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How World Arts and Culture has decorated my life

I've been reflecting on my life of late. I'm a reflector, a contemplative soul, it's how I roll. I like to have these periodic check-ins. Life MOTs, you could call them. Sometimes through choice and sometimes necessity.

This particular reflective period bought up a memory from March 2021. I was interviewing the American Bellydancer Sadie Marquardt for my podcast 'The Trailblazers Journey'. I asked Sadie, 'what has Bellydance given you in your life?'. Sadie replied so eloquently, 'Bellydance has decorated my life'. 'Wow, what a profound way of seeing things' I thought.

Upon reflecting on my own life, which I feel has been quite an adventure so far, I feel that World Arts and Culture has done exactly the same.

I can't pinpoint where or when my love of World Arts and Culture began. Maybe from inside the womb jamming to my parents Bollywood and Qawwali music?! Yeah man! All I know is that without it, my life would have been nowhere as rich and expansive.

If you've read my previous content, you've probably gathered by now, i'm a highly sensitive being. If it's not enough to feel my own 'stuff', I feel everyone else's too (dammit!). Alongside my highly sensitive'ness', a curious mind and, not following the ‘script’ are also character traits. I’ve always tried to follow my heart, even at the expense of going against others expectations, societal norms and feeling alone. This curiosity and thirst for knowledge I have, is definitely a part of my genetic makeup as I see it in my father, 'Thanks dad, you got that one right (thumbs up emoji).

I remember at secondary school and university, when my peers were out partying, and seeking out romantic experiences, I was hiding in my bedroom; my little cocoon, reading books. Partly because I wasn't allowed to go out (goes with the territory of growing up as a Muslim, Pakistani girl in the 80's and 90's). Books though, were the gateway to other worlds. Other worlds that I wanted to taste, smell and immerse myself in.

Books have always been a huge feeder of my curiosity. I read Arundhati Roys 'The God of Small Things' based in the lush backwaters of Kerala, in my teenage years. I recently read it again and Mamachi's pickle factory came pouring back into my mind. Other books that have since satiated this hunger for culture have been Khaled Husseini's Afghanistan based, 'The Kite Runner'. Ala al-Aswany's 'The Yacoubian Building' set in Egypt and, Elif Shafak's 'Forty Rules of Love' set in Konya, Turkey.

Ok, so let's fast forward to after graduation. Up until this point, I'd been feeding my curiosity through books (which I still do), and some music (mostly CD's and TV) but once I had autonomy over my own life, as well as being situated in one of the worlds cultural capitals: London, things began to change drastically. I ventured to London a very naive Pakistani girl from Derby. At a time when it was not the done thing in the Pakistani community to leave your parents nest to pursue a 'career', especially one in the creative industries. Many girls were married off soon after finishing school and I don't take it lightly that this was not a part of my destiny. I'm grateful that my parents recognised my passion for Art and Design and allowed me to pursue it further.


I arrived in London to begin and develop my career as a Textiles Designer in the Fashion Industry after getting head hunted at my degree show. I was twenty two years of age.

I had no friends or family in London but what I did have was curiosity and an appetite for adventure and so, during the week I worked in a design studio and at weekends, I explored. Taking myself off to markets, art galleries, museums, the theatre, cinema's, food markets and restaurants all over the capital.

My first live music gig was at the iconic Jazz Cafe in Camden Town. A friend took me to see Lynden David Hall, an incredibly talented musician who's sadly no longer with us. His album which I have on CD (yes Gen Z's!) called 'medicine 4 my pain', was exactly that. A cathartic soulful work of art that has the ability reach the depths of internal chaos

and provide calm. It was a very intimate gig and one that I feel blessed to have experienced. This was the beginning of my love for live music and culture. I'm going to pause here for a second and come back to this.....

Something I wish i'd had the opportunity to do as a child is learned how to dance. It is in our primal nature to dance but I mean to develop and hone a style technically. South Asian parents in the 80's/90's, who were pro education and academia focussed, did not really value extra curricula's . Better late than never though, so around ten months into living in London I sought out a Bellydance class in Fulham. The Arabic music, language and culture in particular, I found so sensual and seductive and something which had been foreign to me up until this point. It's no wonder colonisers were enamoured by it. Following the beginning of my lifelong love affair with Bellydance, I started attending evening classes to learn the language. Unfortunately I didn't get very far but I did come away with a beautiful friendship that would last for over fifteen years. A story for another day.

In 2006, I attended a festival in Regents Park, called Salaam. Here I saw artists from all over the Islamic World performing an array of cultural musical styles. The festival included artists from Morocco, Egypt, China, Sudan, Turkey, Palestine, Afghanistan, Senegal, Iraq, Indonesia, Yemen and Pakistan. My mind and world were now exponentially opening up. I found a huge crossover between this music and Bellydance because the styles from some regions were the same.

