An Interview with Shirin Mirachor, Salim Bayri & Hilda Moucharrafieh

By Vera Santana

The burdens and privileges that come with documentation are either cause for celebration or existential weight. The bureaucracies and the sociability can be a lot to juggle while trying to restart or continue your life. Being a second or third generation migrant or immigrant means that some will not be satisfied with your answer to, “where are you from?”. If not convincing enough, “but… where are you really from?” will follow, aggressively highlighting your differences. It’s time to accept these differences to create space for the exploration of alternative essences to belonging. What music do you belong to? What visual art do you belong to? What would you rather be asked?

The second edition of New Radicalisms is a four-day festival that explores shared identities, digital realities and cultures of the in-between. From the 30th of June to the 3rd of July, widespread in-between voices from or somehow related to the WANA region (West Asia and North Africa) will gather in Rotterdam to activate the starting question of this edition: “but… where are you really from?”.

We invite you to get to know the program and the team welcoming you to a discursive festival filled with lectures, workshops, and club nights. Shirin Mirachor is New Radicalisms’ head of context program, Salim Bayri is head of the learning program, and Hilda Moucharrafieh is head of the performance program. Shirin is also the director of (A)WAKE, the organization that initiated New Radicalisms. 

Reading the six words, but… where are you really from,  flushed a lot of my own lived experiences into my mind. Following that, what was very impactful was also going on the website and seeing the invitation in the form of an ID card. I would like to know more about the decision to introduce us to the festival this way. 

Salim: We tried to find a common ground for the people that are interested in this festival. We came to this crossroad of the ID card as an important and central document that we all understand to be both a privilege and a restriction. It’s so central to our experiences. It’s also a place of debate– there are some people that take it for granted but there are others who are more dependent on it. Depending on your circumstance, it can take up 99% of your life. And since this year we want the festival’s programming to go in a more talkative mode, it felt like a good place to start with. In our discussions, we started to visually distort the card, warping it, shattering it, just to think of the different feelings that this piece of plastic gives.

Hilda: I would add that it’s really coming from the experience of the entire team. As a team, we are from WANA for WANA. None of us are curators and this year we intentionally chose not to work with any as sometimes they act as gatekeepers. Instead, we decided to guide the festival from a place of understanding our own lived experiences and trusting that from our own experiences we will be able to communicate from a personal place. As Salim said, the reality of the residency document is something that really holds you back as a migrant, while others are able to proceed with their careers without the worry of bureaucratic, financial and mental tolls. It’s a lot to juggle while trying to restart or continue your life. Language is also something that really connects us in all of this. As Salim said, this edition of the festival will be more discursive. We chose to play with language, which you can also see on the website, like the flipping words, making our communication bilingual and even trilingual. With this, we hope to create the potentiality to present and explore as diaspora and second generation of the WANA community in the Netherlands. 

Salim: What I like is that each person has a different relationship to this card. Each person has a different way to receive this approval of the state, it can be a celebration or a burden.

Yeah, an ID card is far from just a piece of plastic. It feels like New Radicalisms’ communication is very intentional. I mean, even what you were saying about the text and the words switching with the languages on the website. It really makes me feel that this event is, you know, speaking to the “in-betweenness” of cultures and experiences. It’s a great way to start this conversation, to be honest.

Shirin: I think that’s also a big change from the first edition of New Radicalisms. The first edition was very much focused on the more dominant art audience who we wanted to introduce something new to, but they are not the priority this time. I think that while reframing this edition, as well as with the help of (A)WAKE, we decided to just make a festival that we like. You know, without the need to reply to anyone. On the other hand, we did notice and that’s exactly what I think the visual identity reflects: some people will totally get it and some people will not get it at all. But that’s fine, you know. Everyone is welcome. We definitely don’t want to be an exclusionary festival, but we thought: “let’s really think for whom we’re doing this for.” And that’s what I really like about the festival. It’s by and for, on every level.

It comes across, to me at least.

Shirin: Yeah. Happy you recognised that.

Speaking of channeling your own experiences into the festival, I saw on the program that you are all participating in a panel discussion on the 30th of June that somewhat introduces the festival. Could you tell me about any instances where you’ve been confronted with this question of, “but where are you really from”? 

