Saraiya Bah, alternatively known as Muslimah in the City, is a woman of many talents; poet, spoken word artist, freelance writer, and a lifestyle blogger from London.
She joins Aisha Morgan, writer and journalist for TBMT-UK, at Café Nero for a one-to-one discussion on leaving the corporate world to pursue a career in creative and freelance writing, overcoming personal fears and anxieties around performing, and being Aisha al-Qurtubiyya for a day.
AM: As-salaam Alaikum Saraiya! Thank you for joining me today for what will hopefully be a really insightful and thought-provoking discussion. I know this is your first interview for TBMT-UK, so welcome and I hope that you’re looking forward to the discussions as much as we are!
SB: Walaikum As-salaam Wa-rahmatullah Wa-Barakatu. Thank you for inviting me here today and thank you to TBMT-UK for reaching out to me to share this much needed platform. I’m definitely excited to be having this conversation.
AM: So are we. There’s a lot that I’d like us both to touch upon InshaAllah, but before we get into the discussions, could you give our readers a brief insight into who you are and your journey as a creative writer thus far.
SB: Sure. So, my name is Saraiya Bah. I’m a writer and lifestyle blogger, although I think it’s fair to say that I’m mostly known for being a poet and spoken word artist. I write creatively – whether that be poetry, think-pieces for my blog “Muslimah in The City”, or short stories for small children – and with a purpose. I studied Journalism at university as I had long-term aspirations of becoming a journalist, and it was during this period of my life that I wrote about my experiences as a student on a blog that I kept at the time. After graduating from university, I ended up going into the corporate world for a while and abandoning my creative pursuits completely. But in 2014, I picked up the pen again and I started doing odd performances here and there, meeting other writers and creatives who recognised my talent and who encouraged me to take my writing even further.
AM: That’s great Saraiya, thank you. In fact, that perfectly leads us into the first question. I was hoping that you could elaborate a bit further on your background, where you come from culturally and the concept behind your blog “Muslimah in the City.”
SB: The easier question to answer would be the one about my background. I’m first generation Black British, and my parents are originally from Sierra Leone. I always make joke that I was brought up in Sierra Leone by way of South-East London. I say that because all the life skills and values that have been instilled in me come from Sierra Leonean parents, despite the fact that I grew up in multicultural London. I’d say that I have a strong sense of my roots and where I come from, as well as a deep understanding that I’ve been influenced by all that London has to offer. That was the concept behind my blog “Muslimah in the City.” I wanted to create an online platform that spoke to young Muslim women, but I found that most of the existing ones were either related to Fashion and Beauty or marriage counselling. Seeing as I’m neither married nor a beauty blogger, I thought: well, what could a young, creative Muslim woman like me, who grew up in the city, do? What would she write about? That was my thinking and I went for it, and Alhamdulilah it’s been a good experience thus far.
AM: You mentioned earlier that you’re widely known for your poetry and spoken word performances. Where, and how, did that particular journey begin?
SB: I’ve been writing for a very long time. I wrote my first poem when I was nine years old, and I even recited it in front of my entire school during assembly. From then onwards, I’ve been writing poems, fiction stories, book reviews and think-pieces for various blogs that I’ve kept over the years. In terms of my poetry career, I would say that developed from my time spent at various charity organisations that I worked for. There was one colleague in particular who really set me on my creative path. I had told him on a few occasions that I kept a blog, and one day he turned around and said to me “how are you going to say you’re a blogger, but nobody has seen this blog yet?” Even though I laugh about it now, I got angry at the time, because I thought, “how dare he try to throw shade at me?” [Laughs].
Back then, only one or two people – one of them being my Mum – knew that I was a writer. But after a while it dawned on me that, actually, he was right: I wasn’t taking my creative passions as seriously as I should be. So I started to move amongst various creative circles, slowly building up the courage to recite my poems to small audiences, despite the fact that I had been writing privately for a very long time. After reciting, I found that people would come up to me and say that I would become a spoken word artist one day. And I would say “No, no, no, that’s not happening.” Because, if I’m honest, I’m quite a self conscious person. I always worry about how others will respond to what I say, particularly because I write from the heart. Performing poetry; it’s like exposing part of yourself. Each time I’m leaving myself wide open and I always fear that I will be attacked for it. That someone will turn around and say “You shouldn’t be sharing something of that nature.” Or if it’s not that, then it’s the fact that I always find myself going to these events, connecting with other writers, and thinking to myself “Gosh I don’t think I’ll ever be that good.”
