May You Have the Strength
Abdullah Sankari from Sir Joseph Banks High School interviews Alissar Chidiac
Alissar Chidiac has all the stories and life experience you need to keep going on when times are tough. She’s seen change, she’s lived that second-generation Aussie life, and she’s curated a meaningful career that began with her leaving Uni (and disappointing her family).
Thank you very much. What is your full name?
My full name! Like, I’m — I suppose, legally, now my name is Alissar Chidiac. But I changed that along the way, because when I was born my parents anglicised my name … and I always knew my father had given me the name Alissar because it’s a historical name from ancient history. Of the lands of what is now Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. And so, I was always known as Eliza. I can’t relate to that now. Eliza, it was spelled E-L-I-Z-A.
And so I spent my whole life at school, at University, ‘No, it’s not Aliza, no it’s not Lisa, no it’s –’. People couldn’t even say Eliza, even though that was an anglicised name. But the more I learned about the history of my name, and where it came from, and why my father gave me that name, and the more I wanted, as an adult, to reconnect with — probably what I didn’t have before — I wanted to be Alissar. And, um, yeah.
So, where were you born?
I was born here in Sydney. I was born here in Sydney and my mother was born here in Sydney. Yet her family came from Lebanon around 1920.
Can you describe Sydney when you were growing up?
Well, it’s not — ooh, can I describe Sydney?
Or describe the place where you grew up?
The type — where I grew up is North-West Sydney, and Western Sydney in general, but North-West. And it was more like bush when I was a kid. Um, I think, I don’t think I knew any other Arab people, any other Lebanese people. Except, you know, family and friends, and my family’s friends. But in, where I grew up, no.
And it was — there were a few houses, but lots of trees. And those areas now are just wall-to-wall-to-wall houses. And looking back, at the time, I didn’t have a sense of, ‘Oh, this is a pretty white area’. But I did know that what we ate at home, and the language we had at home, was really not what we had at school. There were wogs at school, but they were mainly Italian, Greek maybe, but probably more Italian.
How did that affect your childhood, you growing up without any other Arab or Lebanese people around you?
Yeah, well, no your childhood is your childhood, it’s what’s normal. You know, you have cousins and you have family that you grow to feel separate from, as well. So it’s, um, you know — and cousins and relatives lived around Western Sydney or even Brighton. But when I say Brighton now, it means something.
Whereas Brighton 50 years ago didn’t have that kind of — and in the same way when I say Western Sydney now, it’s got a really strong identity and a really strong complex meaning now. So it’s really hard, I think, to comment on what it was like, cos the language I use now has a particular meaning, but my memories have another kind of meaning.
Can you describe a sensory memory, so like a touch, a taste, a smell, from your childhood? For example, your most memorable smell or meal?
Smells and tastes, oh, interesting. Um … it is terrible that visuals come to mind really easily. Visuals. But a smell or —
Even a visual would be okay.
No, no, no, it’s like smells and tastes are more complex I think. Um, I might come back to it, you know, it’s not coming to me straight away. A smell or a taste — look on a very, very simple level, tomatoes tasted different and cucumbers tasted different. And, like, fresh fruit and vegetables — we didn’t have a huge variety as we do now, now we seem to have access to every kind of fruit and vegetable.
Even on the simplest level, a tomato tasted different, a cucumber tasted different. And, you know, they’re basics for salad, but even just cutting up a cucumber and having salt on it was a really strong taste. And I know when I have travelled or lived in the Arab world, I tasted that taste again. Cos that’s about agriculture and mass production. So, yeah, that’s a really simple reply to your question.
So, where do you live now?
I’ve been living in Parramatta for, um, I think the last 12 years. I like to say — when people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I always, even before I lived there, I’d say I’m from Parramatta. Even before I lived there. Because I actually went to school at one stage in North Parramatta, but that whole question of, ‘Where are you from?’ is a really loaded and complex question. Whether it’s, ‘Where are you from in Lebanon?’ or ‘Where are you from in Sydney?’ or when people say, ‘Where are you from?’, they don’t want you to say Australia, you know.
Anyway, I’d always say Parramatta. But I’d also, what I love, is — and I’ve said this many times — the Aboriginal name for Parramatta is Burramatta. And it’s the land of the Burramattagal. The clan of the place is Burramattagal. And what I love is, in Arabic we don’t have a P sound. So, with an Arabic accent, how would you say Parramatta? You’d say Burramatta, and I love that. So, hopefully I’ll live in Burramatta forever [laughs].
Does Burramatta feel like home?
Um, my little verandah feels like home. Um … there are — I’ve come to really love places like Lake Burramatta. It’s a lake a little bit North, like 5 minutes further down North into North Parramatta. That feels like home, we went there when I was a kid. But now it’s, you know, they’ve fixed it up. So that feels like home, because I have an old memory and I have new memories.
