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‘I don’t take life for granted’: Nelson poet reflects on growing up in war

Zaynab Mohammed performed her show Are You Listening? at the Cold War Bunker at Nelson museum
Nelson poet Zaynab Mohammed: “I don’t want to add to the pain of the world. I don’t want to plant more hate because I’ve been on the receiving end of it.” Photo: Bill Metcalfe

On the day of the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, Zaynab Mohammed turned 11 years old.

The Nelson poet’s family had immigrated from Lebanon to B.C.’s Lower Mainland before she was born. Her 11th birthday, she says, was the end of her childhood because as Muslims her family was targeted and blamed. Her mother was fired from her job because she wore a headscarf.

Mohammed says this changed her from a happy child to an angry one.

“But I don’t want to be angry,” she says. “I don’t want to add to the pain of the world. I don’t want to plant more hate because I’ve been on the receiving end of it.”

Mohammed’s one-person show entitled Are You Listening? has just run nine times across the Kootenays, most recently in Nelson on Nov. 3 at the Cold War Bunker at the Nelson museum. It’s the story of her journey from angry child to “someone who has gone through adversity and still chooses love.”

The piece is a poetic narrative of several moves back and forth to Lebanon throughout her 33 years, and her life in both countries. On one of those trips, with her mother at age 15, she had been in Lebanon for two years when bombs started falling. This was the 2006 war, which lasted a little over a month.

The attacks always happened at night, preceded by an hour of ominous silence at dusk when everyone was anticipating the planes.

“The air would be thick with silence for about an hour, and then it would be dark. And then the bombs would start raining.”

She says those bombs gave her a lived experience of “what my people had been going through for a long time. It’s only a tiny fraction of what they’ve been through — my aunties, my grandma, they went through decades of war, not 10 days, not weeks. Decades. They raised their kids in it.”

She was referring not only to the 2006 war but also the war in Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s, and more generally to wars in the Middle East.

Mohammed says living with the bombs in 2006 made her the person she is now.

“Because people are amazing during war. I saw miracle after miracle after miracle, with humans showing up for each other like I’d never seen before. It made me the person that I am, because I don’t take life for granted … You can die in any moment. So you’re with the people you love, and we were laughing so much and crying and really cherishing every single second.

“I feel like it’s given me a purpose to live and to plant seeds for the next generation.”

Zaynab Mohammed in performance of Are You Listening? at the Cold War Bunker at the Nelson museum on Nov. 3. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Are You Listening? contains recurring images of seeds and of olive trees. Her Lebanese grandfather planted olive trees that were cut down for firewood.

Mohammed says she wants to plant seeds “that blossom into orchards of fruit trees.”

From the performance:

I want my words to be like orchards of sweet fruit. To be enjoyed and digested into life juice. The sustenance we need to move through fields of dried up orchards being cut down for firewood.

Mohammed was eventually evacuated from the war back to Canada, where she found a cognitive dissonance that she still experiences.

In mainstream Canada, she says, people are distanced from the suffering of war, they avoid painful feelings, and they are “addicts of good feelings.” They have opinions, beliefs, perceptions and polarization based on no solid ground. She doesn’t know what to do with this, other than ask questions.

I’m just a poet with journals full of questions. I’ve come out of confusion for this moment of confession. I’d like to confess that I’m just like the rest. I’m made of blood and bone and vulnerable flesh.

She grapples with the question of how to heal from the experience of war and dehumanization without shying away from the pain of it. One way to do this is to share her story, as she does in Are You Listening?

“I’m doing this so that I can be liberated, so I can be free here … and it turns out actually I’m not doing it for myself any more. I’m doing it for my people. I’m doing it to humanize. To humanize humans. Humans around the world.”

Mohammed’s performance of Are You Listening? is more than a narrative of grim reality. Often, in her face, body and voice we see humour, joy, and excitement. She doesn’t want to just talk to her audience about how messed up the world is, she says.

“I always want to bring people back. Take them on a journey, but bring them back around to their hearts, to their bodies.”

Near the end of the performance, Mohammed asks us to listen to each other and to everything, and to celebrate our differences. Several times she repeats a series of lines three times, encouraging us to slow down so we can actually listen, unhurried.

I hear your heart. I hear your prayers to be loved and seen and cared for softly. Are you listening? Joy is waking.

“I repeat that several times,” she says, “and I look at the audience. Because the world wants to complicate things. But we can simplify it. We all just want to be loved and seen and cared for softly, right? And that is joy. When someone sees me and loves me and cares for me softly, I feel joy.”


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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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