How does where we come from shape who we are? And what does it mean to belong?
Sara Abou Rashed ‘21 invites people to think about these questions in her one-woman performance directed by Larry Smith, “A Map of Myself: A 60-Minute, One-Woman Revolution on War, Immigration, Language, Home, History, and Everything in Between.” The performance debuted in the fall of 2018 at Denison, plus three sold-out performances in Columbus, at the Lincoln Theatre and the Columbus Museum of Art — and more continue to be scheduled.
Despite gaining American citizenship at a young age, Abou Rashed’s story is certainly one of immigration. “It’s all about having the paperwork of being American but wanting the perception of being an American and to be treated as such,” she says.
“I’m not ashamed of being an immigrant,” she says in A Map of Myself, “just tired of it. Can I borrow a homeland for a few days? For an hour? Can I pretend I belong?”
Abou Rashed grew up fascinated by the idea of belonging. As the granddaughter of Palestinian-born grandparents, she lived in a designated area for Palestinian refugees in Syria. Despite being born in Syria, she was never granted citizenship.
She felt she didn’t have a real home.
When her life in Syria was shattered by the war, Abou Rashed was forced to flee. In 2013, she and her family moved to the United States — without knowing any English. Within months, she spoke proficient English and was writing poetry.
Now, she shares her experience combining acting and storytelling through spoken-word poetry.
“[Sara] is probably the most natural storyteller I’ve ever worked with,” Smith said in an interview in the Columbus Dispatch. “Some people have a gift and she has a gift.”
Abou Rashed’s odyssey amidst the despair of leaving her home behind can be found in her TEDx Talk, Hidden Treasures of a Refugee’s Journey.
“I am impoverished. I don’t have anything,” she describes in her talk. “I’m standing on this shore, without a language, or friends, or a country, or a house.”
But diving deep into her ocean, she searched for and unlocked the treasures hiding in her box of hardships. “We wear the headscarf. It does not wear us. It does not wear me,” she cries out from the stage.
“It’s all about having the paperwork of being American but wanting the perception of being an American and to be treated as such.”
Abou Rashed’s 60-minute production mines the conflict she experienced in politics, war and her migration — all of which caused her to discover her own strength.
A Map of Myself represents Abou Rashed’s outer exploration of displacement and inner exploration of identity, and she invites audience members to do so too. She urges people to question what it means to belong and teaches them about conflicts she experienced in Syria.
“When she performs, she lights up,” said Alina Panek ‘20. “You can tell this is what she wants to do.”
“I was waiting for my fellow students to see this side of me, because it’s who I am outside of Denison — outside of campus,” says Abou Rashed. “It took me a year to show them who I can be other than a Middle-Eastern girl who stands out because of her headscarf.”
It takes time, empathy, ability and talent to create a performance that tells a compelling story and can build bridges across difference. The process of creating A Map of Myself took more than a year as Abou Rashed turned to mentors like Ann Townsend, poet and professor of English, to discuss her ideas.
“It has been wonderful to see the project evolve from where she started— with a list of ideas and phrases and possible subjects— to a fully realized and deeply moving performance,” says Townsend. “My role in all of this? I helped Sara talk through the shape and design of her project, but mostly I got out of the way and let her run with it.”
For Abou Rashed, mentorship by Townsend and Smith gave her the knowledge and assurance to pursue this huge undertaking. “Ann’s feedback was very valuable on the script and in monitoring the progress,” she says. “And Larry Smith’s big trust and investment in me as an inexperienced 19-year-old and first-time actress made me more confident in its execution.”
“The best young writers earn a mentor’s confidence and trust in their work,” Townsend added, “Sara’s project fully embodies her skill and passion as a writer and thinker. She made her one-woman show succeed on her own terms. It’s an amazing achievement and I am so proud of her.”
About Rashed’s work is garnering rave reviews on campus, in Columbus, and beyond.
“I so appreciate the fact that I could laugh and cry,” says Lori Guth Moffett of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. “Sara Abou Rashed, is a captivating storyteller and a strong spirit whose story is one that more people need to know. I am a second generation American. My grandparents, on both sides, never shared their story coming here. Thank you, Sara, for helping me understand what it might have been like for them.”
Marian Wright Edelman, president of The Children’s Defense Fund, says, “Sara Abou Rashed is a powerful voice, an inspiration.”