But the huge gap in between — in terms of where I live, my study feels like home. It’s just full of too many papers, too many books, too many things that I don’t throw out. That becomes home, where those things are. So it’s interesting, I don’t — it’s not so necessarily about the people who are around that make me feel at home, the people on the streets. It’s a sense of having a meaning. I love living near the river. Even though the river is quite small, there’s a sense of movement there.
What does strength mean to you?
Strength. Um, as she takes a sip of tea! I think I’m taking sips of tea to give myself a thinking space. Um, oh, strength is like keeping-goingness. You need strength to keep going, um, is one way of thinking about strength.
Have you had to use that strength of keeping-goingness in your life at any time?
Look, sometimes when you’re feeling unhappy, or feeling — whether it’s for one day or one month — that sense of … you have to find the strength to stay positive, you have to find the strength to, you know, ‘What do I do, and why do I do it?’ in terms of [a way] that’s not attached to people, or objects, or material things.
I think … there’s one saying in Arabic that I’ve learned from people that we don’t have an equivalent of in English, and the word strength is in that phrase. And people always say it when other people are busy, or working, or about to do a performance, and they say, if I was to say to you [Arabic phrase], ‘May you have the strength’. And so, even though Arabic really is my second language, and a broken second language, I find there are some things in language that really mean something that we don’t have an equivalent of in English, so — and I wish I said that to people more often, and especially people in my family, like, [Arabic phrase].
My mum is nearly 80, and she goes out and mows the lawn and doesn’t complain about having pain, you know, from all the different things going on in her body. It’s like, [Arabic phrase], she just keeps going in a positive way. So maybe that’s where I get that sense of strength, of just being positive and keeping going.
What is the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome?
Overcome …. oh, overcome … When I’ve been through difficult experiences, I don’t know if I’ve necessarily overcome very well. Because when I think about, ‘What does overcome mean?’ it could be about getting through to the other side of something, or it could be about — and I’ve certainly done that when I’ve been through difficult experiences. But I’m the kind of person that absorbs, I absorb things. I’m like a sponge, and so, whatever’s going on in terms of a vibe or an atmosphere or issues, I will absorb them and I don’t let go very easily. It takes me a long time to let go of things.
So when you say overcome, part of me thinks I overcome incredibly slowly. That’s, like, my makeup. I don’t think of myself as overcoming things very easily, um, I think it takes me awhile to let go of things. However, if overcoming means that in the face of difficulty, you still achieve and produce the objectives of what you want to do and how you want to do it, then yeah.
I mean, I relate to that in terms of some work projects I’ve been involved with. That have been either really large projects, or even medium-sized projects, where there have been really disgusting behaviours that have gone on. Or even State, kind of, censorship or issues that have been really corrupt on some levels, and it’s like, just keep going, keep going, and produce something that’s groundbreaking and beautiful.
So, you’ve had a very long and successful career in the Arts. What would you say some of your highlights in that career would be?
Some of the highlights? I think I’ll use two of those words that I just referred to. For me a highlight is if I’ve been involved in breaking ground. Doing things that haven’t been done before … and that give people deeper ways of listening, different ways of seeing, open up more critical ways of listening and hearing.
I’ve spent an unpredictable six years, almost, working at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where it started off as a six month contract. And that’s probably the main, the only time I’ve specifically worked on an Arab community cultural heritage project within a large institution that had a lot of resources. And my attitude was, all of our taxes pay for these State museums and galleries, and do our communities feel at home in these spaces?
So, for a number of years, I managed to just keep producing project after partnership after project after a bit of money from here. Anything from young people and cars to, um, Ancient objects and materials from people’s ancestral homelands where they got to meet those objects and materials, and they got to speak directly to them. So, I think that was a highlight that was also one of my hardest challenges.
And a massive highlight I can’t forget is, 20 years ago, living and working in Palestine. That was really significant for me. My family’s from Lebanon, not from Palestine. So, you know, ‘Lebanese-Australian, what are you doing in Palestine? Everybody wants to go to Lebanon, everyone wants to go to Australia, and you’re here!’ And, for me, that’s the only time that I’ve lived outside of Australia, living in Ramallah.
Probably the most boring work I’ve ever done, working in an office, correspondence, you know. Writing applications for funding, reports for — but I got to train other people, all around the West Bank and Gaza, working with community members in how to write applications in English and how to write reports in English, the kind of work we still do here. I’m doing that now, this year, last year in Fairfield with community members. Some things don’t change. But living and breathing in Palestine was really significant.
We all know that Palestine, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, has had a lot of issues with freedom, so a monumental question in this interview is, what does freedom mean to you?
