The Arab-American storyteller is fostering creativity across the MENA community in New York.

Dahlia Dandashi is an Arab-American storyteller, content creator, and curator who wants to share diverse voices and foster creativity across the MENA community, specifically in New York. In her professional endeavours like Banat El Hara, she creates space and empowers others to embrace their cultural heritage and do what they love.

١. You’re pretty active in creative fields, be it written or visual. What pushed you to pursue that?

So I’ve always been a writer and photographer, and those were always my passions in life or the ways I could express myself. When I was out of college, I was a journalist doing photography on the side. Eventually, I started freelancing as a photographer and creative producer for smaller agencies. So I was always kind of in these worlds without even trying – I even tried to go to law school, but that was a joke. I was like, oh, I’m not doing this. And growing up with, my parents didn’t really understand.

I was living in Texas, and I wanted to leave because I was really unhappy there. And I always saw myself doing something more for Arabs while living in this part of the world. So I left Texas, moved to New York, and I got a job at a creative agency. And one of the first things I said to myself when I moved here in 2019 was that I want to take a lot of photos, do a lot of work for myself but also share it with a community somehow.

٢. Tell me more about moving to New York and the birth of Banat El Hara.

Before I left Austin, I had taught a class on Middle Eastern poetry which was kind of how I dipped my toes into this world of connecting people and sharing stories from our region. And then, right before I moved to New York, I had just been to Lebanon, and I took a lot of photos and did a lot of writing while I was there. All the photos that I was taking, I was taking them while I was going on long walks by myself. A lot of these photographs were about the architecture or the day-to-day street sights, and I was taking them as a way to connect with the country because I didn’t grow up there. I was also writing a lot of short stories about people that I would see on the street or people I would imagine living in these buildings. So I conceptualized this idea in 2019, where I’m a girl from this neighbourhood…I kept on saying, “ana bent el hara.” That’s what the ideal originated from. I convinced myself I was part of this neighbourhood, country, and culture. And so then it was, what if I showed the photographs that I took and all the poems I wrote about these imaginary people and exhibited them somewhere?

Jiddo’s Ride by Dahlia Dandashi

The basis of the concept started with just me right before COVID. When COVID happened, I just put it on the back burner. Then in 2021, I was part of this advertising fellowship for women in advertising who they selected to give some mentorship – we would talk about our goals, and my main thing was this [Banat El Hara] idea. That was my goal for this program. And I felt like it was really hard to do this in New York because I don’t have money, and it’s hard to find a space. And my mentor was really great – she told me to do it to start small. So I started eventually typing out this concept, but the terrible thing was that my hard drive had been stolen from my backpack. So all the poems I’ve written about these people in these buildings were gone. But I saw some of these photographs, and I asked myself, what is a way that I can transform it to be something else and bigger?

We connected with the Arab Film and Media Institute and pitched our project to them. They loved our vision, found it aligned with their mission, and provided us with funding. The amazing thing was that they didn’t change any of the ideas. They didn’t want to change the concept or the title; she let us design everything, like the flyers and all of that. We picked the space and sent it to them. It was amazing that our baby was coming to life. So and then it just all happened, and I had to plan everything in two months. We were looking for other artists to add because it was really important for me to select artists that all had different art forms and represented different countries in the Middle East and the SWANA region.

٣. Is it usually difficult to secure a venue for such events?

First of all, many places don’t want to give you something for free, which I understand. Second, New York is really expensive. But there are some good community spaces, and we did tour some of those. But some of them wouldn’t work because we needed a place to be able to screen a projector, and we needed space for all the artists. Sometimes it was affordable, but the space didn’t work for everything we needed. Many places said, ‘we love this concept, but we don’t think it’s right for our space.’ It was a mix of factors. Some places said, “Oh, we can give it to you,” but after a discount, it’s still around $4,000. So it was different factors, and we’re just three grassroots women trying to do this for the community. We weren’t trying to make money. And without the AFM, I think funding for the space for three days would have taken longer as we would’ve had to raise the money or something. But the whole point is to find someone or a group or community that believes in you to fund it.

٤. It’s heartbreaking when people validate and support an idea, calling it great, but it remains challenging to bring it to life. This struggle is more difficult to deal with than rejection. How do you cope with that?

I find it challenging because it’s hard not to take things personally. People often don’t provide feedback when they reject or don’t respond to our ideas. So I wonder if they don’t understand the concept or don’t care about the art we want to show. I would prefer people sharing saying something like, ‘This is great, but it doesn’t align with our space or vision.’ I had one place provide that feedback, and I respected it. However, most of the time, I’m left wondering if our delivery is lacking or if they don’t appreciate our art. But you have to separate yourself from that because the right people or the right community, or the right space will come along, and they will want to showcase this work.