Bellydance gave me in the physical world, what books had given me mentally. Access to a rich, colourful, vibrant world. I started attending Hafla's (Arabic parties), festivals, Arabic clubs. I began to learn the differences in dance styles from different parts of the world; Khaleeji, Romany, Tribal, oriental. I started meeting all sorts of interesting people. I fell in love with Middle Eastern and North African food. I even taught the dance for a while. This passion for Bellydance is still with me today and gives me an access to a part of myself that I love and where I find freedom.

Alongside being immersed in my Bellydance world, I was exploring other Art forms. I loved going to the historical Jazz venue in Soho; Ronnie Scotts. I saw Cedar Walton, Roy Ayers, Charlie Watts and Deodato there. I frequented Notting Hill Carnival, the Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, Shepherds Bush Empire, O2 Arena, The National Theatre, Ministry of Sound, Tate Modern, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy of Arts and The Design Museum, all in the pursuit of excellent art, music and rich cultural experience. I saw Asha Bhosle, Sami Yusuf, Outlandish, Talvin Singh, Prince, Chaka Khan, Atif Aslam, A R Rahman, John Legend, M.I.A, Mary J Blige, Akram Khan Dance Company, Anoushka Shankar, MC Solaar, Rachid Taha, Xhosa Cole, Tinariwen, James Brown, DJ's Donn Letts and Norman Jay, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Courtney Pine, Zoe Rahman, The Turbans, the list goes on and on.....

Life i've realised, occurs in phases and London was a huge phase in my life. One that laid valuable foundations and shaped me massively. In 2016, I made the decision to leave London after fourteen years, and move back to the city in which I grew up. It wasn't a decision I could have dreamed of making even a year prior to this but at the time it felt right. Necessary for the direction in which my life was going. If I compare the naive Pakistani girl who arrived in London to the one that left, the difference in confidence and life experience cannot be compared.

The next phase

The next phase which took place in Derby, initially involved a lot of introspection and retreat from the world. I was at a crossroads in my life where change was on the horizon. Spiritual change, that was manifesting in the physical world. I was getting to know myself in a different capacity. I was older. I'd seen 'a lot' and the next few years would involve piecing the different facets of my personality together. The highly sensitive person, the empath, the introvert, the slightly eccentric, the very eclectic, the culture vulture, the creative, the doer and go getter.

The one constant was my passion for World Arts and Culture. This is how I fed my soul. Gave myself energy, became excited about life, felt 'well'. In the below photo's, you'll see me during the first few years of being in Derby. The first with Alia Al-Raqisa, professional Bellydancer from the West Midlands who I met for a one-to-one class. Anna, my beautiful friend who accompanied me to the teamLab exhibition at Derby Quad and, close friends Sally and Sameena who joined me to see homegrown Jazz musician, Helen Mcdonald.

Stepping into Wellbeing and personal Development

In 2016, I started my own business in the Wellbeing and Personal Development space. initially as a Personal Trainer and later completing my qualification in Performance Coaching. My business coincided with my own spiritual journey as I found that learning about my own human experience and condition, led me to study topics including psychology and spirituality. I also discovered later how intertwined these were with Art and Culture. As my business developed, I found myself wanting to go deeper in seeking knowledge and therefore felt the need to surround myself with people who I could learn from. This is what led to starting my podcast 'The Trailblazers Journey' in 2019. I spoke to people from across the world who'd blazed their own trail doing what they loved. People after my own heart. We covered entrepreneurship, World Arts and Culture, social change, spirituality, wellbeing and personal development.

My guest-list included; Egemen Sanli, a World Musician originally from Turkey now residing in San Francisco. Sadie Marquadt, who I mentioned earlier, a world famous Bellydancer and incredible business woman, a hero of mine whose career i'd been following since 2010. Esraa Warda, North African Dancer, Dance Teacher and Educator. I wanted first hand insight to their stories, to learn how they thought, their struggles, their inspirations. In 2021 the podcast was shortlisted for a Creative Impact Award which 'celebrated movers and shakers who, over the last twelve months had championed the wider community by spreading messages of inclusivity and positive change.' Not only that but it marked the beginning of some beautiful friendships.

When I first started my coaching business, everything that I cared about and had covered in my career so far felt disparate. The wellbeing, the spirituality, personal development, my love for beauty in design, art, architecture, music, poetry, literature and nature. I didn't quite know how it fit together and actually, whether it ever would. Was this important? It may not have been to others but it was to me because when I spoke about one, I felt as though I was neglecting another and therefore myself. All of it was equally as important.

Then........something magical happened.

I'd been developing an interest in Sufism for quite some time. Without knowing it, Sufism had actually been present in my life since childhood as Sufi music is an inherent part of the South Asian culture in which I grew up. However, I had no idea what Sufism really was, what it meant and how expansive it had been across the world during it's golden age from the 8th to the 13th century. In 2019, I felt called to go to The Study Society in Hammersmith, West London to take part in the event 'Rumi and friends'. Here, a group of people read poems by 13th century Persian scholar, poet, and mystic; Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi. This was followed by a whirling ceremony. Whirling being a form of physical meditation through which the dervishes (whirlers) aim to reach the source of all perfection by letting go of the ego and connecting to the divine.

