Two words come to mind when viewing Dana Dajani’s diverse portfolio—renaissance woman. She was named one of the 50 Influential and Inspirational Women in the UAE by Stylist Arabia and received the Emirates Woman Artist of the Year Award and Young Arab Award for Entertainment in 2016 and it’s easy to see why. The multitalented Palestinian artist is a poet, spoken word performer, writer, producer, emcee, activist, and film/tv/theatre actress. She moved to Dubai in 2011 after graduating from university in the US and credits the UAE’s arts community for expanding her creative horizons and network. After seeing her videos, we were particularly excited to speak with her given her amazing versatility and the energy she brings to her work. So, how does she do it all?
Creativity Undefined spoke with Dana about her methodical approach to her creative writing which includes poetry, scriptwriting, and journaling, and how she approaches goal setting in her many disciplines, and her passion for building a creative community in the Middle East.
Tell us about your artistic journey. What is your earliest memory of doing something creative? What was your first creative outlet and how did you become the artist you are now?
I do a bit of everything! I am an actor of film, television, and my favorite- theatre; a writer of poetry, prose, scripts; and a producer and a presenter of cultural, creative, and corporate events.
In essence, I am a Storyteller. I grew up immersed in books; reading was my passion! And naturally that translated to reading out loud- which made me primed for the theatre. My first memory of being on stage was in ballet recitals, and as the narrator in a kindergarten show. My passion for the stage kept growing all throughout school, and I studied theatre in university. I moved to Dubai in 2011, a year after I graduated, where the theatre community was still very novice and green. However, the poetry community was well established, and I joined the Poeticians, where I met Hind Shoufani, Farah Chamma, Zeina Hashem Beck, Rewa Zeinati, Hajer Mosaleh, and many more inspirational poets. Though now each poetess has moved on, our friendship and support- cultivated through the Poeticians in Dubai, remains a nourishing source of support for all of us. We continue to encourage each to cultivate and to each express her own poetic style.
How did you get started in spoken word poetry? How and when did you get your first break?
I, personally, was drawn to the rhythm and rhyme of spoken word poetry, and I decided to use my theatrical background to bring my poems to life on stage, a sort of “One Woman Show”. I find it to be quite a loss that Spoken Word around the world is quite homogenous in form- in rhythm, even in themes- and I wanted to make every piece of my poetry different. To create unique characters, I employed voices, gestures, and movement, so I could tell a story from a perspective other than my own.
The first piece I wrote with this in mind was “Love Letters from Palestine,” but I didn’t share the poem with anyone for two years! When I was in Palestine in 2013, a friend asked me to perform something for her camera, and I shared the poem. She was the encouragement I needed to be confident in sharing the piece. Eventually I finished the film for Love Letters and released it online in 2014! This was my first attempt at combining the worlds of theatre and poetry, and it was well received!
Who are your greatest influences as a) a poet and b) an actress?
As a poet, I am into Kae Tempest, a British poet who blends music and poetry, and breaks the form in epic collaborations like “Brand New Ancients”.
As a modern day hakawati (from the West) I’m a big fan of Mike Daisey. He is an enthralling storyteller and takes monologues to a whole new level.
How would you describe your style and how did you develop it?
I love acting various characters- and theatre has taken me across the world! I have performed on stages across the globe, from the Sydney Opera House to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and endless stages in between. I will never fall out of love with theatre. The thrill of being on stage, where the show “must go on”, feeling the energy of the audience connected as one. It will always be my first love.
And writing has always been a means of strengthening my self-expression and cultivating self-awareness. Writing has allowed me to give voice to the unspoken, or unrepresented thoughts, feelings, and experiences that have made me, me!
So, when I began to perform my own writing, I found a perfect flow in combining these two forms that I love. And the feedback after a show always encourages me. It’s one thing for someone to applaud my performance, but what drives me, is when people come and share how they resonated with the message of my words.
What’s your creative process like?
I have three main styles of writing. The first is when I want to tackle a specific theme or subject. I call this writing On Assignment, and it tends to be a lot of reading and collecting a bank of words and ideas. Then, I sculpt and reorganize the thoughts and language. I can work on a poem like this for weeks. These poems tend to be my more theatrical pieces of spoken word poetry, and “Love Letters from Palestine” was such a work.
The next style of writing is In Flow, where I am overcome by an emotion or experience…which creates an internal rhythm linked with an image…and I write everything in a stream of consciousness flow. These pieces are rarely edited, and mostly delivered complete—editing could cut the flow! I tend to perform these pieces in my poetry and music collaborations, like Type Two Error.
