If you have seen an elegant, attractive woman with long dark hair introducing performers and speakers on stage at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, you may be surprised to know the extent of the role she plays. The woman is Zeyba Rahman. Suzanna Clarke spoke to her for The View from Fez.
New York based Zeyba Rahman is the Director, Asia and North America, Fes Festival and Forum and in charge of international programs and partnerships; she helped develop the Fes Forum, as well as being a professional artistic director, film producer and art curator. She has encouraged the development of the Fes Festival off and on since 1998 and ran the Spirit of Fes North American tours in 2004 and 2006. Rahman was also the creative force behind the public programs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the re-opening of its fifteen new galleries of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. It was a historic moment when the galleries opened in November 2011, with the museum's department of Islamic Art creating a Moroccan courtyard with artisans from Fes. And this is only a selection of her many accomplishments.
In 1998, Rahman decided to bring a group of music lovers from New York to the Festival, without ever having visited Fez before.
“I was naturally drawn to the humanitarian goals (of the Festival), and the spirit and culture of the ancient city of Fez. When I first came, I felt very connected, in an instant.”
Fez was also where she first met Icelandic singer Bjork, who will perform at the Festival on Friday night. “That year Bjork was in Fes on a private visit," Rahman says. "I was with Jon Pareles, the Chief World Music Critic for The New York Times and we were listeing to some Issaoua (Sufi music) in a private home. Jon said, “Look in the doorway.” There was a pixie-like figure in a pink tutu, wearing a beaver fur hat in summer, and 50’s style pom-pom bedroom slippers. Bjork was staying at Palais Jamais; had been asleep when she heard the music, and followed the sound until she found it.”
They spent time hanging out and attending performances together. Rahman is thrilled that Bjork has returned this year to make her Festival debut. “She has a special place in our heart in Fez.”
Also on that visit, Rahman met the Fes Festival’s founder and Director General of the Spirit of Fes Foundation, Faouzi Skali, and they discovered many shared values, including a deep appreciation of Sufism. “He asked me to represent the Festival in North America,” she says. In 2004 and 2006 Rahman ran the Spirit of Fes North American tour, which represented the best of the Festival to 17 cities across 11 states. It was a hugely successful undertaking. “I would love to see us picking up the international touring program again,” she says.
Rahman believes the Fes Forum is a "natural progression of the Festival" and remains deeply interested in furthering its development. She feels it’s important to have an opportunity to discuss the humanitarian issues underlying the Festival, in an atmosphere of “informality and intimacy”.
Born in India, Rahman’s parents were academics at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. “They created music and film festivals”, she says. From an early age, she was exposed to diverse sources of music, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, to Sufi and classical sounds. She studied Indian classical singing from the age of six. “If I could do my life over again, I would do more with music,” she confesses. “I love it when you sing a note and you become one with that note.”
Rahman’s Afghan mother was an excellent amateur pianist, but as a Muslim woman was discouraged from performing, so chose to follow an academic career. When Rahman was 13 years old, the family moved to New York, where her mother undertook Phd studies. And there they stayed.
Rahman describes herself as a “detail-oriented person”, which is naturally a valuable quality in playing a major role in the growing Festival. “I like preparation so I can anticipate instead of reacting.”
Ways in which Rahman would like to see the Fes Festival develop include the continuation and expansion of specially commissioned musical works, such as this year’s Tribute to Omar Khayyam; artistic residencies which offer local and international artists the opportunity to develop works, with the possibility of touring them, plus an expansion of the successful Nights in the Medina program. “Fes is such a feast for the senses”, she says.
Rahman would like to see the continuation of an integrated, holistic approach to the Festival. “The visual side needs development,” she admits.
As for her continuing involvement, Rahman is taking it one step at a time. “For me the Festival is a priority. It speaks to my heart. It’s important to continue the work.”
The View from Fez could not agree more.