Posted by Cecile Lucas, March 16th, 2017
Two months have passed since we welcomed Zainab Syed into the Performing Lines team as our new Associate Producer, and with her passionate and radiant personality, she has found her groove. Zainab has an impressive resume from working in the arts and humanitarian projects around the globe, and I couldn’t wait to delve into her history and discover what jewels lay underneath. In between her role at Performing Lines, and her many other engagements, she stopped for a quick, and eloquent chat with me…
Cecile: How did you first come across poetry and decide to become a spoken word artist?
As a Pakistani, poetry is tied to my very identity. Allama Iqbal, the greatest poet of the 20th century in the Indian Subcontinent, was the one who once dreamed of Pakistan. If it wasn’t for him, the map would look very different today. So you can say, I was born into poetry, that it has been a part of my narrative long before I came into the fold.
As a young girl, I always carried a notebook so I wouldn’t ever forget the places and people I met living abroad, and the things I missed about home. Poetry for me, became a way to record my present, which was tied closely to my nostalgia for a past I kept looking for in ladybugs and mangoes everywhere I went.
When I went to boarding school in Wales (UWCAC) I first met people who loved words as much as I did and encouraged me to start writing. However, it was only when I went to Brown University, in the US, that I shared my poetry. In my first month there I saw a few poets “perform” poetry, which was new to me but had me completely enthralled. It seemed as though my love of poetry, and years of theatre suddenly got married and had a baby. I looked them up, attended the first meeting, was thoroughly intimidated but never looked back.
WORD! as it was called, became my home, and the poets of there, my family. I grew there as a writer, a performer, a person. They were my first teachers in love and loss, lessons I carry within me everywhere I go. After Brown, I took six months off to finish my book before I joined some kind of development consultancy, which didn’t really happen. Instead those six months turned into a year of touring and three years later…
Being a spoken word artist, is it hard to change between languages and still convey the same message, feelings or emotions?
I think speaking more than one languages adds a richness to expression that only strengthens my poems. The key driver of any poem, or performance is the sincerity with which it is written and then brought to a stage. If you are truly honest in your poem, even if it is in a different language, it will resonate with the audience. It is important to write what feels most authentic, otherwise it becomes archaic and the listener will sense the hypocrisy in your words.
You’ve traveled widely and experienced a broad range of performances. Is there a particular show or experience that still resonates with you today and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one! Life has brought so many experiences, and learning moments in my life. Perhaps one of the most significant one to date has been when I went on a retreat to Turkey in August 2015. I had been on tour for a year and just needed a place to stop, and breathe for more than a week. What I found at the retreat were treasures I am still unearthing. I was able to study with teachers who taught me the weight of words. The gravity of tradition. The richness of a legacy.
One of them shared a story from the Masnavi with me. In the story, the Persian poet, Rumi, points out that the world is in need of translators. People who can bridge communities, cultures and races in an attempt to celebrate the diversity in our thought and expression. Having had the honour of intimately knowing and loving many communities across the world, I have always been deeply humbled by the responsibility I have to portray the love, the resilience, the softness of the people I encountered. To use poetry as a mean to serve as translator. To share the untold stories, here and abroad. To be a vessel between people, between minds and between hearts. And then, to impart these universal human values to the next generation so that we can empower them to become even better translators.
Those three weeks shaped the kind of work I do, the poems I write and the way I try to live my life – open to love, in the face of hate, always, no matter how tender it may make me feel.
What were some career highlight/s before starting at Performing Lines WA?
In December 2014, and following a terrorist shooting in a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, I was invited to coordinate the post terrorist attack response. The shooting had affected every student in Pakistan but no one paid enough attention to the long-term effects of such immense trauma. I feared the insecurity would cripple us if we did not create safe spaces that channeled the negativity into positive expression. After teaching art therapy and writing workshops in a few schools, I realised there was a huge need for safe and creative spaces for children to engage with the violence around them in a constructive manner. Creative spaces give breathing room. They tend to diffuse the negativity, and provide an alternative to violence.
My experiences in Peshawar and then in other cities in Pakistan were the catalyst for Pakistan Poetry Slam, a project under WORD Ink, a social enterprise I am lucky enough to have founded. The motivation for Pakistan Poetry Slam was solely to create a safe space for the next generation of Pakistani’s to articulate, express and respond to the violence around them in a non-violent manner. The aim is to empower the youth with language and revive the tradition of story-telling and poetry that runs through us. In its second year, we have expanded from one city to four and hope to continue doing so in the future!
You are primarily renowned for being an international performer, and you are now working for Performing Lines WA to help present other artists’ productions, is this your first step away from the spotlight or have you produced other shows before?
I had been curating spaces for creative expression in Australia, Pakistan and the United States before working at Performing Lines, however the roles were very diverse and not as formalized as this one. I am passionate about creating spaces that allow people to explore and express themselves through creative expression. Especially in the socio-political climate of today’s world I find it increasingly necessary to create such spaces because art opens doors between hearts and we need as many doors connecting as many hearts as we can.
What prompted you to expand to working with us, and how have you found the change from artist to Associate Producer?
I absolutely love it! I love the stage, but I didn’t realised how much I would also love being behind the scenes. It gives me a chance to really focus on nurturing and empowering other people to find voices, and occupy spaces in a meaningful and impactful kind of way. Instead of making my own way within the Australian arts landscape, which I have found quite hard to navigate as an outsider, I wanted to join an organization that was already established within the sector so I could learn and grow as a Producer. I couldn’t be luckier to have joined Performing Lines.
Can you tell us a bit more about some of the exciting projects you are working on for 2017?
Within my capacity as a Producer at Performing Lines WA I am currently working on the Small Voices Louder Regional Tour through Western Australia.
- As a poet, I am making the final edits on my first book!
- As a curator, my illUMEnate team and I are planning our next two events in June, and October to amplify diverse voices in WA.
- As the founder of Pakistan Poetry Slam, I will be traveling to Lahore to host the second annual Pakistan Poetry Slam in April.
- As an educator, I will be teaching a new workshop program I have developed for school children in Pakistan.
- As a humanitarian observer, I will be visiting the Detention Centres in WA with the Red Cross throughout the year.
And I have a few other things up my sleeve for the second half of the year but I don’t want to spill all the beans!
You are also involved in a wide range of humanitarian works, where do you find the energy and time to do everything?
There is a saying in our tradition that the most successful people are those who are “ibn al waqt” which loosely translates as son of the moment. Which is to say, that in order to succeed one must be living in the present, fully. No procrastination. No to-do lists for the next day. But now, here, in this moment. A carpe diem of sorts.
There is so much to do in the world, and with the immense privilege I have been afforded, to always be engaged in endeavours that I absolutely love, I find it impossible to let life pass me by. I find that I must hustle, on all fronts, and offer what I can to the world. As much as I can. This is the only way I know how to show my gratitude for the myriad of opportunities I have been given.
If I work with that mindset, the energy comes, the blessings flow. I just have to keep reminding myself that it is okay to say “no” (twenty five years later I still haven’t learnt how) and that I don’t have to do everything or change the world even. As long as I’m working on being the best version of myself, I hope, one day that will inspire some small change.
Everybody loves a bit of procrastination and I am not exception but in those moments, I always remind myself of this poem:
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
I hope to keep shaking the grass for as long as I have life in me.
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