I first met Saida Ibrahimava in Qatar. Our common journey found us exploring the realities of people in Doha, Amman, Casablanca and Rabat. En route, as it so often happens, my co-traveller became part of my exploration.
Saida could be perceived as a ‘curious case’: A diplomat and a rebel. A strong, dynamic woman and, at the same time, the girl next door. The square peg that doesn’t bother fitting in the round holes of our reality.
It is always this kind of people that manage to change the world. Not because of the multiple colours and layers of their character—the colours and the layers exist in all of us. Rather, because they found the courage to explore, accept and cherish this temperament and follow the beat of what makes them come alive.
Which reminds me of the words of the philosopher, educator and civil rights activist, Howard Thurman: ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’
On growing up in Belarus and how its culture affected my inner voice
I grew up on the South of Belarus, in the suburbs of the second biggest city in the country. Like any other Soviet city, Gomel, had broad avenues crossing the city’s residential areas, Lenin statues on almost every little square or in front of administrative buildings, a big park named The Victory in The Great Patriotic War, and a very limited amount of goods in local shops… Nevertheless, my early childhood was a lot of fun. I remember that everybody in my primary school had identical school bags and rode similar bikes; we had toys of the same kind and, in order to keep ourselves entertained, we played outdoors a lot. Our lifestyles were soon to change dramatically, but my habit of spending time in the streets continued for much longer. In the 90’s, we experienced the great transformation in society and culture. Our modest world was invaded by Chinese bubble gums, Malaysian Tv-sets, western music and Hollywood films. We learned about the freedoms of choice and expression. We started the great experiment of self-identification. It seemed that, almost overnight, we had all turned into individuals with established preferences in musical and cinematographic genres; individuals who wanted to stand out and be a part of movements that fascinated us. It was about that time that I discovered street art. Its world captivated me. In my opinion, it was the best way to carol street life, to express what was important to a whole generation born on the edge of history. We discovered and explored a new reality. We built that reality, and finally became part of it.
Gomel was the first city in Belarus to allow legal graffiti. We painted on the grey concrete of industrial areas, on monotone block houses and cooperative garage units. Within five years, we had transformed the face of the city into something unique. We hosted the first street art festival in the country and opened our doors to foreign visitors. We were proud, not of our identity itself, but the very fact that we found it. We transcended the culture from rational monumentalism to flexible expressionism--and it was beautiful.
On my decision to study International Relations, what I wanted to do and what I actually did
Political Science and International Relations are two very exclusive fields of study. Honestly, no one knew exactly what to expect after graduation. Secretly, we all hoped to become diplomats. During the Soviet times, diplomats, among a few others, were the cast allowed to leave the country, learn foreign languages, and use foreign currency—and, on top of it all, they were getting paid for these freedoms! It was a dream job!
But getting accepted by the only faculty of International Relations in the country was not easy. I experienced massive competition, not to mention the pressure regarding the responsibility of ‘country representation’. Throughout the first couple of years of my studies (we did five), I was associating my future with governmental work. ’If joining the diplomatic corps was not possible, then, at least, I will serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’, I thought. But the more I learned about Politics, especially in Belarus, the less I wanted to become a part of it. The necessity of changes grew on me and I shifted towards the civic society sector. By the end of my bachelor studies, I was a part of the opposition movement, and I was heavily involved in the attempts to overthrow the existing regime. An attempt that failed. I realized then that I am not yet ready for activities as such, and at such a scale. Therefore I decided to continue my studies at Charles University in Prague.
On what I want to do with it in the future
It took me two years of Master studies in International Politics and Economy, a number of years of unpaid internships all over the world, and about ten years of extensive work experiences at the non-profit sector, to realize what I wanted to do in the future with all the knowledge I gained.
I concentrated on community development and its power of transforming values. I have learned different methods for civic engagement and developed a project in sustainability education which, I believe, can contribute to the change of the situation in Belarus. Many attempts to impose changes from above have failed, and I realized, that all changes should come from the level of grass-roots initiatives. This is the way of consistent social transformation and a guarantee for sustainability and prosperity on a national level.