What is freedom, what is freedom? Um … I think these are really big words that you could explore on a local level or explore on a really immediate personal level. Um, on an immediate personal level, my breathing works fine, my voice works fine, my legs and arms work fine, so I have the freedom to move.
I mean, there was a period where my throat and my voice was not working fine, when I had major issues where my voice didn’t work anymore. So, that was something that had to be overcome, that was an amazing kind of physical and emotional trauma. So, my voice works, so it gives me freedom to speak, it gives me freedom to breathe.
And, as an artist, what does freedom of speech mean?
Freedom of speech — like, in terms of freedom I answered you on a really, sort of, personal, physical level there. Freedom, um, freedom obviously means — not obviously — but, freedom has to also have respect and justice involved in it. So, the freedom to what? You know, I’m free to what?
I’m free to speak, I’m free to act, but in — whether it’s in the Arts, or in walking down the street — I’m free to write, to create thoughts, and ideas, and images, [but I] still need to be critically conscious of not hurting others, or not exposing others as well. So, um, exposing others without their consent, without their permission. So there’s freedom and there’s freedom [laughs]. There’s freedom and there’s freedom. It’s funny, you start by saying, like, ‘Oh well, you know’ — I didn’t mention Israel, you mentioned Israel, I was living in Palestine. And so I was living and it was about people working and living and surviving and creating art through dance, and film, and music, and poetry. Sure there was a resistance, but there was also love, right? So freedom necessitates love of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
And, um, yeah so I think freedom is one of those overused words. I can remember a Palestinian friend. When he first came to Australia, this was a long time ago, back in the day Palestinians couldn’t even put their flag together cos it was banned. That’s not the case now, but I think in the 70s, in the 80s, they couldn’t even put — and this friend, when he landed in Sydney as a young man, he saw this place called Freedom Furniture. Freedom Furniture! And it had the Palestinian colours in their logos, and he couldn’t — it’s a kind of stupid joke, really, but it had red, and black, and green, and white, and he was like, ‘What is this Freedom? It’s got the Palestinian colours that were banned’ [laughs].
But that’s historical, that’s not the case now. But, even in those days, Palestinians made art by using those colours. That really complex embroidery that women do, they would use the colours instead of having the flag that was being banned. So art creates pathways for freedom.
How does your culture, or how do you think your culture, influences your cultural background?
I, um, being — this is a familiar kind of question. Um, being the daughter and granddaughter of migrants, like second-generation, third-generation, however you label it. I don’t have one culture. It’s like, on some level there’s baggage, there’s broken baggage. So, it’s like — and the baggage of broken language influences me, the baggage of having — this is an example of influence. You know, up to 5-years-old I was bilingual probably, like most other little migrant kids are til’ they go to school. And the more I was at school, not only did I lose Arabic, I started, it was part of a generation where you learned to really repress, if not hate and be shameful of your language.
That has influenced my art-making. For example, in making theatre and writing. I still have a focus and a fascination, and a need to explore how we lose the ability to make sounds. You lose the ability to make the sounds of your own language, and what does that mean? What kind of poison have you swallowed that you can’t make those sounds? And so, having even broken language, the need to explore that, because many other people have that. And that influences how you write poetry, how you perform, and I think I got to a certain age, like I can remember in the early 90s working on bilingual theatre productions in Arabic and English, things that have been never done before in Sydney, if not Australia, at the time of the so-called First Gulf War.
I can remember people, particular academics, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this kind of work, your Arabic is not good enough’, and I was shamed, I was humiliated. And I thought, ‘Who else is doing this kind of work?’. I was working with other brothers and sisters who had a love of making theatre and making poetry, and between us we were at various levels of proficiency in Arabic and in English, and I think I spent too long … so, it’s like, that’s an aspect of my cultural experience. Losing language, and that has influenced art-making. That’s just one example.
Were you always keen on having a career within the arts?
No, I was gonna be a lawyer [laughs]. Who plans a career in the Arts? [laughs].
So even as a young girl, you wanted to — you weren’t sure, you didn’t know?
No, no, no, I was — in High School I was really good, I studied incredibly hard, I did really well. And, you know, it was a great pride to the family that I was the first — at that time, out of the relatives that were here — the first person to go to University at that time, right? And I was studying Arts and I was studying Law. So, you know, I’m in Arts with Philosophy and Government and Economics, and … my mother always thought I was brainwashed, but I just became — my, it was like the lid of my head lifted to the possibilities of ideas and movement in the world.
