This time last year I wrote the piece below on the stories of inspiring women pursuing creative paths in Bahrain. This month, as Malja, a haven for budding artists, writers and musicians, has come to a close, I am seeing how far we’ve come collectively as a community in making creative expression accessible locally and giving people platforms to shine. Some people who frequented Malja are now stepping up to that role by organizing open mics on their own, keeping that energy of safe havens alive.
As I deepen my own understanding of what conscious living is about and what draws me to it, I’m realizing that for me it’s a longing for freedom. Whether its freedom from having to manage clutter, or needing a big budget, or needing to get into a plane to access that feeling of adventure, or feeling that I need to strain the earth that much in order to live. But there’s a deeper yearning freedom that I think is in all of us: the freedom to be ourselves. And in my experience, it is most deeply felt through creative expression.
Here’s the audio version of the text below (the green bar is the volume control):
For years I have been drawn to spaces where women express themselves openly: concerts in intimate places, poetry readings, open mics, theater, improv, women’s circles, dance performances… I’d come to watch them share the thoughts, insights and frustrations that we often keep to ourselves; I’d come to see a glimpse of their inner lives and find parallels with mine. I’d watch closely, deeply, curiously. I’d feel invigorated, refreshed, relieved. I had rarely seen this kind of expression in my daily life. Not in my science-heavy courses, my male-dominated professional workplaces, or our “women we’re watching you” corner of the world. So whenever I heard of women pursuing creative, expressive paths, I’d want to get close. I was very curious: Were they always able to express themselves this openly, or did being in creative fields push them to grow?
I met with Fatima, a writer, poet and a friendly soul who discovered poetry in her elementary school library, to ask her. She had started sharing her poetry on Instagram a year and a half ago after deciding to pursue writing full-time. I asked her if it was easy at first to share her work publicly. She answered with a “Big NO” that made me laugh. Her friend, who happened to be an artist who posted her own work publicly, sat her down in a “you know you have to do this, right?” kind of way. Fatima said that at first she’d sometimes click “share” on her phone while hiding her eyes. Getting feedback from people telling her that she helped them feel less alone made all the difference.
I asked her if sharing her writing allowed her to express her emotions more freely with people. She said that she’d always been someone who shares how she feels, but she could now do what she considered unthinkable in the past: send heartfelt poems about close friends to them. This elevated one of her closest friendships to a whole new level of connection. Another friend told her that this had inspired him to express his own appreciation to the people he cared about more openly and more often.
Many people responded to Fatima’s career switch with pleasant surprise. She got comments like “Finally!” or “I’m interested in doing more creative work, can I talk to you about your experience?” and she made plenty of good friends along the way. She seemed deeply committed to supporting other creatives to grow. Last month, Fatima co-curated an exhibit called “Words are Blind” at Malja as part of a CoLab Project that paired artists and writers together to collaborate. In this exhibit, each artist created a piece by freely interpreting the text of a writer, which gave that text a life of its own. Fatima seemed so humbled by the opportunity to help artists and writers expand their comfort zones in so many ways. As she spoke of hoping to see CoLab grow into a platform that tackled specific social issues in Bahrain, I could feel the strength and impact of a space like that in helping our community heal and grow.
I then met with two women whose day jobs involved guiding people to express themselves vocally, physically and emotionally: drama teachers. I had met Ruqayah a few months before when I signed up for a beginner’s acting class that she was teaching. Ruqayah had been taking drama classes since middle school, when she realized that expressing her ideas and thoughts spatially felt natural to her. During her last year at school, her drama teacher deeply empowered her to consider studying drama further. Soon after, she changed her declared college major to Drama and Literature. In her classes and rehearsals, she now gives her own students that gift of encouragement, listening and presence.
Her coworker and childhood friend, Kanwal, also took drama classes throughout middle and high school and began exploring theatre as a tool for community impact during college. She spent a year after college in a refugee camp in Lebanon empowering children with drama exercises to solve problems creatively. They would enact scenes that reflected common social issues that the children faced, and members of the audience would be invited to get up on stage to make small changes that inevitably rewrote the endings of these stories. This allowed children to experience the concept that how we respond to our circumstances can change our lives. Kanwal is now writing a script for a play on child refugees that includes traditional folktales from around the world to signify our interconnectedness. Her middle school English teacher had told her that she should keep writing for as long as possible, so she has.
When I asked Ruqayah and Kanwal whether pursuing creative fields has made them more expressive in general, they both felt that had always been relatively expressive. Looking back at our conversation, I wondered if the fact that they were encouraged by teachers to pursue creative expression at a young age made the difference. With time, the freedom of expression that’s natural to us as children and young adults seems to either be nurtured, dimmed, or for many of us, something in between.
When I had walked into the CoLab exhibit opening a few weeks before, I instantly beamed. The night before I had been talking to a friend about us starting a women’s poetry space, but we didn’t know more than a few women who might be interested. Here they were, lining the walls of the exhibit with their insights, their pasts, their struggles and their daydreams. Women were reflecting, writing, creating and expressing, whether they were ready to share their work or not. Some of these women showed up to Malja’s open mic night the week after to read their pieces, and I can only imagine that sharing their work the week before made it a tiny bit easier to show up again.
So maybe some women are naturally more comfortable with expression than others, but the women I spoke to agreed that the moral support they received along the way encouraged them to express themselves in the mediums that they love best. We all need safe spaces to practice and grow, whether they are classrooms growing up, or open mics, workshops and galleries as adults, or the warmth of supportive friends and unexpected strangers. Knowingly or not, when any of us express ourselves openly, we create one more safe space for others to do the same.