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JinJin Fear with Zizi: An Interview with the Rocca Family

[Photo courtesy of Stijn Schiffeleers.] [Photo courtesy of Stijn Schiffeleers.]

On 8 November 2016, the American general election ushered in a fascist reality TV personality with no political experience and questionable mental health to the highest office in the land.

Two days later, an evening at The Lab–San Francisco’s premier performance art venue–provided an opportunity to gather with others who are rightly wary (read: “terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought,” to quote Ghostbusters) of what the next four years hold in store for the United States and the world. As the audience assembled, a palpable sense of fear undercut the warm greetings and efforts to comfort each other, which made the evening’s performance more all the more meaningful.

JinJin Fear with Zizi is a production of the Rocca Family, a performance collaboration including artists Ola El Khalidi and Diala Khasawnih. The pair arrived in the United States in 2010 to pursue all manner of existential adventures, all while remotely administering Makan House, an arts collective located in Amman, Jordan.

Roula Seikaly corresponded with the Rocca Family via email, asking questions about a range of topics including their origin, who exactly Zizi is, and the nature of jinjin and how we may use it to manage fear. Khasawnih, who is the corporeal vessel for Zizi, kindly agreed to channel the spirit for part of this interview.

Roula Seikaly (RS): How would you describe the Rocca Family? Who are they? When and how did the collective come together?

Ola Khalidi and Diala Khasawnih (OK and DK): In 2010, the members of the what is now known as the Rocca Family traveled through space and time from The Faraway (some refer to it as Jordan for highly politicized, quasi-practical reasons). In search of home—never found—perhaps, this group used all its folkloric know-how to make friendships and talk about immigration, family, freedom and the meaning of life. The Rocca Family acquired its name from its feline member who, between adventures, sleeps deeply and has an irrational love of food.

The Rocca Family is a collaborative project that examines matters of everyday life while, awkwardly and trusting in humor, tries to make the best of it. While the group is critical of assumed controlling structures such as a family, it also values the multi-dimensional dynamic family of relatives and friends, eternal and temporary, real and fictional, quiet and naughty, that the Rocca Family loves and is loved by (individually, human and animal and collectively). 

RS: Who is Zizi? How did she come into being?

We will leave this question for Zizi to answer.

Zizi: You ask who Zizi is? Whaaaaaat??!! The level of this conversation is obviously beyond Zizi. No, No, No! The true question is: Who are you???? Who is anyone? Oh oh, Jadaliyya, hi hi hi! Roula, honey! Zizi is beyond definition and is defined by impossibilities and deeply personal whims that owe no one an explanation. Zizi loves you. Zizi, as a humorist philosopher, is an angry bitch for 2017. Timeless, Zizi comes from far away and from the circus down the street, Zizi comes from a metamorphosing perfect Queerdom of She. For now. Non-committing. Non-conforming. Is she funny? Of course. Is she painful? Indeed and discomforting.

Zizi is a channel of everyday Rocca Family learnings, philosophies, and questions. Serious and silly, mostly playful and curious.

Zizi, her assistant, and audience participants seem to be the primary actors in this performance.

RS: Who are the "behind the scenes" participants? What roles do they play in the performance?

Zizi: The Zizi Show is a collaborative work co-written and developed by Zizi (Diala Khasawnih) and Taita O (Ola El-Khaldi), [who] both perform in the show. The Rocca Family is naturally inclined to work with other creatures, animate and inanimate, cosmic [and not?].

In the case of the Zizi Show you are referring to entitled Jinjin Fear with Zizi, the team included the following:

Shadi Kabajah, aka Shadona, in her role as Zizi’s assistant. You see, Zizi needs a lot of care and attention, and has to be extremely catered to and deeply comfortable, never, to be able to philosophize.

Ghalib El Khaldi, aka Victor ElKhaldi, has been a major Zizi character developer from the early stages of Zizi’s infinite life. He is also a major contributor to the discomforting-yet-subtle-gestures and mood creations.

Stijn Schiffeleers, aka Moose for his role in the Zizi Show, is the reflection of the Zizi Show and documentarian.

Irene Girgis, aka The Shy Lesbian as Secret Bite and Spirit Coordinator.

And as invited guests:

Kristina Lee Podesva

Jeanno Gaussi (aka the pilot delivering love letters)

Kareem Shihab (aka monster of durbakki)

Kathy Zarur. 

RS: Could you describe "jin jin"?

Zizi: Jinjin is a secret ancient spell apparition blah blah. It is used by Zizi to cast her spells and when repeated by her objects they have a higher chance of getting rid of Fear inhabiting their guts. The Jinjin Fear with Zizi show drew from folkloric, traditional, and imagined aesthetics in developing the multi-sensory experience. 

