This month Passionate Pathways features Sila Toprak.
Sila, at nineteen, is someone who’s life experience has already given her a pretty big perspective on the world and its challenges. As a member of Western Edge Youth Art’s Geelong Edge, she is currently in rehearsals for, Six Hours In Geelong, an original work, created by the ensemble, which will be showing at GPAC on 27 October.
‘I guess I’m kind of an activist, in my own way’, says Sila:
‘I’ve seen a lot first hand, I’ve experienced it, but not as bad as some people. In the show, we’re trying to tackle misconceptions around Islam. I can’t stand injustice. I can’t stand people believing lies. But it’s very hard to change what people think. I hope our show can challenge minds and hopefully audiences can leave the theatre aware of some real issues…’
Sila is in the first year of a Bachelor of Criminology and Psychological Science at Deakin University. She also likes to make short films, and works part-time in a fish and chip shop. She was in year nine at North Geelong Secondary College when Western Edge Youth Arts came and staged a performance at her school. ‘There was a girl wearing hijab and it was about racism’, she recalls about the performance, ‘and that really got me’.
She was involved in WEYA’s school based program at NGSC, and after finishing high school was part of a small group who’s passion for making socially engaged theatre lead them to form the Geelong Edge ensemble, with the support of WEYA.
Of Six Hours In Geelong, which follows Belonging, performed to a packed house at the Geelong Courthouse last year, she says: ‘I love what everyone is putting into it…we’re getting better and better with our shows’.
Sila was born in Australia soon after her parents emigrated from Turkey, with her older brother, but is strongly connected to her Turkish cultural roots. She says:
‘Our household is quite Turkish. We speak a lot of Turkish and we are quite cultured in how we eat. There’s a Turkish community in Geelong and we spend time with them’.
Sila was nine when her parents made the decision to move back to Istanbul. She went to school in Turkey and loved it:
‘It was good. I adapted well. I always felt more Turkish on the inside, although I’ve always been a bit conflicted. I’m not really Australian enough, but I’m not Turkish enough. I love the culture, so that’s why I adapted well. The people there, I really get along with, so I can fit in. I spoke English when I went there, and everyone was really amazed at this little girl from Australia who spoke English. I made friends really quick.’
But the family struggled financially in Turkey and ended up coming back to Australia. She goes on:
‘We go back to Turkey every few years. I haven’t been since I was 16, and now there is so much going on with terrorist attacks and I’m scared to go back. Family have visited us here, like my grandma and my aunty. But it’s a hard process to get them here. We don’t have “New Year’s” or anything like that spent with family. My Dad passed away five years ago, so my Mum’s been very strong. She’s been Super Mum’.
We came back to talking about the show, and the process the ensemble has gone through to create the work. She explains that they ‘created scenarios first, and the characters came out of that’.
The character that Sila is playing is called Zareen, who she relates to quite strongly:
‘Zareen is a conflicted character. She’s stuck between two worlds: culture and religion. We tried not to paint her as a stereotypical “Muslim girl”. She’s got lots of layers.
Sila explained to me that early in the play Zareen has experiences that lead to a decision to start wearing hijab ‘almost as a political statement’. She’s a character that ‘blames herself and is stuck on what to do, how to act in this society. She feels guilty a lot’.
‘We really want to put up the right message about Muslims in the community’, says Sila and she emphasises that an important phrase in the play is ‘we shouldn’t get Islam and culture mixed up’. She talks about what she sees as ‘…the growing hate on Islam and the misconceptions surrounding it’.
‘Hopefully through the play’, she says, ‘we can put some perspective on it’. She continues:
‘We can’t speak for Muslims around the world. But we can show that we are all just humans. We’re all lost. We’re all flawed, and believing in what you believe in doesn’t make you a bad person’.
There are three Muslim characters in the play. They are each very different, having been brought up in different contexts, and coming from different cultural backgrounds. ‘One’s lost’ she says, ‘one’s really religious, but they’re all true, they’re all representing real people’. She goes on to muse:
‘Religion is really how you interpret it. Everyone interprets it differently. It really depends on your environment and your upbringing’.
Sila has a fascination with discrimination, that she has had the opportunity to explore through her studies, as well as through theatre. She’s also seen and experienced some interesting, and frightening examples of it in different forms and contexts.
Last time Sila was in Turkey, things were pretty volatile, politically. She paints a picture:
‘We were at my Aunties place in Turkey and there were random violent marches where people were creating fires and burning what ever was in their path. And there were gun shots and stuff like that. You watch from the balcony but try not to poke your head out when they’re going on. You can hear it from a mile away and it’s quite scary’.
She goes on to explain more about some of the tensions:
‘Turkey is the biggest protector of refugees and I met a lot of them when I was there. In my Grandma’s apartment I met a little Syrian girl who had her face burned. A lot of people don’t like the refugees being there and say that they take our jobs and stuff, but others are also supportive’.
‘In Turkey, also it’s the fear, that some of them are terrorists. If people meet a Syrian refugee they seem really sad and they love them, but when they’re talking about them, it’s like they’re another person’.
She reflects that ‘It’s not just white people that can be racist. You can have a lot of people hating each other’. But she cautions, that ‘it’s white supremacy that’s institutionalised’ in the Australian context, and globally, and this institutional racism can be particularly problematic:
‘I see how people can be marginalised for their race, in the criminal justice system, in healthcare. Yeah it all goes hand in hand. It’s the inbuilt stuff that’s so deep in the system. I guess it’s worse in America, but, Aboriginal people, for example, are something like three percent of the population, but one third of the incarcerated population. Yeah, there’s a big issue here too.’
Referring back to the play, she says, ‘everything we’re doing in the play it’s so real’. And she goes on to talk about a real life incident that happened to her just a couple of weeks ago in Geelong.
She was out in the evening, having just finished a film shoot for some footage that will be used in Six Hours In Geelong. Sila had a scarf on, because she was in costume as her character, Zareen. She was sitting at a fast food restaurant with her friend. ‘It was cold’, she said. ‘I kept the hijab on to keep warm’.
When she got up to leave, she brushed past a man, who took the opportunity to lay into her with a tirade of unprovoked verbal abuse. She says:
‘I’ve never experienced that in my real life, where I don’t wear hijab. And also, from the other people who were there. No one said anything. No one jumped in. I was a young woman, getting verbally abused and no one stepped in. I was just wearing it for a couple of hours and that happened to me. I realised how hard it must be for people wearing hijab every day.’
Her closing comments are about the role of the news and the media in feeding a culture of discrimination:
‘Headlines say “Muslim terrorist”. Why don’t they just say “terrorist”. If a Christian does it, they have a troubled childhood. By having those two words, “Muslim” and “Terrorist” associated together for years and years, people have been wired to fear Muslims, and to think that they’re all evil. The Turkish community are just so frustrated with it. And there’s so many keyboard warriors. I can’t even watch stuff any more because of the comments. It’s really frustrating. The news is also controlled by the government’s agenda. It’s like pills for sheep’.
But Sila is no blind follower. She is finding a strong voice for countering misconceptions and increasing understanding. If she ever goes into politics, I know I’ll be voting for her, and not only to prove that women who work in fish and chip shops in Australian regional towns, can offer compassionate and broadminded perspectives. Six Hours In Geelong, will show on 27 October at Geelong Performing Arts Centre. Bookings via GPAC website.
Article by Kendra Keller, Western Edge Youth Arts