Malak Dabcha: “ Your liberties Stop Where Others Liberties Begin”
By: Hephzibah Adesina
Egyptian Omani activist, actress, artist, and citizen of the world Malak Dabcha shares her thoughts and beliefs on activism, power, love, strength, fear, culture, race, religion, differences, growth, dreams, and everything between.
“Hey, are you there?” Malak is currently in Oman, which is 8 hours ahead of eastern time. Agreeing on a time made me think of the frustrations that come with long-distance relationships, especially when one partner is in a different time zone. You and your partner’s obstacle being on two different schedules can be detrimental, but prioritizing each other and practicing patience will usually prove to be worthwhile. Though Malak and I aren’t dating, we did prioritize each other’s time to make this enlightening interview happen.
It’s safe to describe Malak as a global citizen. Having lived in 4+ countries, Malak is very aware of the world and has actively taken an advocate role in her communities. She is mindful of the ethics and impacts of her decisions and educates others on her multiple platforms. Her Instagram page @frontrowjournal currently has over 74k followers and is utilized for fashion, expressionism, and activism. She talks to Hestah about her activism and many other facets of her complex identity.
H: You went to school for fashion, right?
M: So, here’s what happened. I went to high school in Egypt. I was in French school but transferred to an American school my sophomore year because I knew I wanted to move to New York, and I wanted to study Fashion Design because I knew Performing Arts were off the table 100%. I thought, “What else can I do?” I realized that I like fashion. So, I started going to night school. I would go to high school from 8 am to 3 pm, and then from 5 pm to 10 pm, I would be at a fashion school in Egypt. I learned to sew, make patterns, and all sorts of things. I then created a portfolio and applied to FIT, and got in as a fashion design student. Then, I had this weird meltdown about not wanting to sew for the rest of my life, so I changed my FIT major to advertising marketing communications. I did nothing with my degree. After I graduated, I became a social media manager at L’Oréal, mainly because of my following on Instagram.
H: Oh, nice. I didn’t know you switched programs! We met when we both studied in Paris at the American Business School, and when I met you, I did not know you had such a huge following! How did that come about?
M: It’s so weird because it grew unexpectedly. When I was at fashion school, people would tell me that I dressed nicely. I would go to school in high heels and the most ridiculous outfits. I had gold shoes and would wear tiaras to class, but you can do things like that when you go to fashion school. I was totally into it, and I owned it, but now when I look back, it’s so cringy, and I don’t even want to look back. This was in 2014, so social media was beginning to be a thing, but I didn’t know where I was going with this.
H: That’s amazing! If I knew how big Instagram would be, I would’ve gone so hard, but I didn’t join the Instagram wave until 2015.
M: I know! You know, I had a way bigger following, but then I got hacked a bunch of times, and the following started decreasing, and even now, I’m losing a bunch of followers.
H: Do you think you’re now losing followers because of your activism?
M: Yes, recently I’ve been losing hundreds of followers a day because of my activism, but I feel like I would be betraying all the communities I’m a part of if I did nothing. I’m so many minorities. I’m Arab. I’m Muslim. I’m not white. I’m all sort of things, and it would be a huge massive betrayal to all my communities if I didn’t say anything.
H: Same! Though I have a measly 900 followers, I noticed a decline in my followers and their engagement the minute I became more open about my activism. Sadly, people are turned off by activism, but, honestly, good riddance. Like you, I am also a part of so many communities, so I had to be vocal. I knew interviewing you would be amazing for Hestah because you entirely represent this magazine. How has your upbringing influenced your identity, and do you plan on incorporating your activism and other facets of your identity into your acting?
M: Absolutely! I think the bigger your platform, the more responsibility [you have]. You must use your voice or otherwise, what’s the point? When I first went to the other side and, I guess, “saw the light,” I almost went to an extreme. It was hard to tell people back home, “Hey, listen to me,” and you kind of need to be more grand or extreme to get the attention of people. It’s kind of hard to reconcile the balance of “Do I stay on that line of I’m telling [you] what I think should happen” [and] “I’m respecting your ideas.” I will listen to anyone say anything, and I try to respect where they are coming from as much as possible, but you must weigh everyone’s morals, and that’s the universal code of ethics. We can disagree on many things, but human rights are something I, and you can’t disagree on. When you put that into the balance, it becomes hard to think about. Do I go hard, or do I ease into things? Now, I’m finding that people from the middle east will get significantly influenced by movies or tv shows. I will recommend things on the extreme side. For example, people responding well to Pose, FX series. It’s very extreme for Arabs to think about, but it’s getting a great response. I think people see things that they may not see in their communities and look at them differently.
H: I don’t have an issue with people who haven’t had the privilege to be exposed to different races, cultures, and views. I don’t see their ignorance as their fault, especially if they come from a society with extreme restrictions. It’s hard for me to be mad at that.
M: I kind of get mad. I always say that ignorance is a choice. There are so many ways to get enlightened now. There are books, tv shows, the world wide web, blogs, narrative movies, and documentaries. I love educating people, and I also don’t feel like it’s my job. It’s not my job as a person of color to educate a xenophobe or a racist. They have all the resources at their fingertips.
H: You’re right, ignorance is a choice, but I still believe that some people aren’t privileged to educate themselves.
M: But don’t you think that the most woke people you’ve ever met are underprivileged? I believe the more privileged you are, the less you want to know about those who have less privilege than you.
H: I think the more privileged you are, the less of an excuse you have. When you fail to see that and don’t act accordingly, I get irritated, which is why when it comes to our current president, I can’t fathom.
M: He has every resource! That’s why I don’t think that his bigotry is the product of ignorance. His bigotry is very calculated and incredibly strategic.
