Zeina Issa on poetry, music, and belly dance in Arabic-Australian identity
I am now a belly dancer based in Melbourne but my experiences in Sydney, such as meeting Zeina Issa, were formative. For those of you who haven’t met Zeina you need to know she is one of those powerhouse organisers that makes stuff happen and can shape an entire community. The Middle Eastern music and poetry scene in Australia certainly wouldn’t be the same without her.
I first met Zeina in 2015 at the first MACAM concert, Tarab @ Twilight featuring Ismael Fadel. It was the absolute beginning of my exploration of classical Arabic music, and along with a bunch of friends from the erstwhile amateur band, House of Maqam, we trekked up to Sydney to watch the concert. What can I say? Tarab was promised, and tarab was delivered. Tarab @ Twilight offered classical Arabic music in the context for which it was intended, and that is so difficult to come by in Australia. I distinctly remember the sensation of being in that room; it is difficult to put into words. My lips were numb because I was hardly breathing, and I kept willing my ears to open further so more of the music could get in! It was the most formative moment in my entire dance career. It has defined the locus of my interest and my motivation, and a grounding anchor for what is important – Middle Eastern music.
I am indebted to Zeina for providing that experience. So I knew there was no better person to ask about one of the questions that I continually come back to – what is the role of the arts in Arabic-Australian identity and how can they be used to strengthen and enhance the community?
Zeina you are a bit of a globe trotter - where are you currently?
I am currently visiting Lebanon, I visit on a yearly basis.
When I think about a modern patron of the arts you are one of the people that immediately come to mind. What kind of projects have you supported over the years?
For many years I organised a literary salon titled Conversation. At the salon we have launched books and were engaged in highly interesting discussions. Topics ranged from the arts to medicine, science, culture and social issues. The Conversations were extremely popular, they offered face-to-face contact and personal interaction in a digital age. I was also one of the founders of the Sydney Arabic Choir, and since resigning from that role, I have shifted my focus to organising Middle Eastern music events, workshops and classes. I am currently involved in the organisation and artistic direction of the musical performance at the upcoming Iraqi Cultural Festival.
Although you make an effort to support other artists you are an artist yourself. I know you are a poet, cook, and a painter... Have I missed anything? How did you end up with such a diverse range of artistic practices?
No you covered most of it, except my blog and article writing. I wrote on a regular basis over a period of about three years for El Telegraph Arabic Newspaper. I was interested in writing about social issues that concerned especially the Arabic speaking community in Australia. I have published my own essays, poetry and translations of poetry in several Australian literary journals including the Australian Poetry Journal.
I also edit my own blog Poem and Dish where I have published Australian poetry as well as my own recipes. As for painting, I haven’t really pursued it as much as I would have liked to, and I hope that I will attend to it again in the near future.
In answering your question Tara, I can only say that I am simply passionate about all these forms of art. It is difficult to nurture one's multiple passions at once, and it can become a bit of a struggle at times to choose which one to focus on. So I decided that the best approach is to satisfy and pursue one or two at a time.
In your poetry and cooking you often draw on elements of your Lebanese heritage. How important is your background in what you create?
It is very important for me not to let go of my Lebanese heritage while cherishing my Australian identity. I will always be both Australian and Lebanese so I fully embrace my dual identity. I think it is vital for migrants and Australians with an inherited culture to preserve certain aspects of it and pass it on. A person can only be enriched when exposed to various facets of other cultures.
As for my recipes, they reflect who I am today, they have evolved with me. I love to add a modern twist to a traditional recipe. I enjoy spicing up an old recipe with a new touch. I started writing recipes which were passed on to me by my mother, who is a brilliant cook. My initial aim was to save them for family and friends. Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is marvellous, and so healthy and nutritious. It is most definitely worth preserving and sharing.
Your patronage of Arabic music has been particularly influential in my own development, particularly through a series of early concerts you organized through MACAM (Modern and Classical Arabic Music) group. What were you trying to bring to Sydney by creating the MACAM group?
The inception of MACAM came about when a group of very talented Sydney based Middle Eastern musicians approached me to assist them in putting together a concert for classical Arabic music. The notion behind Modern and Classical Arabic Music Group is to support local artists of Arabic background. We started with Tarab at Twilight which was so well received, then we followed it up with a second concert the following year. Both concerts sold out and were quite successful. Then MACAM took on the management and organisation of darbuka classes and workshops as well as our most recent concert. In addition to providing support and an arena for local artists, MACAM is providing Sydneysiders of Arabic background an opportunity to truly enjoy live Arabic instruments, as well as introducing westerners to high quality Middle Eastern music and song.
How important do you think the arts are in maintaining a sense of identity in the Arab-Australian community?
I have always believed that arts are the most positive means in bridging the gap between cultures. Music and food are two powerful elements that bring people together. When the arts of a particular culture are maintained in their adoptive nations, they ease the effect of diasporic experiences. The feeling of loss is reduced, and is replaced by a strengthened sense of belonging.
Music and poetry are deeply rooted in the Arabic culture, they constitute a vital part of its identity, therefore it is of utmost importance to keep their spirit alive in the Arab/Australian community.
Poetry is so prevalent in lyrics of Arabic songs, a mawwal is usually also a poem. The renowned Iraqi singer Kathem Al-Saher is famous for singing Nizar Qabbani's poems. By presenting concerts covering iconic songs and reviving old classics, we are bringing poetry to the ears of those who no longer seek to read it.
You know my particular interest is in raqs sharqi. There has been ongoing commentary in the belly dance community that the old ways of doing things no longer have currency in Australia and throughout the Middle East also. E.g. Belly dancers are now hired at weddings to appease only the elders of the family, and young people would prefer just to have a DJ... how can belly dance fit in to this intersection of old and new?
I have always enjoyed belly dancing, it is such a skilled and artful form of dance, yet because it is so sensual, dancers for many decades were restricted to mainly performing at restaurants and night clubs.
Since Australians have mostly being introduced to belly dancing being performed at weddings and restaurants, it is hard for them to truly appreciate the skill and art behind it. I think shows that are choreographed with a modern and artistic approach can play a role in changing this perception and open a new door for belly dance performances.