By Natalie Freeland
Ahmad Al-Rady, founder of the Bankstown Spoken Word movement, is distracted. He seems perpetually in a rush. Twenty minutes ago, he swept into a crowded room and, with a winning mix of charm and eloquence, won over the audience with beautiful spoken poetry. As he talks, his face lights up, his gestures reinforcing the symmetry in his words.
His deep, expressive voice softens as he paints images in the air: a letter to his grandmother in Iraq; pictures of love and of hurt; nervous fluttering in the stomach; the sad progression to becoming strangers. They are moments that most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about with our closest friends, let alone in front of 50 strangers.
Being vulnerable in front of an audience isn’t particularly daunting for Ahmad. To him it creates this kind of rawness that overcomes any embarrassment.
“It’s the fact that you remind people that we all make mistakes, we all feel,” he says. For him, the spoken word achieves that, reminding people of the universality of the human experience.
Thoughtful and charismatic, Ahmad, 24, seems the life of the party. With a big boyish smile and dark friendly eyes, he’s reminiscent of the guy who was in every school – as school captain, top of the class, the most valued player in the footy team.
He laughs and says, “Yes, I was kickboxing and I did amateur fights. I was school captain and I was on the footy team. I can’t sit still. I’m too restless. I get bored with things quickly.”
This becomes obvious considering his life right now. He is co-creator of the Western Sydney poetry slam, completing his master’s degree in podiatry, taking part in a panel discussion at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, compiling his debut book of poetry, contributing to the Bankstown Youth Development Service. It’s all in a day’s work for Ahmad.
“I guess I see so much opportunity. And I think, I’m only here for a short time, I might as well have a bit of everything on the buffet,” he says.
Ahmad’s first poetry slam was in a Glebe pub. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was entering the NSW Wales state finals.
“I went in, I paid my 15 bucks, I got up and I was nervous,” he says, miming his trembling hands grasping a piece of paper. “Not even looking at the crowd once. And I just yelled it. I literally yelled the poem for two minutes.
“When I got up on stage I was very angry, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be perceived. The room was full of people who were not of my background, I was the only one who was Middle Eastern and I was saying a political poem,” he says.
He ended up qualifying for the NSW state finals at the Sydney Theatre Company. He didn’t win, but that wasn’t the goal. Addicted, he made the hour and a half commute from Liverpool to Glebe every Tuesday night. Then he wanted the opportunity for the spoken word to be accessible in the western suburbs.
Ahmad and co-founder Sara Mansour appealed to local organisations, finally striking a chord with Tim Carroll, director of the Bankstown Youth Development Service. The first poetry slam held in early 2013 had 60 guests, admittedly mostly family and friends. The next month, 150. The month after that, 200. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to push 300.
“All that ‘cause I went to a spoken word, one night,” he says.
Tim Carroll says he has never seen anything like it. He thinks the desire of people to become part of the cohort of performers, to express their feelings in an emotionally safe place, is phenomenal.
Seeing people so willing to get up on stage is immensely brave, he says. “Ahmad and all these kids are sticking their heads up and saying, we are here and we are proud of our heritage, and we will not be shouted down or told to shut up.”
Reciting poetry goes beyond a passion for spoken word. For Ahmad, it’s an important link to his culture and his heritage. Poetry goes beyond stringing words together on a piece of paper. It’s about respect.
“I don’t need to ask permission. I don’t need to fill out a form to say how I feel about something,” he says. “As clichéd as it sounds, I think that when you read a lot, you learn a lot. A lot of people just want a poem; they just want to write and get up and say their piece.
“But the issue with that is they’re not listening to the people who are before them, or after them,” Ahmad says.
He is proud to have helped bring art to the surface in western Sydney. It’s an achievement that has had a significant and continuing impact on the people who live there.
“I can’t guarantee that I’ll always be there for the Bankstown Poetry Slam, but I’ve started something and now I can move on,” he says. “It is producing artists who would have never have had a venue to do anything, or realise they have a talent.”
Ahmad Al-Rady was part of two Poetry Slams during the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival, the first at Bankstown Arts Centre, the second at Parramatta Artists Studio.