10 amazing holiday gifts from innovators in the Middle East

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Whatever your religious beliefs, we all worship at the altar of buying new things, especially at this time of year. We compiled a list of ten of the coolest end-of-year gift ideas, all products we’ve featured on the site, and all from companies based in the Middle East. Merry Shopping, and a Happy New Toy to one and all.

1) littleBits Synth Kit – $159 USD

This build-your-own synthesizer, made by littleBits (a startup founded by Lebanese entrepreneur Ayah Bdeir), is a great idea for musicians looking to create their own sound. A “magnetic, connectable, and modular” version of the traditional synthesizer, as described by littleBits' product development manager, the kit allows users to customize their instrument in a totally new way. If it’s good enough for comedian/musician Reggie Watts (who helped develop the kit) and legendary producer Brian Eno – who said the Synth Kit “will be the birth of a new kind of music” – it’s probably good enough for your geeky DJ friends.

Here's a video of a Synth Kit-built keytar, with an explanation of how it works:

The Synth Kit ships worldwide.

2) Jo Bedu Ali tee – $16 USD

These cheeky t-shirts emblazoned with Arab pop culture memes have been a massive success in Jordan. As of March 2012, when Wamda last caught up with co-founders Tamer Al Masri and Michael Makdah, they could hardly keep their most popular items on the shelves of their Amman flagship store. Since then, they’ve begun selling their products in all six GCC countries, through a deal with Virgin Megastore. Lots of their brash shirts grabbed my attention, but this graphic Mohammed Ali print, overlaid with Arabic calligraphy, is just the thing for your favorite sports (or calligraphy, or Americana) lover.

3) Juice cleanse from Raw.me ($70 USD per day) or Qi Juice ($195 USD for three days)

If you know a health fanatic looking to reset their body from the holiday binge as we reset our calendars, a juice cleanse might be a perfect gift. The cold-pressed juice trend has officially hit the Middle East: Raw.me launched this year in Qatar, and Lebanon is now home to Qi Juice. Both are committed to contributing to the region’s overall health by delivering raw, clean, and fresh juice to cleansers’ doorsteps. (I did the Qi cleanse earlier this year, and while it wasn’t exactly fun, I did feel slightly more sprightly at the end of it. And several of the juices, despite a friend's claim that they resemble Beirut River water, were delicious.) Also, with Raw.me, if you buy a week’s cleanse, they’ll give you one day free.

4) Refutrees – the amount of your choice

A donation to this startup will warm the heart of even the biggest holiday scrooge. Refutrees’ mission is threefold: building rooftop gardens in refugee camps in the West Bank, helping to educate refugees about sustainable gardening and nutrition, and building playgrounds out of recycled materials. An autumn crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo helped Refutrees raise $10,000 USD – about a third of what they need to complete all three projects – but they need more to give their mission a real shot at success. This is a great gift idea for those who want to give, but are bummed out by the wanton consumerism of this time of year.

5) Babushka Arabic calligraphy throw pillow – $40 USD

This Bahraini startup, founded by childhood friends Sara Sayyar and Mariam Fathi, salvages ruined antique furniture, using fabric sourced from Silk Road hubs like Turkey, India, Egypt, and even Uzbekistan to make old things new again. Their only storefront at the moment is at the Riyadat Mall in Bahrain City, established to support Bahraini women entrepreneurs, but they ship all over the GCC. I wish all of us could afford their gorgeous ottomans and bureaus, but this year I would stick with this Arabic calligraphy throw pillow, whose brocade will at least make you feel rich. E-mail babushka_bh@yahoo.com to place an order.

6) Hand-made silver bracelets – $68 and $133 USD – from Anou

Twenty-five year-old Mohamed El Asri, trained in the Moroccan silver center of Tiznit, makes high quality silver jewelry that has been featured in many national handicraft fairs. Now, by way of Moroccan startup Anou, you can buy his work directly, without having to either travel to Morocco or pay commission to an importer. Much of El Asri’s – and scores of other artisans’ – work is available on Anou, but two of his silver bangles are too exquisite not to splash out for (especially this one with Tiznit-sourced black stone).

Also: a gorgeous black traditional dagger, a blue beaded necklace for those on a budget, and a brass standing lantern for home décor enthusiasts.

7) Yatooq instant Arabic coffee – $9 USD

To learn how to make the perfect pot of Arabic coffee, you can spend your formative years watching someone stir it over the fire, day after day, while explaining their process down to the last detail. Or you can buy Yatooq instant Arabic coffee, developed by Saudi entrepreneur Lateefa Alwaalan, into boiling water. Available for sale in the Saudi cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Khobar, as well as Kuwait, and – inexplicably – Seattle, Yatooq can transport you to the dunes and oases (or shopping malls and freeways) of the Arabian Peninsula, without the effort of delicately preparing the pot of just-right cardamom-scented goodness. Purchasing this product will also support the work of a female entrepreneur in Saudi – not an easy job these days.

8) Produce delivery from Ripe – small vegetable box $20 USD

Eating locally in the UAE can be a challenge; despite all the myriad (un)natural wonders available in its towers, the place is a desert after all. But for those who miss the farm boxes from their local CSAs back in Europe or North America, Ripe has a solution. Compiling organic vegetables from six UAE farms into delivery boxes, expat founder Becky Balderstone is doing her part to green the UAE. Not everything grows locally, however, so if you’re planning on buying your loved one a fruit box, with produce shipped in from Jordan, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka, you might want to also invest in some carbon offsets

9) 1Sheeld, an all-in-one Arduino shield – $49 USD on Kickstarter

Arduino, the open-source electronics prototyping platform for creating interactive objects and environments, has long been limited by the expensive shields one has to buy to connect, for instance, the television to the internet. To address this, Egyptian startup Integreight has developed 1Sheeld, an accessory that creates a master shield in one’s smartphone, allowing you to access and control everything in your Arduino arsenal from that tiny buzzing machine in your pocket. 1Sheeld has already raised $61,877 USD – six times its goal – on Kickstarter, and the geek community is atwitter with the possibilities. This is the perfect gift for the geek genius, or wannabe action-movie sidekick, in your life.

Here's a cute video detailing the amazing possibilities with 1Sheeld and Arduino:

10) Subscription to a co-working space – prices vary

Co-working spaces are cropping up around the region at an astonishing rate; one of my colleagues heard of two new spaces being developed in Lebanon just last weekend! Giving your loved one the space to work on ideas, discuss, read, share, and of course eat and drink, is also an investment in their future. Check out our ever-growing list of co-working spaces throughout the region (for longer descriptions of some these, click here):

Lebanon: AltCity*, Co-Working +961

Tunisia: Cogite

Morocco: New Work Lab* (Casablanca)

Cairo: 302labs*, AlMaqarr*, The District*, Rasheed22, icecairo

Dubai: The Hub, MAKE Business Hub*, The Pavilion Downtown, Shelter (all in Dubai)

Jordan: Oasis 500*, Zee Launch Pad*

* Denotes discounts available for WamdaCard members.

Cool gadgets still in production

Instabeat: A near-eye display device, designed to attach to any pair of swimming goggles, that keeps swimmers apprised of their heart rate, caloric burn, and number of laps. Lebanese founder Hind Hobeika raised $56,000 of her $35,000 USD goal on Indiegogo this year, and people seem to be very excited. The Instabeat team estimates the product will be ready to ship in the first quarter of next year.

Roadie Tuner: A Lebanese-designed, Chinese-incubated guitar-tuning device three times more accurate than the human ear that has raised twice its $60,000 USD goal on Kickstarter. Delivery is estimated to be June 2014.

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