The third style of writing, I call Poetic Affirmations. This is a kind of self-organization journaling practice…where I write myself into, or out of, a certain mental or emotional state. These poetic affirmations, along with writing prompts and poems, are to be published soon in a Guided Journal Series I have spent the last many years creating, called “Write Yourself”.
For other projects, like scripts, it’s a long process, settled into the slow game of time.
I used to write in journals, now I use loose leaf papers in binders, as I find it better for organization and long-term development of projects that have taken years to develop. This allows me to shuffle, and reshuffle, as new ideas develop. I love paper! The tactile practice of writing is so soothing to me.
You have an impressive resume as a multidisciplinary artist. How do you approach goal setting to advance in the different areas of your career? What techniques or tips can you share?
I multitask, and give in to the slow game. Things take time to mature. I like to work on multiple projects, letting their ideas form in my subconscious. At the same time, slowly developing the funding and the resources to be able to accomplish these grand endeavours! Because I work with my husband Rami Kanso, a motion graphic artist, we know that to create the beautiful and layered visuals that we love, it can take months! I am in no rush and I am not easily discouraged. I have to juggle my creative schedule with the schedule of work that brings my income, so it’s a slow and patient game!
What brought you to Dubai in 2011 and how has life as an expat influenced your art and creative process?
After I graduated from university in the US, I wanted to come back to the Middle East and connect with my heritage. At the time, I spoke Spanish better than I spoke Arabic! I knew that I had a lot to learn from our region, and I had a strong desire to contribute to our development – this was just the start of the Arab Spring. As an Arab, I find that we export so much talent to “the West” because there are “better opportunities” abroad. But better opportunities will never exist for us in our homelands unless we come home and create them! Dubai had not been home until that point, but I moved to join my parents, and found an amazing city I could call home.
Whenever I talk about the UAE, I speak of a certain kind of alchemy. This is the alchemy which transforms ideas and passion into reality. From conception to manifestation there is little lag time, and that makes the UAE a place where you can see your fantasies unfolding before your eyes. This magic is what makes the UAE so attractive to both the established and the up-and-coming.
Internationally, the UAE has attracted the brightest and best from across all industries. To cross paths with, interact, and gain wisdom from the experiences of these individuals, becomes a regular occurrence, but no less a gift.
The UAE has given me the opportunity to collaborate with industry leaders from all over the world. To put my skills to use in so many different art forms. To innovate, and create. To dare to dream and know that I do have a role in building my community.
What hidden gems should people know about in the UAE’s arts community?
Poeticians, PUNCH, Dubai Poetry Slam, Rooftop Rhythms, and the Poetryhood are all amazing poetry collectives in the UAE. Visit them, support the poets! Better yet, JOIN them!
Looking back, what was your greatest achievement? Why?
To be honest, I am not quite sure who nominated me for the award of Emirates Woman Artist of the Year 2016- if it came from the community or from the magazine- but it was an honor to be recognized for the work that I do. I won the Young Arab Award 2016 in the category of Entertainment, and that too is a great and humbling achievement and affirmation that the art I create and the space that I hold for the community to grow is valued and appreciated.
In a city driven by commerce and globalization, it is very important that we recognize individuals who are taking risks, breaking the mould, telling authentic stories, encouraging collaboration, connecting networks, and diversifying their skillset within the creative world. To me, winning these awards is a grand invitation for all artistic innovators to shine bright and boldly pursue their passions.
Another one of my biggest achievements to date was to perform at the Sydney Opera House in 2013. As an actress, it was a dream to grace the stages of this global icon of culture and performance. The play I acted in was also very special! I was one of two international artists invited to participate in a production honoring Swami Vivekenanda- the man who promoted Vedanta in the West. Vedanta is the philosophy that all religions are different doors to the same end: unity with the divine, and that all humanity- no matter their creed- should worship God through their service to their fellow man.
The producers assembled a diverse cast to create this production, of all religions and cultures. It was a privilege to be there as an Arab and Muslim woman. I joined the cast in Australia for two months to perform this new play by Alex Broun. We premiered the show at the Sydney Opera House, and then toured it to Brisbane. It was such an amazing feeling to be part of this ensemble, and to commemorate such a noble humanitarian.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Has that changed since the pandemic hit last year? Why?
I draw my inspiration from my internal landscape at times, and at others, from reflecting on the world around me. The “inner world” writing has taken form as poems and poetic affirmations. While the writing which “reflects on the world around me” tends to focus on social justice themes. From Palestine, to the environment, to Covid, to immigration, and more. I have a lot to share about my vision for how things could be, and how I wish they would be. This hasn’t changed much in the pandemic, other than the fact that some themes seem more urgent!