RS: JinJin Fear with Zizi was scheduled well before the 8 November general election in the United States, the results of which left many people understandably gripped by fear and uncertainty. Did that historic event effect the staging or content of Zizi's performance?

Zizi: Fear frequently makes itself present, in varying ways, in the Rocca Family conversations. The Family notes how many life shaping decisions humans take that are based on fear as opposed to say desire, excitement or curiosity. Fear is an instinct that oftentimes overshadows other instincts. Certain members of the Rocca Family dedicate their lives to combating Fear.

In particular, in reference to this earthly very 2016 question, indeed this historic Zizi Show does not completely disregard witnessing a wave of fear shaping conversations and choices regarding the general election. What helps is that the Rocca Family comes from experiences deeply rooted in the earth of disillusionment and cynicism towards governing bodies and figures. Growing up in close proximity to the reality of the world is good education.

Another inspiration is that, frequently, the human-reaction to the Rocca Family planned USA 2017 Road Trip is in one or another form of “are you not afraid?” of the violence, the racism, the phobias (the Rocca Family embody many targeted phobias indeed), travelling in the USA while brown?

RS: At roughly the mid-point of the performance, food that we were invited to consume was passed through the audience. What is the significance of food/food sharing/ritual in this performance?

Zizi: How else could it be?

On a different note, the consuming of a secret bite is a ritual based on popular rituals. The bite was invented by Zizi in her para-natural lab. It was to be consumed after Zizi announces and commands: “Life brings us unknowns. Chew them.” The most common of fears is that in the face of the unknown, consequently living in limitations of familiarity and comfort. This ritual invites the participants to engage in something unknown and by doing that, they take steps on the path to be freed from Fear.

On a following yet similar note; the spirits consumed in the show were a secret potion Zizi concocted for the purpose of bringing Fear out into the surface. Here, Zizi announces and commands: “Life brings us germs. Sip them.” Another popular fear is that of sickness and disease, a fear of microscopic matters that occupy huge space of mind and well-being and lead human-folk to indulge in isolation, hate and paranoia. By consuming the spirits from one cup, the participating audience members risk their lives and again take further steps towards their freedom.

In a more cosmic sense, the making, sharing, consuming, and pleasure of food and drink is a common feature in the work of the Rocca Family unseparated from their life as a whole, and an extension of the work in the Makan [House] art space (Amman, Jordan 2003-2015).

RS: What was/is Makan House? Could you describe how the organization fit into or stood out from Amman's arts institutional context and that of the wider Middle East?

OK and DK: Makan was an art space, a gathering space, a safe space, a space to meet people, to present new work, to organize exhibitions and festivals, and for impromptu parties. Makan was a home for us in the city, for the artists, for people just wanting to hang out on the balcony, late night conversations. A space to hold a secret event. It was the space where anything (exciting and “unacceptable”) can happen.

RS: What was your experience of opening, programming, and then closing an alternative arts space?

OK and DK: It is very highly recommended! It is a hands-on platform for learning how to create one's own way of governance and self-management and discipline, an ideal way to learn how to create support where it is needed, how to provide a web of connections, how to come up with new solutions rather than seeking what is already available. If willing to do so, this is a suitable spot to being open to change and curious to learn and to experience life via all those who pass by.

It has been an intense experience and very intimate, because it is mostly about making and sustaining solid relationships, it is rewarding most of the time and heartbreaking sometimes, it requires a lot of energy and less sleep. The choice to close was emotional. It was necessary. It was not an end because we are confident that through Makan a chain of ideas, conversations, relationships, spaces will continue.

The question of whether it was the right thing to do or not will always be part of the experience. I still have nightmares: the space full of people asking why we closed! We have been shaped by it: the questions we ask and the spaces we create in the world (such as the Zizi Show).

RS: Given the intractably precarious state of life throughout the Middle East, what do you think lies ahead for alternative arts spaces in the wider region and for the artists who exhibit/perform in these spaces?

OK and DK: They will spread more and more as interchangeable, movable, transformable entities, those that are able to switch between physical spaces and intangible ones, depending on the moment, and need and danger. These adventures will be more self-reliant, finding ways to generate their own resources and will be less dependent on mainstream monetary resources. They will be more radical in their separation from the governing systems, and more open and connected to their surrounding environments, or at least that is our hope. We will see less “art” spaces and more “open spaces” that will combine different groups such grassroot journalists, environmental activists along with artists for example. People will work more together and there will be less isolation and categorization, as they will need to harness more power to work against the rotten governing systems (locally and internationally).

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