Ep. 8 - Dear Laila: Creating vulnerable intimacy

PuSh Play

Dec 4 2023 • 12 mins

Basel Zaraa discusses his intimate, one-on-one storytelling practice. Dear Laila runs Jan 20th-Feb 3rd at PuSh Festival.

Show Notes

Gabrielle Martin chats with Basel Zaraa about the installation Dear Laila. They talk about how this intimate installation uses objects to connect with patrons; how we use art to deal with personal and collective trauma; and how we can show big events as experienced by normal people.

Co-presented by Boca del Lupo and Pandemic Theatre.

Gabrielle and Basel ask the following questions and more:

  • How can Individual experiences tell political stories, even if it is something they have not chosen

  • How does Dear Laila build on Basel’s previous work?

  • How do we use art to deal with trauma, personally and collectively?

  • Why is this installation experienced by one person at a time? Is the personal approach able to connect people more to the experience?

  • How is the connection to story enhanced via interaction with objects (photos)?

  • How can we show big events as experienced by normal people?

About Basel Zaraa

Basel Zaraa is a UK-based Palestinian artist whose work uses the senses to bring audiences closer to experiences of exile and the search for identity. His current project, Dear Laila, is an interactive installation that recreates his destroyed family home in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. His previous work includes ‘As Far As My Fingertips Take Me’, a collaboration with Tania El Khoury, which was awarded outstanding production at the Bessie Awards in 2019. His work has been shown at over 40 venues and festivals across five continents.

Land Acknowledgement

Basel joins the podcast from Birmingham, UK.

Gabrielle hosts from the unceded, stolen and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish Peoples: the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), colonially known as Vancouver.

It is our duty to establish right relations with the people on whose territories we live and work, and with the land itself.

Show Transcript

Gabrielle [00:00:01] Hello and welcome to PuSh Play, a PuSh Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form and Gabrielle Martin, PuSh's director of programming. And today's episode highlights how political histories are told through individual stories. I'm speaking with Basel Zaraa, the artist behind Dear Laila, which will be presented at PuSh Festival January 20th to February 3rd, excluding the 22nd, 28th and 29th 2024. An intimate interactive installation experienced by one audience member at a time, Dear Laila shares the Palestinian experience of displacement and resistance through the story of one family, exploring how war and exile are experienced through the everyday, the domestic and the public space. Basel Zaraa is a UK based Palestinian artist whose work uses the senses to bring audiences closer to experiences of exile and the search for identity. I'm delighted to be able to share this insight into Basel's approach to weaving the personal and political. Here's my conversation with Basel.

Gabrielle [00:01:06] Hi Basel. It's really nice to be in conversation with you. I'm Gabrielle. I'm the director of programming and I'm speaking with Basel Zaraa, the creator behind Dear Laila. Hi, Basel.

Basel [00:01:17] Hello. Thank you Gabrielle.

Gabrielle [00:01:19] Yeah, and I just want to contextualize where I am. I'm on the unceded traditional and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh). So this is colonially known as Vancouver. And I'm absolutely privileged to be here as a settler on this land. And where are you right now, Basel?

Basel [00:01:40] I'm at my home in Birmingham, U.K. of the moment.

Gabrielle [00:01:44] And the the audience, our listeners, our audience can't see, but you have a beautiful olive green wall behind you that we were just admiring. So it's a little unfortunate that it's that we don't see the visuals. I want to jump right into understanding a little bit more about your practice and about this piece. And can you speak a little bit about how political histories are being told through individual stories and experiences in your work?

Basel [00:02:15] Sure. And just to give you a little bit about my background, I'm a Palestinian refugee who was born and grew up in Yarmouk refugee camp and Damascus in south Damascus in Syria. And I am the third generation who were born and grew up as a refugee outside Palestine. So Yarmouk camp is one of the biggest Palestinian refugee camp outside Palestine and one of 12 other refugee camp in Syria. And there is also other refugee camps for Palestinians in Lebanon and in Jordan and in West Bank and Gaza. So as Palestinian, our individual experiences, I think the political stories and this is not something that we have that we have chosen, but something that has been forced upon us by history. So if you ask a Palestinian about their life, their answer might take you back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 or to the Palestinian catastrophe or the Nakba in 1948. And by creating my new work year Dear Laila, I'm trying to I'm trying to to tell how this big historical events are experienced through the everyday life of ordinary people. And I'm trying to share the Palestinian history of war, occupation and exile in a way that my young daughter could understand. So I try to build or to recreate a miniature of my destroyed family home in Yarmouk camp. I built a model of this house and this house and a story of a family trying to find the meaning of their exile. A family like many families of our communities who are stuck and in a loop of losses and and keep repeating itself by down the generations.

Gabrielle [00:04:26] And how does Dear Laila relate to the work you've made previously and your artistic approach in general?