AM: I definitely feel like the greatest obstacle to overcome is comparing yourself to others. For me, anyway.
SB: It is! But to go back to the initial question, my colleague was organising an event and one day he came up to me and said “Oh yeah, by the way, you’re opening for me with one of your poems.”
AM: [Laughs]. Sometimes you literally have to be forced by someone else.
SB: Exactly! He kept saying to me, “But Saraiya, you’re dope. Just do it.” I think after a while he got tired of hearing me make excuses as to why I couldn’t do it, and so he literally just told me, “Well, you’re doing this now.” And as it got closer to the date of the event, it dawned on me that it was actually happening. I will never forget I how I felt the hour before I got on stage. I felt physically sick. The reason why I remember it so much, is because it’s the same sensation that I still get every time I’m about to perform.
AM: So you still get really anxious and nervous before you perform?
SB: Always. I’m a jittery wreck. I babble. I feel physically sick and I always worry. But I guess in a way that fear is almost regurgitated out when I recite, because at the end of the day, I know I have two choices: I can either be remembered as the person who froze and ran off stage, or as the person who was scared, but spoke anyway.
AM: What has helped you to build your confidence as a spoken word artist over the years?
SB: I’d say just putting myself out there. Whether that be performing at various events, or online, like my Wednesday Live recitals.
AM: What are Wednesday Live recitals?
SB: It’s where I recite a selection of my poems, every Wednesday, using the live streaming service on Facebook.
AM: That’s definitely a useful tip for fellow creatives looking to build not only their confidence, but a following for themselves.
SB: It is. If you’re wanting to build up a following, I’d say Facebook live is the best place to start because you’ve got that live interaction. You’re fully aware that on the other side of your phone, there are other people watching you recite. So if you’ve got any targets that you want to hit, such as, ‘I want to look more confident on camera’ or ‘I want to be able to recite my poetry from memory’, then that will be your dojo; your training ground. But yes, I started doing that, and it’s actually through my Wednesday live recitals that I was able to get a gig at SOAS university. Sheila Na’ima Nortley (Sheila’s interview in issue 5: Interview with a screenwriter )shared one of my recitals on her Facebook page, and brother Ismael Lea South, founder and director of The Salam Project, saw the video and reached out to me, asking me to perform at one of his events. Since then, I’ve done numerous performances alongside the likes of Muslim Belal, Tommy “A-man” Evans, Shakeel Romero and Da Poet, and I’ve collaborated with Sheila Na’ima Nortley, shooting, performing and recording visuals for an upcoming exhibition called “Radical Love, Female Lust.”
Saraiya with award-wining film producer,screenwriter and director Sheila Na’imah Nortley
AM: Could you tell us a bit more about the exhibition?
SB: Yes. It’s an art project which showcases the poetry of 46 Arab and Muslim women from the past, alongside our personal interpretations and adaptations of these poets and their poems as modern Muslim women poets. The poet that I had to impersonate was an Arab poet called Aisha al-Qurtubiyya, and I had to write my own version of one of her poems. It’s due to be premiered on February 14th 2017 and it will be running until March 5th 2017. So InshaAllah please come down and check it out.
(Exhibit details: Radical Love, Female Lust)
AM: Sounds great! Just before we round off, what are some of your personal goals for 2017?
SB: Inshallah, I’ll be releasing my first volume of poems.
AM: Sounds exciting! Do you have a title for it yet?
SB: I do! It’s called ‘The Jasmine’s in Bloom’.
AM: Are you able to share the inspiration behind your collection?
SB: Sure. The Isley Brother’s have a song called “Summer Breeze” and there’s a particular line in the song that says “the jasmine’s in bloom.” I was born in the summer, and it’s only in the summer that a flower is able to truly flourish and blossom. That resonates deeply with me. I’ve been through many seasons, all of which has brought me to where I am today, and what better way to celebrate that growth than to name the first collection of my poems in that nature? From 2016 alone, I’ve written and recited 25 poems, and I’m still writing poems now. It really encapsulates where I’m at and my journey thus far. So that’s definitely something that I’m working towards in 2017. I also aim to publish a collection of short stories for children seeing as that’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time. But yes, those are the main targets that I have set for myself this year InshaAllah.
AM: That sounds great, Saraiya. Thank you once again for joining us today. We sincerely wish you every success with your endeavours. I personally can’t wait to see all your plans unfold InshaAllah!
SB: Thank you so much!
Saraiya can be reached on the following social media platforms:
Instagram: @saraiyabah / @muslimahinthecity
Facebook: Saraiya Bah
Photo Credit: Saraiya Bah