Borderlands — borders in identities, memories, psyches and dreams — are where contradicting elements within religion or gender identity lie. Naima Shalhoub said it is the paradox within borderlands that creates chaos and oppression.
Shalhoub gave a keynote speech to a crowd of about 30 on Feb. 15 at Kresge Town Hall, which focused on her journey that led her to activism. She also sang her original song, “Borderlands,” which reflected one of the major themes of her speech.
“A woman on the fence / between her power and the system that devours / she needs to play the game / that once pinned her down and filled her with shame.”
The annual two-day event, consisting of Shalhoub’s speech and songwriting workshop, was part of a week-long Sister Solidarity program hosted by the UC Santa Cruz Women’s Center. The program honors Women’s History Month and the contributions of women to society and their struggle for equality.
This year, Sister Solidarity focused on social justice as an approach to art collectives, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the prison industrial complex.
Shalhoub performed a selection of original songs that represented her journey, in between speaking about her healing through art and songwriting.
“These [events] are meant to increase visibility around different women’s experiences and provide ways for people to connect,” said interim director of the Women’s Center Dr. Rebecca Rosser. She explained that Shalhoub’s ability to sing and talk about her experience of singing as a means to her own personal healing helps others too.
On the first night, Shalhoub spoke about her own personal connection to the Israeli occupation on Palestine as a Lebanese American. Growing up, she often heard stories of her family’s escape during the Lebanese Civil War. She recognized her own privilege and freedom as an American citizen, and the impact of colonization led to her identifying with the concept of borderlands and contradictions as a tool for oppression.
“Opposing sides, too brown or not brown enough; too Muslim, not Muslim enough; too woman or not woman enough — these borders of identity reflect the divide and conquer narrative[s],” Shalhoub said.
Second-year student Sabina Wildman felt inspired and motivated after hearing Shalhoub speak to the crowd about her work.
“Her sharing her story was relatable, and it’s amazing to see how much light can be brought into such difficult times and how important it is to connect with all those memories,” Wildman said.
Shalhoub trained as a vocalist from a very young age and has used her musical talent as a vehicle for social justice and activism against oppression.
Not only do the lyrics speak to listeners, but the melody can “transcend social divisions and constructions that we can easily be caught up with,” Shalhoub said. “Music is really able to move through that.”
She performed “Borderlands” for the first time to the women at San Francisco County Jail #2 in 2014. She saw the
healing power of music impact the women there and started weekly music sessions as a way for them to share their stories.
“I am inspired by those who have come before me and shared their music and broken through so many walls,” she said. “Singing is such a raw, naked element. That in itself is powerful. You can’t really hide, you are all there.”
The following day, Shalhoub’s workshop used aspects from her speech to focus on developing student voices and cultivating activism through poetry and songwriting. The students and faculty met in the Namaste Lounge to create music and connect with each other. The group circled up and began with light stretching exercises to loosen their bodies and feel more relaxed. Going around the circle, everyone presented their favorite stretch that helps them practice self love. Shalhoub uses these exercises to “honor the stories the body holds in the journey towards healing.”
For the rest of the afternoon, the participants wrote their own poetry, lyrics and thoughts based on prompts Shalhoub provided. After reading the poem, “The Prison Cell” by Mahmoud Darwish, the group wrote their own version of the poem. Students shared their feelings on duality and contradictions within themselves, their own personal struggles and the struggles of others.
“Using art as a creative form to make change is something that I am interested in, although I don’t really consider myself as much of an artist,” said second-year student Sabina Wildman. “It’s a really good method for self expression, and I’m working on getting more in touch with my own creative energy.”
Art isn’t always the theme of the annual event, more students are asking about the intersection between art and activism, said interim director at the UCSC Women’s Center Dr. Rebecca Rosser.
“The great thing about [art] is that sometimes we think only intellectuals can manage complicated thinking around issues of justice,” Rosser said. “Artists throughout time have participated in messaging and helping, either through protest art or just by writing and creating images that speak to experience.”