Part of the series “Resembling Resilience” by Tracy Chahwan

In our case, we found a space owned by a Pakistani couple. I had discovered the space because the before, I went to a fundraiser for Pakistan there, and they had a shit ton of artists selling work, and it was a fundraiser, and there were ticket sales, but the tickets were going to the flood relief. So I felt this would be a space that made sense because the owners were from Pakistan, and they had done fundraisers and supported projects like this in the past. So I was really attracted to this space. And then Karina, my cousin went to a film screening there, so she liked it too. So it just happened serendipitously, where we both liked the space and their vision. And we liked the exhibits and projects they supported. So when Karina met the owners at the event, she said to them, hey, we have an idea. And we’re wondering if this would be of interest to you. And this was before we even had funding from AFMI this was months before, so we already had this space in mind. And then it ended up that we ended up using the space because they gave us a little discount. And, you know, we just felt that our visions aligned.

٥. How was the event actually? What was the response?

We were focused on making the event accessible to all, so we collected RSVPs to get an attendance estimate. It was important for us to highlight community accessibility and allow people to enjoy the art and DJ performances freely. We specifically chose Arab women DJs for all three days to create a welcoming environment for people to connect. On the first night, we received 50 RSVPs, but on the opening night, we were surprised to see a full house. Many were familiar faces, but there were also a lot of new faces who had heard about the event through AFMI, social media posts, or word of mouth. The diverse crowd was a mix of Arabs and non-Arabs, which was really important to have different communities see what we have to offer as a community.

It was really nice to see some people attend all three days while others came for just one. Regardless of the duration, every person’s presence meant a lot to us. Each day had a distinct agenda: the opening party with sponsored drinks, food, and DJs; poetry readings followed by a party; and film screenings on the last day. We received a great response overall, with many excited for future events. One memorable comment from an Instagram post came from a woman who said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been in a room with women who have the same hair as me.’ And I think it’s nice to see yourself in this space, especially in New York, where it’s not common to have a room full of people from our region. I think seeing others with features or things that look like you was a way to feel like you belong. So that was my favourite thing that somebody said after the event, but also because it was so successful. I hope we can do something like it next year, but even to a bigger extent.

٦. I think it’s important to curate spaces for us as people from the SWANA Region and celebrate our diversity with people who might not relate to our culture because this is how education happens. It’s not about opening a textbook about Middle Eastern culture but rather immersing yourself in these spaces. 

I consider myself lucky because I have friends who are Arab and who aren’t. That’s always been a very important thing to me because I think a lot of times – which is not wrong – it pigeonholes us when we only hang out with the diaspora. I do believe we need to feel a sense of connection and home, and having these communities is very important. But at the same time, I think it is just as important to have friends not from the region. So I’m lucky, as I said, to have these people in my life. And those people showed up, and it meant a lot to me. Besides my friends, a lot of my co-workers came, and most of them were not Arab. I think people genuinely learned a lot because I feel like the thing that we’re most affiliated with is stories of war, terror, or anything frightening. I think, for the most part, they were like, what is Arab art? Who are the Arab artists? What does this community look like? Many of those people came up to me and were like; this was so amazing. 

I felt very proud of us as a group that we were bridging these gaps and bringing people who were curious about this space. The whole point was to tell these perspectives people usually don’t know about. So the feedback I got from everyone was great. But all the people who were not Arab came to me, which meant a lot too. I thought that was just as important and just as crucial. One of the nights, we had a DJ on Saturday and was all mixing music; then she played some Arabic music. And all these Arab women started dancing in the middle of the dance floor. And two of my coworkers were just like, this is awesome. They were having so much fun. They were dancing, practising the moves. And it was such a small thing. But to me, that was that so heartwarming to see. It brought us closer and created more of a community and a family.

٧. So do you plan on doing another exhibition?

Something that we were talking about was continuing our relationship with AMI because they were so great to work with. But the next question is, will it be Banat El Hara, or are we going to come up with a concept that’s different every year? I don’t have an answer, but I know what I care about. I want to focus on Arab women because I find that there are a lot of Arab men doing things, and I see them more often in the news and the art world, and I don’t think we, as women, are highlighted as often. We haven’t decided, but I think there will be something next year that’ll hopefully have a bigger space with a bigger budget and maybe a longer period so people can come to see the work. I also want more artists and different types of artists. We also asked people what they would like to see and the types of people or work they want us to highlight, so maybe it would be a mix of our vision and the community’s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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