Dreaming as the Heart of Activism and Art: An Interview with Ariana Delawari

9/11, dreams, synchronicity, David Lynch, La Canada CA, Kabul, Afghanistan, Oaxacan shamanism, are only a few of the forces that combined to help forge the multimedia artist Ariana Delawari, who released her project Entelechy in August 2016.

Entelechy: from the ancient Greek teletai, their term for rites of initiation. Entelechy is a word for the kind of motivation and self-determination that shapes a life into being the best it can be.  Entelechy was one of Aristotle’s words for the soul.  Ariana’s new multimedia project includes the records Entelechy I and Entelechy II, and Entelechy, a short film sound tracked by stems pulled from both records.  Entelechy I, a collaboration with Butchy Fuegos, is a worldly mélange of lush yet minimalist loops and beats, while Entelechy II recorded with famous master tabla player Salar Nader reinvents the songs with a more traditional setting.

A first generation American living in La Canada, California, Ariana Delawari grew up in a house her parents shared with relatives who were refugees.  Nurtured on their traditional music and cooking, and on the endless debates about what to do next, like many first generation Americans she had one foot in the new world and the other in the old.  She thought her father’s activism, his efforts to free Afghanistan from theocratic rule, were a waste of time. She had fun dancing to Madonna.  She listened to Jimi Hendrix songs and learned to play some of them.  Her dreams bursting with glimpses of the future and important insights were more hindrance than help. Then 9/11 happened and her father’s efforts made sense.

Her family returned to Afghanistan to help establish a new government.  Ariana traveled between her new home and old while getting her degree from USC.  She chose to become an actress.  With guest roles on The Sopranos and Entourage her career seemed assured but the suicide bombings in Kabul in 2005 drew her into the eye of the storm.

Her father the protestor became a prime mover for the Central Bank of Afghanistan. So she learned to travel with security.  Wouldn’t you expect her to keep a low profile?  Enjoy the privilege, avoid the fear would be most people’s motto in a predicament like that.  Ariana began exploring her culture.  She visited a refugee camp.  She played spontaneous jam sessions with musicians she met on the road.

In 2012 when headlines had been reporting daughters sold as brides, the popularity of female mutilation, the death by stoning of a woman fleeing an arranged marriage, the French Institute in Afghanistan hosted a “Ladies’ Day” rock concert in Kabul. About 80 women, invited by word of mouth, passed through tight security to see Ariana and others perform, helping to bring international attention to the fact that young Afghans are forming bands but have nowhere to play.  The same year Ariana spoke at the inaugural TEDxKabul.

Ariana’s feature documentary We Came Home, finished with funds from a successful Kickstarter campaign, captured the making of her first record Lion of Panjshir, one of the songs was produced by David Lynch, and how the music, and the recording session at home with guards brandishing AK47s, was influenced by the impact on her family of 9/11 and their return to Afghanistan. We Came Home was an international success, screening at AFI Fest, Sao Paulo International Film Festival where it won the Jury Award for Best Documentary, Newport Beach Film Festival, Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival where it was nominated for a Jury Award, DOCMIAMI, Ankara International Film Festival, Mexico International Film Festival where it won Best Documentary Feature, United Nations Association Documentary Film Festival, and Cleveland International Film Festival, among others.

With the release of her Entelechy project Ariana has found another deeply personal way to send universally relevant messages.  Her path lit by dreams she dares her audience to set aside the disillusionment of believing peace is impossible.  Seeing the reactions of her young fans in Afghanistan and all over the world it becomes obvious that no matter how hidden they are by old animosities, a new generation longs to be free.

Documentary filmmaker, actress, musician, singer, writer, dreamer, hashtag activist, Ariana is an inspiring example of a 21st century artist: multicultural, multimedia, bridging worlds, influenced by many cultures, and influencing world culture.  I’m delighted to interview her for Reality Sandwich.


Tamra Lucid: Your grandmother used to play a game with you where she would ask “Are you an American girl or an Afghan girl?” That reminds me of Entelechy I and Entelechy II.  One is a modern collection of loops in collaboration with Butchy Fuegos a.k.a. San Gabriel and the other presents the same songs in a more traditional Afghan setting featuring Salar Nader on tabla.  What are you conveying by this double presentation?  Do you see it as a split?  Or as something like a different translation?  Do you find you favor songs in one version or another?  