On my biggest strengths and weaknesses and how they exchange roles some times
Like many other young, passionate people, I am impatient. It is a torture for me to wait, no matter what I am waiting for. I find it hard to stay still, as I immediately have this painful feeling inside that time is running away. I am jealous when it comes to time. I need to chase it, I need to use it all. Therefore, I had to turn my life into an instant calendar! I am a crazy planner; usually every hour of my day is assigned to an activity (not necessarily connected with my immediate work). My nights are also strictly planned. In fact, I find late night hours to be the most productive. This helps a lot when it comes to work, burning deadlines or studies, but it’s also a curse as, once I put something in my calendar, I find it hard to adjust or be flexible with it.
As much as I am impatient, I am hungry for new knowledge. I believe that I will never stop learning and this fact will never stop surprising me. Classic studies alone, for example, could never fulfill this need of mine, so I had to combine them with alternative sources. While at secondary school, I studied Fine Arts at the local art school. Concurrently, I was self-educated on Archeology and Egyptology, played volleyball for the national junior team and studied Italian. Parallel with my Bachelors degree, I studied Acting, Storytelling, Script Writing and Dancing at the Academy of Fine Arts. Later, I engaged in Astronomy, Metaphysics, Philosophy, contemporary dance styles, Photography, and several languages including Arabic. I also graduated from several Human Rights courses. At the moment, I self-study Graphic Design and plan to receive a degree in Digital Illustration next year. I believe that all these helped me to become who I am; build my micro-world, but also raised my standards way too high, both professionally, as well as on a personal level—this often complicates my life. Sometimes I find myself to be too complexed for me (!) and lost in what I am good at, or what I want to be best at.
On being a ‘nomad’ and the motivation behind it
I see my life as a journey. The destinations don’t matter; it’s just the process that matters. Travels and stops, short or longer, are part of that journey. Travelling, I believe, is a cure for broken hearts, regrets, mind stagnations, senility and madness. Travelling is my religion. The core of my life. It is my university and my extended home. I believe that learning and travelling are two sides of one medal, deeply rooted with every journey—and this is why I was always attracted to the idea of a nomadic life. For me, it’s the best way of learning--not only about the outside world, but also about my inner space. My place in this universe. My mission. In a way, every journey is a spiritual trip; the most organic way of growing harmony and peace inside, bringing its seeds to your next stop. I believe that one day these seeds will give us a new vision and we will break all physical and metaphysical borders of the world and, finally, become free.
On the surprising lessons I’ve learned while travelling around the world
I guess that the most surprising part that I keep on discovering while I travel are people. I have re-discovered humankind for myself. I saw unity and kindness, sincerity and sacrifice. I realised how similar and fragile we are; how we strive and carry on for similar things, how we are attracted by the manifestation of beauty and how full of hope we are. This is always so prominent when there is no verbal communication or when the verbal communication is poor. Based on my travel experience, the absolute majority of people I have ever met were friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have realized that the less wealthy people are the most generous and helpful they prove themselves to be.
On my observations regarding similarities and differences between different cultures
I believe that every culture is based on its concept of beauty. The concept of the beauty of a given culture is a result of its unique collective experience. It is directly connected to the mentality of this given group of people, which is formed under the influence of climate, environment, bypassed history and religious beliefs prevalent in this specific area. A person from a different background can hardly experience, to the same extend, all the depths and hidden emotional connections invested in another culture. But, in a non-conscious level, one can definitely connect, experience the joy and serenity of art, and feel the power of this beauty. In this sense, beauty is something that we can’t explain with words and translate it from the language of images into the language of logical concepts. Beauty, as a phenomenon, contains some mystery, which can be grasped only intuitively, through the emotional experience. And, once we connect emotionally to the beauty of another culture, even if it’s absolutely different from ours, we can then connect to the whole culture itself. At that point, similarities and differences play a secondary role, since we can see things behind them.
