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Spotlight: Shiraz Allibhai

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Shiraz AllibhaiShiraz in the Aga Khan Trust for Culture library
in Geneva.
Click to enlarge photograph
Shiraz Allibhai (ISP 93-96) has a Master’s degree in Architecture from Harvard University and is currently Assistant to the General Manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Geneva, Switzerland.

I was born in Kampala, Uganda, in a large house where we lived with our extended family from my father’s side. My father had eight brothers and thus, with their kids and my grandparents, dinners and playtime were large productions. Though very young, I recall with great fondness playing with my cousins and all of the various pets (dogs, cats and a monkey) in the courtyard of the compound. When I was four, my immediate family moved to Canada and six years later to the United States.

I was influenced at a very young age by my cousin Arriz, who was an extremely talented and creative artist as a child. When we were growing up in Toronto, Arriz introduced me to music, film and art, and many of the bands and movies he showed me remain to this day a big influence in my formation. When he pursued his studies in architecture, I was curious to learn more and one day walked into the architecture building at the University of Texas at Austin and was fascinated by the drawings, models and studio environment. The following day, I changed my major.

The arrival of the scholarship announcement from AKF for my Master’s degree studies at Harvard is a vivid memory that has not faded with time. I was very fortunate to receive the scholarship and would not have been able to do my Master’s course without it. It allowed me to pursue my research interests and brought me into the Aga Khan Development Network. From the moment I received the scholarship, I knew that my future career would be tied to AKDN.

I can be considered a lifer at AKDN and know very little about work outside the Network. I worked as a designer for a year in Tokyo, Japan, and on some small architecture projects prior to getting my Master’s degree. In 1992 I volunteered with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture to help with the organization of their award ceremony in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.  After that, during summer vacations while doing my Master’s, I came to Geneva to work with the Awards and even took a leave of absence from school for six months in 1995 to help with the award ceremony in Solo, Indonesia.  After completing my studies, I was hired full-time by the Award and relocated to Geneva, where I worked as a Documentation Architect and later as an Education Officer for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. In 2002, I was seconded by AKTC to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work as Managing Director of ArchNet, a web-based community of Islamic architecture scholars and professionals. While at MIT, I was also given the role of Education Programme Coordinator with AKTC and Director of the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Tajikistan. In 2007, I returned to Geneva to take up my current position as Assistant to the General Manager.

I very much enjoy my current position as I have had to learn new skills and develop new methodologies to tackle problems that are sometimes outside my comfort zone. This position affords me an opportunity to interact with other AKDN agencies, have a global view of the AKTC portfolio and understand better the Aga Khan’s vision for AKDN.

For those who are interested in a similar career, I would recommend learning a second or third language, learning how to write and think critically and broadening one’s education and interest. Remaining narrowly focused on a specialization, in my opinion, limits one’s options. Read more on subjects not related to your chosen career and pick up a musical instrument. Listen to the Beatles and the Clash, the only bands that ever really mattered!

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