The Psychotherapist: From Trainee to Professional

The first reading I ever completed for my three-year psychotherapy diploma program was in the summer before starting the certificate (In the UK we get our Postgraduate Certificate before we can progress to the Diploma). I can’t remember what book it was from, but the author seemed very determined to instill in the reader that any trainee counselor was going to need an incredibly strong support system (they called it an ‘anchor’) in order to survive this course. I thought they were being overdramatic. I read this aloud to my boyfriend-at-the-time’s mother and she stated that she expected her son to fulfill this role. He left before he had to, but that’s okay because by then I had my cat, Lucy.

Lucy became my anchor – my cat was the reason I got up to go to work so I could buy her food and treats. She was the only way I began to create any sense of attachment theory. I hesitate to describe her as a transitional object, but I can’t deny that I see myself very differently now than I did at the beginning of this course. I arrived believing I knew everything but was secretly terrified of having to sit with someone face-to-face instead of over the phone (my background is in peer support hotline work). What if they didn’t speak? What if I couldn’t help? What if I wasn’t good enough? I am now leaving this program fully aware of – and embracing – what I don’t know; yet feeling much more confident in my ability to sit with a client no matter what is brought – and survive a possible hour of silence with a stranger!

My journey to becoming a counselor began many years before that summer. At age 17, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Fearful of speaking to my parents about it, I took myself off to the general practitioner surgery where I was prescribed Propanolol. The doctor was my mother’s own doctor when she was pregnant with me and thus he had always treated me as an extension of a family friend. By just giving me some pills, he managed to cement my idea that I was broken and needed to be fixed. It was only after I hated the pills (initially I hated the idea of them, but then I disliked the way they made me feel) that he suggested I look into counseling, which ironically made me feel even more broken. I didn’t know anything about counseling then, other than what I’d seen in films about psychoanalysis and that scared me. I made the appointment over the phone in my friend’s bedroom and ended up sneaking out of school every week for eight sessions of CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy.

I’ve been in and out of counseling ever since. My style of therapist and senses of accomplishment have varied, as have the labels I have acquired from different professionals. I’ve stomped my feet every step of the way. I’ve been angry at the system, angry at not feeling heard, angry at feeling that my age prevented me from being taken seriously. I’ve disagreed with nearly every label and fallen out with nearly every therapist. But I can’t argue that they’ve helped get me here. I can’t say they hindered me -just that it’s been an uphill battle. My counseling history has helped me now find therapists that I enjoy and taught me how to feel comfortable in my own practice for my own clients.

I began my course angry with the way the system worked, thinking that if only I could get my foot through the door with a qualification, I could attack it from the inside and perhaps gain a greater understanding about how people fall through the net or get left behind. I could help bridge the gap. I could help make this system work.

I’m still angry and I still want to change the system. However, when I was asked why I wanted to do my course, I originally refused to give this reason, because I thought it would be mocked or seen as naive. Whilst I can still see the possible naïveté in it, I don’t believe I could continue to do this job without that anger, without that strong desire to make sustainable mental health more accessible.

So it’s ok to be angry.

It’s also ok for me to say goodbye to my course. The three years have gone by in the longest blink. I notice in my client work, I’m always aware of making sure it’s okay for my clients to leave at the end of a session; can they return to the real world as their outside selves? I really value the time it may take them to put their outside faces back on and slip back into who they need to be. I’ve done this. I’ve cried my tears. My makeup is fixed. I’m okay to leave.

I’ve said before that I think this course is really more a driving test; I’m only going to learn to drive once I’ve passed. I have a whole new journey ahead of me to discover just what type of counselor I really am, once the reins have been cut. I’m really excited to start.

That first reading was right. This course has been testing and it has completely restructured how I view the world around me. But I think what it’s taught me most is to be my own anchor. Whilst Lucy is a wonderful companion to come home to and ride a train with, it’s me that I take everywhere I go. She cannot physically sit in a therapy room with me, although I can channel the self I provide to her to be the self I try to provide to my clients. But it’s me that I need to be able to rely upon – my knowledge and control of my selves that I need to have faith in. This has been difficult when also factoring in a long-term illness that means my body might not always be able to be relied upon and brain fog is never too far away. But I’ve done it. I’m here.

I’m ready to leave. I’m ready to pass. I’m ready to support my clients through their own versions of this journey. I’m also ready to continue learning in my own way. After seven years of university, I’m ready to let go of the ‘trainee’ title and embrace the ‘professional’ one.

