An Algerian spoken word artist and medical student based out of New York City, NY. Zainab is a woman that embodies the power of the mind and the strength of words. She has spoken at rallies and poetry slams that empower women, people of color, and people of faith. Read below to learn more about her.
Where are you from?
If where I’m from is where I was born, it’s Houston, Texas. If where I’m from is the place blood runs through my vessels and melanin kisses my skin, it is Algeria.
What is your ethnicity?
I’m half Berber (Kabyle) and half Arab. Berbers (derived from barbarians, interestingly enough) are the indigenous people of North Africa.
Do you speak other languages?
Only broken pieces of Taqbaylit, Arabic, and French. These were my mother tongues. My mother was a recent immigrant to America when I was born and so I entered pre-school at the age of four without knowing a word in English. My mother tells me stories of teachers calling her often to translate what I was asking for — wanting to drink water, asking to go to the bathroom, etc. When she noticed that my failure to speak English fluently was being confabulated with level of intelligence in school, she decided to learn English so she could speak it at home and practice with me. She watched American TV shows and films. She would read children books aloud. Sometimes she dictated stories that I would then have to write down so I could improve my spelling. Her fear that my inability to speak English would affect my education led her to take the extreme and essentially stripped my tongue. By the time middle school started, I could no longer speak my native languages fluently. Instead, it was replaced with a painstaking mastery of English at the expense of ever being able to converse freely with my non-nuclear family.
How did you get into poetry and what style do you usually perform in?
My introduction to performance poetry was much later in life — during college. A dear friend knew I wrote poetry and convinced me to sign up for a slam. This became my first spoken word piece, Blood Is Thicker Than Water. I remember that performance distinctly: stepping onto the stage, a bundle of nerves. Walking hesitatingly up to the mic that stood intimidatingly in the center of the stage. Closing my eyes, taking a deep breath because over a hundred pairs of eyes were staring back at me. To build courage, I told myself that this moment was mine, and I had this moment only, so I better push all the fears and anxiety so deep within to let my voice speak in the space I had been given. Once I buried those fears I opened my mouth and the auditorium fell eerily still and silent. In that moment, I realized that my words could fill up a room.
I ended up winning that day, and I have been performing poetry ever since.
What inspires you?
There is no single source of inspiration, it comes in a multitude of forms and ways and I’m constantly seeking to recognize it when it presents itself to me. I am inspired by my family — my grandparents were revolutionaries who fought for their lives and the liberation of Algerian people in the Algerian Independence War with France. I talk often of their sacrifices in a brutal revolution that has left me with immense privilege. My parents are immigrants, who, on the backs of liberation gifted by their parents, started a family far away in a land that was promised to be the land for opportunity. I am inspired by their strength and courage, and always string my words with their presence. As a medical student, I am inspired by my patients and their stories of struggle and resilience, the ways in which I can facilitate holistic healing and the ways in which I can use a medical degree to not only exercise medical knowledge but also make sure that whoever walks through my door leaves with more than medications. As a body in diaspora, I am inspired by marginalized communities and their fight and always look for the untold stories that I can advocate for.
What book are you reading right now?
Always a mix of required reading for my graduate classes and me trying to learn more of the world I live in. Currently reading Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala. Learning Woman, Class, and Race from Angela Davis. Dismantling colonization in Africa with Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. The poetry book I’m currently taking my time with is Clint Smith’s Counting Descent.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Simply, I am writing and seeking precious moments of reflection and solitude. I appreciate quiet moments in bright coffee shops with wide windows and a good cup of coffee (courage). I gaze out in thought waiting for inspiration to hit, or mull over words and taste them on my tongue to see if I want to bring them to life on blank pages. This is how I self-reflect, on a life I have lived, and a life I wish to live, on the person I am, and the person I wish to become. I try to attend talks/lectures held in community spaces to expand what I understand about this world, stroll art museums, search for open mics to share my poetry (currently working with a non-profit organization called Performing Arts Mosaic based in NY), and finding late night cafes for restorative discussions with friends.
What do you hope for your people?
I hope that we continue to resist in spaces that require our resistance and that we continue to push boundaries and explore art even if they are in fields that appear to be devoid of them (ie, medicine, engineering, business, law).
What is something about your identity that has shaped who you are as a creator?
I identify myself as Algerian, American, Muslim, a woman, hijabi (a woman who dons hijab), Arab, Kabyle, African, a medical student, a graduate student, a writer, a poet, and an advocate. For a long time, medicine has been the largest part of my identity. Living in Harlem has brought me my own renaissance in some way — these days I am embracing more of my Kabyle heritage, with a language that most people don’t know exist, and a rich history and culture often silenced. I’m trying to console that my ancestors are from an African country but wear lighter skin, and consciously recognize the privilege that inherently contains. I think of the brutal colonization my grandparents fought that deemed them savages and barbarians and how I will always carry that legacy on my shoulders. I also think of being a woman born in America with intersectional identities, and how I can use all my identities as a source of strength and a place to not only find power in my voice but to elevate the voices of other marginalized communities. To do this I am embracing my writing and poetry, and using them to grow in new ways.
What artist do you look up to most and why?
This one is tough, and similar to the places I find inspiration, I look up to many artists. I admire the strength and honesty of Audre Lorde’s and Maya Angelou’s writing. One of my favorite composers is Ludovico Einaudi. His music got me through some major study sessions. I admire the creative directors starting to incorporate social commentary into visual music — thinking here Beyonce and Childish Gambino. I admire how J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance the Rapper continue to rap regardless of the mainstream.
Describe the first time you realized that language/words had power?
I thank my father for this. When I was six or seven, maybe eight (all I remember was being in elementary school) my father asked me to write what it meant to me to be Algerian. Unbeknownst to me, he told all the Algerians in the city of Houston that at our next meeting I would be making a speech to address our community. That day he asked me to read what I had written to him, and then told me right before we entered the hall that I was the keynote. I didn’t have a chance to say no, or back out. My father invited his young daughter to address elders at least four times her age with a microphone and her words. I don’t remember what I said, I just remember the paper I held in my hand, and the encouraging nod of my father, and a whole bunch of eyes peering down at me. I remember the applause, I remember my father’s smile, and I know, till this day, he still reflects proudly on that moment.
I then found power in poetry, and how I can craft language to evoke emotions, express doubts, fears, record history, immortalize my ancestors, and build bridges.
I know now how rare that empowerment is for women, who are told to take up smaller spaces, keep quiet, and if they must speak, to speak softly. I knew language and words had power… [I] always knew I was capable of wielding them.
How can people follow your work?
I have started a blog to keep track of my work, publications, and events at www.thezmab.com and use Instagram, @thezmab, to document my photography with reflective captions.