Hilda: So, this question is twofold. There is: where are you from? And there is: but, where are you really from? So, we’re italicizing the ‘really’ because it’s a continuation of that first question. If the answer to that first question is not convincing to the person, to the interrogator, then the second question comes up. One is curiosity, an icebreaker, even. If I get to know where you’re from, if I get to know what you do, then I can create an image of you. For me, the difficulty is when the answers change based on the political circumstances and the social circumstances. During the 2019 revolution in Lebanon, I was actually really happy and proud to answer where I’m from; people were smashing ATM’s and going against the banking system. But at times the answer is a burden for me. It’s also interesting to see the reactions of those who ask. Sometimes they give me answers that are really unexpected. They’re like, oh, Fairuz, you know? And I’m like, wow, I’m glad that people are referring to music instead of news items. But to answer my experiences with “but, where are you really from”, I guess is not for me to speak about because it hasn’t been my experience. It’s the experience of people who are born here. 

Salim: I try to come up with something different every time. It’s like a little stage where I can perform something, when I feel like it.

Shirin: What about the experience with your dentist?

Salim: Ah, yes. I went to the dentist and they asked: “Hello! What are you doing here?”, “I came here for my cavities” I answered. And she says: “No, what are you doing in the Netherlands?”.

Hilda: Yes, there is also that question. Why did you come here? Why do you live here?

Salim: It’s very rude, actually, but answering that question went through different stages for me.. I used to say Morocco but it’s a state and a country… with all the politics and ideas that go with it. Then I started to say North Africa to make it broad and about geography. Then I started to answer with the city of Casablanca. That avoids the politics, stereotypes of “Morocco” and the lack of precision of a broad area like North Africa. Casa is good. It’s a more sexy name popularized by Hollywood. But I try to keep it as short as possible to move on to more interesting questions. And I think that it is a good filter of people. You know, when you say something and you see the reaction, you’re like, okay, I know who I’m dealing with now. It’s a crucial moment in getting to know someone.

Hilda: When I moved a couple of years ago to this new house, one of my neighbors asked me: “where do you come from?” And I think it was a particular mood I was in when I told him that I was living in Kinkerstraat before. Like; “what do you mean where do I come from?” You know, you get asked questions and it’s something psychological like you choose whatever or however you want to receive that question. It depends on your mood and playfulness or what  freedom you feel in that moment. So, “where do you come from” and “where are you really from?” – we’re trying to imagine and explore other answers to those questions. Because, as Salim said, sometimes if you say something like Lebanon or Morocco, there is also a certain weight that we are not very convinced to carry in terms of defining a political border or nation state. 

Salim: You don’t want to defend something that is not entirely aligned with your views.

Hilda: You don’t want to defend. You cannot stand by it. It doesn’t represent you as you are. It is about belonging, not about nostalgia. It’s not about romanticizing particular states, even if they are the places that you were born in. Installing those borders is, in its essence, a violent practice of dividing land, of subjugating people towards citizenships and bureaucracies and classes and privileges. So, where do you come from? We want to support the culture, the heritage, the collectivity, and the efforts of people. But never the states. 

Shirin: I think this is also very important about the festival. This feeling of nostalgia and romanticizing where you’re from is happening a lot in the third generation of migrants. Conversations like we’re having now, with Hilda and Salim, help us confront experiences that different degrees of migrants are not exposed to. New Radicalisms is a place that without being shy, you can share experiences and ask questions. That’s what I personally hope. I have a very different relationship with the question: but… where are you really from? It’s more because I’m fairly white passing but my name refers to certain Kurdish-Iraqi heritages and so people sometimes experience a disconnect when I tell them my name. It also depends on who I’m talking to, especially when someone tries to talk to me in Kurdish or ask me questions. That sometimes makes me very uncomfortable. But on the other hand, I have experienced meeting someone that doesn’t initially recognize my heritage but then gets really happy when I tell them my name. When I see someone trying to make this connection with me, I immediately recognize an ally or someone that understands me. I think that’s also nice about the festival is that we will be able to talk more openly. 

Salim: Yes. That’s what’s good. The interferences and these frictions. But not just between locals and migrants, but within minorities and across classes as well.

So, there’s this talk about the trenches that are created between people in asking these types of questions. I was wondering if there’s any other trench that you’ve recognized in creating this program? 

Salim: I mean, there are so many trenches you can find but the idea is to acknowledge them. In making them visible, we can come together and give space for these urgent conversations. So we don’t agree on an ideal image of our homeland, but we both really like JPEGs or Yung MA, you know. If you focus on the trenches and how we divide each other, there’s no end. We will become bitter and experience hatred or even violence. We want to go beyond that. That’s the goal. Beyond barriers, class, privileges, passports, IDs – all this crap that we don’t really enjoy.