And it was the 70s, so it was a time of — it was the mid-to-late 70s — there was a sense of change. The Australian Government had people who spoke, prime ministers and leaders spoke eloquently about justice and human rights. At the rear, education was free. You didn’t pay fees to go to University. So, I am a product of a time where you really believed that education is a right for everybody, health is a right for everybody, what are our taxes for? And so, I became really actively involved in so many social issues that I just discontinued University. And that became — what was a pride for my family became, not just disappointment, but a bit of shame, because what did I do? I got involved in women’s street theatre.
Because that was a way of telling stories. It was political, it was cultural. And so that was how I stepped into what we now call the Arts. At the time I wasn’t seeing it as the Arts, I was working in a collective, writing, telling stories, making theatre, going on the streets, going to schools, going to public places, making theatre. And that’s what opened up me knowing about a community arts company in the very early 80s — 1980, ‘81 — who was working with kids and young people all over Sydney, all over Western Sydney and out the Outback, and that’s how I stepped into working in what was then called Community Arts, and I still call it Community Arts.
What do the Arts mean to you?
I mean, I think the kind of things I’ve been saying — it’s life now, it’s just what’s normal. It’s really what is normal. The Arts I have an incredibly broad definition of, um … incredibly broad definition. It’s not ‘The Arts’ with a capital T and a capital A, it’s about any kind of — you were telling a story about the woman who makes her own lace curtains. That is art. And that is her heritage. And that is something that is valuable. And people like textile artists now appreciate that and love that, and I think — so, that’s an example.
My definitions for what the Arts are, are incredibly broad, and that’s what life is. It’s like ideas, and stories, and bringing people together, and maybe once upon a time — 70s, 80s, even 90s — it was about, in terms of a conceptual framework, if you say, ‘Why am I doing this?’, there was a lot of emphasis on speaking out. Having your voice heard. Or facilitating and working with other people so their voice can be heard. I think in the last ten years, all of that is still real and important.
In the last ten years, the Arts is also about — working in the Arts, and especially in terms of Community Arts — about listening. Like, when we make something and create something, how do we listen to ourselves? How do we listen to the people that we’re working with creating? And, probably most importantly, with what we create, the people who are listening to us, how do we shift what they’re listening to? You know, they’re not passive. Like, if they’re listening to music, or lyrics, or poetry, or a film, or theatre, the people who are listening, they actively need to do some work. And how does our work change and shift the way they listen?
And so, in the last ten years I’ve thought a lot about listening, and I have been influenced by young academics who are working on projects to do with listening. Through various fellowships I was working with, I connected with a young academic who was working on — I’m not an academic, but I value what I learn organically. And then, some academics value the kind of work we do. Especially when we work multilingually, when we create critical spaces for new ways of listening, some academics are wise enough to see that what we do is organic intellectual work as well.
And because you’re so passionate about The Arts, capital T, capital A, what did it mean to you when you received the Ros Bower Award back in 2010?
[Laughs] What did it mean? Um, it was like … on a really simple level, it was like being thanked and acknowledged. It was like giving myself permission to acknowledge that I’ve been working for a long time, and other people must acknowledge that I’ve made some difference through that work. At the time, by wonderful coincidence, it wasn’t held at the Australian Council Offices. That particular Award Night was held at Parramatta Riverside Theatre. And so it was held in the courtyard, so it was down the road from me, and my dad wasn’t alive then so my mum came — you know, it was one of those occasions that I really wish my dad [was alive] so I could thank him as well — but my mum came, and my brother and some of his family.
And okay, you had all the speeches, the MPs, and the people from the Australian Council. And then we had to give speeches ourselves, and there were other Awards given. Someone in the crowd, after all the speeches, put some Arabic music on. Like, someone hooked up their phone [laughs] — you know, can you picture the courtyard in the Riverside? Suddenly, you know, you had the podium up front, we had all these images going. This is my strongest memory of that night. You’ve got somebody — the formalities of speeches just went out the window — someone blasts this dabke music, and then everyone is up dancing. And it was like, ‘This is my wedding’ [laughs]. It was really — that’s my strongest memory.
How I prepared and practiced — it was under embargo, it was a secret, I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody for a month. So it was like this hot secret I was sitting on, and so then eventually it was public, and all the speeches that had to be prepared and done. And then, the magic of someone just subverting the whole thing with music, and then there was dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing. And some people from the Australian Council said, ‘I have never been to such a loud Awards Night in my life’, so. It also meant claiming space.
All my friends and colleagues were celebrating together, so it wasn’t just about me, it was about us mob [laughs]. It was really — yep. But, you know, on a formal level, it was like, ‘Okay, everything I’ve done in terms of work, planning or no planning, it’s been real’.
Perfect, we’ll end this on a high note. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed Alissar.
Transcribed by Isabella Teixeira Henriques
Edits by Fay Al-Janabi
Photo by Chris Woe