 

Interview with Alex Creece, July Featured Author

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Starting this month, Rosewater will be having a “featured author” each month. The editors choose a contributing author, ask them a few questions, and focus that month on publishing many of their pieces. This month, we have chosen Alex Creece, a dedicated Rosewater contributor. Alex’s pieces have historically crossed genres, focusing on personal narratives, virtual reality and occasionally the overlap between the two.

Where did you grow up? How did it shape your writing?
 
I grew up in Australia and Dubai (UAE). I’ve always been extremely shy, but I think this trait has helped me become perceptive and find my voice through written words, rather than pressuring myself to talk for the sake of merely filling the silence. I’ve also met lots of vastly different people in my life so far and I try to strike up a good balance between upholding my ethics, but still being open to new information and making sure I am respectful of diverse opinions, not just ones I already agree with. I am passionate about my principles, but I like to make sure I am never too proud or righteous to be wrong or learn something new.

Which authors have most shaped your writing style?
 
Octavia E. Butler, H.P. Lovecraft, Margaret Atwood, Franz Kafka and Maya Angelou. I love oddities and honesty in literature.
 
What is your favorite Rosewater piece that you’ve written?
 
Witchcraft in the Modern Workplace. It has a lot of heart. And witches.
 
Describe your writing style in six words.
 
Whimsical, unashamed, vulnerable, introspective, sincere and…playful.
 
What advice do you have for young writers?
 
Share your work. I used to be terribly secretive about my words, even with my friends. At some point, I think I just became more interested in getting the feedback than I was afraid of it anymore. I’m so glad for that. Keeping my writing to myself didn’t give me enough opportunities to improve and expand on my ideas. It kept me in a bubble of self-preservation. Vulnerability is one of the most refreshing aspects of literature, and it’s even more wonderfully vulnerable if others can engage with your words too. No piece of writing will ever be universally appreciated, but if it matters to you, it will probably resonate with at least one other person. Your words cannot hold as much freedom if you clutch them too close to your chest.
 
Some of your pieces have dealt with difficult topics, like cat calling, mental health, and body image. Is writing your self-care? Do you have other ways to take care of yourself?
 
Writing is an important aspect to my self-care but I try to make sure I do lots of little things to help myself, just as I like to do for others. I was talking recently to my beautiful friend Tyran about stress management and he told me that I needed to make sure I was setting aside some time every day, even just fifteen minutes or half an hour, to dedicate to writing or any other kind of thoughtful catharsis. This has been helping me a lot, as I am trying to frame my own needs and well-being not as a pipe dream, but as a daily priority. Even in small bursts, dedicating regular time purely to my own interests makes me feel less suffocated, and as if I am switching off the other channels so I can listen to myself and properly tune in.
 
Where else can we find your writing?
 
Ramona Magazine, Antipodean Sci Fi, Literary Orphans…I actually have a list on my website, but it is in need of an update: http://www.creecedpaper.com/works/
 
What is next for you, writing-wise or in general?
 
I’d like to write some more short stories when I get a chance. I’d also like to get out of my comfort zone and try a new style or genre, or attend a workshop, or even read some words out loud where other people might hear them. As for what’s next in general, I’d like to continue finding ways to use my powers for good while still dressing like a villain. I hope that takes me somewhere interesting and helps a lot of people along the way.

On Becoming My Own Boss

I’ve never worked a real job in my life. At least that’s what I tell myself.

The minute I graduated college, I started applying for jobs with furor. Writing gigs, editing, blogging – anything and everything creative I could find. Looking back now, I realize that I had no idea what I was doing. I was given little career advice from my college, other than a few meetings at the career development office where a friendly well-dressed woman named Meredith gave me a few pointers. I would spend hours crafting “the perfect cover letter” then would ask more experienced friends and family to edit them for me before sending them off and crossing my fingers. In return for my hard work, I was rejected – constantly. Applying for jobs is emotionally and mentally exhausting. Half of the time I just wanted to write:

I’m applying to this because I need the money and I’m currently using my degree to write blog posts on topics such as, “20 of the Weirdest Etsy Items.” So please hire me NOW.  

Weird Etsy
20 Weirdest Things on Etsy

I hated every minute of it – the struggle to find the rights words to encapsulate why you were the perfect person for this job and how you just knew you would love working there. Then emailing your letter off into the internet abyss and waiting. Waiting was the worst. It could be a few weeks, it could be months. I tried to follow up by email or even phone calls if I was desperate. Most of the time, I felt like I was shouting into a cave, my voice echoing back at me in the face of this invisible company that was aloof and stony-faced.

