HOW DOES YOUR ART AND CULTURE WRITING RELATE TO YOUR POLITICAL WRITING AND WORK?
When I moved to the Middle East, I was eager to begin writing about the world around me. I found writing about politics in a more traditional manner wasn't speaking to me. I had been trained in the arts - I graduated from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU with a BFA in film and acting, which is why I think I was always attracted to writing about culture above all other beats.
And so when I was looking for a way to puncture the scene in the Middle East, and tell the stories around me, I was lured towards the artists around me. I liked flipping the traditional narrative of the Middle East conflict on its head and looking at it from different angles. Besides, artists were always more candid with me. And it was with them the texture of the conflict was really revealed.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DEVOTE YOURSELF TO THE CREATIVE TIME PROJECT, RATHER THAN CONTINUE WRITING PRIMARILY AS A FREELANCER?
Creative Time is an organisation that I feel has a wonderful legacy of making people rethink the world that surrounds them. They do it through art projects that I find deeply inspiring. For instance, they have one ongoing project with Cuban artist Tania Brugeura called Immigrant Movement International. For the project she has set up an outpost in Flushing, Queens that explores immigrant issues not just in the US but also around the world. She has done this by conducting language classes in her office as well as conducting conferences that draft what she calls an 'Immigrant Bill of Rights'. It's this and other projects of theirs that really made me feel that working with them would be an amazing next step in my career.
WHAT PUBLICATION OR CRITIC REALLY REPRESENTS YOUR ROLE-MODEL VOICE AS A WRITER?
I would say that it would have to be someone like Terri Gross, from Fresh Air. What I find so remarkable about her is her ability to interview a myriad of people--physicists, singers, politicians--and always tease out the most evocative stories. On top of that she has a way of making extraordinarily complicated stories easy to understand, which is what I aim to do every time I sit down to write.
"Creative Time is an organisation that has a wonderful legacy
of making people rethink the world that surrounds them"
WHAT IS THE OBJECTIVE OF WORDS FOR CHANGE?
The program aims to give young people, specifically those from very marginalized areas of Casablanca, an opportunity to tell the stories of the world around them. Very often local journalists avoid the neighborhoods where they live because they are fearful. And so I felt compelled to create a program where their voices could be heard on a regular basis, which in this case was through a blog that each student started and contributed to regularly. The overarching goal was to have policymakers hear their stories in hopes that they would effect real change. The slums where many of them live usually get attention during elections. At that time they are flooded with politicians who visit them and make promises. Once they win, they rarely return. Words for Change aims to shine a light on their lives/most pressing issues year round.
ARE YOU HOPING THAT YOUR STUDENTS ADVANCE INTO JOURNALISM OR JUST APPLY JOURNALISTIC SKILLS TO DEVELOP THEIR CRITICAL VOICES?
Mostly I am hoping they are able to become effective citizen journalists.
WHAT SPECIFIC HURDLES DO THESE STUDENTS HAVE IN THEIR EDUCATION?
From what I gathered from my years in Morocco, it's a sense that students are not allowed to question their teachers. There is no real back and forth that exists in the classroom. It is the complete opposite of how I was educated, (which was a Quaker school in LA called Oakwood School).
HOW IS THE ROLE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF ART DIFFERENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA THAN IN THE WEST?
This is a tough question as I think it is viewed differently across the region. In the UAE, for instance, it is viewed as an integral part of a burgeoning market. In Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Palestine you have a deeply exciting artistic community producing work that doesn't really fit into any one specific area. Then there is Iran, which is also home to a deeply vibrant set of artists. I think the market would like us to think of art production in the region as a new phenomenon, but its been going on for centuries.
"My sister's ambition and stamina keeps me going day in and day out"
ARE ARTISTS ESPECIALLY QUALIFIED TO ENGAGE WITH "THE NEWS"? IS THERE SOMETHING ABOUT ARTISTS' TYPICAL MAGPIE MINDSET THAT GIVES THEM SPECIAL INSIGHT OR ACCESS TO SIGNIFICANT AUDIENCES?
An extraordinarily talented and insightful artist recently told me that at the turn of the 20th century, expeditions always included artists. Society looked to them, he said, to interpret data and critical issues. Unfortunately, it seems to me many artists today are often relegated to a place in society where their actions are usually only witnessed by their peers or a select few.
This is a mistake as I see artists having for the most part, a more holistic approach when addressing the issues that surround them. If we can somehow excise their insight and create a platform whereby artists are looked to as pundits, weighing in on critical issues, then I think the work I am doing with Creative Time can carve a new path.
HOW ARE FASHION PUBLICATIONS LIKE VOGUE POWERFUL PLATFORMS FOR ARTISTS AND ART PROJECTS?
VOGUE reaches so many different kinds of readers and so when you write about a project like mine, or any of the other arts stories I have written for them, you feel that you are touching people well outside the art world. This is key, as I want more than anything for people outside my circle to hear about the work that I write about. It is not enough when just my peers know about it.
YOU'RE RETURNING TO CASABLANCA SOON. WHAT DO YOU HAVE PLANNED?
I have been given a grant by the US State Department to expand my program. I will now be working close with up to 30 students for a period of one year. I also have a team of people working with me on the ground in Casablanca. They are immensely capable and talented, and together we are developing a program that is comprehensive and I hope, life changing.
"I want people outside my circle to hear about
the work that I write about, not just my peers"
WHO IS YOUR IDOL?
My sister. In the year 2009 she had the guts to take over our family business and transform it into one of the most innovative companies in Los Angeles. She took on the role without much experience, but a well of inspirational ideas. Her ambition and stamina keeps me going day in and day out.
Interview by Ana Finel Honigman