Wafia explores her nomadic upbringing and embracing the inbetween
Interview by Noor
At 8 AM with a coffee in hand, I received a phone call from WAFIA from Down Under. Based in Australia and of Arab origin, WAFIA is a singer/songwriter that has captivated audiences around the world with her ethereal sound. She greeted me with her soft voice, immediately expressing excitement to be a part of the magazine and mentioned that her little sister is a fan. Miles apart, we immediately felt close talking about our nomadic childhoods, growing up in different countries and the one too many schools to keep count.
Studying to be a doctor, WAFIA began to write songs to break its monotony. Drawing from her roots, she pulls on Middle Eastern influences, including Arabic words in her music and more recently, her new single ‘Bodies’ that draws on the Syrian refugee crisis.
I was incredibly excited to interview the artist that I have been replaying for quite some time. Her infectious and warm personality could have kept me on the phone for hours. We spoke about her music, dealing with change and building her sense of belonging in the world.
In the car or at home, some of your parents’ favourite Middle Eastern tunes were played, what’s a favourite?
Najwa Karam cause she has a song called ‘Wafia’ - my parents would always play that and I would be very shy. Also I remember every night my mum would sing me a Fadel song. I love that. We listen to a lot of Hatem Al Iraqi cause my dad is Iraqi. I love the folk music that comes out of Iraq, but I also love the pop music that comes out of Lebanon and Syria.
You were studying Biomedicine to be a doctor. What was the moment you shifted trajectory from doctor to songwriter?
I was doing music to escape from studying all the time and my parents saw my passion for it grow in second and third year of university. The minute it changed is when I realised that I was graduating from university at 17 or 18, which is the time it takes for people to finish high school. So I thought if I wanted to go back to university, I can, but now is the time to pursue music.
I was on my way to my last exam and I remember looking at my dad and saying, ‘’I think I’m not going on to do Medicine right now, I’m going to do music because I feel in my heart it’s what I need to do.’’ He looked at me and said, ‘’We know.’’ It was such a relief. I think it helps that my dad at one point wanted to be an actor, but his parents wanted him to pursue something more stable. So when it came to me and doing music, I don’t think him and my mum ever wanted to hold me back from something that I love.
Culturally, becoming a doctor/lawyer is highly regarded and the arts are usually seen as more risky and less stable, was there any doubt or resistance from yourself or from family?
There was a little bit from me. I always sang, but never took it as a serious career opportunity until my love for it was so great that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My parents were always really supportive, but I know my family approached with caution to our extended family that I was a musician. Especially because the reality is bad things can happen in the industry that I am in, but that can be said about any industry once you realise that jobs and occupations are becoming more and more obsolete as technology gets better. There is just as much risk in being a doctor and possibly failing as there is being an artist and possibly failing. You may as well fail doing the thing that you love as opposed to doing the thing to uphold your family. I understand though, the pressures to appease your parents, especially in our society and culture. I realised how blessed and privileged I am to have parents that are supportive in this journey.
I know you enjoy the sciences too, do you try to incorporate science in your music?
My bodies of work always revolved around an element. Later as they unfold, they will make sense to my audience the most. I am quite methodical in the way I like to approach things, they need to have layers and deeper meaning. If the body of work has deeper meaning then it’s creatively fulfilling for me. It’s great if the audience understands, but first and foremost, I need to feel like what I am putting out means something to me.
Your EP XXIX was very personal and focused on change, what changes did you experience that you’re happy to share besides the physical change of relocating often?
I think it was a realisation that change is always imposed on me by my parents in the fact that we did relocate often, but it was also in high school where everyone thought I was that girl that was going to go on to do Medicine, have her life together and was so calculated. Suddenly one day, I woke up and I wasn’t that person anymore and having to come to terms with that and that we as people change at any point. You should never hold a person to what they were once. We are all allowed to change and be fluid.
Your music has Middle Eastern influence, why add this sprinkle?