Meanwhile, I was bouncing from internship to internship, while also working part-time jobs on the side. Despite feeling like I was wasting my college degree, I felt lucky to work in a beautiful tiny tea shop, with earthy wooden counters, surrounded by iron teapots and huge canisters of pungent tea. The shop’s mission was to focus on the art of tea, with food that was made with care and organic ingredients. Most of the customers were wonderful and intriguing. I also discovered my love of event planning and rediscovered my love of poetry there. My second job was in retail, which I mostly hated because, despite the quirky, beautiful atmosphere, the company culture was catty and all the managers played favorites. But it did help me make friends in my austere isolated suburban town. I also now have plenty of fuel for writing if I ever need to write about rich white women and their attitudes towards sales people.

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Sip Tea Lounge

Long story short, one and a half years go by and I’m pretty much in the same place. I don’t know what I want, but I find jobs I want. So I apply, but I just don’t quite have the ‘thing’ they’re looking for. Part of it is that I’m terrible in interviews. I hate being put on the spot and talking myself up. I turn into a nervous stammering wreck, who loses track of what I’m saying and then ends up trailing off.

At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship. Every time I visited my boyfriend, I felt so sad to leave him in a city that was actually affordable, where there were a million things going on and the possibilities seemed endless. Part of this was because we were still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship. But part of it was also the fact that I was returning to a place where I spent most of my time at work or home, where I was working so hard to pay my student loans and save money but I still just seemed to be treading water. I found myself sinking lower and lower into a funk. I started applying to jobs in Baltimore, hoping for a change. I went on a few interviews and continued to be my messy self. It was like stepping into the room turned the interviewers into demons and my inner self-doubt emerged to dance around the room, taunting me.

I didn’t have a job waiting for me, but I had a loving, supportive boyfriend, so I took a leap and transferred stores to a Maryland location of the store where I was already working. I quickly discovered that being in Baltimore was different and exciting. I suddenly had a big group of friends. There were things to do. Cheap things – sometimes free things. It helped lift my funk.

But moving locations doesn’t necessarily mean anything changes. You can’t escape your problems. Two years went by and I still didn’t have the full-time job I longed for. I felt incredibly guilty for moving from one support system (my parents) to another (my boyfriend). I felt like I had tried to make a change but I had reverted to my old patterns.

When I was let go from a contracted job after just three months, I decided I was done. Frustrated and fed up. I decided that it was time to take my career into my own hands. I would try freelancing. I was already managing a family friend’s Twitter account, so I listed this on my resume. I started applying for freelance gigs. Through a connection (funnily enough through the job I was let go from), I managed to get a marketing and social media part-time position at an organization that focused on women business owners. I attended a happy hour hosted by the organization and met tons of interesting women. Through that, I got another gig. It didn’t pan out. But still, I’m getting work and I’m doing work that is relevant to my skills.Through a list serve, I got another gig. I feel confident and capable. I thought it was going to be an uphill battle, just like applying for jobs, but for the first time, I feel like I’ve taken my life into my hands and created something, instead of ending up in tears over rejection.

Freelancing is a whole different game. Being my own boss is incredibly hard and sometimes lonely. There’s no office chit chat, no one to explain things to me when I’m confused and no one to complain to when another coworker (or in my case, client) is being a pain in the butt. If I don’t know how to do something, I have to either commit to researching how to do it or reach out to ask for help from someone else who might know. As a woman, I find my skills second-guessed and questioned constantly by male clients who are more experienced (or at least think they are), consistently interrupt me and have a certain idea of how things should look.

Freelancing becomes a lesson in standing up for myself. I have to learn what to charge people and how to value my worth. As a writer, a woman and someone who has low self-confidence, this is a huge deal. But, I’ve learned how to look objectively at what I know I’m good at and what I think I could do better at. Sometimes, I have to explain when I’m out of my depth and know that this is ok. It doesn’t make me weak or inferior. It just means that it’s a chance to learn something new. This is something that most people learn in their office and then are taught by someone who has done it before. I don’t have that, so I am figuring it out on my own. Sometimes, I have no choice and I have to figure out how to complete a task, even if I’ve never tried it before. It’s hard – really hard – and it’s terrifying but it also makes me feel so proud of myself when I can manage to untangle a problem.

I have to learn how to advocate for myself and not be afraid to insert my opinion. I’m slowly learning how to convince myself that I have a lot of experience and I DO know what I’m talking about! At least once a day, my inner voice tells me that I’m a fake and I will never succeed. I am a constant victim of imposter syndrome. In an office, there’s someone to give you feedback, which is at least some assurance that you are on the right track whereas here, I’m my own worst critic and it’s like I have my very own Miranda Priestly living in my head. It gets so bad that sometimes I almost want to cry. My imposter demon will sneak up behind me and whisper, “You are a f**king joke. What do you think you’re doing?” If I’m struggling with a problem, it will smirk and say, “Why are you even trying?” I’ve started writing down these thoughts in the hopes that I will look back on them in a few months, realize how horrible they are and understand that it’s all in my head, that I’m doing the best I can.

