Alex Kelly and Zaal Kaboli are two of the brains behind inner western Sydney’s best place to eat, Baba’s Place, and Adam Elatrebi Soliman and his sister Rahma Soliman are the brains behind the clothing brand taking Australia by storm, Soliela.
Recently, Baba’s Place and Soliela sat around a table, got out some pens and paper and drew up a plan for world domination with a range of branded clobber called SOKKAH. We had a long roundtable conversation with Alex, Adam, Rahma, and Zaal about the new range, and also the joy of multiculturalism, and the important role soccer has played in the lives of Australia’s immigrant populations. We also discussed how Ćevapi makes the Bunnings sausage sizzle look kinda whatever. Read on.
First question: how did the SOKKAH project start?
Adam: Basically, Baba’s Place sent a DM that was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if
this is going to work or not, but here we go, let’s give it a shot…’
Alex: We’d found out about you a little while ago, a year and a half ago or something. And I had said to Zaal, ‘Man, I really want to do a shirt or something with these guys, blah, blah, blah.’ So that’s kind of how it started. And then we sent a DM a year and a half later because we were in Melbourne and we’re like, ‘Oh, this seems like a good opportunity to try and meet up.’
Adam: And then we met up and we had such amazing chemistry, but we didn’t really know where it could go. Then one of us was like, ‘Oh we could make a soccer Jersey.’ And then the waterfall of ideas came flooding. That is how it all began.
How involved was Baba’s Place in getting the vibe right?
Adam: Way too involved. Way too involved.
Rahma: Nooooooo (laughs).
Adam: First it started when we saw that the restaurant existed and we found the common ground in the Arab cuisines, Mediterranean foods, and things that we’re interested in. So already we had an interest in that and you guys already have that in the roots of your restaurant, blah, blah, blah. So, it all just started to organically weave together.
Alex: So, you’re saying the vibe wasn’t really forced. It was just like, well, there’s already like-mindedness.
Rahma: Yeah. It was built off what was already there, I think. Obviously, you guys had the interest in the brand because it resonated to an extent, and then we have interest in the restaurant because it also resonates.
What’s the first thing you thought of when we were approached to do this range?
Rahma: We were excited. We were always interested in Arab-esque food and how we could have that and build off that because we think clothing is a good route for other avenues. So then when you guys hit us up, it wasn’t just like a random Arab restaurant because I feel like that wouldn’t click with us, but it was more so like us in the form of a different restaurant in Sydney, in another place with other kinds of people; we were excited because it’s similar, but again different. And if it was too similar, it wouldn’t work.
Can you say a few words about the vital role Football played in Australia for post-war immigrants and what role it plays today?
Rahma: Take the floor, Alex.
Alex: That’s a great question.
Zaal: Should we all go get a cup of tea while he’s talking?
Alex: I’ll be quick because I’ve talked about this a lot. For a certain type of post-World War II immigrant… The first wave was that Eastern European, Yugoslavian wave, but obviously Middle Eastern as well and Arabic diasporas too. But in particular, as it relates to me and my family and my friends, football was the sport that they were socially allowed to play. It was called Wogball back then. They got kind of ostracised in that they didn’t understand NRL and AFL. So, football was a way communities were built and where they could find like-minded people and express themselves. I think it’s unbelievably important, especially now because there’s a whole new generation that is paying respect to that, and football is more popular than it’s ever been; it’s impacting culture and that’s what we’re continuing on.
How do Baba’s and football go hand in hand and in what ways are both integral to their community?
Alex: How do Baba’s and football go hand in hand? It’s just about raising the consciousness of different people’s life experiences and the things that they like and the way that they’re different and similar.
Adam: It’s just like food.
Zaal: The great uniter.
Alex: Yeah. The example I always give is this: for a lot of Australians, their first interaction with ‘ethnic cuisine’ was through football, which is why we’re doing the Ćevapi, which has a big reputation amongst all of my friends who are mostly Australian or British or whatever, they know what Ćevapi is and that’s completely indebted to football.
Zaal: Yeah, that’s incredible.
Alex: Yeah, it’s good. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it’s the whole symbol around it, it’s usually prepared by the parents, the grandparents, and it’s just a little bit more than the sausage sizzle, usually served with Ajvar, which is Eastern European relish and some chili flakes.
Next question: Australia and particularly Sydney have been enriched by the various international cultures that have made this place home. In what way does Baba’s contribute to this legacy?
Alex: Zaal, how do you feel as the person here that’s not from Australia? How do you feel that Baba’s contributes to the diversity of Sydney in Australia?
