Interview with Iraqi Australian writer Hajer Al Awsi

A bundle of joy and contradictions, Hajer is an Iraqi-Australian writer that is trying to figure it all out. From screenplays to short stories to essays, she explores themes of womanhood, dysfunctional families and every now and then she’ll tell you how she feels about that trending topic on twitter. She has a Medium blog where she shares her many opinions about the world.

Hajer has exhibited ‘Loss and Freedom’, an audio installation featuring Zainab and her parents accounts of the night Zainab runs away from home. Most recently, Hajer’s first folklore piece, ‘The Tigrisian Women’ set in an imagined ancient matriarchal Mesopotamian society featured in a Sydney Writers Festival project being rescheduled to 2021 but currently available online now: https://www.finishingschoolcollective.com/hajer-and-faith.

WN: Tell us about your writing journey – when did you start writing and then decide to pursue it as a career?  

HA: I started writing at the typical coming of age period—17 – as a way of dealing with the many existential crises I was having. As soon as I left school I volunteered at the local arts center where I met other young people my age.

WN: What are the themes in your writing and why have you chosen these themes?

HA: Naturally, I find myself writing a lot about womanhood as a Muslim Arab woman but also a lot about dysfunctional families. I try and find the humor in the migrant experience along with all the struggles. In particular, I tend to focus on the experience of the second generation immigrant. It’s an experience that hasn’t been explored a lot with a Middle Eastern perspective but is so important. Being raised either predominantly or entirely outside of your parents’ homelands means you and your parents have entirely different cultural understandings, perspectives which often times means very different values. I find that space really interesting and comforting to explore in my writing.

WN: What has been your experience as an Iraqi-Australian writer?

HA: Initially, I shied away from writing specifically Iraqi characters or from an Iraqi perspective and instead chose to write from Levantine perspectives especially Palestinian and Lebanese. I was raised in part by Palestinians and in Australia the predominant Arab population is Lebanese so these neighboring cultures felt familiar but also distant enough to explore. As I grew into myself and dealt with my internalized discomforts of Iraqi culture I’ve become more and more fascinated and driven to write about my specific identity. There is immense richness of culture in Iraq and stories from the diaspora especially are quite scarce. So I finally came to my senses and realized that there was this whole gap in the literary world that I could take advantage. It’s exciting but also important.

WN: You founded a Facebook group called Iraqi Diaspora Creatives. What is the idea behind forming this group and how has been the response?

HA: Yes, it was born of my frustration with finding diasporas Iraqi voices in the arts both globally and in Australia. I was looking for someone to mentor me through a play that relied a lot on understanding Iraqi diaspora culture and found it immensely difficult to find anyone overseas and in Australia. I knew that there were people out there and was determined to find them. I had thought about forming some kind of network for a while and so finally did it and called it the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network. I was lucky to have another online Iraqi focused page, ‘Shakomakodotnet’ to cross promote the network on their page and had a rush of a few hundred people follow the instagram page and join the Facebook group. It’s going much better than I anticipated and I’m really happy about that.

WN: You recently helped organize a letter to the creators of the series Baghdad Central. What was letter about and the purpose behind this campaign?

HA: Yes. I noticed very quickly while watching it that the Iraqi dialect sounded very forced or just wrong altogether. While the actors were Arab, admittedly a step in the right direction, there was only two actual Iraqis in the whole cast. I began to research the show and who was behind it and it quickly emerged that it was not written by Iraqis, but by middle aged white men, though it framed itself as being from an Iraqi perspective. The production company, Euston Films is alarmingly entirely made up of white people which inevitably means the profits of a supposed Iraqi story is going to non-Iraqis. This made me feel really uncomfortable. I opened up the conversation to the members of the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network and an overwhelming amount of them felt the same way. We were all felling fed up of being dismissed by the system and felt an urgency to speak out.

WN: Can you share the most rewarding aspects of being a writer?

HA: When someone feels moved or seen by something I’ve written. It’s always so heartwarming and motivates me to keep putting work out there.

WN: What advice would you give writers who are starting out?

HA: Write as much as possible and consume as many stories as possible in as any and all mediums. Allow yourself to respond emotionally to what you are consuming. Then sit back later and make an assessment of what you liked and didn’t like about the story, the techniques used or you wish they used. This way you exercise the muscle of analysis that is so precious to the process of writing and any kind of storytelling.

