Ziba has many talents, including poet, singer, songwriter and storyteller. Having left left Iran in 1985 much of her work serves the Iranian community, with weddings, special events and memorials. She has not only written all her own songs but also produced and promoted seven albums since 1990. She is best known for her poignant songs and storytelling through poetry, often referred to as the ‘Voice of Women’ in the Iranian community. What journey has she travelled to this point? Read on.
Turning Story into Song
Ziba Shirazi, Los Angeles, USA
I was born in Tehran, Iran, in a musical family. My father had a great voice, and my aunts were always either singing or playing an instrument. When I was growing up, every gathering was a variety of performances – and I always asked my sister to announce, “Now it is time for Ziba to sing”. As a young girl, I always imagined myself performing on stage, singing, or acting, though it was not customary for young girls to pursue their dream in the world of entertainment in Iran.
Persian literature has always been a strong interest of mine and I started writing poetry when I was 15-16 years old and was praised by teachers in literature class. After obtaining my high school diploma I went to Houston, Texas and ended a two-year secretarial course right before Iran hostage crisis in November 1979. Then, due to harmful prejudice, incidents and attacks, I went back to Iran.
Turning poetry into songs
It was at the beginning of the Islamic revolution when I married at the age of 25, and soon after broke my leg in the first ski trip and was put in a cast for months. To keep myself busy I decided to pick up guitar lessons. But since my teacher thought my fingers were not long enough, I did not get further than playing a couple chords! However by strumming those basic chords, I was able to turn my poetry into song lyrics. That is how my journey started.
My marriage lasted less than 3 years and after the divorce, my sister and I went to Istanbul, Turkey for a short vacation. We really did not have any intention of applying for an American Visa, but we thought we might as well give it a shot!
The consulate opened at 8 am but we were there at 5 am sharp, standing in line in the freezing cold. My sister filled out the application because she is very precise and witty. In the application they asked: Reason for traveling to the U.S.? She replied: Seeing friends, Disneyland, and Michael Jackson! The whole world was taken by Michael Jackson back then! As soon as the consul read the application he started to laugh and believe it or not… he gave tourist visas to both of us.
When anyone decides to leave their own country and travel afar, whether poor or rich, educated or uneducated, there is one thing that is always packed in their suitcase – their culture. In March 1985, my sister and I took our culture and our memories and left our country and our loved ones. We left everything in the hope of finding a better home and making a better life.
Getting horrible news from Iran, we knew from the very beginning that there was no going back, and we were here to stay. Like every new immigrant, my sister and I took every job that came our way.
At the time, life was about survival rather than following dreams. Little by little I climbed up the ladder. It took me a couple of years to adjust, to adapt and to go back to writing poetry.
Working full time as an office manager, little by little I started making music and became the first Iranian female singer-songwriter. After working in the same office for 13 years, I left and started college at the age of 40. I received my bachelor’s degree in communication and entered a master’s degree program in 2009.
Poignant immigrant stories
That was when I created the “Story & Song” project. It was a lyrical storytelling performance, set to live music with video projections featuring stories of Iranian immigrants and their struggles since the Islamic Revolution.
To take the stories I asked two questions:
- When did you leave Iran?
- Why did you leave Iran?
These two short questions brought more than two hours of monologue from interviewees. The more they shared, the more details emerged. In the process of the interview, often we laughed together, cried together and exchanged feelings, very much like a therapy session.
Turning story into song
I listen and pay attention to the emotional texture of their voice and transcribe more than two hours of conversation, word by word. Then the editing process starts, deciding what to keep and what to eliminate, in order to limit the performance. Inserting original lyrics and songs in between is the final phase of the story. By adding poetry, I seal each chapter of life and move to the next.
While performing more than 40 stories across the US and Canada, I realized the importance of storytelling within the Iranian community. The shared pain of alienation brings them together and the feel they are not alone.
It didn’t take long to get known as storyteller within the Iranian community; this opened new opportunities. These days, I officiate weddings through storytelling, and also do memorial tributes. A new project started called “This is Your Life” which is writing a person’s life story and performing it in their private settings. For this joyful project, I spend 20-25 hours recording with each client, taking their story, gathering pictures and …the result is a book, or a performance mixed with music and poetry. The 3-4 months of preparation allows me to go deep into the family’s way of living and culture. But the day after a performance I feel like I’ve lost a family, and miss them!
Living in Southern California, I made many friends in Northern CA through performances. I was introduced to the School of Practical Philosophy through them and whenever visiting, I joined classes. Practicing Islamic teaching for over 30 years, I found much similarity in both teachings and wished to join.
Along with all the negativity that came with COVID-19, came a new way of communication called Zoom! I am grateful for being able to join the classes for the past 6 months and be in the company of wonderful like-minded people. For a long time now, every morning when I turn on my computer there are three basic reminders on my screen:
- What does the wise person do?
- You do not have to have an opinion
I like the fact that clients trust me. I see the change in their eyes and their face after each interview. One client wrote me once as a token of appreciation “I wasn’t walking leaving your office, I was flying”. I believe sharing stories can change people’s lives.
Visit Ziba’s website
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