Zohab Zee Khan, an Australian Pakistani was spotted in Westfield with a beef bun kabab in his hand. Authorities present at the site immediately took action against the alleged suspect by interrogating him about his business in a shopping mall and communicated their concerns about the discomfort that his presence was causing to others in the vicinity.
Does this sound like content fit for making headlines of the local newspaper? As ridiculous as this sounds, this is how much of an undue importance we place in issues that arouse socio-political sentiments faster than an intellectual debate.
Irrespective of how deep the history of racism runs, the crux of the matter behind a racist remark fails to do justice to the magnitude of the issue. The triviality of these remarks is becoming a growing nuisance for those subjected to daily occurrences of racism including Pakistanis living overseas. One such individual is an Australian-Pakistani rap artist and Austrailian poetry slam champion Zohab Zee Khan.
He is an educator, motivational speaker, spoken word poet, musician, didgeridoo player, and hip-hop artist. After bagging the title of Australian Poetry Slam Champion in 2014, Zohab competed as a finalist in the International Poetry Slam held in Madrid. He now co-founds the Pakistan Poetry Slam and conducts poetry workshops across the globe.
Even though he has toured Western Europe, Middle East, South Asia, China and Pakistan, he never encountered something as alarming as what he did in Canberra.
The name ‘Austrailian-Pakistani’ becomes a hyphenated identity that is paradoxical in nature as it lifts a person off a specific place on the map and drops him into an abyss of ambiguities where his origins are unknown.
For Zohab Zee, this abyss was some unidentified territory, which was neither Pakistan nor Australia, where he was left stranded by an unforeseen incident of xenophobia. It dislocates individuals like Zohab from the place they choose to identify with and forces upon them an unwanted identity that is as hollow as the credibility of racist remarks directed their way.
Zohab has developed a new way to fight this mentality, slam poetry. The News talked with him and following is the Q&A we had.
The News: In one of article, you wrote that your work has a common theme based on xenophobia. Is that true? If yes, have you had any experiences prior to this one which inspired you to write about it? Describe any such memory.
Zohab Zee Khan: Like most writers I draw on my personal experiences for my art. My personal experiences just happen to feature xenophobia at times. I don't exclusively write about race relations but it does feature in my work. I can think of countless experiences. I tend not to commit too many to memory as I have better things to think of. But there is one particular poem that I wrote regarding the time that I was confronted by a man who called me a dirty terrorist.
The thing that this made this instant different to all the other times things like this happened would be the fact that he was there with his young child. That’s probably why I chose to write about it.
TN: Other than everyday instances of racism, do you feel you are alienated because of your skin colour, your looks, your name, or your origins in Australian society?
ZZK: It definitely makes you stick out, and it has had a profound effect upon my life. I do get stared at regularly and get occasional odd looks. I know that I do not look like most people around me so I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate the looks. Usually they are harmless, sometimes they are not. I’ve been lucky in the fact that I’ve pursued a non-traditional career path, being one of Australia’s leading spoken word poet, I generally get to choose who I do business with.
Unfortunately this isn't always the case for people who look like me and putting a name like Zohab Khan on a resume doesn't always yield the best results. I am a 4th generation Australian with Pakistani heritage, with over a century of family history on this continent I consider myself very an Australian. However my loyalty to this country is constantly in question and this is solely due to my skin colour and heritage.
TN: Do you feel your acquaintances in the field of poetry and literature treat you differently? Does indulgence in art change the way you see others or widen your perspective and maybe make you more accepting of differences?
ZZK: My career choice is no accident; I’ve chosen to apply my business acumen in an artistic field. Generally the people that I deal with on a day to day basis tend to be more open minded and respect me for my work rather than making assumptions based upon my skin colour or heritage.
Whether there is a correlation between the consumption of art and being more accepting of people, I don't know. What I do know is that people that I come across in artistic circles are generally amazing, with a few exceptions of course.
TN: "....he had deliberately gone back to Westfield a few days later, because nobody will make him feel he can’t be somewhere." Can you elaborate on what makes you believe such incidences cannot restrain your thought or physical presence in any public space?
ZZK: At 198 cm I am a large man. It took me time to grow into this body, physically and mentally. A lot of my friends from ethnic backgrounds say that they at times feel the need to shrink themselves in spaces that are traditionally white. I have felt the same in the past. I no longer feel that, I ensure that I am comfortable where ever I go, which is one of the reasons I made sure that I went back to the shopping mall 2 days later.
TN: Do you think the global hue and cry about racism is over-rated?
ZZK: Not at all. We humans have a long history tainted in racism. The examples from history are countless. The legacy of our history exists to this day and has unfortunately ingrained itself into our global society.
Call me an idealist, but I truly believe that we are all one big family. Our global family as a whole needs a lot of healing, this healing isn’t going to occur magically, it’ll only happen through dialogue and facing our demons.
TN: Do you agree with the fact that racial offenders deliberately say or do things to incite anger in the other party and provoke aggression in order to prove their claims?
Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. I can’t speculate on the intentions of racial offenders. But I’ve always assumed that racism is a result of nurture and a lack of empathy. To carry around that much hate must be a heavy burden.
TN: What, according to you, is the best way to respond to racist behavior? Is it more fruitful to use might to battle the widespread presence of this phenomenon or is it more prudent to choose an alternative path?
Dealing with racism is multifaceted, and each and every single one of us has varying abilities in making change. It is always important to call out racism when we see it happen, be it small or big. However I have a policy that if I am going to confront somebody about their racism I will always ensure that they are left richer for the experiences. We should always be aiming to learn and teach, this is how we create change.