Sponsored by Chaldean Cultural Center http://www.ChaldeanCulturalCenter.org Unique Voices in Films http://www.UniqueVoicesinFilms.org University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter]

The Healing Power of Memoir

A few weeks ago I sat next to Angela Rochon at Marcus Grill, enjoying the Christmas luncheon hosted by Detroit Working Writers. Angela recently had her first book published, a memoir called Fatherless. I remember many meetings over the years where Angela shared her writings for this book with the DWW critique group. I always enjoyed reading about her Italian relatives and the kitchen flooded with various ingredients and aromas. It reminded me so much of my Chaldean family and culture. 

Angela’s book is really about her father, Angelo. His family was joyful, hard-working, devout, and kindhearted, except for Vito, the murderer. Born to a widwo who was widowed again, Angela helped raise his half siblings. Sicilian immigrants in steel-city Youngstown, Ohio cherished this thoughtful boy. World War II brought him to Algonac, Michigan, as a leader of men.

“Hope and love were his signature features,” said Angela. “The village embraced him, commending his kindness.”

Angelo became wealthy, but haunted by the memory of hunger. He built a church and treasured his family, who soon became fatherless.

During our lunch, Angela and I spoke about how we each felt writing our memoirs, the healing power in the process. We traveled centuries back, visited family stories we never knew existed, understood the root of some feuds, and in our hearts, reconciled a lot of relationships. Through our memoirs, we also shared beautiful memories, including our culture’s customs, cooking, and celebrations.

Fatherless, which spans two centuries, describes Ellis Island immigration, world wars, the Great Depression, national prosperity, and recessions. In it, there’s a reconciliation after a fifty-year feud. Angela writes, “Instead of Ancestry websites, Aunt Agata and I researched our ancestry at Ellis Island, sharing the date with our family. We discussed details. Our memory mining conversations became her gifts to me. Mine were her brief diversions from her deteriorating health.” 

In writing memoir, happy scenes comfort us while difficult ones arouse a painful past. But they also help us understand and stop reliving that past. When you take the time to look at a situation from beginning to end, when you write it down, you’re able to see it from a different perspective. Maybe you blamed one parent for an incident without having sat down and putting yourself in his or her shoe. Taking the time to look at your memories objectively and to make sense of them helps you come to terms with your feelings, with old wounds. It shows you family patterns, such as in Angela’s case, sudden deaths at early ages, resilience, and reconciliation. 

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As a psychiatric therapist and an educator who held management positions in university and secondary schools, Angela’s experiences led her to teach memoir writing, guiding reminiscence groups, grief support, and doing public speaking. She continued writing throughout this time, winning awards for her poetry, as she published work in newspaper columns, magazines, and academic journals. She earned the Toastmasters International DTM. 

For her memoir Fatherless, Angela went as far as doing genograms that placed six generations in relation to each other, prompting memories and giving her reader concise visuals. Genograms graphed generational effects of tragedies and joys and focused on medical, genetic, or emotional relationships.

Writing memoir is healing, and it’s also fun. Angela recalls a grandchild calling the Statue of Liberty “the Statue of Literally.” 

“It is,” said Angela. “All my genes literally are from Italian immigrants to New York City.” 

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Contact A. M. Andino Rochon at a.m.rochon@aol.com to comment or schedule Mining Memories or Introduction to Genograms events or speeches.

Some upcoming events:

 

02/07/19:

Legacies of Life Memories, 6 PM, Algonac/Clay Library, 2011 St Clair River Drive, Algonac MI 48001, Reservations requested at 810 794-4471

 

02/21/19:

Legacies of Life Memories, 6 PM, Algonac/Clay Library, 2011 St Clair River Drive, Algonac MI 48001, Reservations requested at 810 794-4471

 

02/28/19:

Legacies of Life Memories, 6 PM, Algonac/Clay Library, 2011 St Clair River Drive, Algonac MI 48001, Reservations requested at 810 794-4471

 

03/05/19:

Legacies of Life Memories, 11:30 AM, Port Huron Senior Center, at 600 Grand River Ave, Port Huron MI 48060, 810 984-5061, 800 297-0099

The Path of Consciousness

It was a full moon, a Wolf Moon in January of 2016. We were on a family trip in Cancun, Mexico, on a tour of the Riviera Maya. Before 3:00 pm, I left my husband and children and walked beneath a wooden archway with the words “Path of Consciousness” printed in Spanish and English.