Becoming my own boss has its pros and cons. It’s a many-headed beast that I sometimes tame and sometimes it tries to devour me. But in many ways, it’s freeing. If I don’t like the work I’m doing, I can always walk away and find something else. I can make my own schedule, work where I want and travel where I want, as long as I get it done. Whenever I tell people that I work for myself the usual response is how lucky I am. I think that they imagine me as a character from Girls, spending my days watching tv, baking cupcakes, working on art projects and meeting people for coffee in the middle of the day, while occasionally working. It’s not like that. That is a glamorized Martha Stewart version of what I do. My job is hard in many ways that are different from a 9 to 5 office job. If I don’t get work done, if I can’t complete a project, it’s on me. I have to learn to get along with clients because even if we don’t work together in the future, they can be the key to my next job. I have to know my worth and be completely unafraid to tell people that I have to work for a certain amount and no I can’t go any lower. I need to make a living and my work is valuable. This is my career. It’s empowering, it’s terrifying and it’s mine.

Why a Psychotherapist?

At the end of one of our sessions, a client apologized to me for leaving me with all of their problems. This wasn’t the first time a client has apologized to me for this and I’m sure it won’t be the last. We were running out of time and my rushed response became a garbled, “Oh please don’t worry about it, this is my job.” I heard the words come out of my mouth and immediately hated them.

I should have taken them back, but I didn’t. I kept quiet because it was the end of our session and there wasn’t time to discuss this in depth and I needed to get ready for my next client. I heard the phrase, “this is my job” as it came out of my mouth and thought about what it would sound like to my client: this is my job, to listen to other people’s fears and complications. This is what I do all day, and often the only thing I want to do all day. What does that make me sound like? What type of a person wants to wade through a stranger’s misery day after day? I want to say it’s because I want to help. I think I can help.

Given the opportunity to think about it, I would have liked to have offered a short summary of how listening to their problems is what I am trained to do, that I have my own supervision and therapy I can go to if anything said to me became too much. But I would have reiterated that the space is theirs to use as they wish, as am I. There’s a part of me that wants to reassure and rescue, to reiterate how much I love my job and remind them that they aren’t burdening me with anything. But that’s not necessarily what my clients are asking. And to say they are not a burden may suggest that their problems are not as heavy to me as they feel to them, which would also be a lie.

There’s a really fine line between taking what my clients tell me and holding it in the room instead of taking what they tell me home. To hold it in the room is to do my job to support my client. Not letting it leave the room and taking it home is my job as part of supporting my own self-care. But to explicitly describe this feels clinical. Telling someone that I am sitting with them because it is my job feels superficial, as though the time they spend with me is simply a paycheck — which could not be further from the truth.

In reality, when it does get heavy, I will measure how the heaviness is affecting me and discuss that with my supervisor. I will discuss it (anonymously and confidentially, with no identifying details) with my peers and I may practice the different responses I might try in the next session in a role play. I may look for extra readings, I may work out a little more in the gym, or buy an extra bottle of wine and binge watch something on Netflix. I will endeavor to bring up how I’m feeling with my client because it may be something that they themselves have been struggling to name and my opening up might help empower them to name their own emotions. I might stomp my feet a little and berate the way the world works. I will always return to the room, to the client and sit in the muddy puddle of whatever emotion feels most overwhelming. I will bear witness and I will try my hardest to hold because that is my job – that is what I am there to do.

In truth, I believe without a doubt that this is what I am supposed to be doing. So yes, it’s ok that you tell me everything you’re worried about, everything you don’t like or even your deepest fears and your most superficial ones. Because it is my job, but also because it’s what I love doing; because it’s what I believe is my life’s purpose; because if there is some divine providence somewhere that’s dictating my life story, “Listener” is scribbled all over my book’s cover.

I would love to tell my clients just how privileged I feel to be able to listen to what they wish to tell me; how lucky I feel to know that I can make a living out of something I believe in; how yes, this is my job, but it’s also my calling; how actually, they may be giving me far more than I could ever give them back.

 

 

Contour Queen: The Power Of Makeup Revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called “Send In The Clowns”. As a photography student who was enthralled by feminism and bodily autonomy, I captured my thoughts on makeup through a series of pictures that expressed my confusion- whether weaing makeup was feminist or not. Two years on, I would’ve never thought that my makeup journey would have progressed this much, and my thoughts around feminism related to makeup have finally become clear.

