Roua Aljied: Poetry, Passion and ProtestWritten by Muslim Link
Sudanese Canadian Spoken Word poet Roua Aljied, 19, has become well-known in Ottawa as an artist willing to tackle controversial topics such as the rights of Palestinians during last year’s Gaza War with her poem “We are Still Here” to challenging rape culture with her poem “Looking Over Her Shoulder” which was performed at Ottawa City Hall for the launch of last year’s 16 Days Against Gender Violence.
Born in Sudan and raised in London, Ontario, Roua’s family settled in Ottawa where she attended Lisgar High School. It was during a trip with her school to Parliament Hill that she was exposed for the first time to Spoken Word poetry during a performance by Chinese Canadian poet Jenna Tenn-Yuk. Through her connection with Jenna, Roua became involved with the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam. Roua was crowned the VerseOttawa Women’s Slam Champion in 2014 and became the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam Champion later that year.
Currently studying Biomedical engineering at Carleton University, Roua continues to write and perform poetry exploring human rights, racism, gender, and immigrant identity. Muslim Link interviewed Roua about her journey as a Spoken Word artist.
What Spoken Word artists do you admire?
Jenna Tenn-Yuk and Tanya Ingram. Jenna was my first introduction to Spoken Word. What I love about Jenna is that she can talk about any subject in her poetry.
Tanya Ingram talks a lot about being Black and that’s important for me. I think growing up for me acknowledging the fact that I was Black was an issue. So, to see amazing Black poets speak so openly about being Black and loving yourself for it was really important for me and I really appreciated that.
Why was acknowledging that you were Black an issue growing up?
The thing about being Sudanese is that because we are Black but we are also Arab it has always been confusing working out what race we are because we don’t exactly fit in with Arabs because we are Black but we don’t exactly fit in with Blacks because we are Arab or even with Somalis because we don’t speak their language.
So for me I didn’t really see myself as a Black person, and I’ve written about this, because my understanding of Black growing up was based on what I saw in the media where Black people are portrayed as criminals, uneducated, and that wasn’t me, that wasn’t my family. So I didn’t think I was Black.
It was only really when I went to high school—I went to a mostly white high school—that I realized that I stood out because I was Black. And I discovered that for me it was really important to acknowledge that I was Black and you become such a happier person acknowledging who you are and appreciating who you are, and it doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else but there is a history behind your people and it is really important to just acknowledge the people who have come before you and respecting what they have gone through. They struggled so that I wouldn’t have to experience so much discrimination as a Black person today.
When you became the 2014 Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam Champion, you stated on your Facebook that you were the first Black female to win this. Why was it important for you to say this?
Black people in general are so underrepresented in almost everything, so I felt it was important to represent the fact that I was the first Black person to win. In the Spoken Word community there is actually a lot of Black representation, but in the youth teams there isn’t. I’m not sure if it’s because there are less Black youth who are aware of it. And this is the Ottawa Youth Poetry Team so it means that it is representing the capital, so if you don’t have diverse people on the team representing the city, it is like we don’t exist.
So it was important for me to point out that I was the first Black person and I won’t be the last. We need to take part in these kinds of programs and let people know that we are here and we are part of Ottawa and we are part of Canada and we can’t be ignored. So I really hope there will be more diversity in the youth Spoken Word community.
You wear hijab. Have you ever experienced any issues being visibly Muslim in the Spoken Word scene?
Not at all. I find that the Spoken Word community is actually one of the most accepting communities when it comes to being Muslim. One thing that I noticed really fast when I got into the community was that people who weren’t even Muslim were always saying Assalamu Alaikum to me and I find that really touching. It’s almost like a respect thing and I really appreciated that people were just so open about religion. Even the Muslims in the community are very accepting of each other.
Does being Muslim affect the subject matter of your poetry?
I have never actually written a poem specifically about being a Muslim. I have written a few poems about being Arab/Black/Immigrant but nothing specifically about being Muslim. There is a lot I could write about given what is going on in this world and how as Muslims we are so divided—that is definitely a poem I would love to write someday.
I don’t feel that there are any restrictions on my writing because I’m Muslim, but I do think when it comes to some subjects of poems, like war, it’s almost expected that Muslims write about that. I guess when you see a Muslim person you think obviously they are going to write about war. That’s something I hate. If I were to write a poem about war, people wouldn’t be as excited about it because it is seen as nothing new. But if a White person were to write about war, I think more people would be more interested in what they have to say because it is assumed that they didn’t grow up in war. But I didn’t grow up in war either, but people wouldn’t necessarily assume that by looking at me. People do judge you based on what you look like. So because I’m visibly Muslim, it’s assumed that chances are I grew up in war.
