Caught Unsteady by Aya Razzaz 14F

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

The life jackets and life raft seen above were used in Aya's dance performance to signify refugees' attempts to flee turmoil.

My performance is kind of revolving around two different areas. One is simply the retelling of Syrian refugee stories.  And those stories are from family members and Syrian refugees I’ve worked with and friends who have family who are Syrian refugees.  I’ve had the privilege working at a physical therapy center in Jordan for Syrian refugees who had brain damage falling off buildings and refugee children who lost limbs. So a lot of the stories are about them because I spent a whole summer with the refugees. 

The second area is about humanizing these viral images we see so often on social media and in the news, like the picture of the Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi. Because dance is the most humanizing, it’s about showing the body and what it can do.  It’s  a constantly experiencing vessel. I wanted to use dance to combat this topic. I think there’s no better way to humanize a static image than to make the body in that image to start moving. That’s what this whole piece is about.  At the beginning there’s a section of the piece where I do a solo where I revolve around mourning my family history and my own experience about violence and displacement. And to also be transparent with the audiences about the way they’re looking through these stories. And to talk about what it’s like to have family members who are refugees; to come to a place like Hampshire College and feel the responsibility. Trying to be a voice in a silent crowd; trying to talk about these issues when they’re not talked about nearly enough.  

I feel personally this was very important for myself because I remember arriving at Hampshire and realizing that the issues the people care about back home are not the issues people care about here. Back home I went to a high school where people were constantly fundraising for refugees, whether it’s for Syrian or Palestinian refugees.  People were constantly talking about what we can do or how we can help. Jordan has almost as many refugees as citizens because of how many refugees they have let in. We have the second biggest refugee camp in the world. We have so many refugees who are Palestinian, Iraqi and Egyptian. It’s funny people call the U.S. a melting pot. I feel like it’s a joke because Jordan is the true melting pot. When you’re in Jordan you hardly ever meet someone who is 100% Jordanian. Most people are mixed, Palestinian, Egyptian… just from every Middle-Eastern country you can think of. We’ve allowed in so many immigrants who have just assimilated and have found a home in Jordan. It has been the safe haven of the Middle-East for a very long time. 

This life raft was constructed out of foam and a lot of duck tape.

I think a lot of people feel the ideal way to combat ignorance is to have discourse and conversations about these topics. But in order to motivate people to have these conversations, we have to make them care and be invested in this topic enough to give their time to talk about it. And I think that’s where performance art comes in; It interacts with people at an emotional level. I work with kinesthetic empathy a lot. That’s a phenomenon when people are watching dance, they have mirror neurons in their brains that fire which allow them to experience the movement through the dancer on stage.  Sometimes you’ll be watching a dance piece, and, for example, image you’re watching a dance piece and all the dancers lift a dancer really high, you’ll have a reaction to that. You’re worried the dancer will fall. The mirror neurons make you feel like you are in the place of that dancer, high up in the air.  So I work with that a lot because I think seeing eight people on a raft meant for two people gives the audience that sense of crowdedness. Seeing them almost falling off of that raft as if they’re about to fall in the water gives the audience a sense of panic. That’s why I feel dance is so powerful because it brings the audience to the experience of the dancers. 

Life raft and life jackets
One of the main props seen in Aya's concert

It’s very bittersweet. I feel like I have a better sense of myself and what I want to do after Hampshire than I would have last year. I know what I want to do. I think the bitter part of it is knowing I won’t have all of the resources I have here. For choreographers that’s scary because students and dancers aren’t free in the real world, or in Hampshire for that matter.  At Hampshire, you have an audience with all of the other choreographers.  But in the real world, people need to eat and your dancers aren’t going to dedicate as much time if you’re not paying them. 

It doesn’t feel right as a choreographer to ask people to devote as much emotion and soul that I require for my work with out compensating them. I know the dancers have changed me more than they have changed. They’ve really dedicated so much emotion to this piece than I could have ever imaged. And in going into this project, that was something I was worried about. My dancers are not refugees; they’re just college students. It’s really hard to slip into someone’s else’s experience and story. My uncle is a heart surgeon and he had his own hospital in Damascus that he ran. He spent his whole life building up to that place. He went to work everyday even when he wasn’t feeling up to it, then not having job at all. Feeling useless in this country that didn’t really accept him. That in itself inspired this work; what’s it’s like to have your life put on hold while you watch the rest of the world progress. I have a lot of different ideas about after Hampshire. I’m applying to several artist residencies around the U.S., specifically those that are meant for artists that combined social justice and performing arts.  There is an annual workshop that happens in Greece called Passtresspass.  What they do is they host dance therapy work shops for Syrian refugees. They turn them into performances that happen in Airports, Hotel lobbies, malls, any public place where they feel people need to be witnessing refugees. The end goal is to have my own group of dancers and artists who are dedicated to sharing refugees’ experiences, not just Syrians, because there are are so many refugees, and a lot forget they’re not all Syrian refugees.  My ideal career would be to find other artists dedicated to making performance art about refugees.

Another of Aya's props from the performance is made out of newspaper

My biggest struggled was finding a space for myself.  During my first year at Hampshire, I had an experience where I didn’t know many international students. Most of the people who lived in my hall where local students. I was just coming from a high school where we had someone from every country you can image. And coming to somewhere where everyone was from the same country who didn’t care where I was from was very difficult.

Photographs from the dance performance by Jim Coleman

I went to the Cultural Center and was trying to find people like me. And I was kicked out because I’m white-passing and the people there didn’t want to hear what I had to say. That was a lot more prevalent my first year.  Since my first year, I’ve become a lot closer to international students on campus. I’ve gotten to know the people who work at the Cultural Center, and now I still l don’t go there very often, but I don’t feel very nervous going to that space. I know the people who work there and I know they I have a right to be there. Also I was the only Arabic at Hampshire for the first two years of me being here. Since then, we’ve gotten a few Moroccan students, but the culture and dialect of Arabic culture is different than Jordanian culture.  So my whole time at Hampshire I’ve never met anyone like me, to speak my won language with.  It’s always been finding people I’ve had similarities with and talk about our differences. But I’ve never found a community of people where I came from which was always discouraging.  Hampshire gives a lot of opportunities, but you have to take the initiative to carve out a space for yourself, especially if you’re an international student or student of color because the whole structure of Hampshire is pushing you to do that for yourself.

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