Interview by Ayaz Pirani for Ismailimail:
I was pleased to interview-by-email the student scientist and poet Alisha Ebrahim. Alisha is a Health Sciences student at the University of Calgary and a researcher at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Alisha is also a poet. Her work addresses faith, self-care, community-building, as well as recognizing the beauty around us. However, the one theme which ties her work together is creating understanding and empathy between individuals.
Ayaz: I notice in your poems that you occasionally include a verse from the Indo-Pak treasury of ginans and granths. In your poems you seem to draw them into personal spaces and subjects, including friendship, optimism, ethics, among your many other themes. Tell me about your use of traditional sources.
Alisha: The reason why I incorporate ginans and granths into my poems is multifaceted. I utilize these texts because I want to bring traditional, historical sources into a modern context. I my final years of Bait-ul Ilm (BUI), my teachers often encouraged my classmates and I to utilize the Qur’an, Rumi poems, and other Islamic texts as inspiration for our writing when preparing for class projects, such as the annual Al-Azhar Open House and Al-Azhar Production. For a couple of years after graduating from BUI, this was not a practice that I continued. However, one day I was struggling to think of what to write and was actively seeking new sources of inspiration. That day, I ended up using a line from the Qur’an that I came across on a friend’s Instagram story. After I finished my poem utilizing this quote, I began to reflect. Years ago, my parents had found my great-grandfather Alwaez Shamshuddin Bandali Haji’s ginan recitations in the University of Saskatchewan’s virtual ginan library.
Ayaz: I’ll give the readers the link: https://ginans.usask.ca/
After having written a poem using the Qur’an as my inspiration, I remembered this source. I was intrigued by the fact that ginans were showcased on the website of a major Canadian university—a centre for learning and growth—but still felt relegated to the past. I found it interesting that because we only ever hear ginans in jamatkhana, we mostly think of them in purely historical or devotional contexts. However, one of the reasons why ginans have endured throughout the years is because they are, and were intended to be, relevant for future generations. Librarian Karim Tharani’s digital archive of ginans at the University of Saskatchewan’s library is an important first step for remembering the past and keeping it alive for future generations. I wanted to take Tharani’s efforts one step further and actively put ginans into a modern context. To do this, sometimes I will pick a line from a ginan and write a poem inspired by it, ending the poem with that line, both in the original language and translated into English. By doing so, I am trying to show that ginans have relevance outside of jamatkhana and can teach us lessons in the material world in addition to the spiritual world.
Ayaz: You began with the word “multifaceted”. What was the other facet?
Alisha: I incorporate ginans and granths in my writing is because I want to help establish a cosmopolitan ethic within the poetry community. Within the literary world, minority writers can often feel discouraged by the lack of representation and continued publishing of appropriated stories instead of works full of diverse characters and unique perspectives. However, this is something that has only fueled my passion for writing further. In his Harvard University lecture titled “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World,” Mawlana Hazar Imam said that “a cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutizing a presumably exceptional part.” Through blending my English poetry with lines from Islamic texts, I hope to show that there is beauty in pluralism. I want to create a deep level of representation for our community through telling stories that take our history and meaningfully integrate it into our present and future. I want to show that people from all cultures and religions can come together to create art, and by extension can create a society which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Ayaz: At times in your poetry you address post-colonial and POC experiences. I’m thinking of a recent poem about the colour “brown” in which you wrote that “brown is a word adjacent to dull.” I know from my own experiences that you must be writing from your own experiences. But why do you turn those experiences into poems?
Alisha: From the beginning, my goal with my poetry has always been to create empathy between groups where it might not have existed before, and to show people that they are not alone while they experience the ebbs and flows of life. Poetry is a medium which can take profound, complex experiences and turn them into small, approachable concepts. Conversely, poetry can also take specific, minute events and stretch them out, creating broad, encapsulating descriptions which readers can enter into and almost experience for themselves. Poetry allows me to utilize the voice which I have been given to shed light on these complex experiences and minute events, strengthening the often-silenced milieu of POC voices. I hope that readers can relate to some of my experiences when they dive into my poetry, and that when they cannot, I hope that readers can learn from my experiences to help build a society which uplifts and supports people from all backgrounds.
Ayaz: I came across your poems on Instagram and I look forward to each one you post. Why have you chosen to produce or perform your poems in this way?
Alisha: I think that social media possesses a special quality which we often overlook, which is its power to create positive, meaningful connections. We have all seen the negativity which can stem from social media, as harmful bullying and misconceptions can travel the globe in no time. However, this same ability for content to spread like wildfire can be harnessed for good rather than for hurt. Social media is incredibly accessible, with people from all ages and backgrounds being able to view and create content. While performing at local open mic nights and submitting to local literary magazines has allowed me to form deep and meaningful connections with people in my own city, keeping my poetry in the local setting felt limiting. Posting on social media is a way for me to connect with people from around the world and to learn from their stories. It gives me the opportunity to get inspired by people who I would never have met in real life and understand how their lives are similar and different to my own. This ability to connect with people from around the world also allows my poetry to have a bigger impact. With a lot of my writing focusing on positivity, hope, and self-love, I am able to spread joy and compassion to all corners of the world. Through posting on social media, I can add an uplifting voice to the global stage, hopefully helping to combat some of the negativity and hurt that can spread so easily. When people are feeling tired, sad, or unmotivated, I hope that my content can push through the negativity they might find elsewhere on the internet and create a bright moment in their day.
Ayaz: I enjoy your poems for many reasons, but I want to draw attention to one reason in particular -the optimism, the forwardness. This attitude goes against the grain of contemporary discourse, which is usually distrustful and negative. Tell me more about this feature of your work.
