Sami Ismat is a multidisciplinary artist from Damascus, Syria who will be presenting Lemon & Oil (formerly, Nostalgic Buds) as part of the Virtual Video Premieres event on May 27 at 7pm. Sami spoke with Gina Wrolstad, 2021 spring season Marketing Manager, about the development of this world premiere.

GW: Your work largely focuses on your experiences as a Middle Eastern American as well as varying immigrant perspectives in the United States. Why is it important to you to highlight these experiences?

SI: The Middle East and the Middle Eastern experience are the farthest thing from a monolith, which I believe is one of the biggest misconceptions. The region has massive religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Islam itself is a religion that includes many subgroups, with each individual subgroup being enormously diverse.

The importance of revealing all of these realities is important specifically because corporate media and politicians tend to speak only about atrocities and wars, which naturally makes a certain narrative dominate the global consciousness. Therefore, it is up to us to empower other less sensationalized narratives and try to balance the scale as much as possible to represent a much more holistic and realistic perspective.

GW: Are there elements that used to be important in your work that no longer seem to be quite as relevant? How has your art evolved overtime?

SI: Yes, certainly! I am going to try to be very transparent here. When I left the Middle East, my main concerns were about our issues as Arabs––of which, believe me, there are many in our society. Initially, I wanted to talk about that in the UK and later in the US, but I soon realized that globally, we are oftentimes looked down upon as a region that is full of conflict, with Islam being viewed as a radicalized religion of extremism and Arabs as backward, violent brutes.

I must admit that all of this isn’t entirely untrue, but it is a massively overexaggerated impression on how things are. I realized that in both the US and the UK, things are exactly the same––meaning, there are as many problems in these Western societies from the standpoint of mental health, radicalization, extremism, and sexist abuse. Apart from war and a history filled with colonization, our problems are of a similar scale.

This realization has made me turn the table, and start focusing my efforts more on portraying the diversity of the Middle East, as well as point to the fact that the way the world sees us is unfairly biased due to capitalistic, war-sustaining interests. This is me oversimplifying a bit, (terms such as racism, supremacy, colonization, and imperialism are also relevant), but each one needs a separate discussion.

Now, it seems that my primary concern is no longer to solve our problems in the Middle East. I do not live there, and talking about those issues in the US is only feeding a biased narrative that does not actually reach the people back home, in the region that it needs to reach. Therefore, it is much more useful and productive to highlight our diversity and point to the problematic perspective the world holds. This has changed my work drastically over the years.

GW: You state that your work is very process-based and that research is an important element of your practice. In a few words, how do you like to begin a rehearsal process? Any standard rituals that you enjoy putting into practice?

SI: I approach every project differently and I always like to experiment. Sometimes, I adapt previous methods that worked, but most of the time I start from the conditions that surround the project, which are different every time! 

My research always starts from a personal place of knowledge and experience. For me, the start of a work is usually stimulated by something that has made me angry or elicited another strong emotional response. The one consistent thing in all my performance projects is to take a few minutes to sketch out a game-plan before every rehearsal. It’s important to me to create a plan that is adaptable, flexible, and considers all aspects, which I do think takes a huge amount of creative energy and focus.

GW: Are there any artistic mediums that you have not broken into and are curious to explore?

SI: Yes!

  • A public sculpture or installation.
  • Directing an opera, a musical, a concert, or a large ceremonial performance for a sporting event.
  • Creating something side by side with refugee camps in the Middle East, specifically with children.
  • A mass protest performance.
GW: What are you listening to right now? (music, podcasts, audiobooks, etc.) 

SI:  I haven’t been listening to many podcasts lately, but Serial and Revisionist History are among my favorites. In terms of Arabic podcasts, Finjan ma Abdu Al Rahaman Abu Maleh (translation: A Coffee Cup with Abdu Alrahaman Abu Maleh) always tends to have interesting topics.

For music, I listen to a lot of Arabic pop or new political Arabic genres when in the car or biking––namely Mashrou Leila and Bu Kothloum. At home, I listen to Arabic classics and “Tarab” music, which is a timeless genre shared by every Arabic generation, regardless of accent, cultural differences, religion, or borders. 

One note about how my music taste has changed overtime; back home (almost 10 years ago now), I listened to more to foreign music because I could hear Arabic music everywhere. For me, this says so much about integration and how immigrants are sometimes accused of resisting becoming American, which is not the case at all. I think many people see us eating traditional food and embracing our own culture as an example of resisting Americanism, but rather, we do it to stay true to our own identity which can feel like it gets lost in the diaspora. 

Growing up, most of us have consumed American media much more than it seems. However, when it’s all we are surrounded by, we need to go back to the things that ground us in who we are. I urge everyone to be more perceptive of this and less critical of people who do not necessarily want to assimilate to all things American. It really angers me when I hear phrases such as “this is the way it is here, and you have to adapt” or “your culture does not work with the American lifestyle.”

Thank you so much, Sami, for your perceptive and thoughtful answers! Sami presents Lemon & Oil TONIGHT, Thursday May 27th at 7pm, alongside Ndgo Blk and Nora Sharp. Get your ticket now

Following the special event, Sami’s work will be available on the Pivot Arts website.