Hilda: What I’m hoping for is that New Radicalisms becomes a place that is safe enough to discover other belongings. We have already established that we are from these regions, so now we can talk about other places that we are from. Places where our inspirations come from, for example. What are our emotional landscapes, musical interests? Our other belongings? By iterating these belongings really clearly, as threads in the festival, we are able to spring out of this comfort bubble of Arab diaspora and become able to connect with other people and feel strong. These kinds of other belongings, like visual languages, are not the ones that are expected of you as a diaspora or an “Arab” migrant. I quote the word “Arab” because the majority of these lands are Arabic, but there are minorities who do not subscribe as Arab that are completely washed away by this simplification.

Exactly, I think this is where the exploration of, “what would you rather be asked?”, starts. Speaking of, I would like to know more about how you’re creating a safe space for these conversations in the festival– how are you fostering that environment? 

Salim: I don’t know. Personally, I just don’t really think about it much, to be honest haha. I just behave as my mum would have liked me to behave. I think there’s no real policy or training in it. 

Hilda: I think it is exactly that. It’s about connecting, communicating, and seeing. Treating others how you would like to be treated – being sensitive and sensible to people’s vulnerabilities and being there for it and not acting from a place of hierarchy or power. We all have a shared responsibility of creating a safe space. By sharing that responsibility, everybody needs to care for everybody. Not one person or one institution should be responsible for installing top down safety. This is something that happens a lot with accountability.

Salim: It’s often also counter-productive. You know, if I tell you that behind this door, there is a safe space, you immediately think that there’s something to worry about where you are. So, I don’t know. I find it a bit of a strange thing, but it’s also good to move with awareness of the other’s sensitivity.

I want to ask a lighter question now. What part of the program are you all looking forward to the most?

Shirin: For me, it’s the More powerful than two Cleopatras lecture by Ani Khatchikian & Anahita Delcorde. I feel that it is a very solid lecture that touches upon many things with also a lot of humor. It was interesting because their impressive CV’s fed a longer discussion about whether we would like to highlight or not. And then Hilda mentioned that they’re young girls, 26 years-old or something, and they’re from the region. You know, oftentimes it would be a white man’s CV. So, let’s celebrate that. I am also very excited about Adham Hafez’s masterclass on Digital Rights where he will teach us about the Internet’s dynamics and how it reproduces certain power dynamics. And having said that, Aryana Hessami’s An alternative history of the internet too. I like how she gives a lecture first and then follows with a workshop and uses this speculative design to think of other ways of designing the environment. Also because she’s a young woman who came all the way from Brooklyn to support our festival. Speaking of, the open call gave us a new access to a bigger network and it was something really special. It’s still really touching to get messages from, let’s say, someone in Mexico who is like: “I’ve been following you for a while and I want to be part of this somehow.” 

Salim: That’s a good sign.

Hilda: What I’m very excited about is the performances of the three artists in-residence that have been with us at (A)WAKE since last year: Leyla-Nour Benouniche, Betina Abi Habib, and Isshaq Albarbary. They each did a six-week long residency one after the other. At the end of their term, they presented their works in progress and we gave them the option to make use of the festival to share openly with a wider audience. And that is also what makes New Radicalisms this discursive, experimental, and shared space that is not all about the finished product. 

Salim: And Dollypran, he’s a rapper from Casablanca. It’s the first time he comes to Europe. 

Shirin: It’s so funny because I’m constantly making jokes about all of the different people in the same space. And that interaction is actually what I’m mostly looking forward to because it’s different communities coming together.

Salim: Haha yeah it’s like, BA students, next to doctors, next to Dollypran. 

Any last thing to share?

Salim, Hilda, Shirin: Yes, a shout out to the whole team! We have all been working so hard. Within as little as four months we organized this comprehensive festival with limited resources and even more limited time. It is a festival fully run by and for the WANA diaspora and that deserves a big shout out. 

New Radicalisms is a four day festival “exploring shared identities, digital realities and cultures of in-between”. The festival will take place in Rotterdam from the 30th of June until the 3rd of July. Read more about the festival here. New Radicalisms is initiated by (A)WAKE. If you’re unable to make it; the festival’s panel discussion will be recorded and uploaded here.

Subbacultcha members get free access to the festival (limited spots). To attend, please make a reservation by sending an email to mailinglist@subbacultcha.nlwith ‘New Radicalisms + your day of choice’ in the subject line. More info here.