Alisha: Naturally, I’m a very positive person. I always try to see life for the gift that it is because despite all of the reasons we have to feel negative or jaded, I truly believe that there are always more reasons to smile. This is an attitude which I try to emulate in a lot of my work. It’s so easy as we watch the news and scroll through social media to get caught up in all of the negativity around us. It can feel as though the world is slowly falling apart as we watch from behind a screen. It’s important to educate ourselves on what’s going on in society, but we also have to remember that there is hope and light in our world. Without this recognition, it would be difficult to feel motivated to make the world a better place through enacting change on a local and global scale. With optimism we can see the challenges in our lives as opportunities for learning and growth rather than barriers preventing us from happiness. Furthermore, by working together with the people in our communities, by bringing together multiple perspectives united by a common goal and vision of hope, we can create the exact kind of world that we want to see. Through my work I want to inspire people to see the beauty in the everyday and feel gratitude for what we already have, while motivating them to find ways to work with their communities to infuse joy into the cracks in our world which were once pervaded with hate and sorrow.
Ayaz: Perhaps you might link your optimism to one of your prose pieces, “Breaking Through the System” in Overachiever Magazine, in which you address POC experiences in the healthcare industry? I’m thinking especially of passages like this: “We have to push each other to be the best in our medical professions, but we also have to celebrate each other and encourage each other. Through competition we will not break through the barriers, because showing the medical field that we are good enough will not happen by tearing each other down. Building each other up will be the only way that we can reach the summit. We have to collectively love ourselves and our histories so loud that the voices telling us we can’t succeed are drowned out until they are silenced.”
Alisha: In my first year of university, it was an easy choice to major in health sciences because I knew with absolute certainty that I wanted to become a doctor, but that does not mean that the road to medicine is easy. As aspiring physicians, my classmates and I have to balance maintaining high GPAs with actively participating in extra-curricular activities, studying for major exams such as the MCAT, and wading through feelings of worry and stress on a daily basis. To keep moving forward even when obstacles get in my way, even when it seems easier to give up, I hold onto optimism and my reasons for pursuing medicine as my motivation. I have chosen to pursue medicine because it allows me to blend research with patient care to improve the quality of life of people locally and globally. Health is one of the most pertinent indicators of someone’s quality of life, and poor health can be a major barrier preventing people from seeking higher education, contributing to their communities, and forming valuable close relationships. My goal is to be able to work directly with patients to improve their health while also working behind the scenes in research to contribute to the medical knowledgebase, overall improving people’s quality of life so that they can do amazing things in their communities. The world can seem like a bleak place, with heartbreaking events happening on a daily basis, but healthcare is a field which can provide unlimited optimism. There is always research being conducted that will benefit our world and inspires me daily; and through volunteering at the hospital, I have gotten a glimpse at how directly working with patients is a way to make even just one person’s life a little better every day.
Holding onto optimism is an important way to keeping pursuing a dream, but it is difficult to do so alone. I was lucky in my first year of undergrad to find a group of Ismaili students in health sciences who are pursuing medicine and dentistry, and together we support and uplift each other to keep moving forward. We celebrate each other when we achieve great things and are there for each other during the difficult moments. These friends were my main inspirations for this prose piece. Over the years I watched my friends prove themselves to people who thought lesser of them for being women of colour and recognized that my own achievements in this field would not have been possible without the support of my friends and family. It is so easy to compete with the people around you and to think that the only way to achieve your goals is to tear others down. This is not the case. If we want more women of colour in science, conducting research that directly benefits women of colour who are so often overlooked, then we have to support them. And if we want more women of colour in healthcare, creating empathetic environments for women of colour to seek support from a system that for too long has told them their problems aren’t important, then we have to support them. There is enough room for everyone to succeed, but the only way that will happen is if we support each other to collectively create the inclusive world that we want to see.
Ayaz: In your poems and in your work as a health sciences student, you don’t seem bothered by the ‘split’ between the satisfyingly deductive nature of science and the potently inductive nature of poetry. I guess I’m leading you on with this question so that you can tell me how a scientist writes poetry.
Alisha: It’s true that science is based on objective facts while poetry is incredibly subjective and often seems to oppose the rigidity of science. However, both science and poetry are founded on the central urge to understand the world. As a scientist, I ask questions and then find ways to answer them. I explore my curiosities about how the world works through evidence-based experimentation. Through poetry, I also get to ask questions about our world, albeit more often focusing on the inner, emotional side of life. I get to experiment with imagery, sound, and space to explore what it means to be human from my limited, yet always growing vantage point. As a scientist who writes poetry, I get to take a holistic look at life, balancing out the fact-based realm of science with the fluid realm of poetry. By maintaining a foot in each world, I am able to take on a dual understanding of what it means to experiment.
Ayaz: Thank you for your thoughtful answers. Is there anything you would like to add?
Alisha: This year, I am part of the first TD Incubator Artist Development Program cohort hosted by Calgary’s Arts Commons. This program will allow me to develop my skills, hopefully resulting in some forthcoming publications. Additionally, through this program Calgarians will be able to see my work at one of the TD Amplify Cabarets in 2022. To read some of my poetry, keep up with my work, and attend this cabaret, people can visit my Instagram page, @paperwingspoetry. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my story!
Ayaz: Thank you Alisha. I wish you the very best.
Ayaz Pirani is a published author. His books include Happy You Are Here and Kabir’s Jacket Has a Thousand Pockets. His work recently appeared in ARC Poetry Magazine, The Antigonish Review, and Guest 16. Ayaz’s new book is How Beautiful People Are, forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press.