Zaal: I think my appreciation for the multiculturalism of Sydney and Australia has sort of gone through different phases, and the introduction I had with Baba’s Place through Alex and through JP and everybody else there really took it to a new level. It made me realize that while, as an outsider, you can really enjoy these cultural adventures—you could go on and discover new cultures through food and just by being immersed in them. And that’s something quite unique even though coming from Europe, from England, which is multicultural anyway, but not in the same way, it’s really quite special. But then I also realize that there’s a certain lack of celebration of this and maybe even a lack of pride in it, or I think there’s an internal pride, but not something that is sort of celebrated enough on more accessible formats for these people who are not of those cultures. But I think there’s a growing appreciation of the suburbs and the cultures that are coming out of it and also of the sort of the mixing of the cultures.
Alex: And extending on that … Australia or Australians or so-called Australia and so-called Australians have had a troubled history with pride in their diversity. So, hopefully, something that we can start doing over the next few years is actually being really proud of that. And one thing that I always say, and I’d be interested to see what Adam and Rahma say about this, I think in order to do that, we need to aestheticize, we need to create aesthetics. And I think this SOKKAH range and your fashion label contribute to the aestheticization of cultural diversity.
Rahma: Yeah. I agree with that because it’s also so much of what’s happening now in the world it’s taken from a tokenistic perspective. Whereas something like this is a very genuine celebration of both the benefits that have come from immigration in Australia in particular and then also just straight up diversities. You’re able to create something like this, a restaurant that’s authentic to both the suburb and the people that created its background, and then also a whole ‘nother area that can just relate to it based off that notion, not even because they’re from that background, but it’s because we’ve experienced the same sort of just thing.
Alex: I’m always shocked by how, when you go so particular you become universal, I’m always surprised by that paradox. You think that, oh, I’m just telling my story or I’m telling our story, but it ends up being, if you tell it right or if you tell that story authentically—
Adam: Because it seems like, it comes off as you have become one with yourself.
Alex: People love that.
Adam: I’ve made really good friends with some people through the restaurant who are of Sri Lankan background. The first thing that they said when they came was like, ‘Oh, this is like my family home back in Sri Lanka.’ It blew my mind because I’m like, ‘Well, obviously I had no connection to that.’
Adam: Because there are also very simple things that are missing from Australia’s culture that automatically, as soon as you come here, fresh off the boat, you’re like, ‘Oh, what the hell?’ And then all these multicultural, all these cultures have these simple things. So, the common thread for example, when someone would come to our house, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a weird smell.’ But no one realizes that like here there are just no spices in their cooking. But then all these countries put seasoning on their food, so all their houses smelled like that. So, then they went to Baba’s and they smelled the spices and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s home.’
Alex: Should you tell everyone how to pronounce SOLIELA, because I’m probably not even doing it correctly.
Adam: Just split it up, say SOL- ELA.
Rahma: Who knew this would be a whole thing.
So, who did you have in mind when you began Soliela?
Adam: Very, very simple question, very simple answer: myself. That’s it.
Zaal: So, did you sort of feel like there was just no representation for what you wanted to express about yourself through fashion?
Adam: No, it’s not about any existing, it wasn’t even to fill a hole. It was just like, ‘Oh I love clothes.’ And I thought about the way Ralph Lauren glamorizes those old ’50s British rich people and then I was like, ‘No, but I feel this from just walking around in the sand in Egypt and then also really love our religion.’ And there’s a way where for example, when people see Salah score a goal, they look into it more and they try to understand it more and they get it. And I just wanted to show all the great things about our culture, but not really show it either, just kind of put it on paper and just try to make my own version of Ralph Lauren.
Who do we see wearing the SOKKAH range and what piece are you most excited about?
Rahma: I’m most excited about the jersey.
Alex: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Rahma: And I think it’s made for basically everyone and anyone and the inbetweeners.
Adam: And I think in every interview we have to highlight that truly one of our major end goals is for racist people to buy our things without realizing.
What happens next with Baba’s?
Alex: If we’re talking about Baba’s Place as a restaurant, it’s about providing a service better and better each week.
Zaal: Also finding new ways to be able to interact with the community at large through various different things like clothing: yes, merch: yes. But we want to take merch to a different level, we want to get to we quite often reference supreme almost in a sort of self-knowing ironic way in that we know that it’s a bit played out, it’s incredibly played out, but the fact that they were able to sell a brick.
Alex: Yeah, I don’t think that gets enough credit, you can sell a brick, it’s pretty cool.
Zaal: And all those things are very well thought out and well made, for instance—the first piece of merch that we made was an ashtray and we got a local ceramicist to make it for us. It was handmade, we got artists that we knew, one of them was Alex’s mom—
Alex: What’d you say about my mom?
Zaal: —to contribute and we released some ashtrays as our first nurturing and they sold out. We want to continue to do that, to work with people that we believe in to create community among people who are making things and saying something, we want to be able to give a platform to as many people as we can.
And what’s next for SOLIELA?
Adam: SOLIELA is going to become the greatest brand of all time and
trigger the next Islamic golden age.
Zaal: Okay. That’s the headline.
Alex: ‘The Next Islamic Golden Age’.
*Get along to SOKKAH launch this Sunday! Details below.