Iraqis in Pajamas Punk Rock & beauty standards (watch the video!)
Loolwa Khazzoom (KHAZZOOM.com) is the singer, songwriter, and bass player for award-winning band Iraqis in Pajamas (IraqisInPajamas.com), which combines Iraqi Jewish prayer with original alternative rock. Khazzoom sings in English, Hebrew, and Judeo Arabic, on the topics of healing and transformation, on the individual and collective levels. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, and other top media worldwide.
To me, punk rock is all about the DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude – refusing to kow-tow to someone else’s ideas about who you are or what you can do. I viscerally felt that punk rock spirit while filming the music video for my new Hanukkah song, “I Love My JewFro!” – in which I flaunted the very Jewish features that have been denigrated, on my body and on that of Jewish women worldwide: my wild, dark, curly hair, my big, brown eyes, and of course, my prominent nose.
I dare say it was only when watching back the campy shot where I proudly traced my JewNose, then gave it a kiss, that I suddenly realized – like, really realized, deep in my core, in a new way that I hadn’t before – that my Jewish nose is gorgeous. Not just not-ugly or not-bad or even pretty.
And that it had been my entire life, without my knowing – even as I stared in 3-D mirrors as a teenager, looking at my nose this way and that, wishing it were something different, something Aryan, something that would make me feel pretty, desirable, worthy.
That’s the power of art, in particular, of a music video. I can have a defiant vision, one that challenges not only social norms but also my own internalized crap around those social norms – even stuff that I know in my head is screwy, but that I somehow just can’t shake. I can not only voice an alternate vision – the way I did when writing articles or books – but also enact that vision, strut it out in the sunshine, dance it through our collective perceptions, create a visceral alternative to what is, help us see ourselves, or others, or life, in a different way.
When I think back about the imagery I was exposed to in movies, television, and magazines, I felt glaringly absent – in some cases, for not-so-subtle reasons. In high school, I went through numerous major magazines targeting girls and young women, counting how many models had dark hair and dark eyes. In that entire collection, I could count the dark-haired models on one hand, and there was exactly one with dark eyes – in an ad for the brand new option of blue and green contact lenses, with the tagline, “Now you, too, can have beautiful eyes!” It’s been nearly four decades, and I still remember that tagline, word-for-word.
The process of healing from body shame – ousting fascist beauty standards, from where they were embedded, deep within my psyche – has felt like a spiral. I was aware of how wrong it all was, even as a teenager, and to a certain degree, I overcame the various beauty complexes and obsessions in my 20s, came to feel beautiful, yes even gorgeous, even back then. But still, something lingered, something about permission: Was I allowed to feel like a hottie, to be confident in the colors and contours of my body, against the backdrop of a world that had not yet caught up to my aesthetic (r)evolution?
When the ad for a Jewish dating site featured the photo of an Aryan-looking woman, with the caption, “Can you believe she’s Jewish?” as the lure for said Jewish dating site, and when men from all backgrounds, but especially Jewish and Israeli men, routinely and predictably chased after my Jewish friend who looked like a shiksa, while ignoring me entirely, was I allowed to feel even marginally attractive?
There is something about the human need to see ourselves reflected back – in particular, from those in our own clan – and to question ourselves when we do not see that reflection, or when that reflection does not mirror what we feel inside. The primal wounding of not feeling seen, recognized, or validated, is perhaps at the root of why we “internalize” things.
Throughout my childhood and young adult years, the rare actress – like Fran Drescher or Barbara Streisand – boldly flaunted her JewFro or JewNose, and all power to her for doing so during an era where models and actresses were a sea of straight blonde hair and button noses. But even during the contemporary era where dark women are recognized as beautiful and featured prominently, I still don’t see women who look as if they could be my relatives. And I want to. I need to.
So I created what I wanted to see – a reflection back, an affirmation, that all that Jew-y stuff on the Jewish body, on my body, is in fact beautiful and worthy of adoration.
A couple hours of vigorous JewFro shaking during the shoot, mind you, landed me in bed for the better part of a week, with what appeared to be a concussion. As I recovered, I mused to my boyfriend, “If just one Jewish girl sees this music video and decides not to get a nose job because of it, the concussion was totally worth it.” “Girls might be so inspired seeing you, that they get a nose job to make theirs look like yours,” he replied.
Now you see why I’m with the guy.
It has taken me a lifetime to allow myself to become a musician, for a myriad of reasons: In Iraq, where one side of my family is from, being a professional musician was on par with being a prostitute. In my childhood home, lined with books, people became academics, not artists. Add to the mix a whole lot of being called “too” as a girl – too loud, too strong, too smart, too outspoken, too too too…And I didn’t feel allowed to shine, which is exactly what happens when I create and play music.
That permission thing again.
One of the core tenets of Judaism is na’a’se wenishma – “we will do, then we will listen.” Jews don’t wait to feel spiritual before we pray. We pray, and that act of praying opens the gates to our spirituality. Similarly, I didn’t wait to become a musician until I felt ready, or more to the point, worthy. I made a decision to become a musician, and through that act – in particular, through creating music videos – I have been stepping into my skin as an artist, boldly expressing my soul.
And finally owning, declaring to the world that yes, damn it, I am gorgeous.