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I’ve had to defend my choice to wear makeup amongst feminist circles countless times, which was disheartening, to say the least, when I started out experimenting with makeup. I’ve always seen makeup as a form of self-care, so to be met with negativity (especially from people I looked up to) made me question whether I was damaging my feminist integrity.

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I can’t say when the turning point was. I just stopped caring. I slowly began to realise that I loved what makeup could do for me, and starting owning it. Being a perfectionist, I would spend hours upon hours replicating beautiful looks I’d seen, getting frustrated when I couldn’t get it 100% right. However, slowly but surely, I started getting it “right”. I didn’t have to meticulously plan out every look I was doing the night before, making sure I had all the right palettes ready for me to start first thing in the morning. It was so empowering.

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I still had thoughts that were harmful to myself and others around me; maybe I was better without makeup on, more natural, maybe I would be seen as intimidating to others by having strong brows and bold lips. Was I supporting an industry that makes it’s money by tearing women’s self-confidence down, telling them that a blemish is the end of the world, and that no one will love them if they have chubby cheeks? After some tough talks with myself, I came to realise that it was the intention behind my cosmetic obsession that what was really mattered in my personal journey. I wore makeup as an extension of my personality, as a creative outlet, and as part of a self-care routine; and identifying this felt profoundly feminist. 18579307_1898696840350555_2027954573_n

From this long and exhausting journey, I started to love my own skin. I became aware of why my skin would break out, and learnt to forgive myself for mistakes. I became more conscious on what would give me the best value for money in regards to what products I was buying, and hugely boosted my creativity. I stepped out of my comfort zone, and reaped the benefits of it. As I realised that I was good at what I do, I was being told that I looked confident, and I felt it.

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I have become aware of the flaws in the beauty industry. I try not to ignorant. I give advice where I can, and I learn as much as possible. I dedicated my Instagram to purely makeup (give it look here), and I practiced, practiced, practiced. I write makeup pieces for Rosewater. But most importantly, I feel confident, inside and out. This weird and wonderful art of makeup has allowed me to embody the sharpness of my eyeliner wings, the glow of my highlight, and the holographic wonder of my glitter. And even after a long, hard, exhausting day, if my cheekbones are contoured sharp enough to kill a man, it’s all worth it.

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Why It’s Not Your Job To Label Me

An open letter to those who have come before me, who question my ability to learn how to practice psychotherapy while suffering from a chronic illness. 

There aren’t many ways I could write a response to this without sounding aggressive. But the truth is, I need to be aggressive. If I’m not aggressive – if I don’t fight you on this – I risk being left behind. I sound aggressive because I’m female. Because my voice gets high pitched when I’m cross and tears often leak out when I’m frustrated – which I am.  I’m beyond frustrated because it’s not your job to tell me whether or not I’m capable, depending on my health, depending on my experience, depending on my personal journey.

It might be your job to critique my practice, to question me on my actions or to ask me to defend why I behaved a certain way in a specific situation when you most certainly wouldn’t have acted the same way. But when I answer those questions, you’re not in a position to critique the way I experienced those situations – if I acted as best I could with the information I had on hand, then I gave it my all. That’s my experience. That’s my point of reference from which to work. That isn’t up for discussion.

When you label me, when you tell me that I was wrong to hear words a different way you then you intended them to be heard, when you insinuate that my experience is unacceptable, you’re refusing to accept me. I despise the need to explain my every thought process and begrudge your lack of faith that I don’t know my own limits; whether of my body, my health or my ability.

When you criticize my ability to be “proactive”, you’re criticizing my fundamental beliefs that to get anywhere in this world, you have to go and get it. You’re ignoring all my previous experiences that have cemented this, as well as my previous schemas which dictate that, as a woman in her twenties, I have to fight harder to be noticed, to be listened to, and taken seriously. You’re criticizing my open-mindedness, my desire to learn from the world at large, and my ability to find lessons beyond the schoolyard wall. How can one be too proactive in this world in their twenties? The media describes people my age as lazy, yet you decide to stunt my drive. You’re caging my very existence within your patriarchal system, when you’re supposed to be my teacher and my guiding light. You are the adults who came before me, the ones I look to for pastoral or medical care, the ones I’m asking for guidance.
You’re ignoring my fears – that I may have to start a family early if I wish to be able to conceive and carry my own children naturally, that this may be to the detriment of my own career – the very career I’m fighting to begin now. A career that I picked because it allows me to work from home, move around the world, set my day around children and family life, or even set around my partner’s career if need be. When you label me, you make me question the backbends I’m already doing, you help me confirm that I’m not good enough. You make me question what on earth I could possibly doing better. This brings me to the worst possible realization  – I can’t win this fight.

