Being in the spotlight is not easy, let alone when you are born into it, as Sham Al Zahabi was. Born to Assala, the famous Syrian singer, Al Zahabi, grew up in the public eye and had to endure more than the regular childhood tribulations all children go through. It’s hard to grasp that when you meet the confident and accomplished person she has blossomed into. Today, Al Zahabi is a successful skincare professional running her own skin clinic, DAO Derma Skin Clinic, with a who’s who list of clients singing its praises. eniGma’s Omnia Zaied sat with Al Zahabi at her clinic, to learn about her interesting journey of personal growth from childhood to adulthood and the challenges along the way.
It was not easy to get to know the real Sham Al Zahabi, and as a consequence, it took a couple of meetings with her to put this feature together. Having been under public scrutiny for so long, she does not open up easily and is always careful to say and do the right thing. It wasn’t until our third meeting that I began to see beyond her impeccable behaviour and utmost courtesy, and to begin to understand, and appreciate, her complex persona.
Born in Damascus, Al Zahabi’s childhood was dominated by constant tension in her parents’ marriage. As a consequence, she endured a lot of pain, especially since she also had to endure seeing the ups and downs of the marriage in the news all the time, as well as in the eyes of everyone around her. “My parents got married very young and I arrived shortly thereafter. My mother’s instant fame after her first album, resulted in a lot of tension in their marriage and led to much fighting between my parents,” she recalls. Ever since she was a child, her reaction to the chaos around her was to immerse herself in schoolwork. She loved science from her very first science lesson; and very early on realised it was her true calling. That realisation remained with her throughout her school years in Damascus, Dubai, where she moved with her family, Switzerland where she went to boarding school, and then Cairo, where she finished high school.
While her mother showered her with unconditional love throughout her life, Al Zahabi was, nonetheless, strongly impacted by her parent’s marital problems. “When I was a kid,I used to look at the other kids running around and think, how lucky they were for being so carefree. I always felt I was carrying a burden. I was always worried about my mother. I don’t think I ever got to feel that carefree as a child,” she recounts.
With all the drama that was taking place in her parents’ life and with the increasing pressure of her mother’s fame, the family decided that the best thing for Al Zahabi was to send her to a boarding school in Switzerland. That would guarantee her a great education and keep her away from any distractions. She later finished high school in Egypt, after studying High Level Physics, Math & Chemistry in the IB system, and graduating with the highest grades in Physics and Math. “I have always been a geek at heart, interested in learning the theory behind the fundamental questions of the universe. Learning was what I loved to do. I would even spend my recess reading,” she explains. “I was also very lucky to have had great teachers who helped feed my interest. Actually, with my mother always travelling and my grandmother being very tough, some of my professors as well as my friends’ parents were my guardian angels. Having them in my life, provided me with the guidance I needed.” she adds.
Al Zahabi’s academic achievements in high school gained her entry to the prestigious Imperial College London. But after spending only one semester there, she returned to Egypt and joined AUC to support her mother who had remarried and was giving birth to her brothers Aly and Adam. After her graduation from AUC, she was all set to travel again to pursue her Master’s degree in Organic Chemistry at the University of Oxford, England. However, one day before she was supposed to leave, her mother asked her to stay and she felt she could not let her down. So she stayed in Cairo, earned a Master’s degree in piano instead of chemistry, and did an internship at Eva Pharma. “I worked at the Research & Development Cosmetics Lab at Eva Pharma and I loved it. I was like a kid in a candy store,” she recalls. The CEO at Eva Cosmetics, Yasmine Armanious, with whom she had become close, encouraged her to pursue a Master’s degree at AUC, while continuing to do research at Eva Pharma which she could use for her thesis. “I owe a lot to Yasmine, she is one of the reasons I opened the DAO Derma Skin Clinic. The research I did at Eva on creating a carrier for vitamin A using nanotechnology, taught me a lot and was great preparation for what came next, my fully sponsored scholarship for my PhD studies at the University of Cambridge,” she explains.
Yet, once again, her education abroad, this time at Cambridge, was interrupted for family reasons. After joining the PhD program at Cambridge, she came back to Egypt for Christmas break, only to find her mother going through a divorce. She decided to cancel her plans and stayed in Cairo to support her mother. While happy to have her daughter by her, her mother advised her to take this opportunity to stop using education as an escape and to start facing the real world. “In a way she was right. I was escaping from facing life by immersing myself in academia,” admits Al Zahabi. She credits her mother’s advice for her decision to launch her own clinic, DAO Derma Skin Clinic, which proved to be a whole new beginning for her.
“The inspiration behind the name, DAO, came from my professor. When I would face challenges, she would tell me I needed to be like the Daoists, whose symbol is water, which always keeps flowing, no matter how rough its path is. Water always finds a way through, no matter the obstacles in its way,” she explains. DAO Derma Skin Clinic certainly forced Al Zahabi to deal with the real world. Today, she is not just a chemist, but also a business owner who has to deal with budgets, marketing, services and clients… “I always thought I would end up teaching while working as a consultant to cosmetics firms. Starting my own project was a challenge to me. Asking a chemist to abandon her lab and face the world is not that easy,” she says.
But she did it, and did it very well. Today, only a year and a half after opening its doors, her clinic is considered one of the top skin clinics in Cairo, offering a full range of services, with some, such as Vitamin Drips and Cryotherapy, not available anywhere else in Egypt. “I didn’t want the clinic to be commercial. I wanted it to be a place where people come and feel well, whether through our services, which are the best, or through client interaction with our fantastic team, or the general vibe of the place. I want to help them feel better holistically, not just to have better skin,” she explains.
Now, instead of hiding behind her books, you will find Al Zahabi at DAO Derma Skin Clinic almost every day, interacting with clients, working on marketing strategy and answering questions on Instagram, all while developing her own innovative skin care products, like ‘Sham’s Drip,’ one of her best sellers. Al Zahabi says that the first Friday of every month, which the clinic calls ‘DAO Spreads Love’ day, is her favourite day at work. She spends it with orphans and breast cancer survivors, who are invited to DAO Derma to experience its services. “This is what makes me happiest,” she says, adding, “I love giving back. It makes such a difference to people. I wish I could inspire and motivate as many people as I can to help them overcome whatever circumstances they are going through. I had a tough childhood, and my mother had an even tougher one, but she taught me that we shouldn’t victimise ourselves. We shouldn’t let what we go through break us. It should make us stronger and encourage us to give back.”
Despite the tremendous success of her clinic, Al Zahabi says that the past year and a half were full of anxiety and fear. “When your mother is that famous, the bar gets so high. I was afraid of becoming a failure, especially in my mother’s eyes. Also, don’t forget that with fame, your failures become very public, so I was terrified,” she explains, adding, “However, I believe that, if your heart is in the right place and you are willing to learn and work hard, God will protect and guide you.” Yet, Al Zahabi was not always so strong spiritually. She confesses that it took her a long time to find the strong faith she now has. “One day I found myself crying and telling God that I was doing my best, and asking Him to please let His light enter my heart and to heal my pain. Since then, I started seeing the power and kindness of God in every aspect of my life. God made me better and helped me become happier,” she explains.
Al Zahabi emerged stronger than ever and likes to quote her mother’s motto, “Plight always brings blessings.” She explains that her healing happened when she learnt how to make peace with her past and to accept things as they are. Today, when her clients walk into DAO Derma Skin Clinic, they are warmly welcomed by a happy and confident Sham Al Zahabi, ready to offer them the best skin care services in Egypt.