“Sufism is a religion of intense devotion; love is its manifestation, poetry, music and dance are the instruments of its worship and attaining oneness with the divine is its ideal”.

As I delved deeper into Sufi teachings, the dots began to connect. Sufism encompassed so much that I was passionate about; wellbeing, beauty, spirituality, self love, and art. Sufism teaches that the Arts are a manifestation of the divine. When creating, we are a vessel through which the divine moves through. Sufism also talks about ego death and how shedding our egoic self allows us to reach our truer/higher self. I immersed myself in researching the spiritual teachings and the cultural differences across the world in Sufi Art. I learned about the different philosophers, mystics and poets across Andalusia, Persia, South Asia and North Africa.

In May 2023, I hosted and facilitated a Community and Wellbeing Event Inspired by Sufi Music and Poetry. It was a beautifully soul enriching experience bringing the local community together where I initially gave a talk on Sufism. We then shared Sufi poems we felt a connection to and engaged in meaningful conversation, finishing with a group meditation. You can read about it here if you like.

Life is so fascinating. You take one step and it leads you to the next. My passion is currently pushing me in the direction of learning more about the music and culture of North, East and West Africa which I find very spiritual. In July I went to see one of my favourite bands Tinariwen for the second time. Tinariwen founded in 1979 are a Tuareg band from Northern Mali in the Sahara. I first saw them twelve years ago at Union Chapel, London. This genre of music, sung in Tamasheq, is referred to as desert blues and is mainly driven by the electric guitar. The band are considered pioneers of this musical genre. The Tuaregs are one of the only tribes in the world who still maintain a nomadic lifestyle; people true to the earth. Their lyrics refer to their political struggle, oppression and suffering and you feel this depth in the music which captivates the soul.

If this post was three times as long it wouldn't be enough to share my explorations of Arts and Culture. I've not even touched on that which i've seen on my world travels. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Shalimar Baag, a beautiful garden created during the reign of the Mughal Empire in Lahore, Pakistan. Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. Le Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, to name a few. Also artists and designers whose work has been so inspiring to me over the years.

I'll always be a creative at heart. Where I stand, there will be Art. My mind operates like an artist, wanting to paint the world with beauty and meaning. Art for me, isn't just about writing a beautiful song or creating a painting and being famed for it. How you live your life is Art. How you show up in the world is Art. Creating a beautiful meal for a loved one is Art. Crafting a beautiful home or office space is Art. A deep meaningful conversation is Art. To truly love is Art.

The experience of writing this blog post has been so nostalgic. A retrospective of my life so far through the lens of World Arts and Culture. Something that's come to light as I've been writing and looking through my photo albums is, that at the centre of it has been and is, connection, community and relationships. These experiences have been shared with and bought along so many beautiful relationships. Some temporary and some longer lasting. I also feel that living with this open mindedness, has given me the ability to communicate with people from all walks of life and cultures, often without sharing a common language. I guess in this post, I want to pay homage to those relationships.

If I was to conclude this post by sharing three lessons I've learned from living this way, they are:

1) Don't wait for life to change before you start living

We have been conditioned to believe that certain markers in life equal success; wealth, power, recognition, marriage, children. This can be stagnating if it's what we're striving for before we feel successful and therefore happy. I've learned very painfully that the future we imagine may not manifest. We lose people we love, life circumstances change, sometimes the rug is pulled from underneath us without warning. Therefore, be present. Fill your life with moments of joy now, whatever that looks like for you. Do things which allow you to be present in the now and don't wait for the future to make you feel happy and peaceful.

3) Be inspired so you can inspire others

There's a light that shines within us all. How brightly, depends on what we are experiencing. Keep an eye on this light. When I first went to London, I went through a period of working a part time job to supplement my income as a designer. My colleague Tunde would often say to me, 'Saima, don't ever let anyone steal that smile'. I have allowed my smile to be stolen many times since then but as a more awakened person now, I monitor what needs to be done to get my smile and therefore light back. Never underestimate the power of creativity and creative pursuits because it's when we lose the things we find joy in, that we lose the light.

2) Be curious

I am curious by nature and it's becoming more rife with age. As i've mentioned, i've fulfilled this curiosity through learning about different cultures and subjects. I like to ask people questions. I want to know who they are and if there's one thing people love, it's being 'seen' and 'heard'. This quality has allowed me to engage in meaningful conversations and exchange ideas with different people from all over the world. When combined with my education, i've been able to understand them better and form authentic relationships which has made my life so rich.

Thank you for reading. I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you have any feedback, pls pop it in the comments below, on my Instagram feed or email me at info Until next time :)

Saima x

Disclaimer: A.I. has not been used to create this article. It is all the doing of my own heart, soul, brain and hands (to type)


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