On February 10, 2015, Razan Abu-Salha, Yusor Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat lost their lives in a hate crime that shook the Chapel Hill community. The night of the vigil I watched, through my tears, the candles flickering and wondered, how long will the candle wax stain these bricks? My perceptions creaked under the strain of a heinous crime that in many ways marked the end of a way of being for me – waves of distress echoed throughout my individual and shared Muslim psyche. Of course it wasn’t solely in Chapel Hill or the local Muslim communities that people were hurting. In the coming year, I saw the connectedness of people aching and agitating for change from Baltimore to Palestine. Through my own grief, I sought ways to witness and stand in solidarity with others. Even now, I yearn for communities to move beyond the seemingly endless procession of vigils to a place of honest connections and nuanced understanding.
In honor of our friends, I curated a multimedia exhibition: Muslims in the Carolinas. As the Persian poet Rumi writes, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” and this exhibition was an opportunity to collect a few of those kisses. From home bakeries to eco-boxes, classrooms to abandoned parking lots, we interviewed and photographed students as well as community members who work with their hands in a myriad of ways: cooking, painting, writing… In tandem with Rumi’s words, the work of these folks reflect the acts of daily life that bind a community. Throughout our travels for this project, scholars, artists and activists continuously spoke to the importance of communities to stand for justice and connect to each other. As such, Muslims of the Carolinas was a celebration as well as a show of resilience.
As the Engagement Coordinator at Carolina Performing Arts working with Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey, I have been searching for ways to integrate self-reflexive artistic expression into my activism and community engagements. How can we encourage critical, socially conscious, and compassionate dialogue? What are those shared spaces where humanity mingles in ways that afford us our differences? We must not forget the names and nuances of lives taken unjustly. These names, lives, and legacies, even in their singularity, are of people intrinsically intertwined in the realities of us and others. Artistic expression can give us the tools for beckoning the silence of unsung deeds and unrecorded acts, for turning audience members into witnesses, for allowing the light of vigil candles to flicker eternally in our memories. Whether it be music or dance, storytelling in its many forms can allow us to create an ever dynamic history of voices and experiences that joins individual to collective, private to public. Carolina Performing Arts’ dedication to consistently illuminating different voices invites many into its performance of solidarity. I’m grateful for the opportunity to tap into the role of art and artists in advocating for social justice.
Aisha Anwar graduated in May 2016 with degrees in English and Global Studies. She is the Engagement Coordinator at Carolina Performing Arts and a freelance writer and photographer.