H: Exactly! You’re right. It’s not any minority’s job to educate you. When this current wave of the Black Lives Matter Movement started, I received many messages from my white friends asking me, “Is this okay to post?” I honestly stopped responding. I was confused about why they didn’t know what was racist.
M: I am not your filter! I am not your designated black person to pass things by. I think it’s racist to ask. If you think there might be a problem with it, then there is probably a problem, and don’t post it. I started receiving things like, “What’s wrong with all lives matter?” and I disabled comments. I realized going back and forth with those people only resulted in elevated blood pressure.
H: I had to remove myself from Twitter for a while because it was starting to affect my mental health, and it is okay to prioritize yourself.
M: Minorities, especially black people, have every right to do whatever they want. You have every right to not be in a position where you are forced to educate others and at the same time have every right to be outraged that people aren’t educated on racial equality. You have a pass to do whatever you want, right now. Whether you want to be an activist or not. Honestly, I think you are going to be an activist anyway just by existing in your skin.
H: Do you see any similarities with the Black Lives Matter movement and situations in either Oman or Egypt?
M: Yes. Egypt went through a revolution in 2011. I was 15 years old, and, at the time, I was right in the middle of it. My mother was running a hotel right in the middle of the capital city, and that was where all the protests were happening. We saw terrible things. The tear-gassing, the shooting… honestly, you name it, and we most likely saw it. We were so scared, and we left for Switzerland for a bit. I did see some similarities at the beginning of this wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. The primary thing that I can relate to the Egyptian revolution is that your movement always gets stolen. What tends to happen is someone does something stupid and says they are also part of the movement, and the people now point fingers and react by saying, “Oh, look at what they’ve done.”
H: Do you think this takes away from movements like Black Lives Matter?
M: Well, in Egypt, the movement was stolen by another group called the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist group. They ended up ruling for a year, and then there was another revolution to remove them. I have gone through that, and I’ve seen such movements from start to end. So, when it started happening in America, it didn’t sway me in any way because I know how it started, and that’s all that mattered. The only thing that matters to me is Black Lives Matter. I don’t care what else happened. I don’t care about the rioting. I don’t care about the looting… I don’t care. You get a free pass when you’ve been murdered, when you’ve been attacked for no reason, and when you get killed for just sleeping in your bed at night. You get a free pass to do whatever you want.
H: Especially when the country you call home is not protecting you.
M: Exactly! For me, those things didn’t change anything. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter needs to matter because they haven’t mattered for a very long time. I have a question for you.
H: Yay! What’s your question?
M: You were born in Nigeria, right? Did you grow up there?
H: Yes, I was born there, but I grew up in America.
M: How much do you feel that you are a Black American person vs. a Black African person?
H: My mom used to always say, “Take the good from America, but don’t forget who you are and where you came from.” I battled with many identity issues because of all the different facets of my identity. Despite this, I know to white Americans I’m Black. They don’t know that I’m from Nigeria. The Black Africans and Black Caribbeans who are staying away from this movement need to realize that this affects us. When racists see us, all they see is Black. There is no difference between them, but between the Black community, there is a vast difference. I think there are more similarities when it comes to culture between Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners than between Africans and Black Americans.
M: I agree. Do you think that Black people from Africa who are first-generation Africans feel more authentic to blackness, or do you think Black people who are descendants from slaves in America feel like they have more of a premium on America’s inner blackness?
H: I feel that Black Americans believe they have more of a premium to blackness in America. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, Africans in America don’t know how to relate to blackness in America, and it causes a real identity struggle. As a first-generation Nigerian, I’m privileged to understand both sides. I think of my future children, and I know they will feel a little more entitled to American blackness than I do. At that point, it will be my job to educate them on Nigerian culture and cultures from all around the world. Culture is a significant determinant of who you are, what values you have, and how you’ve conceptualized yourself. Growing up, I related to my Nigerian roots more, but with time and exposure, I was able to identify with both sides. I started reconciling the many facets of my identity and allowed it to manifest in my daily life.
M: I think it’s so strange to be so many minorities. You’re a woman, you’re Muslim, you’re a person of color, and maybe you’re gay. I will say people like you and me have it the best out of everyone. We have so many cultures engraved in our souls, brains, and hearts. Unlike our parents, who only know their native culture, and our children, who might only know their American culture, we can empathize with so many people.
H: How do you plan on educating your children more?
M: I’m not interested in children at all, but if I were ever to have children, I would want them to know their roots, but also know as many cultures in-depth as possible for them to be able to have the kind of empathy that they need to be good human beings. I want them to be good human beings, and when someone remembers their name when they are dead, they’re going to say that person was a good person, and they stood up for what is right.
H: I love that! In all, you do be that good person and stand up for what’s right. Religion can’t be a barrier because the concept of love is the most central part of almost all religions.
M: “Your liberties stop where others’ liberties begin.” Suppose we think about that right now in America that is not being enforced. If only this were to be enforced, life would be different. If you stopped believing that you have a premium on freedom and liberty right where your freedom and liberty would harm someone, life would be completely different.
H: That was amazing! I will be quoting that everywhere. People aren’t ready for me. Anyway, let’s end this on a lighter note. Any new projects coming up?
M: I just signed with a new management company. So once things settle, I’ll be moving to LA. Also, I just finished writing a pilot for a tv show, and I’m currently sending it to production companies.
H: Big things! Can you give us a summary?
M: Yes. It was set in 1965, in Palm Springs. An aging moving star is vacationing with her family, and he goes missing. A studio fixer teams up with a crooked detective, and they end up uncovering all these secrets about how she went missing. I made sure to have characters that reflect reality and not the whitewashed fact we usually see when watching films from old Hollywood films.