This story was collected at our Fremantle backyard and is told by Randa Khamis. After years of feeling ashamed of her mother tongue, Randa’s passion for music and singing allowed her to embrace her Arabic heritage.
Backstories 2022 is a multi-sited storytelling festival located in suburbs of across Perth and regional Western Australia. In 2022, Backstories occurred in locations such as Geraldton, Kununurra, Bunbury, Margaret River and Lesmurdie.
Backstories 2022 Fremantle was made possible with funding from Lotterywest, Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, City of Fremantle and Centre for Stories Founders Circle.
Interested in creating your own Backstories event? Get in touch at [email protected].
Copyright © 2023 Randa Khamis
Photo by Sophie Minissale
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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RK: I want you to imagine I’m a little girl of four years and I’ve just come home from school in grade one. Very angry at my mum. So I storm up to her with my piggytails flying. I point my finger up at her and I say, You’re no longer allowed to speak to me in Arabic. Me, I’m Australian and if you want to speak to me, you speak to me in English.
My mum laughed at my posturing and said in Arabic, ‘How am I going to speak to you in English when I’ve never learned Arabic in my life?’. My mum’s situation was this – we were living in poverty. Each day she had to do everything around the house, all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the washing. There were five hungry mouths to feed, including a husband who came home for lunch every day, expecting hot food to be on the table upon his arrival.
So let’s face it, trying to learn English wasn’t exactly at the forefront of her mind. She was living in survival mode. Studying a second language would have been a luxury. My parents had migrated from Jordan in the Middle East when I was around two years old. They were Palestinian and had fled the war in Palestine when they were children.
I didn’t understand the history. I was a bored four-year-old who had been pestering them each day to take me to school. I couldn’t wait to learn and to make friends and play with children my age. Dad took me a year early at the age of four to stop my pestering. He lied to the principal and he said he would be back with the right papers.
But he never went back with them. So I started grade one, a year younger than everyone else. So you can imagine I was feeling a little bit nervous. I still remember what the first year in primary school felt like. Each hour, each minute, each second of each day was filled with trauma and anxiety to the point where I wanted to be invisible, even when the teacher walked around the class.
I would duck under the table, hoping she wouldn’t see me. I went from being a happy, go lucky child to a child that was shy, scared, and hiding. Something was terribly wrong, and I was sure the problem was me. For the first time in my life, I felt stupid. I sat there in class, feeling dumb and useless. I couldn’t seem to understand what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing.
Every time the teacher or anyone spoke to me, I would freeze or hide. This made me feel terrified to be sitting in the class. I used to feel they were knots in my stomach all the time. I remember the teacher asking questions, and off I would just go hiding under the table so she wouldn’t see me. I was in way over my head trying to survive being in the classroom.
It was only once I learned the alphabet that I realized the main culprit of my relentless suffering wasn’t that I was stupid, It was that I didn’t know how to speak English. I was in a country called Australia where they didn’t speak Arabic. The day that I came home telling my mum not to speak Arabic to me from now on was the day I firmly rejected my cultural heritage.
I never wanted to look back. It stood in the way of propelling me forward into this new culture that everyone else seemed to be a part of except me. Even in my sleep, I would dream that I had blond hair and blue eyes. I didn’t want any more trauma. I wanted to belong. I didn’t want to have to survive.
I wanted to thrive and grow. I wanted to play with children and form friendships with as many as I could. I loved company. I didn’t want to be alone, confused and scared.
I wanted to fit in and look like the girls with blond hair and blue eyes. I wanted what they had, not what I had. So I stopped speaking Arabic at home with my mum and dad. They would speak to me in Arabic and I would always complain and ask them to speak to me in English. Over the years, the sentences were made up of a bit of Arabic and a bit of English, so they made an effort and that seemed to sort of satisfy me enough.
But when they were in public, I would always say to them, Speak to me in English. But they couldn’t form their sentences quickly enough to get their thoughts out. So it was just too hard for them. I once saw a person angrily say to my parents, ‘speak in English, you wog’. Looking back, my parents weren’t part of an Arabic community.
We didn’t have extended family and they had very few Middle Eastern friends. I remember my parents Arabic friends asking me as a teenager to speak in Arabic to them, and I would say in English I don’t speak it. I don’t know how. Feeling very proud of myself. They would go on saying, ‘But you understand Arabic?’. Yeah, I’d say quite dismissively.
Skip 20 years later, where I had been pursuing my dreams to be a singer. Arabic was no longer on my radar. After leaving home at 19, I no longer had any Middle Eastern influence around me. I had mastered English writing essays for my arts degree while studying in bands performing five nights a week. I was singing top 40 songs and thriving in the Perth music scene.
I felt like Perth was my home, but I always knew I didn’t quite fit in. I didn’t look Australian. People always asked if I was Italian and it kind of bothered me. Then out of the blue, a friend who lives abroad presents me with an opportunity to write and sing in London. So I go. One of the first things I noticed is that people would often ask me, Are you Spanish?
And I’d say, No. But I kind of didn’t mind them asking. It seemed exotic. I was getting taken out by record label types and meeting all kinds of people. After my first year there, I met Ali G’s brother. His name is Erran Baron Cohen, and he asks me to sing in his band called Zohar for a particular gig coming up.
Zohars’ Style was a blend of mystical Middle Eastern influences with electronic dance grooves while retaining a sense of spirituality. Erran had been looking for an Arabic female singer to front his band. He loved that my heritage was Palestinian and he wanted me to sing in Arabic. This was a great opportunity that I just couldn’t refuse. But how on earth was I going to do it?
I had long forgotten how to speak Arabic, let alone singing it. But I set my mind to learning. I listened to Arabic songs that Erran gave me and copied Note for Note, lyric for lyric. Then day by day, my native tongue started to come back to me. When I opened my mouth to sing, I felt like I was being transported into another dimension, into another time.
I felt a sense of spirituality that I hadn’t felt before. My spirit was ignited. I was somehow able to tap into a part of myself that I realized had been buried. I found that when I allowed myself the permission to express myself like this with this type of singing, it somehow just flowed out of me. Yet I had never been trained to sing in Arabic.
I had only been trained to sing English songs. The night of the gig arrived and I was so nervous. I had never done this before, let alone in London. The venue was a sophisticated bar. It was called Bar Talk and it had subdued lighting, plush red velvet curtains all around the walls and chandeliers. It was the kind of venue that you felt very valuable in.
That night, I met Ali G’s parents, his uncles, and even Ali G himself. They were warm and so appreciative of my singing. I felt so gracious and honored. I couldn’t believe that even Ali G himself was giving me compliments. He even asked if I would like a drink. I ended up sitting down with him and his two friends.
It felt like a really magical night, one that I will never forget. From there, I sang briefly with another band in London, a moroccan one called Momo, and we played at Homemade Festival in Reading. It’s kind of bizarre now when I look back that it took someone like Ali G’s brother Erran Baron Cohen to value my heritage, which then gave me a newfound appreciation for my first language, Arabic, a language that I had once so adamantly rejected.
I went from being embarrassed to being appreciative of the gift that my parents gave me, a gift that I couldn’t recognize as a kid. It made me more confident all round as a singer and allowed me to keep singing in many other styles and genres to which this day I’m so grateful for. And now, as a surprise, I’m going to perform a song in Arabic for you with my dear friend Esfandiar Shami.
He’s going to be playing [inadible word] and we’re going to do a song called NAMI. NAMI.
This song NAMI NAMI is an Arabian, you know, Arabic folk song of the desert. It’s about singing a song to a baby and hoping to put them to sleep with your singing. I hope it doesn’t put you to sleep, though.
[Singing in Arabic]