” says the under-the-radar founder of Elaa, who prefers simply to be known as MZ.
Born in Abu Dhabi, Elaa produces “concept pens” and its first design, the Touine, is a manifestation of MZ’s long-held love for writing instruments. In the 1990s, his first significant purchases were a fountain pen and a mechanical pencil, he recalls.
“Both were substantially more expensive than my Dh50 monthly allowance as an 11-year-old, and required some saving to buy. I admired the craft, the writing performance, the theatre of its packaging and, of course, the prestige and privilege I felt while using them.”
The young MZ also lived next to a stationery shop and would spend his afternoons perusing its shelves. “I still get that feeling of being in a toy store when I’m in a stationery shop, and every country I travel to, I have to visit their stationery and pen stores.”
His interest in pens translates into philosophical musings about the act of writing and the pen as a symbol of communication and culture; but also as a deep-rooted knowledge of the history and geographical differences between writing instruments around the world, from disposable Japanese gel ink pens to rare German fountain pens.
After graduating with a degree in design management from the American University of Sharjah, MZ shifted his focus to filmmaking, and continues to direct and produce films, TV shows and branded content. But, at his core, he says he is “a designer/creative, in the most abstract sense”, which led him to making his own writing instruments.
The Arabic word elaa translates as “to” or “towards”, and is a way of addressing someone in a letter or a package. But also, significantly, it is the Finnish word for “to live” or “be alive”, MZ notes.
“By that I mean the pen is only alive when ink is flowing through it. That trinity of pen, person and paper makes all three alive and the result is a permanent expression of that aliveness.”
Sculptural, tactile and organic, the Touine does feel like a living thing. It is crafted primarily from the fronds of date palms, a material that intrigues MZ for numerous reasons. “People here would know that every single part of a frond was used for crafts or construction not so long ago. Before concrete, cladding or plastic, it was part of the scarce reality of the desert that nothing is wasted.
“Today, these fronds are discarded or even worse, burned, because they no longer serve a purpose. With a huge and growing dates industry, I find the environmental implications of that quite troubling.
“As a material, it has really interesting properties; it has a very high weight to strength ratio when dry, which is why it was used as a construction material. Yet, after a certain length, it becomes flexible. The leaves of the frond, the khose, have been used for weaving baskets and other household items for centuries,” he says.
Limited to only 71 pieces and priced at Dh7,121 ($1,940) each, the Touine comes with limited-edition works by local artists Mariam Abbas and Khalid Mezaina, a box organiser made with the safeefah weaving technique, and a PlyPalm mastaba base with a camel leather surface.
The Touine’s roots in this region have added resonance, given that the written word evolved in two separate locations, Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in this part of the world. This sense of history is alluded to in the pen’s brass cap, which mimics the shape of the qalam, an ancient reed pen used in Arabic calligraphy.
But that’s not to say Elaa is married to the past. “As someone who believes that the fine writing instrument industry is mostly rooted in a 20th-century tradition, with major brands desperately looking back into their archives for inspiration, I want Elaa to be a writing instrument brand that is born in our time, and not in the past,” says MZ.
“I feel that Elaa responded to a question that I asked myself even before starting out: What does it mean to be an artisanal/luxury product in the 21st century? And what would that entail creatively, environmentally and economically?”