Basel [00:04:32] I think, Dear Laila, based on the theme of my previous work, I make artwork about my communities, experiences of war, occupation and exile. And it's a way of me to face and express and understand the trauma that we live with. And my previous work. As Far As My Fingertips Take Me or As Far As Isolation Goes, both in collaboration with other artist Tania El Khoury and both are 1 to 1 performance. And the performance is the experience between one audience member and me through a gallery wall. And I use sound and touch to tell a story of my sister and brother who made the journey to skip the war in Syria to Europe in 2015 and I think a year later continue that theme by going back to the beginning of the story and to tell the story of the Palestinian who are or the first exile of the Palestinians, the first displacement in 1948.

Gabrielle [00:05:54] You're storytelling in innovative forms. And I'm wondering if you can speak about the symbolic and concrete space of Dear Laila.

Basel [00:06:04] Dear Laila centered on a miniature model of my destroyed family home in Yarmouk camp, and with the three stories and represents the three generations who lived in the house. And the first floor was built by my grandparents when they first arrived to Syria from Palestine as a refugee and my family built the new stories  as the family grow down the generations, the house or the whole Yarmouk camp represent the our community trying to find or to create a new home or a new life in their exile. And even so, we trying to create a new home, but it's still a temporary home for us because we it's like it's a refugee camp and we lived there as refugees for generations. And I feel by by losing this new home or this temporary home or the camp, it also felt like like a threat for our right to return to, Palestine because we were waiting for generations as a refugee, because we hoped that one day we will go back to Palestine. But by using this new home, we felt, yeah, it's that threat for that right to return. So I felt if I want to say something, I feel like the the house or Yarmouk Camp symbolizes in a way our right to return to Palestine.

Gabrielle [00:07:46] And how does solitude function dramaturgically in the piece? Because it's a piece for one audience to experience at a time. So in terms of the effect of the work compared to the collective audience experience that usually takes place in a in a work created for a theatre. Yeah. Why that choice for it to be for one person.

Basel [00:08:09] I decided that I think Dear Laila to be experienced by one audience member at a time is in order to try to get audience more closer to the story I'm telling. So I hope this personal approach can get or can make the audience member more connected to that experience by, by and by get by getting involved or interacting with the installation and the space. So, for example, at one moment I ask the audience to open one of the books and they find some photos inside. And this is the photo that we saved from our destroyed home in Yarmouk camp and is the only link that we still have that connect us to that place that we lived there for like three generations. And and I feel by touching these photos, I hope that the audience might get more connected to the story behind these photos. And I'm like, I'm trying to invite the audience to sit in Laila's room, Laila's my daughter, and to try and to imagine that they're hearing the story of a story of one of their parents. And and I hear what I want to say also, Like I'm trying to tell a story about like how big events sometimes are experienced by normal people, people like them. So, yeah, and at the end of the story sometimes, like, I ask them to take like a thought in order to remind them with my granny stories who used to sprinkle salt on our heads to keep us or to keep evil away from us and in this way I'm trying to invite them to take a bit of the story and carry it with them. So yeah, I feel like by touch and stuff, all this and then like I'm trying as much as I can to make it more personal with them.

Gabrielle [00:10:14] Yeah. And it works. It's, it's, it's brilliant. The, you know, the construction of it and the, the journey that the, the audience goes through. And, you know, congratulations. This work just won Audience award at the Zurcher Theatre Spectacle. That's pretty incredible. I think they have you know from 30 shows you know, this is really highlighted.

Basel [00:10:41] And I'm so happy to about that and I can yeah, I'm really glad to hear that as well. Thank you so much.

Gabrielle [00:10:47] You know, clearly it's it's not just, you know, the expertise and how you're working with your forms to to frame and deliver this experience, but also your generosity. There's an incredible generosity in in sharing a story that you would share with your daughter that we can all get to experience. So I'm just this is going to be such a special experience in this upcoming festival. And so we're glad to have it running for multiple days because it's one for one person at a time. So from January 20th to February 3rd at the Fishbowl on Granville Island. And we're just really looking forward to to having you here as well Basel.

Basel [00:11:35] Thank you. I'm really looking forward to it as well. And to come to Vancouver is like my first time I will be there. But yeah, I'm really looking forward to it, as well.

Ben [00:11:46] That was Gabrielle Martin's conversation with Basel Zaraa, the artist behind Dear Laila, which will be presented at the upcoming PuSh Festival. My name is Ben Charland and I'm one of the producers of this podcast alongside Tricia Knowles. PuSh Play is supported by our Community Outreach Coordinator, Julian Legere. Original Music from Joseph Hirabayashi. New episodes are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media at @PushFestival. And if you've enjoyed this episode, please spread the word. On the next PuSh Play:


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