The minute you label me, I’ve lost the war. When you label me, I lose independence in your eyes and those of your peers. I’m no longer the young woman fighting for success, but the young woman on the verge of something far more sinister; a young woman who is willing to carve her own pathway, listen to her own gut and develop her own rules, her own understanding of the level of greyness one must work within in the field of psychotherapy. You halt me, you trap me within a blade of glass.

To fight your label, I have to devise strategies, I waste valuable energy playing your game. Or I refuse to engage and you squash me anyway. No matter how I play it, once I’m labelled, I have little control in your world. And I am in your world. But I won’t get out alive.

A Conversation About: Afghanistan, Intention and Life With Musician Qais Essar

The first time I heard about Qais Essar was when my cousin in San Francisco gave me a rare, once-in-a-blue-moon phone call. We talked about how we legitimately believe all moms are magical and about the frivolities in our lives when she remembered this talented, Afghan Rabab musician that played at her school that weekend. I was disinterested—but she was persistent that I’d like him. Out of curiosity, I Googled this Rabab musician my cousin was so seemingly drawn towards and found myself replaying his albums on Soundcloud for the next two hours. I could feel my nerves dancing and my heart stretching just a little bit bigger. I consider that the profound moment I was first captivated and enticed by music from my own culture, Afghan culture. Almost a year later from my own personal, soul-awaking tender moment, I saw that Qais Essar was going to be playing a show just a thirty-minute drive from me.

Qais’ show was held in an eerie, dark church. I stood in the parking lot with my friend for a good ten minutes wondering if we had come to the wrong place—but then we heard it. We heard the soul of Afghanistan gravitating us towards two large wooden doors. We were welcomed by a priest who was wearing sandals, he whispered something as he handed each of us a program and then opened the portal to a cosmic dimension that felt so beautiful and familiar to me even though it was all intensely new. There on the stage sat Qais, strumming on his Rabab crafted by the finest wood and accompanied by two other musicians.

The Rabab is a national instrument of Afghanistan, once the strings are plucked you become submerged into a deep, dark cave that has saturated golden hues spilling through every hole and crack. Qais captivates his audience with his melodies that graze your skin like the wind—a prevailing lullaby.  He enchants you with a soft susurration but rooted deep into the chord lies a threat that his lullaby will metamorphose into a hurricane at any waking second. I was brimming with a tingly sensation until the end of his set, maybe that’s how it feels to step out of an exquisite wind storm. It felt so good to be overflowing with pride for music from my venerable culture, my curiosity and yearning for more Afghan music began with Qais’. I approached him after the set and asked if I could sit down with him sometime and learn more about him. So a few days later, we bonded over cold brew and the deplorable way that white people try to Westernize both of our names at one of the best coffee joints in downtown Phoenix.

negine jasmine 

Where did your fascination for music stem from?

One of my earliest memories I think, I was around six and I had just gotten a violin and one night I flipped it up on its side and I kind of wanted to be Randy Travis and I started making up songs about farm animals and shit. Growing up I felt really—different. You know, granted we were different, because English was my second language so I had to go to ESL for a few years. And even though Virginia is more ethnically diverse still, when you’re a minority, you kind of want to belong to a group of people or a bigger minority so you feel like you have a community. I never really felt that way. I always felt lonely and at a point I discovered that with music you can connect with people. That’s where it started, this is my way of being a part of something bigger, a bigger community. I remember going to see music and I would just be floored, and I always wanted to make people feel like that. Music is beyond you, beyond us. You’re trying to communicate all these things, that’s where it began. It began as a way for me to express myself fully. To communicate something bigger than myself.

When were you exposed to the Rabab and how did you know you wanted to evolve with that instrument?

I was fortunate enough to where, even though we grew up in the United States, our household didn’t incorporate an American tradition. At home—we weren’t raised as Americans, we were raised as Afghans. We were raised with our music; we were raised with the culture and the language. Just because we live here doesn’t mean that we have to give up our identity and assimilate—I think assimilation is whack as shit. It’s diversity that helps us grow. It’s coming into contact with other cultures and learning from them. Doesn’t mean I have to become American just because we share the same neighborhood.

