Loolwa Khazzoom (photo by Moriel O’Connor)
“Dear Hostages, as the world rallies to celebrate your desecration I will not forsake you,” begins the poem written by Seattle-based multimedia artist and educator Loolwa Khazzoom. Posted on her Facebook page, with a #BringThemHomeNow poster featuring photos of Israelis kidnapped on Oct. 7, it continues, “My instinct is to deprive myself of oxygen / Because you are underground / And I will not forget you // But I know that you would dance / In the sun / If given the chance / So I now rise up / And dance for you.”
Many of Khazzoom’s songs begin as poems. In this case, she told the Independent, “I felt as if I could not breathe and as if I did not even want to breathe, out of solidarity with the hostages and with all of Israel, in particular, all the victims of the Oct. 7 massacre. It’s like I wanted to physically feel their pain and suffering, as a way of physically demonstrating that I would not forsake them or forget them.”
In a traumatized mental state, Khazzoom returned to the “healing tools of poetry and music,” which was another way she could show her solidarity and do her part in keeping the issue of the hostages in front of people.
Similarly, Khazzoom and her band, Iraqis in Pajamas, recently released another poem-turned-song, “#MahsaAmini.” They did so this past Sept. 16, the first anniversary of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iranian “morality police.”
Finding out about Amini’s murder soon after it took place, from TikTok videos posted by Iranian women, Khazzoom “jumped into action.” She wrote to her political representatives, raised funds for United 4 Iran and reposted Iranian women’s videos on her feed constantly, to help boost the content’s views. “In addition,” she said, “a day after I found out about what happened, a poem with my feelings poured out of me, and I posted it on social media. Months later, I put that poem to a melody, and the band developed it into a full band song, which we released on the [anniversary of the] day of Amini’s murder.”
The death affected Khazzoom deeply for many reasons.
“First, the women in my family wore the abaya, the Iraqi equivalent of the hijab – Jewish women throughout the region were subject to Muslim dress codes, so it’s a Jewish issue, too,” she said. “Second, so many people assume that Islam is indigenous throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s not. Arab Muslims rose up from the Arabian Peninsula and conquered the entire region, forcibly converting masses under the threat of death. So many indigenous ethnicities and religions predated the Muslim conquest, including Jews, Persians, Berbers and Kurds. The Iranian women protesting and burning their hijabs felt to me like challenging that Muslim conquest and awakening the ancient Persian warriors. Third, Persia is central to Jewish history and the origins of the Mizrahi community, dating back nearly three millennia ago…. And, lastly, the fire of these women, and the men who joined them, and their willingness to risk their lives for their dignity and freedom was just breathtaking and profoundly inspirational.”
Another of Iraqis in Pajamas’ releases this year was also intensely personal for Khazzoom.
“I wrote ‘The Convert’s Quest’ in response to some friends on social media sharing how hurt they were, coming under attack during the process of their conversion to Judaism. I had ample experience witnessing variations on this theme throughout my life – both first-person, seeing it happen to friends, and through my research as a Jewish multicultural educator. For decades, I felt very disturbed by this seemingly growing trend.
“I am the daughter of a Jew by choice, as my mother called herself, so the matter of conversion to Judaism is very personal for me,” she said. “I remember understanding very clearly as an Orthodox Jewish child that, according to halachah (Jewish law), once you convert, you are no longer to be called ‘a convert,’ but rather, a Jew, period. So, even from a religious Jewish perspective itself, I was very distraught by the ways that Jewish leaders and communities were rejecting or harassing converts, or even all-out forbidding people from converting. It all flies in the face of Jewish history, theology and practice.”
The band released “The Convert’s Quest” on May 24, on the harvest holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people and on which the Book of Ruth is read. It tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism, whom Jewish tradition teaches will be the ancestor of the Messiah.
“To me, Jewish converts are the lifeblood of the Jewish people,” said Khazzoom. “I have a provocative line in my song, saying that converts are ‘the most Jewish Jews of all,’ because they are intentionally and consciously practising the foundational precepts of Judaism, which so many either take for granted or do rote, as is often the case in the Orthodox Jewish world where I was raised. In addition, amidst life-threatening levels of racism and violence against Jews, converts choose Judaism…. Why would we reject, in any way, from subtle to blatant, someone with such a heroic Jewish soul?”
