Anyone following the Muslim poetry scene will have heard of the Sudanese sister from Bradford who took BBC 1Xtra’s spoken word competition ‘Words First’ by storm last year.
Asma Elbadawi is an interesting character. Our interview was conducted over Skype and yet her warm, relaxed personality shone through.
After winning the prestigious competition organised by BBC 1Xtra Asma has recently released a video based on her poem entitled ‘Belongings’ that explores the thoughts and feelings of women on the cusp of marriage.
Dressed in traditional Sudanese bridal attire Asma makes a convincingly beautiful bride and admits during the interview that she enjoyed the stir she caused releasing a promotional photo on social media with no explanatory caption.
Asma explains how the piece includes friends’ experiences of getting married but that it is also a tribute to the special relationship she has with her father. Asma recalls how he has supported her throughout her life from being the only father in the schoolyard on her first day in school right up to when she made the difficult decision to change her degree. Asma switched from pursuing a career as an architect as she felt it was no longer right for her.
This self-knowledge, and the strength to follow her heart, can be seen throughout many of Asma’s experiences to date. She explained how she has always wanted to help people and, in Dec 2015, this passion guided her to sign up for a volunteer programme that took her to Tanzania.
In Tanzania, Asma supported young people with their career choices, empowering them to pursue their passions through education. In her spare time, Asma began coaching boys and girls in basketball. As an experienced player herself, Asma has competed in tournaments as part of her home team, the Bradford Cobras. Asma said she enjoyed teaching the children how to play as well as the other key elements basketball has taught her such as the importance of teamwork.
Asma explained she’s been playing basketball for seven years and although, not officially playing for a team, she assures me a basketball is never too far away from her. Indeed Asma’s passion for the sport has seen her get involved in the global campaign to change the sport’s dress code regulations to allow religious headdresses such as the hijab and Sikh turban.
Asma tells me how smaller sports hijab businesses, such as Capsters, were incredibly supportive of the campaign before hijabi sport became a focus in mainstream media. I ask Asma what she thinks of Nike’s sports hijab. She laughs and says that, although she wouldn’t’ mind trying a freebie, she would prefer supporting smaller businesses who have made it easier for hijab-wearing sports women to compete long before big businesses, like Nike, saw a moneymaking opportunity.
Asma’s strong sense of justice and honest exploration of difficult themes infuses a lot of her poetry. Her collection of poems titled ‘Witness’ tells the stories of girls who have experienced sexual abuse while at school. This may seem like quite a heavy topic to cover through poetry but it reflects how seriously Asma takes her work.
She explains how poetry itself healed her when she started experiencing mental health difficulties. Asma recalls how she felt unable to go out at one point and became terrified of using public transport such as the tube or buses. She explains that, as well as constantly writing about her anxieties until she felt better, she pushed herself to get over these irrational fears for the sake of poetry. Asma said she would be forced to use public transport in order to attend poetry events and competitions: taking herself and her poetry out of the personal into the public sphere. Asma shared that she felt compelled to find her own way through this difficult time as it gave her an opportunity to grow, as a person, at the same time.
And grow she has. In less than two years Asma, a dyslexic 20-something student, made the life choice to pursue a career as a poet and since then has made her mark on the global arts scene. On her most recent return to her home country, Sudan, Asma was invited to speak at a number of events including TEDX WadMadani. Whilst here in the U.K., her poetry has been included in ‘The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write’ the highly-anticipated collection, published by Saqi Books, and edited by another celebrated British Muslim creative, Sabrina Mahfouz.
Asma, in true British self-deprecatory form, makes it clear that she is not perfect and admits to messing up performances, even whilst live on stage. However, she adds that this is just a part of living and, like everything, if you try and fail you just have to keep going.
She is also quite frank when sharing her own exploration of identity and internalised racism. She says that she feels a lot of us are in denial about our own prejudice, but if everyone admitted to ‘their own little piece of racism we would be able to move on from there’.
I end the interview by asking Asma to drop a last bit of wisdom and she doesn’t disappoint:
Asma advises any aspiring writers to not place barriers that do not exist upon themselves. She explains how this helped her push forward from success to success and keep looking for the next thing she wants to achieve.
Asma said she is, first and foremost, a visual artist (she has a Masters in Visual Arts), and enjoys using multi-disciplines to tell a story. She plans to look at how far she can push the ways she communicates in poetry, asking if she can write a poem in Braille perhaps?
Lastly, Asma reminds me of the importance of female ally-ship:
“Attend each other’s events. Buy each other’s books. Be supportive and give each other platforms to speak.”
She wisely explains that all the blessings Allah gives us are ours alone and helping out someone else will not reduce your own opportunities.