How do you overcome artist’s block?
I overcome artist’s block by letting myself do what I am attracted to do in the moment. I am really fond of To Do lists and try to find a balance to manage my time between the long term or “slow game” projects, as I like to call them, and the more immediate projects.
I write on loose leaf paper and organize my writing in a binder so that I can get really specific with folders by grouping my similar thoughts. From there, whenever the desire hits me to work on a “slow game” project, I can open the binder and find that I already have a lot to work with!
When I feel like I have no energy to create, I allow myself to receive inspiration, and read and watch films or documentaries. Inevitably, I come across something which inspires me to start writing again!
Who would you jump at the chance to collaborate with, if given the chance? Why?
My biggest collaborator has been my partner Rami Kanso– we’ve been focusing on making poetry videos which combine his visuals and my language. Co-directing and co-producing has been an amazing and enlightening process. I never had the time to focus on production pre- Covid because I was always quite busy with live performances! And I knew that for the screen, I needed more to bring the poetry to life. It was an opportunity to add visual imagery, music, and other elements.
For that reason, it was so great to work with Rami because he has definitely expanded my aesthetic and visual vocabulary. Working together was a way to stay inspired during lockdown, and to develop new skills.
We will definitely keep on collaborating, but would love to start collaborating with more and more artists! The dream is in a TEAM- whether illustrators, musicians, or filmmakers! And we hope to hear from those interested in making art with us, so if that’s you- get in touch!
The pandemic had a lasting impact on everyone. What was the biggest adjustment that you’ve had to make?
In addition to the transition from performing on stage to producing poetry videos, I also had to get used to performing online! It required quite an adjustment, because part of the magic of theatre is the exchange of live energy! Speaking to an audience after the fact really fuels my tank and motivates and encourages me; so talking to a screen (where sometimes I couldn’t even see my audience) was really tough. Additionally, I had to learn to use so many new softwares and platforms- a new one for each conference or event! I could no longer access any studios so we had to buy new gear to be able to record video and sound…everything required training and practice, so that took a lot of time and focus!
Do you think that you’ll maintain any changes once things return to normal? If yes, what and why? If no, why?
I don’t think things will ever really go back to the way they were, and that’s ok. We need to grow into new ways of being. The world is not the same place it was, and nor should we be!
What are you currently working on? Can you share some details about some upcoming projects?
I am excited to get back on stages around the world. I know many of us have been quite traumatised from lockdowns the past two years! And the arts have always helped us feel more human. To laugh together, to dance together, to cry together. As a mistress of ceremonies, I want to bring this element more into my poetic performance- to hold the space for our collective transition out of this period and into whatever is coming next.
I have also been working with long-time friends and collaborators, Sarah and Marwan, on a project called The Spiral Sessions: a group process informed by the principles of Native American Talking Circles. The Spiral Sessions is an online space to be in conversation about topics like the environmental crisis, power privilege and race, identity and belonging, gender inequality, socio-economic disparities, and many others. I am really looking forward to doing this work; I know I need it, and I’m sure so many others will benefit from being heard and exchanging ideas with others within their communities. After all of this isolation, we need as many avenues for togetherness as possible!
What advice would you share with anyone starting out that you wished someone had told you?
It has always been really difficult for me to narrow down my passions to one favorite or focus. I enjoy acting on stage as much as I enjoy writing. I enjoy philanthropy as much as I enjoy producing festivals and events. I think what I enjoy the most is the process of creating- whatever the outcome may be. Those moments of brainstorming where you start to materialize a concept, and it takes on a character of its own- whether that is an idea for a performance, or a poem spilling out onto the page- they are what keep me inspired. I get the most satisfaction from the journey of discovering what it is I am creating. My advice is: don’t let anyone limit your desire or your expressions. Do everything that you want to do!
What’s a goal that you hope to achieve, personally and professionally, in the next five years?
The first goal or intention is to publish! I have been collecting and editing what has now become 3 separate collections of my poetry, which I plan to publish in 2022/3.
Another great project is a documentary film about my grandmother. She gave me 60 reels of 8mm film taken from her travels around the world in the 70’s and 80’s after leaving Palestine in 1967. The film will showcase an alternative Palestinian narrative- Palestinians in diaspora who became global citizens. I have digitized the footage, and filmed my grandmother reflecting on her life as she watches the films from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil, the UAE, Oman, Saudi, the US, Canada, Sri Lanka, and many other countries around the world. I have been working on this project since 2012, and hope that I can share it within the next 5 years!