In Traffic with Ghanim Al-Sulaiti
Like many Doha residents, I first came to learn about Ghanim Al-Sulaiti via his Instagram, @ghanim92. An avid traveler, I found his vivid photos and reflective posts inspirational. For one thing, Ghanim prioritized his health by taking on a vegan lifestyle some three and a half years ago, something he passionately embodies.
I first met him while running on the Corniche on a Friday morning a year ago, and I was greeted by the same energy that’s portrayed on his social media. While it might be easy for some to quickly pass him off as another "social media personality", I’ve only seen the opposite from him: in the weeks that followed, Ghanim ran the Ooredoo Marathon, delivered a talk at ROTA’s EMPOWER Conference, and, of course, launched Evergreen Organics, Qatar’s first vegan café.
Ghanim, in a nutshell, practices what he preaches. Even though he’s shared a lot on social media over the years, there’s more to his creativity and lifestyle that I wanted to know. We met at Evergreen Organics to talk about his journey in traffic.
How did all of this start off for you?
I’ve always been treated as a special person, in as many definitions as you’d like to take it. I’ve always been told that I’m going to be things, be the number one. It made me always go for the change, to be different, to stand out. That’s where I feel like it started: with my parents, and how they raised me. At that time, that instigated something, and then once I traveled that gave me the independence that I needed to pursue... anything, really, anything I wanted.
I was the first in the family to graduate from the US. Then I came to work as the first Qatari engineer on the Doha Metro project. I’m not necessarily seeking out these opportunities, and I don’t want to sound arrogant either, but these are the things that are happening. It’s a coincidence. Which is a blessing and I am very grateful, and I’m aware that it’s not something that many people have the access to and that’s why I’m taking an advantage of that. You can’t just sit there and just say you’re blessed. I am a Qatari and I am privileged, but what can I do with it? I have a good salary, but what can I do with it? The country gives us a lot of opportunities, but what do we do with it? That’s always on my mind.
It all finally clicked for me in 2014 while I was in Paris. I met a vegan chef of one of the best restaurants there. It sort of just happened that we got to talking. It was at that meeting that opening up a vegan café came into my mind.
What did you want to become when you were at school?
At school, I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to be successful in my work. At that time, I just wanted to be part of creating the future of Doha which is why I ended up working at the Doha Metro project. I still have those same goals but in different applications.
I’ve also always was healthy and promoting health. Back then it was just as simple as not having soda and it felt like, “Oh my god, I’m so incredibly healthy!” because that’s all we knew. I just wanted to promote health. I want to always help people, inspire them to live a better lifestyle in many different ways. I feel like a lot of people were looking up to me for something. I don’t know why but I just felt really responsible.
A lot of people were asking questions after a while. They wanted me to share more than just the lifestyle I was sharing on Instagram. I used to do it for myself as a way to just document things. I’d go back home and just look at it and I’d feel proud and happy. “Okay, I did that much in three months? That’s awesome.” It was a great way of documenting my lifestyle in a matter of pictures. But at some point people were getting on board and I felt really responsible. That’s when I felt I needed to do more because apparently people were being inspired! And when you get them coming to you because of what you posted and it clicked with them, which was never the intention, it made me realize it was both serious and making a change.
What’s been a major roadblock for you?
Panic. I over panic because I’m still at a place where I’m juggling: I just opened my first café, Vibe, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’m opening a second one in March in Siam Reap. It’s just that when I see an opportunity I can’t let go. Sometimes it’s hard. When it’s part of your strategy and when it comes up, I don’t think it will happen again.
Especially with Evergreen, it wasn’t a coincidence necessarily but it was just things coming together or colliding. I do believe in signs but I also believe in mubadarah (dedicated, purposeful work): Evergreen was supposed to open right next door. Where it is today was owned by my business partner, Jawaher Al-Fardan. It wasn’t even called Evergreen at the time and was completely different. I was working on the rendering and all of that and I was literally a week from starting the project. And then I got a message on Instagram from Jawaher: “Hey. Apparently you’re opening a vegan café next to my vegan café. We need to talk.” I just thought, “No way! Two Qataris. Vegan cafés. Same location?!”
So we sat down during Ramadan and had three options: either one leaves, we open and compete, or unite. Of course we went for unite because we didn’t go into it for money, and by joining forces we could make a bigger impact. But that was a risk since we didn’t know each other. We only met once! And we had two days to think about it and we both just said let’s go for it.
There’s nothing easy and it always feels major at the time, and I think that sums up the answer. You need to put in a 100%.
Tell us a little bit about the creativity and inspiration behind the space.
I saw a place in Bali with recycled and reclaimed wood and I said that’s the thing we need to do because that’s how I felt back then, it’s what’s inspired me, and I wanted to share that same experience. We have plants all around because they are part of our life. Being in nature is part of the experience. It’s not about creativity, it’s going back to nature. It’s simple. Everything is eco-friendly in this place, and I mean everything, even the glass. We use recycled paper and soy ink for the menus too.
We’re in a society where everything is luxury and finished and I don’t like that. Maybe that’s why it stands out as creative. I like un-perfect, rough edges, you know? The more un-perfect, the more beautiful for me.
How do you weed out the noise of traffic and focus on where you’re going?
I just don’t talk. I don’t talk with my friends on my next project. Even to my family. I can’t take anyone making any comments because my focus would be on what to tell you rather than working on it. Once it’s done, then I can hear you.
And I love being alone. Maybe that’s what makes me be able to be creative. I love traveling by myself, eating by myself and being with myself. I have my social life too of course but I like being able to listen to myself.
How do you hold on to creative courage?
We live in a society where people are just talking. We’ll do this and we’ll do that and nothing happens. And that’s what I don’t like. I don’t like promises. Do it, finish it, and then come tell me about it. And do it right. Don’t share it with people or exaggerate it.
I like Beyoncé and learn a lot from her stuff. Most of what I do is because of how she does it whether it is music or the way she does business. She does it herself and just drops it. No one knew about it. She doesn’t want the extra talk and would rather just let the work speak for itself. That’s what I like to do, not so much follow what she’s doing, but do something good and do it well and let it shine for itself.
What’s the next destination?
In 2017 I’ll be opening my next café in Cambodia, my vegan skin-care line, Botany, and the Good Vibe Foundation which aims to feed 10,000 school children with vegan, healthy food. It will allow me to link all of these concepts together and making them much more purposeful.
We placed the seeds but how do we care about the tree? That’s my focus for 2017.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All photos courtesy of Ghanim Al-Sulaiti.