I think it’s in my blood. It’s always the most natural thing. Then there are other situations where I have these song lyrics, for example, ‘Bodies’ which is very much about the Syrian refugee crisis. It sounds like people dancing at night, but it was about people walking away from their homes and making that a lot more human. So it differs, sometimes it’s really intentional and sometimes it’s not.
You saw refugee camps between the border of Turkey, Syria and Iraq 32,000 ft up and flew over your parents’ homeland. This might be the closest you ever get. How do you feel your family experiences and your background affect the music you make now?
It impacts me because I can’t escape it. I have been to Syria, but I’ve never been to Iraq and it breaks my heart because there is so much history and family that I want to see, but I can’t because of the situation. I don’t know when I could ever return to Syria, but we talk to our family a lot, but even then, it’s hard to talk to them without hearing bombs or gunshots in the background. And I’m pained just listening to it over the phone from however many thousands of miles away, that’s their reality. It’s hard not be affected by that.
I witnessed my mum for 6 months, try to apply for visa for her whole family to leave Syria. I saw her put time into that, doing phone calls and going to embassies and then in one simple letter it was all denied. I then saw my mum fall apart after that. And my grandmother passed away and my mum couldn’t go to Syria to see her because of the situation. It’s hard for those things not to affect you, but it’s also the reality for many kids who live with their parents and their immigrant family deal with similar things. There’s a comfort in knowing that we are not alone, but it also doesn’t change the fact that these issues are incredibly personal and we have to go through them.
In another interview you mention being reluctant to reveal your ethnicity out of fear of being judged for looking different, how have you overcome that fear or it is still there to some extent?
I overcame that fear by realising that if someone didn’t like my music for my ethnicity, then they’re not someone I would like liking my music to begin with and the minute I realised that, I didn’t care. I have to be the most honest and truthful version of myself because that is the only thing that’s gonna resonate. A lot of it as well has to do with the fact that I have two younger sisters and it’s nice not to hide away from anything. When they share my music with their friends, they can say that is my sister, she is doing us proud. I am using my real name. It’s all there. It’s all in the name. My dad always said to me, ‘’You’re born with a name and die with a name and that’s it. That’s the only thing you take with you.’’ I think a lot of it has to do with pride and our culture and it’s a beautiful thing to be reminded that you are accountable for everything you do in life because you put it to your name.
You mentioned that you are a world citizen, where do you consider home?
I feel in my blood I’m Iraqi and Syrian, even then I feel divided between the two. And then, I live in Australia and Australia has been so good to me, but if my family didn’t live here, would I go back? I think the answer is yes. It’s an easier way of life than I know some other countries are. I love it in that regard. I was born in the Netherlands and I feel attached to that too. Like you said, I had a nomadic lifestyle and I feel all the travelling my parents did, prepared me for now. I love being able to make a space my own. If thats a hotel room, an Airbnb, whatever. As long as you exist safely in a space, and you have access to friends, good people and good food always.
Did you struggle with your identity and sense of belonging?
I did for a very long time. Growing up, I got made fun of for my name a lot. It was never understood. I just wanted a normal name. I just wanted to blend in and attract the least amount of attention to myself, but I grew out of that later in life, thank goodness. But I think a lot of children of immigrants with foreign names can identify with that. I’ve come to embrace it and it’s also about finding the people that live in-between with you. Me and my friends have built a community of us that don’t fit in anywhere and we fit in together and that is very beautiful. For me, it was the internet that allowed me to find women that are like me.
What do you tell other girls who feel like they do not belong?
Make a space for yourself because you deserve it. I think the hardest thing is coming to terms with that I am allowed to be loud, I am allowed to be unapologetic and not fit in. I am going to do it and I’m going to carve a space for myself. The minute you can accept that about yourself and know that you are deserving and worthy of love and acceptance and praise from family and otherwise, then I think you become a lot more in control of your life.