Ariana Delawari: It was a really organic evolution into a double album.  I had already recorded an album with Butchy. I was seeing a vision for the film, and, as I was writing the film, I went over to Salar’s one day to discuss music. The idea sort of spontaneously unfolded. I had been wanting to make an album with Salar. We had collaborated on music in the past.  I had this idea to bring a few friends in the studio and do a live version of the album I had just made with Butchy.  So Salar and I ended up doing that other acoustic version instead, and it ended up becoming its own album, not just a live recording. I guess it’s true, there are these parts of me. But I also think that the electronic version is pretty global. That’s Butchy’s whole thing with the beats he creates. He’s influenced by tropical music. And I know he was considering my message and where I was coming from as he created that world of sound. So it’s a bit more blended than a dichotomy. 

Entelechy is about healing the world by healing your soul, by dreaming the healing, changing trauma by seeing in a new way.  How has this played out in your own life?

The more time I spent in Afghanistan and beyond – Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, India, Brazil, all kinds of places I was invited to – but mostly Afghanistan, the more time I spent in these places, my own wounds would surface. We come to face our own despair, our own guilt, our own pain. And then there is a moment when we break through it. We realize that we have no choice but hope. We realize that we have to elevate our vibe if any good is going to come of any of it. People who grow up through war and inequality are extremely resilient.  My Afghan friends have taught me more than I can ever explain. That’s the true beauty of these journeys. We have a lot to learn from each other. My idealism is something that I can give as a gift, and that idealism comes from being born in the land of possibility. But the resilience is what I learn from these other places, and that’s a big gift. It’s a circle. That’s how it’s supposed to go for us to have harmony. A balance of perspectives and influences. 

Entelechy is strongly influenced by dreaming, in theme and inspiration, how important is dreaming to you?  Do you keep a dream journal?  Did someone teach you to pay attention to dreams or were you born that way?

I was born with this ability. I have had vivid dreams since I was a child. Extremely vivid and often lucid or psychic. I dream things and then they happen. Or, most recently, an ex was cheating on me and I had four dreams about it. The final dream was so vivid that I was told how to find out the truth. I searched and, sure enough, there was my evidence. My dreams are so lucid that it can even scare me a bit, but I’m learning to ride them. Last year I was in Oaxaca and a Shaman did my Aztec astrology. He said we have two signs, and one of my signs is the Jaguar.  Jaguars are night walkers. He asked about my dreams and explained to me why I have this ability, so that was helpful. 

You managed to find one of the few female cinematographers in the industry, what was it like collaborating with her and your equally female producer Nicole Disson?  Did you choose to work with women or did it just happen that way?

It happened pretty naturally.  I met Berenice Eveno at my dear friend Marouan Jamai’s house. He made a zine and we were both included in it. I was so excited to meet a female DP, but Nicole and I had already asked another DP to shoot Entelechy. The other DP fell through, and I reached out to Bear. When we met up, she mentioned one of my favorite films “Breaking the Waves” and I knew it was absolutely meant to be. I have known the insanely low/ non existent statistics of female cinematographers in the union since film school, and it has always been a goal to work with female DPs. I have known Nicole Disson for many years. We met in the LA Ladies Choir.  I knew she was the right producer for this project, as Nicole has had a lot of experience working with modern dancers. Nicole and I work very very well together, so the process has been really fun in addition to turning out how I had hoped for artistically. They’re both amazing women. I think everyone on the team is really happy with their individual and collective work on the film, which is awesome. 

You were born twenty days after your family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Your father opened his house to these refugees and one of the results was that as a child you were surrounded by Afghan music.  What was that like? 

Those years were some of the happiest years of my life. I feel like I’m always trying to recreate that feeling of love and community through my projects and my life. It was a constant living room full of Afghan refugees, LA artists, family, friends, friends of friends, live Afghan music, dancing, Afghan potluck dinners, it was dreamy. With the current refugee crisis, I wish we would collectively open our lives to these people. Mix it up. Make it a party. That’s what it’s all about. 

Jimi Hendrix was an early influence on you.  What was your favorite record or song then?  Why did he stand out as opposed to other musical artists of the time?  Did you have other favorites?