My dad always played Afghan music when we were younger; my dad was the one who gave me the tambour and my first Rabab. The last time he went to Kabul he brought me one, I remember he wrapped it around in a prayer rug and carried it on his back from Kabul all the way to Phoenix. I was exposed to the Rabab at a super young age, with just all of the music that was playing in the house. Early on, my parents kind of identified that I have a certain skill set so that I should probably go into music. I learned the guitar, the piano, I learned everything but it didn’t leave my satisfied. But with the Rabab—the first stroke, the first “Sa”,  the way it reverberated—it just kind of made me feel whole. It just felt right. That’s super rare, you know—to be moved. Growing up we were super nationalistic. One of my uncles said something that I’ve only heard once in my life: “Muslim, Jewish, Christian, whatever you want to be that’s fine. But never forget that you’re Afghan”.

This is the only thing that feels right, after playing everything else, this is it.

Artistically I’m satisfied and now this becomes a medium for me to promote my own socio economical agenda, with the Rabab and the platform that I have, I have an audience. It’s never an Afghan audience, which is fine. Afghans don’t see me perform—I do it for them even if they don’t care, it’s mostly other people. Most of these people have a pretty negative perspective on Afghanistan and it’s not because it’s their fault, this is what the media has fed them. When you say Afghanistan, people associate this country with: Taliban, stoning, terrorism and Bin Laden. This certain image has been designed and I want to introduce a different Afghanistan. This is a place of enormous wealth—in many different ways. It’s a place with a very old culture and heritage and a place of music and art and beauty. This is something that a lot of people don’t see and this is what I want to show people—there are so many kids that grow up who feel kind of ashamed of their identity. I would like to create an environment to where if someone says Afghanistan, they think good things, not bad, so someone doesn’t have to be embarrassed of their background.

 I want to introduce a different Afghanistan. This is a place of enormous wealth—in many different ways. It’s a place with a very old culture and heritage and a place of music and art and beauty.

Have you learned anything that has caused you to recontextualize your understanding of your world?

I think the last biggest revelation type thing that I had is the power of intention. That’s what I always tell people. It doesn’t matter what you do—what matters is the intention you have behind it. With these musician types, what is their intent? To make money or to gain popularity or is it to create something that can make a difference?

I think, as a musician you have to be so empty—by empty, I mean, not harbor any ill will or bad intentions or motives. It’s like a Rabab, right? How it’s structurally built—it’s got this big empty resonating chamber and if that was full, there would be no sound, the Rabab would be dead. The guitar is the same; if you stick a blanket in the hole, it’s not going to make a sound. Just like these instruments have to be hollow to receive all of this music, so does the musician. You’re transmitting something far greater than yourself, that’s why there should be no ego in music because its not about you—it’s not about you at all—and I look up because I don’t know what I’m looking at because I don’t even really understand myself. I just know that it’s far greater than anything that I could imagine. What you’re trying to do is…condense this, somehow and put it out, something. I think if it’s done with the right intention it has a profound impact.

 Just like these instruments have to be hollow to receive all of this music, so does the musician.

 I feel like people with different cultures who grow up in America feel conflicted or forced to only portray one side of their identity, how do you incorporate both of your cultural identities into your lifestyle and art?

Well, for people that have been raised here—to give them Eastern music in a very raw form—it’s kind of hard for them to swallow. It’s much like when you’re feeding a baby medicine, you put it in food. That’s what I’m doing, I’m putting it in food—I’m putting it in a corn dog. I think that if you package it in a way that’s accessible, that kind of acts as a gateway. If someone likes what I’m doing, I hope that they will go off and explore further. Having been raised here and having been educated in both Western and Eastern music, I try to create it in a way so that it brings the Rabab in 2015. I try to make it so that someone who doesn’t listen to this music, will—or could. Easily digestible. It’s a very hard thing to expect us to stay tribal people, in 2015, so I never call for assimilation but I would like for us to progress as a culture and as people

I mean, I’m wearing jeans and a shirt from H&M, so I guess aesthetically I’m not Afghan ‘cause I don’t wear traditional clothing from Afghanistan every day. Yet, there’s so much Afghanistan in what I write, stories about Afghanistan that I heard when I was younger. It’s like the ghost of my dad’s Kabul in the music, it’s because I want people to know that Afghanistan. I fuse it with Western elements so that it has a wider audience and becomes more digestible to those who aren’t exposed to Eastern music.

What’s the single best advice you’ve gotten from someone on how to be your full self?

