On Identity In Austin: An Interview With Photographer Dahlia Dandashi
Local organization Brown State of Mind is fully committed to creating space in Austin for people of color, by people of color. In the second installment of its award winning Brown State University, Brown State of Mind is bringing together local artists, business owners, scientists and activists to provide accessible education to the Austin community. In partnership with Brown State of Mind, we are highlighting two of their members to explore the themes of culture and diversity, and dig deep into their creative process and personal motivations.
For our first conversation, I sat down with Dahlia Dandashi, instructor of Brown State University’s class Poetry in the Middle East. Born in Houston to a Lebanese and Syrian family, Dahlia is a multidisciplinary artist who grew up in Dubai.
Interviewed by #bbatx Committee Member Vittoria Criss.
Criss: In Austin it seems like there’s a lot of people of color who feel isolated from the rest of the city. But there’s also lots of small pockets of people who are out there trying to create a community for us.
Dahlia Dandashi: There’s a lot of amazing communities in Austin that are doing this. #BBATX is great, Brown State of Mind, In Bold Company—these are essential. It’s amazing that these things are coming to light and they’re happening now. And honestly our generation is really woke. It sounds stupid but we really are!
I ended up quitting my job and almost moved to New York, and I thought well should I move back to Austin? I have a community there, and I have friends. Or should I try something else and build a community elsewhere? A big part of it was because I definitely identify as American, I’m happy I live here.
But at the same time, I’m really Arab. My parents immigrated here and they stuck to their values. They would speak Arabic at home, we grew up Muslim, my parents fast. So now that I’m getting older, in my personal writing I talk a lot about identity, and navigating it, and being confused. Because it was always “we want you to be American, but not too American. You still have to be Arab.” When I lived in Dubai, I never really thought about it. Then I came here, and that’s when I started to question my identity. If I don’t move back to the Middle East, I at least want to help people in my community. These spaces were built for a reason—there was a need for it. Austin is shifting, though. I feel instead of becoming a more diverse city, it’s becoming more homogenized.
Criss: Part of the reason I stayed in Austin was that I hoped it would become more diverse with time. It’s definitely moving in the opposite direction.
Dandashi: Yes, and I will say that your experience is different than mine because I’m white passing. But then I have conversations with people and they find out where I’m from. I’ve been told “people that are from where you’re from are oppressive.” There’s a lot to unpack, and people assume things. I’m all about having conversation, but a lot of times I feel either they’re really ignorant, or they’re not asking the right questions, or they don’t believe what I’m saying. I love Austin, and I feel that you can be part of a community here, since it’s well connected. But what does diversity feel like? When you go talk to someone at a bar or a restaurant, what is your experience? Are you meeting someone that is different than you?
Criss: Even within those of us that identify as “brown” we all have a lot of similar experiences, but we’re also from so many different backgrounds. What has your experience been like as someone who identifies as brown, and how has it influenced your work?
Dandashi: Brown is such an encompassing word, it’s also a word that’s packed with a lot of things. Physically, I don’t look brown, and I’m aware of that. When I go back to the places where my parents are from, people look at me differently. When I speak Arabic, people say, “You’re not from here, you dress differently, you talk differently.” It’s so weird because I always found myself wondering where do I fit in?
I’m not 100% American. I have a lot of American values, but I grew up culturally Arab. Since I moved back to the States, I’ve always struggled with my identity. As I’ve gotten older, the identity crisis has ebbed and flowed. It’s always going to be a challenge for me. It’s getting better for me to navigate now, and I think a big part of that for me was writing. I was feeling all these things and it was all pent up inside, so I started writing a lot the last few years. Last year I wrote a zine and just put it on the internet. It was all about identity and womanhood and understanding yourself as an individual. I’ve written a lot about things that remind me of home and my culture. And recently, with photography, I’ve tried to start collaborating more with artists of color or Arabs who are creatives. Because really in our culture Arabs don’t do art. You’re either a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. I took the LSAT and didn’t go to law school and that was a big disappointment for my parents. It’s starting to get better now.
Social media is crazy, too. I just did a project with a guy that I never met—he’s Jordanian and lives in Tunisia. I took photos and he did Arabic calligraphy with the photos. I’m trying to do more of that. We’re putting our brains together and making art that matters.
Criss: Do you think your parents are becoming more open to what you do as a creative?
Dandashi: My parents are becoming better listeners, especially my Mom. They don’t really get it which is fine; I’m not going to force them to understand why I want to be a person that has a creative career. But it is getting better. The things that I do now are quite new. Social media wasn’t really a thing until recently. Photography has been around for ages, but it’s more accessible now. If you do it properly it’s something you can make your life’s passion if you want to. So it’s explaining to my parents that these are careers that people actually have. I appreciate my parents’ sacrifices, and living here has also given me different perspectives that make me who I am.
Criss: I think it’s easy to forget that our parents are kind of experiencing the same thing we are. They’re also in two different cultures, and we’re learning together.
Dandashi: It’s a process that doesn’t really end! I think the idea of putting yourself in a box is a horrible thing. Break the box and just stand! Observe, take notes, and take chances as well. Being a child of an immigrant is being able to say that you can not just accept everyone, but be able to connect with them on some level.
Criss: You do so many different types of creative work, but there is definitely a uniting theme in all of it. Where did that come from?
Dandashi: I always wrote a lot and did photography since I was young. As I got older, I started to know myself more. My style keeps refining itself. But the cool thing about style is that style can change. Tomorrow I can do something else. I think a lot of it has to do with color. Part of it is that my mom always wore a lot of crazy colors. She would wear matching orange suits with fake flowers on her chest, or sequins, just crazy shit I remember as a kid. So I think that’s part of it unconsciously. And part of it was growing up in Dubai on the beach—I loved being outside, I love water and swimming and sun. That attributes to life for me. It’s something that’s so prevalent in my work that happened on accident.
Criss: How did you become interested in poetry, and what made you want to teach about Middle Eastern poetry?
Dandashi: I’ve been writing since I was probably in elementary school. I had endless amounts of diaries. So writing has always been a big part of my life. I found that poetry was a way that I could express my identity and talk about struggles I was having after I moved back here when I was 18. I grew up reading a lot of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and poetry like Rumi and Nizar Qabbani. Also the Arabic language is very poetic. A lot of Arabic songs will last 10 minutes where the singers are belting their heart out. It’s a very lyrical language. Even the way it’s written—Arabic calligraphy I find is very beautiful. The reason I was writing was because I was trying to figure out how to talk about my feelings and experiences. I was really obsessed with confessional poetry, so my stuff was very confessional, too.
Jason from Brown State of Mind asked me to teach a class, and he had already picked the poets. He picked Hafez and Rumi, and Nizar and Kahlil Gibran. Rumi and Hafez are Persian writers. Nizar and Kahlil Gibran are pretty famous in the Arab poetry world. I already knew a lot, but this has been a really big growth process. I thought it would be a fun experiment for myself to learn about these poets that I read from a lot, but also to share the experience with people that I don’t know. The funny thing is, Rumi is the most read poet in America, but he was born in Afghanistan. There’s a reason why Middle Eastern poetry is so unique, how did these people have such a big influence on this side of the world? Let’s talk about it.