On my most frequent self-reflections regarding religion
I had the luck of growing up in a Muslim – Orthodox Christian environment. My father is of Iranian origin and my mother is Russian. My childhood was a beautiful mixture of different religions, their holidays, fasts and celebrations. In our family, we have never opposed either of the religions. We cherished their similarities. Later on, when I started to travel extensively, I continued my comparative analysis and realised that, basically, there are no differences between diverse religion practices. The core of any religion is the struggle for the common good, peace and love. The rest is just interpretation which is, for every culture, highly dependent on the immediate environment. So, for me, the most important question is not in which religion a person belongs to, but what does he or she believe in.
On art and the powers it holds in transforming the world and us
I believe that art and, in a wider sense, culture, are the mirrors of the way society thinks and lives. Art is a direct reflection of the most intimate relations between a society and the outer world. It embodies the most sacred values of a society. Art removes the ‘masks’ and reveals society’s true face. And here I am not talking solely about the highest forms of artistic performance, but also about the human creativity that one carries through his or her life. Art is an incredibly powerful tool that transcends social experience, educates, and creates value and sense to man’s life. It produces a universally valid idea. It creates symbols and images and expresses the meaning of all historical development and has one of the most powerful social effects on the person. That is why Art is also very fragile: exactly because it holds these powers, it is constantly targeted by authorities, lobbies, political parties, religious organizations and those who are interested in spreading their influence on the society. Still, it holds the key to global harmony, peace and true vision. When we establish this true vision of life we receive inner independence, we can rely on the true values not affected from the external world. Having a true vision means having a free spirit and to express the free spirit through artistic creativity means to challenge any system of fake values; to observe free spirited creations means to form an independent, sharper vision of the reality. People should constantly question the values being imposed from above, we should be digging for answer--as they are usually not on the surface; we should search for the core of things, not their cover. This is the only way to keep our independence; stay true to ourselves and, naturally, move to a sustainable future.
On love and what it means to me
I guess love is the very meaning of our existence and in an ideal world, it should be our motivation behind any activities. In a real world, though, there are way too many substitutions for love, even though I still believe it plays a central role in our lives. Love is the state of soul that enables our sacred energies and releases our full potential--that is why it is always easy for us to recognise if something was made with love. Love is unsubstantial but its absence is sensed on a physical level. Love is what matters the most as only love can make us truly happy.
For me, love is a paramount value, which serves as a source for inspiration and vital powers. Love has so many faces and unexpected ways of expression, but, in my perception, it is directly connected to creativity, art and music, in particular.
On what I would create to help in changing the world if all the resources were available to me
If I had all the resources, I would forward them for the development of alternative energy sources, biofuels and eco-friendly solutions to living. I'd been looking for ways to solve global climate problems and preserve our planet; I would give a universal access to education to every child in the world and integration into the educational system sustainability model.
On authenticity and doing things ‘my way’
Choosing a path of authenticity required courage to recognize and accept every part of me. Doing that means that you are ready to leave your comfort zone and prepared for a lonely, but beautiful, journey, guided by your heart. Perhaps you will spend your entire lifetime discovering your authentic path. As for me, it was never a matter of choice, I could never resist to the winds of change, and when I felt that the time came, I just left everything behind with no regrets. This is my road to authenticity, this is my way of learning life lessons and extract its wisdom. It looks odd to others when they find out that I don’t really have any permanent home in this world, that all my belongings could fit in one shipping container and by tomorrow I can easily switch my profession to a less prestigious one, in order to continue my journey. Maybe some people think that I am just another lost person, but in fact I have never been more found.
On the people I have met around the world and some of the messages I feel they would like me to voice out loud
I wish I could mention each and every outstanding person I was lucky enough to meet out there. Each and every one of them left a mark on my heart and delivered some important messages. But I will mention one that I constantly repeat to myself: ‘It is you, who decides whether to be a victim of circumstances, or a shaper of your own reality.'