In a recent conversation with my friend and fellow Iraqi artist Annabel Rabiyah (the mastermind behind Awafi Kitchen), we were commiserating about how challenging it is to get kubbeh right. Kubbeh is an Iraqi dumpling dish that’s fraught with disagreement about how to serve it and what ingredients to use for the dough. Beyond that, it’s full of subjective measures that are impossible to communicate through a recipe.
How wet should the dough be? How wet should your hands be? How to form each kubbeh? From personal experience, I can tell you that whenever I get it “right,” it’s by luck. Each time I attempt to make kubbeh, I am filled with self-doubt—not about my abilities in the kitchen, but rather about my worthiness as an Iraqi. Here we are, Annabel and I, each of us working to reclaim the traditions of our family and presenting ourselves as authorities on Iraqi culture, but due to the fragmenting effects of both migration and memory, we’ll never be able to fully represent our families’ stories.
In the Purim story, when Queen Esther reveals her identity as a Jew, she is burdened with the responsibility to speak on behalf of all Jews in Shushan. Because of her privileged influence in the king’s circle, she is thrust into a position of great power, holding the fate of her people in her hands. In a similar way, I have the privilege of being supported by the Community Creative Fellowship, and therefore the responsibility to represent my Iraqi identity to an audience of mostly Ashkenazi Jews who are now listening more closely than ever.
In writing music for my upcoming album, I’m faced with this pressure every day. My goal is to write music that harnesses the rich complexities of Arabic maqam (traditional modal structures), but how can I do that when I don’t feel like a true expert? Regardless of how much traditional repertoire I learn, no matter how much time I spend listening and practicing, it never feels enough. When I quiet my mind and let my own music flow out, I’m often left wondering if the melodies sound too Western, or too much like something else. I worry that I’m not doing justice to this musical tradition that I revere so much, that I’m not worthy. I’m trying not to let it hold me back.
As I struggle both to claim my voice in the lineage of Iraqi music and also to get the kubbeh dough to stay together, I have to constantly remind myself that I am enough. This vulnerable struggle with identity and authenticity challenges not only me and Annabel, but also so many other people for whom immigration is a relatively recent part of their story. In this space of commonality lies the potential for my project to resonate with listeners. So, I’ve decided to embrace this vulnerable place and transform the self-doubt and fear from an obstacle into a part of my work. In sharing my music, I hope to inspire listeners to break past the confines of self-doubt and make space for vulnerability, self-discovery and self-acceptance.
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