I started playing guitar when I was 12. My teacher KK was this 80s metal hesher guy. He was like “Hey, if you wanna really play well I need to teach you either Van Halen or Hendrix.”  I wasn’t into Van Halen so I picked Hendrix. I was super into Hendrix and he taught me a lot of Hendrix songs. My favorite to play was “Castles Made of Sand,” but I also really love the song “Manic Depression.” I was also influenced by a lot of contemporary music and classical music when I was a kid, but I just really loved Jimi Hendrix. I think it was his soul too. He was the real deal. 

As a teenager in SoCal what kind of music did you play?  What was your proudest achievement?

I didn’t have a band as a teenager. I would play secretly. I would write songs that sounded like Afghan haunted carnival rides on my guitar, and some songs that were a little punkier with distortion pedals and power chords, but that sound never really pulled me hard enough to create punk music. I just listened to it. My proudest achievement in high school probably had more to do with my literary or poetry writing. I liked to read and write a lot then. And draw and paint. The music was a secret, I was too afraid to share it cause it was my deepest love. 

Your mom went to UCLA in the 1960s where one of her adventures include debating Malcolm X about Islam.  Who was on what side and who won?  Can you share any other adventures your mom had?

My mom was a student at UCLA and Malcolm X came to speak. My mom raised her hand and called him a racist. She said, “How come you can come to my mosque, but I can’t go to your mosque?”  He laughed it off and said, “Well, sister, I think my skin is lighter than your skin.” A few years later, my mom was walking down the steps of a mosque in London and he was walking up. He pointed at her and said, “UCLA!”  He had just come back from Mecca and was a different man. He apologized to her, and said he had always remembered what she said. They hung out for a few hours. He said that his Muslim brothers and sisters had welcomed him in Mecca, and that it had changed him. He said that he knew he would be killed and he showed her documents about it. When she asked if he was afraid, he said “Never fear your destiny.” He died a month or two after that encounter. 

In 2002 your father became a leading figure at the Central Bank in Afghanistan, a powerful position, and he was an activist earlier in his life in southern California, helping to organize protests.  What’s it been like for you watching him evolve into the important person he’s become?

He’s no longer the governor of the Central bank, he left that position at the end of 2014. It has been natural in my life, ’cause his activism began the year that I was born. I have seen him passionately defend and work for the good of his people for my entire life. When I was a child I thought he was wasting his time, to be honest. I was like “No one is listening, why does dad give this so much energy?” It wasn’t until 9/11 that I began to really understand. Then it was like “Wow, dad’s work is so vital.” He and my mother moved to Afghanistan that year, and I began to document his journey in re-building the banking system. During that process, I began to make all of my art about Afghanistan. Here I am now, an activist like my father. So it has been an evolution for me. Now it’s all I ever think about, it’s much deeper than I can explain. Making my first album Lion of Panjshir and the film We Came Home (which is mostly about my father) was a big part of my own evolution and awakening into the deeper aspects of my path. This will be my path till I die.  I have only just begun. 

I imagine that as the daughter of an important official you must have security at times since your dad is perceived as an enemy by those who wish to destabilize the government and economy.  Yet you’ve visited some of the most devastated places in the world: Uganda, Somalia, ruined areas of Brazil, a refugee camp in Afghanistan.  What drives you to face these situations?  

Yes, once my father become the Governor of the Central bank I had to have a lot of security. It was important because of ransoms more than safety, actually. I hated having security. I became very close to our security guards, and they became like family for me, like brothers. But I much prefer to wander around without that kind of “guard.” It really bummed me out at first, and took getting used to. I don’t like anything that separates me from other people. I like intimacy and equality. In terms of your question about the kinds of places I go, I guess I get drawn to the places where the mystery lies. I like going into the underbelly of society and the underbelly of my own thoughts and feelings. I was always drawn to “danger” as a kid. To me, there is even more opportunity to discover light in the shadows. I get pretty bored by the main streets and obvious places. I like the mystery. And I also know that in order for us to live peacefully we need to give equal love and attention everywhere – especially the places that we are afraid of – within and without.  


What can you tell us about Inspire Peace, your hashtag and poster project in Afghanistan?

