• Storytelling – long a part of my culture and upbringing – helps to remind us about who we are and where we came from. (Flickr/ Angie Garrett)
Poet and activist Sara Saleh defends Islam because she wants to, not because it needs her to. But when hope dwindles, it is her faith’s emphasis on storytelling and friendships that give her the fuel to keep going.
By
Sara Saleh

15 Feb 2017 - 1:07 PM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2017 - 1:08 PM

I was born in the late 1980s against the backdrop of a long and brutal civil war. My parents had met on its doorstep.

My Palestinian-Lebanese mother and her large family were forced to leave their home in Lebanon in 1984, some for the second time having already fled Palestine years earlier for safety in the sprawling concrete city of Cairo, Egypt. 

My Egyptian father happened to be back in town visiting my grandmother.

Studious and smart, he had been the first of his family to leave behind the remnants of a country still in the grips of a colonial hangover, to embark on a US-backed quest for ‘economic liberalisation’ (which was, of course, to be held over our heads for years to come).

The quintessential immigrant, he worked 10 times as hard, hopeful, the weight of his future family to carry on his shoulders. 

He was determined to make something of himself in a western world that had long promised progress and prosperity – a seemingly benevolent opportunity to immigrants like him, no matter how dark his skin, and how faded the grass green in his eyes.

The quintessential immigrant, he worked 10 times as hard, hopeful, the weight of his future family to carry on his shoulders. 

The war in this part of the world has not stopped since. Three decades later it rages on, only the faces injecting their various versions of ugly into the region have changed.

Three countries, three forced migrations, and two voluntary migrations later, I am a confused agenda of cultures, continents and language, of dichotomies like oppressor and oppressed, of isms and phobias, held together today by the nuances of faith, family, friendships and community.

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Activism, what I have always seen as dynamic, a state of being, has also become, in recent times, spiritually draining.

Having to defend Islam (though it does not ask me to), to defend the cornerstone of my existence, has sometimes left me, at the height of it, emotionally detached.

In the midst of battle, it is easy to forget who I am.

But storytelling – long a part of my culture and upbringing – about who we are, where we came from, has done well to remind me.

My mother and father spent a great deal of my childhood recounting every one of their childhood stories (more than once, for good measure).

But storytelling – long a part of my culture and upbringing – about who we are, where we came from, has done well to remind me.

They also made sure I read everything I could get my hands on, even if it meant that one day I would be speaking to them in a language they do not understand, constructing a narrative that was far removed from what they had ever intended or known.

Through their own memories and stories, raw and unsheltered, my family helped forge my own image of my homeland.

This storytelling grew me, and it is still growing me; as a Muslim, a woman, an Arab, an immigrant, an artist.

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Today, these identities have left me both hated, and wanted. Like other artists of minority backgrounds, I am reduced to my traumas and called “brave”– a label prescribed to me so others can feel comfortable with what I say and do. 

And I watch as white artists play dress-ups with our “otherness,” to increase their worth in the arts world, slipping in and out of our lives and experiences. For this they are praised and rewarded.

Our pain is packaged and sold by the Straight White Male, because it is not of significance until he validates it. Our culture is consumed, but we are excluded from the excellence, in what is another way to preserve the status quo, to keep the odds stacked against us.

I tell stories and continue to write to own my narrative, just like my family and culture taught me to, because my writing is more than a slideshow of all my moments of foreign and all my places of exile.

My poetry is an attempt at conveying the varying frequencies of the women in my life, the lessons of generations, the energy and weight of many lives lived.

But it also for myself, to continue to try and find my place here – a defiant emotional cartography of sorts that actively pays tribute to heritage and home, and to the universal experiences of love and loss we can all identify with as human beings.

And in the moments I come completely undone, when prayers feel unanswered and poems remain unwritten, how do I keep going?

My faith (and, oddly, Carrie Bradshaw) advises me to turn to family, the one I am born into, and the one I have created for myself. 

It’s the conversations, the networks of solidarity, the kindness and the friendships with different individuals, advocates, and artists, particularly those from other marginalised backgrounds, that I have come to rely on for wisdom and patience and reminders of self-care when possible.

It is these same people who recognise the only way forward is to learn to come together, strategise, build alliances and power between our complex, diverse communities.

These people understand that for those of us who did not grow up entitled or with a whole lot of privilege, for those of us who grew up under-represented, underestimated, unrecognised and unloved, we are here to reveal each other’s excellence…we are here to be each other’s number one fans.

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It wasn’t just when friends, some who are artists and activists from other minority backgrounds, messaged me to “check in” on my wellbeing following the travesty that is Trump’s election, or even when they showed up to relevant rallies and events, and shared statuses of solidarity, that made me feel reinvigorated despite the current climate.

It is when we go out together and talk endlessly and laugh raucously and give each other advice about our work, exchange stories about the weird and wonderful people in our lives, about our diamanté-loving mothers or our old cat lady habits (Ruby Hamad, I am looking at you), about the times we tripped on a stage or I spilled coffee on my hijab just before a performance (many, many times).

This is how we survive, this is how we refuse to allow our art and our words to be co-opted or tried on for size, or our successes colonised.

Now more than ever, we get to be brilliant and we get to celebrate that, as humble and supportive individuals, as resilient communities, where the arts and literature are seen as important tools for dismantling the racism and white supremacy that infiltrates every level of society.

My home is my poetry

Places and borders may be transient and ever changing, but learning to make home in like-minded people, and in my poetry, has been where I find most comfort these days.

I was born in war - it’s on my skin, my memories, it’s in the strength and humour and hopefulness and love of my family.

I often wonder to myself, if I may die fighting my own war…And if so, should I stop fighting?

My father knows that doubt, shakes his head, eyes brighter than ever, “Eat something first,” he says, only half-joking.

“Then get back to it.”

Love the story? Follow the author here: @SaraSalehOz


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Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

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