You know, the best advice is often the most simple: Do you. You don’t imagine the weight behind that though, do you. That means, I’m not going to worry about what people think, I’m not going worry about this current situation—I’m going do what I feel is right. That means sometimes, going against cultural norms or butting heads with certain people. Do what you want to do, don’t let other people define you. I don’t remember who told me this but it was during my mid 20’s—and your mid 20’s are a very turbulent time of your life. There’s fear, it’s really scary not knowing, not knowing. That’s it. Not knowing where the next check is coming from or how much it’s going to be or if it’s going to be enough—but to do you is to have faith in yourself. I think that’s what it comes down to, it’s the faith that keeps you going and allows you to do things that you think is right.

negine jasmine

 What advice would you give to someone who’s unsure about whether or not to pursue in their passion?

Do it. Just do it. Life is so short, why would you want to live someone else’s life? Why not live your life happy? I could be very comfortable if I had a 9-5 but I would be miserable, so if anyone wants to follow their passion, you should do it, because odds are that’s what you’re supposed to do with your life. That’s what you’re here for. I don’t want to be dying and then be like “Oh shit—I really should have pursued in my dreams”. It’s very hard, but you should try, don’t expect a lot but you should try and go into it with the right intentions.

For me growing up as an Afghan Muslim in a post 9/11 world, it was difficult for me to embrace my roots and my culture for some period of time. Especially since I’d be shamed for it by people or the media. Do you feel like you had to overcome institutionalized shame in order to proudly pursue in the Rabab?

Of course. I mean, post 9/11 America made it very hard to be who you are openly. The thing I realized very quickly with the Rabab is that, if your identity was ambiguous before, now it’s just right there in people’s faces. People didn’t know much about Afghanistan when all of a sudden we became almost naked. You’re in front of everybody as an Afghan. Personally, it got to a point where I had to get confident in that fact very fast. When I started performing with the Rabab professionally in front of large groups, I had to deal with any insecurities that I might have had beforehand. When you go to the festivals or concerts that’s what they introduce you as: “ Qais Essar…from Afghanistan” and everyone’s like: “Oh, it’s one of them”.

That’s the moment when you can seize control and flip it back on them. Be like, “Guess what, I am one of those guys,  but what you think is completely wrong and there is no reason for me to have to be ashamed—because I’m coming with all of this music and art that is a very real part of my culture.” I shouldn’t have to feel ashamed because of weird politics. When I was a sophomore in high school, everyone would look at me like I was supposed to make commentary. I was angry for a while. More bitter, more jaded towards everyone else. Because you’re systematically made to feel ashamed. I decided very early that I was not going to allow myself to be ashamed. I know how that feels and so with what I’m trying to do, I try to make it so that no one else will have to feel that way. No Abdullah should feel like they have to go by Abe. No one should have to lie or be ashamed about where they’re from. We should be proud. Be proud you’re from Afghanistan. We’re amazing people.

We have such a deep-rooted long history, ancient civilization. We are blessed in a way that we get to live a completely different type of American lifestyle as minorities, we get to see the other side of it. Racism and/or discrimination because of wherever you might be or whatever dogmatic thing you adhere to but I like to think that it makes us stronger.

What are your existing albums that people should look for/listen to?

The Green Language, which I released July 2014, it did super well. I’m super grateful.

What about I Am Afghan. Afghani is Currency?

That started off as a joke, there was a lull between gigs so the one thing that I got criticized for was: “Oh, he can’t play real Afghan music” and I was like, no I totally can so I’m just going to release an EP with just super traditional, classical music. I just did it for fun but people really liked it for some reason. So now I give it as Eid gifts. It’s like a ‘thank you’ to my supporters, it’s more folky and traditional but people should be exposed to more traditional Afghan music because it’s getting more rare these days.

Klasik is the EP I put out in March, that is more of the stuff that I want to explore in the album that I’m currently writing.

Are there any musical elements you’d like to experiment with?

If you listen to The Green Language, this is the first time the Rabab has been in such settings. So, with a lot of fusion stuff that started to happen after the 50s, even until now most of how it has been structured has been interdependent. What I wanted to do is make something that could not stand by itself but with a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western music, that’s what I did with the album. It’s kind of where I want to take the new one. I want to experiment more with all kinds of instruments, expand it more to where the demographic gets wider. The more you add the wider your demographic gets. I want to experiment as much as I can. I’m trying to redefine Afghan art. You can’t play it safe forever, that’s what The Green Language was, which is why I think it did so well.

negine jasmine

He left me with my first Afghan music on vinyl and a greater sense of how I want to incorporate my culture into my every breath. He transformed hard surfaces into Tablas (hand drums that are commonly used within the Indian subcontinent) and spoke in Dari at every chance he couldn’t find the right words in English. Some things just sound so much more right in our language. If you haven’t gotten the sense that Qais is one of the better humans out there from this conversation, then you’ll undoubtedly grasp it in his music.

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