Inspire Peace came about in a pretty wild way. I had a song called “Be Gone Taliban” on my last album. One day my friend Shelby Duncan was doing a photo show of women she knew, and she had me be a part of it. She gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write something down that meant something to me. I wrote the title of my song “Be Gone Taliban.” She took a photo of me holding up the sign. A few years later, the editor of SOMA Magazine was publishing an article about me and saw that photo that Shelby took online. He said, “Ariana, if you recreate this image I will make it the cover of the magazine.” Shelby and I got together and recreated it. Then a few years after that, as We Came Home was about to screen in D.C. at AFI DOCS, my producers Yasmine, Emily, and I were talking and decided it would be cool to re-create that image again, but create an interactive campaign with it. I was in Brazil at the time skyping with them. I was visiting the healer John of God on that trip, in a tiny town called Abadania. I said to Yasmine and Emily, “Ok let’s recreate it, but if it becomes interactive then we must include something about Peace, as I don’t want anyone to misinterpret the words “Be Gone Taliban” to mean something that isn’t peaceful. My sister Yasmine said, “Ok, but I really think it needs to say something about Inspiration.” I kept saying, “Yeah but it has to say peace too”. Then Emily said, “What about Inspire Peace?” We all agreed.

The next day I discovered something really wild. I had been meditating on this bench at the Casa de Dom Inacio where John of God does his healing. I looked at the bench that I had been sitting on this whole time – since a few days before we decided on the campaign title – and the bench said in French “Inspire La Paix” or “Inspire Peace”.  We were pretty blown away and stunned by this. I came back to LA and we launched the campaign. It was meant to inspire Afghan youth to inspire peace since 68 % of Afghanistan is under 25 years old and 50 % is under 15 years old. The response to the poster campaign was really amazing, lots of people were posting their photos with the poster. Then we decided to do a new poster. One young guy emailed me and said, “Ariana, it would be really great if you made a poster about tribal unity. There are so many issues with tribal division.” So Yasmine came up with “Bravery in Unity. Inspire Peace.” Then for the last poster, I asked Afghans on social media what they wanted the poster to be about. My friend Qayce Alamdar said, “Love. Make it about love.”

So we created “Afghanistan in My Heart. Inspire Peace”. That one was from the opening of the documentary. In a voice over I say, “Afghanistan lies in the deepest part of my heart.” It’s wild how it’s all taken on a life of its own. I see hashtag Be Gone Taliban everywhere now. And someone even started an “Afghanistan in My Heart” social media page. It has completely taken on a life of its own. I have some exciting plans for the future of Inspire Peace, but first I need to complete a few projects. 

What sort of special events will we be seeing now that your award winning feature length documentary We Came Home has distribution?  Can you share any details?

I have lots of plans around this. I am still dreaming it up, but I will definitely be contacting Universities to let them know about the release of the film as well as Refugee camps. That’s first on my list. And Afghanistan, of course. I will make it available in Afghanistan asap. I have more plans, but I’m still working on them. 

David Lynch likes your work.  Can you share one of your favorite creative experiences with him?

David Lynch came to my very first concert ever. I had literally never played a live show before, and there he was standing front and center at our first show.  After that show, his wife Emily said “Ariana, David says he wants to produce your album.” I didn’t take her seriously and continued with my plans to make the album in Kabul. When we returned and were finishing tracking in the studio, Emily and David invited me over for dinner one night.  Emily said, “David has something to say to you.” Then David said, “I should have been producing your album!” I said, “I didn’t believe you, I thought you weren’t serious about it.” He said, “You should have banged on my door.” So I said, “Ok, well the album is almost done, but how about you produce one song?” He said, “That’s a great idea! Pick a good song.” So he produced the song “Suspend Me.” It was a beautiful experience working with him and I said, “Man, you’re right. You should have produced my album!”  The second story is funny. We had David watch a 3 1/2 hour cut of the documentary. I mean, what was I thinking? I was sitting a few seats in front of him in his screening room just shrinking and cringing in my seat. He was crying at the end of the film, so at least it was still somewhat moving. He said, “It’s so great… Now just cut like 80 percent of it.” Then he yelled “But don’t cut the wrong stuff out!” 

Will you be screening Entelechy at shows where you’ll play music, too?  Are there tour dates or special events to share?

I’m thinking about that. Yes, I want to. I’m still planning it all. No dates just yet but soon. 


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