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Olive Jar Cast Interviews: Sarah Joy

As Olive Jar’s limited streaming finishes tomorrow, we look back on our interview with Sara Joy and her experiences reconnecting with her heritage on the stage, delving into memory and tones of stories that populate the middle east and the greater diaspora. 

Who are you and what is your role in the show?

My name is Sarah-Joy or “Sah-rah” as people refer to me in this group, and my role in the show is playing myself. I am sharing my experience of being of mixed heritage, so I’m English, Welsh and Assyrian Iraqi, and it’s important to note I’m Assyrian- which is a modern day Christian minority from Iraq and I’m sharing my experience of not having grown up immersed in my heritage and how I’ve reconnected/ or found a way to connect with my heritage through food and cooking. I also play some supporting roles, I play the air strewetress in Majida’s scene, and I also play one of the sisters in Hafiza’s scene.

Who would you like to reach with the Olive Jar show?

I think everybody. Um I don’t think there’s a specific audience for this show. What was beautiful last time (in the summer show) that people could relate who haven’t seen representations of themselves in mainstream art and I suppose also what was beautiful that it was a very mixed audience ethnically, so it’s not that this is specifically for the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) community, but that- those who are of Middle Eastern and North African heritage feel seen and represented, that was a lot of the feedback we got last year.

I supposed I’d really like to reach people who don’t have in depth understanding to the middle east and that we can be a gentle introduction to some of the complexities of what it means to come from a country impacted by war- because the majority of the cast are from countries impacted by war, and there’s a reason why we are all here today and displaced, and diaspora, war is that common theme unfortunately.

Do you hope that part of that audience you will reach will be inspired to reconnect to their heritage, like yourself? 

Yes, yes, because it is, it is complex growing up mixed heritage, it is also complex growing up being mixed raced and not within (that reflecting your heritage)- you know there’s colourism within a lot of non-european groups, because I’ve been asked pretty much my whole life, where am I from, even with a very BBC English accent and so I’m constantly reminded that- I’m not from here, even though I’m born here, and I am English. It really depends who I am speaking to and where somebody is from is where they perceive I’m from. And so, I hope-yeah I did have some audience members come up to me last year and thank me for what I shared because my journey with my heritage has been a really independent one, it’s not been a journey that has been supported by immediate family, by my mother or my sister. And I don’t want to speak on my sister behalf, but she has a really different experience, she doesn’t get asked where she is from a lot, and so our relationship with our heritage is unique to each of us.

So yeah I hope it does inspire, it is one of the main reason I did this play as well, as I’m actively wanting to step into spaces that are for people of colour, that are for Middle Easterns, also to represent a non muslim community that’s from the Middle East- to help educate people that, you know, the middle east is a tapestry of culture, it’s not just a monolith, and that in itself has been a challenge. You know going through school, having Middle Eastern friends who are very unaware of how rich our culture is back home because they are born here (are second generation immigrants) and you know the muslim culture is the predominant culture that we are told about or can see.

How has it felt taking part in this project and how have you changed over the course of this show? 

One of the (other) reason’s I joined the show is cause I wanted to understand what inherited strengths and traits I had that I wasn’t aware of. Because I work with a mental health-like independent advocacy and I talk about health and equalities that people can experience, communities experience, what the health statistics are that projected onto communities and why? In one of the last public conversations I was part of I said I actually I was fed up of hearing about the negative statistics, and actually we need to change what were researching, to stop looking for the obvious data that is going to tell you that certain groups are going to die 20 years younger then “average”. So I said why aren’t we researching inherited strengths, why is it that communities have managed to survive and thrive and create culture within society, within a system that was strategically built for them not to do so.

That’s what I want to know, I want to know wow what do I have within me that I don’t even know that is there and so one thing I have noticed is that Middle Eastern women are strong, they are assertive, they get on with it, and that was something that I over the last how many years have almost tried to undo in myself as it’s seen as… maybe problematic. To be that “controlling”, it can feel very controlling, but actually to be within a Middle Eastern majority space and go…oh…this is normal here. So this is something that I don’t have to teach myself out of doing, if it doesn’t serve me in certain situations, then maybe that’s something I, you know, that I won’t bring to the table. But, it’s an inherited strength, and understandably, cause if you have had so much upheaval in your life and uncertainty you know, being Iraqi, for the last 100 years has been challenging, so I can understand that taking control of a situation where there’s so much uncertainty is actually a really powerful tool.  But when your not in survival mode and there’s a level of certainty and routine in your life, maybe that tool doesn’t need to come out as much.

That’s one thing I have learnt, and I’m proud of- and food of course, that’s what my story is about. It’s just been beautiful sharing food and tactility, I’ve really missed being- I miss my family, I miss having tactility, and I- I’m not that tactile with people anymore- but we are…here, so I’ve really missed that. It’s also brought back memories that I didn’t know I had, which again, my scene is about, but that’s happening again here, there’s a special way that Iraqi click with their hands, and I hadn’t seen that for like…you know, 20 years, and suddenly I was like 5 years old remembering my dad trying to teach me how to click…umm… so it’s been a really important journey for me…just on like a neurological level, that’s amazing to understand that there are memories that we hold that we can forget..um so it’ so important to our cultural identity and…and this has just been an opportunity for me to, to be in “that” without realizing, so maybe I’ll leave it there.

Interview conducted by Anayis N. Der Hakopian

We thank our lovely cast for their interviews, insights and stories they have shared from the Olive Jar. You can catch Sarah Joy’s mystic illustrated steps in cooking dolma and enjoy the many threads that make this beautiful piece so full of life.