Even when delivered in a playful manner, Khazzoom’s song are serious to the core. The campy “Kitchen Pirate,” for example, “emerged from my choice to reject the conventional option of surgery, in the wake of a cancer diagnosis in 2010,” she said. “Instead, I chose to radically alter my diet and lifestyle. Simply by overhauling my diet, I cold-stopped the growth of the nodules, which remained stable for the next five years – neither growing nor shrinking – until I returned to my lost-love of music, following which they began shrinking.”
Khazzoom said her songs “are always questioning, always challenging, always defiant. Sometimes, it’s more explicit, other times it’s embedded in silliness, which, parenthetically, I also see as defiant. I am and forever will be a curious, playful and awe-inspired child. I think that, if and when we ‘outgrow’ that, we die inside. And I refuse to capitulate to that norm of expected behaviour once we enter adulthood. By way of example, to this day, at age 54, when I am flying in a plane, if there is nobody sitting next to me, I will stretch out my arms and pretend I’m a bird, during takeoff.”
Not everyone has appreciated this aspect of her personality. “I have constantly gotten into trouble for it and have been at odds with my family, my community and society at large,” said Khazzoom. “I have endured terrible loneliness and often even self-doubt as a result. But I always come back to my core. And all of my songs emerge from that place – that raw, gut-wrenching place of being fiercely alive and allowing the clash with everything around me, and then writing about it.”
It is this enthusiasm that Victoria-based band member Mike Deeth enjoys about being in Iraqis in Pajamas, whose third member is Chris Belin.
“Loolwa and Chris are both easy-going, creative people. The energy is very positive, which makes collaborating with them fun and organic,” Deeth told the Independent. “Further, I appreciate the passion Loolwa has for the subject matter she writes about. One thing I always struggled with as a musician is ‘What do I have to say?’ At the end of the day, I’m a privileged guy who has never had to face oppression, hate, war or genocide. I have a lot of respect for artists who have experienced darker parts of humanity and have the courage to bring that perspective into their art.”
Born in Toronto, Deeth, who is not Jewish, spent most of his adolescence in Calgary, and moved to Vancouver Island when he was 18. He first picked up a guitar a few years earlier and has been playing ever since. “I was in my first band at 18 and played in bands throughout my 20s. For the past several years, I have been mainly focused on recording,” he said.
Deeth got hooked on music production in his teens, getting his first digital recorder at age 16. “I still remember pulling all-nighters with friends trying to write songs and get ideas down on tape. Production was always fascinating to me, as I could layer parts together into something bigger than I could ever play on my own.”
Deeth and Khazzoom met a couple of years ago through a Craigslist posting. “She was looking for a guitarist to contribute to an early version of her track ‘The Convert’s Quest,’” he explained, complimenting Khazzoom on the fact that she “puts her full heart into her songs.”
“I recorded some initial guitar demos and, about a year later, we reconnected and worked up the current releases,” he said.
Deeth adds guitar to the songs and completes the mix and master of the songs when they are ready for those steps. Khazzoom sings, writes and plays bass, while Belin – who lives in Pennsylvania – composes the drum parts and performs them.
Among his other music ventures, Deeth has “played the guitar with Bryce Allan, a country musician here on the island, and recorded a few tracks with him. I also work closely with Jennie Tuttle, another musician from Victoria. We have been recording together for seven or eight years now.”
For Deeth, “recording is such an interesting combination of art and science. I get to be musically creative, but I also get to play with cool machines, solve problems and think about gain staging, compression ratios and other technical aspects. I thoroughly enjoy both the artistic and scientific parts of the process – they work my mind in different ways.
“I also love how each project starts as a blank canvas and ends with a new piece of music out in the world. There are an almost infinite number of possibilities when recording a track (all the possible settings on the equipment, the subtleties of different instruments) and it always fascinates me how each song takes shape during the process.”
“Mike has an exquisite sensitivity in his musical composition, performance and recording,” said Khazzoom. “He’s not only super-talented and -skilled, but he’s warm, upbeat, enthusiastic and professional. It’s a joy to create music with him. As is the case with our drummer Chris Belin, Mike has an uncanny ability to capture the essence of the songs I write, to the point that I feel he is playing back to me the sound of my soul. I have literally sat and cried after hearing the mixes.”