The trail led to the Mayan ceremony I’d signed up for which included a Temazcal steam bath. This relaxing mystical old-age rite is good for the soul and mixes a spiritual journey with an encounter with the basic elements of our planet: water, fire, earth, and wind. I came upon a narrow pathway to the right, with a bowl of incense beside a large shell. Over it, a sign read:

“Enjoy a relaxing experience and feel yourself being reborn with this mystical old-age rite. The Temazcal steam bath is good for the soul. It mixes a spiritual journey with a truly delightful encounter with the basic elements of our planet: water, fire, earth, and wind…”

I went into the narrow road that seemed hidden within beautiful trees. The road led to a round area where three men dressed in white trousers prepared the burning of large black stones. They greeted me and asked that I take a seat on the bench, besides an Indian couple who also happened to live in Michigan. I then watched as the men continued to make the black stones hotter and redder.

During the ceremony, we had the opportunity to reflect on our negativities and then to throw them away, using maple syrup chips, into the incense bowl that the shaman came to us with. We drank a bowl of tree sap, were asked to close our eyes and dream in our new vision, and we were blessed by the shaman in the Mayan language. Then we were led into a sweat lodge.

Shaman Ceremony at the Riviera Maya, Mexico

The sweat lodge was dark, with only four lit candles. Soon the hot stones were brought in by a wagon and piled in the middle of the room. The room became warm, and when the men poured aromatic water over the stones, producing steam, it became hotter and hotter.

“I will eventually blow out the candles and the room will be completely dark,” he said, both in English and Spanish so all seven people would understand him. “If you feel you want to leave, that’s okay, just clap your hands and we will help you out. But I ask that you stay and take advantage of this opportunity. Allow the prayers to transport you to another place in time. Allow the steam created by the herbs and hot stones to envelope your body as it purifies your spirit, then experience a rebirth as you abandon to the warm shelter of mother earth’s womb.”

He talked about the feminine power, the importance of women in this world, how they are the backbone of society and therefore, need to be treated well by men. He then talked about the four elements of our planet. Not long after he blew out the candles, with the steam rising higher and the room getting hotter, I did have this urge to escape, to clap my hands. I tried to stay still, but I felt very uncomfortable, and then I asked myself, “What am I afraid of?”

Suddenly, I relaxed. I relaxed enough to listen to the answer which I was afraid to look at. I received much wisdom in this submission and remembered my teachers from Lynn Andrews’ school who had also held sacred space for me as I faced my dark side, and how facing my dark side has also helped me find the light.

We walked out of the sweat lodge into a waterfall of pure water. We returned to the circle for another drink, and to give gratitude. The shaman thanked us for keeping this thousands-year-old Mayan tradition alive by our participation. We thanked him for this amazing opportunity.

The last time I had gone to Mexico was twenty years ago, to chaperone my niece and her friends for their Spring Break. Back then, shamans were not a part of any excursion. Back then, few people had ever heard the word shaman. Luckily, today is a different story. Today that tradition is not only alive and well, but it’s available to everyone who understands and appreciates the healing and rejuvenation it provides for us and our Earth.

Here I am two years later, that one experience not having left my mind and spirit. Knowing I can’t easily go to Mexico for spiritual ceremonies, I decided to create a similar community in my neighborhood. So I started The Path of Consciousness, an idea born from the little hideaway in the Riviera Maya, Mexico. Similarly to the Temazcal steam bath, this community is about reconnecting through ancient teachings and tools; releasing what no longer serves us; healing and transforming ourselves through writing and storytelling; and creating a better world for our families and communities.

This year, we’re having our first yearly spiritual and writing conference and retreat, where you’ll have the opportunity to enhance your personal and business life with various ancient teachings, including writing and storytelling. It’s close enough to drive to and far enough to find peace,  spiritual growth, and writing time at an affordable price.

Date: October 5-7, 2018

Place: Colombiere Retreat and Conference Center in Clarkston, Michigan 

For more information, visit the homepage https://thepathofconsciousness.com/