How does being an immigrant affect your poetry?
Being an immigrant has definitely affected my poetry because I have seen my own family struggle with being immigrants. My dad came to New York before I was born and after I was born he decided to move the family to Canada. Sudan…well…I guess you can say that we are not really moving forward as a country at the moment. The sad reality is that the easiest option to succeed in the country is to leave it. He just thought the best way for his children to succeed was to get a good education and he felt we could get that in Canada. It has been really important that we all do well academically because my parents left everything behind, their family, their culture…to come here so we could have a better life.
What does your family think about your poetry?
They have seen me perform a few times at a few poetry shows. I do have a lot of poets in my family. My family enjoys debating about where I get my talent from. My great-grandpa was a very famous poet so some say I get it from him. But I think the favourite thing for my parents isn’t the actual poetry but what I’m speaking out about. They have definitely appreciated my poetry about Palestine because they just like the fact that I’m speaking out about important issues.
Your poem, Looking Over Her Shoulder, is a hard-hitting examination of rape culture and the impact on women’s daily lives. What inspired you to write it?
It’s actually the first poem I’ve ever written. I wrote it for my best friend who was raped when she was very young. I had always wanted to write something for her. But I was triggered to write the poem after I was interviewed by media about a recent sexual assault that happened in my area. I really didn’t like their questions. I thought they were silly. Like they were asking if I thought sexual assaults were happening because of poor lighting in the area. I was like, ‘No, that’s not why sexual assaults happen!’
In this poem, you refer to the fact that because you wear hijab people say the issue of rape shouldn’t even concern you. Why was it important for you to discuss that in this poem?
We hear a lot about cases where people ask if a woman was wearing provocative clothing when she was raped, as if that would somehow explain why she was raped. When I would bring up my concerns about this to people I was surprised by how people would respond by saying a woman should dress more modestly if she doesn’t want to get raped. And they would even say to me ‘Why are you concerned about this? You are a hijabi woman, you are Muslim, this isn’t something that concerns you.’ But my friend was raped when she was a child, her clothing didn’t mean anything! And I know other women who have been sexually assaulted and raped who are hijabi Muslims. What you wear doesn’t mean anything! It is not the victim who needs to be questioned when a rape happens, it is the rapist. You should be asking questions about them. What is wrong with them? Why are we always asking what is wrong with the victim?
What has been the response to the poem?
The response has been amazing. But I actually hated the poem when I first wrote it. Often as a writer you are very critical of your work and it was my first poem.
I was asked to perform the poem at City Hall for the launch of 16 Days Against Gender Violence. I’ve performed at protests, in front of a lot of people, but performing for the first time at City Hall was a bit nerve-wracking because it was a different type of audience. It was a lot of people who worked for the government so I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if they would appreciate poetry the same way a group of protesters would. But it got a really good reaction. I got a standing ovation actually. That was really humbling because it wasn’t what I was expecting. It has also resulted in a lot more commissioned work.
How has your family reacted to the poem?
My parents and my family are very supportive. My brother was the first to see the video of the poem. What has been good is that it allowed us to have a conversation about the issue, which we hadn’t ever really talked about before.
What is it like being commissioned to write poetry?
I like commissioned work because it gives me opportunities to meet new people and it encourages me to write more. But I can’t just write about any topic, it has to be something I’m passionate about. I was asked to write a poem about the effect of mental illness on youth for a fundraiser. I took the opportunity to write about my own struggle with mental health issues which I had never spoke about before.
You still regularly write and perform poetry but you are no longer competing in poetry slams. Why?
I don’t really like doing slam poetry. It is something I did my first year as a poet. I liked the exposure and meeting a lot of people. But I wasn’t into the competition side of it. I did pretty well competition-wise but my favourite part about poetry is how passionate people are, and when you go deeper into competition the passion just dies away and it just becomes about whatever you are competing for and I didn’t want to have that happen to me. I don’t want to ever do slam poetry again.
What do you want to do as a poet moving forward?
I really enjoy teaching poetry workshops. I love working with youth and I want to do that more in the future. I also know that I want to publish a book of my own poetry but I don’t have a set date for that yet.
What advice would you give to other young Muslim women who are interested in doing Spoken Word?
I would say just go for it. Even if your first performance is just an open-mic piece. The scene, especially in Ottawa, is so diverse and they’ve been so welcoming to me I only wish I had started earlier. I want to see more young Muslim women going out and performing. Our struggle is unique and it needs to be expressed in as many ways possible. The best person to speak on your behalf is you, so if you’re able to then I encourage you to do so. As long you have something that you believe needs to be said your words will be always be welcomed.
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