While attending New York University Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, Burnaby-born Zahida Rahemtulla learned to speak Arabic, a skill that paid off when she moved back to B.C. She became a frontline worker helping Syrian families resettle in Vancouver, a job experience that had such a profound effect on her that she ended up writing a play about it called The Frontliners.
"It seemed like every Arabic speaker in Canada was employed at that time across many different cities that were resettling families," Rahemtulla says on the phone from her home in East Vancouver. "So although I'm not a native Arabic speaker, I had a chance to also help out. I worked on that resettlement and then I stayed in the sector."
It was after she wrote her first play, 2018's The Wrong Bashir—a mistaken-identity comedy about the Ismaili community in Canada—that Rahemtulla started thinking back on her time working with the refugees and began formulating The Frontliners, the first draft of which was created at the 2019 Arts Club Theatre Company's Emerging Playwrights' Unit.
Set in January of 2016, when Canada was resettling the first wave of its 25,000 Syrian refugees, it's about three frontline workers whose lives are shaped as they struggle to move families out of an East Van hotel. (The play is being presented in an online reading at this year's rEvolver Festival, performed by Francis Dowlatabadi, Adrian Neblett, and Jaspreet Saund.)
"Together, they all kind of handle the chaos that was the frontlines at that time," explains the playwright, who just turned 29. "I think it was well documented on the news about the excitement around that time and how behind the scenes there was so much going on, with all the problems of trying to find people houses during the housing crisis. Journalists were so interested and Canadians were making donations and sponsorship groups were showing up at the hotel. It was a very busy place."
While she had always enjoyed reading and writing growing up, Rahemtulla never expected to become a playwright. She only started writing plays four years ago before enrolling in the SFU Writers Studio's fiction program. As an emerging playwright, she was happy to kick off her career with a comedy and then follow that up by taking a shot at drama.
"I rely a lot on humour in both plays," she points out, "because with hard issues—and especially in some of the conversations we're having more of these days—it's so much easier to hear when you use humour. But one of the things that one of my playwrighting instructors quoted was that, 'The difference between a drama and comedy is that at the end of a drama the characters don't get what they want.'
"In The Frontliners, some of the characters end up sad," she adds, "and it's not tied up neatly as the comedy way, but I think there's more room then for some of the complexities that you want to show about society."
Rahemtulla admits that she has no clear idea how The Frontliners—directed by Mercedeh Baroq, with dramaturgy by Davey Calderon—will come across in the Zoom format.
"My first play was a bit more action-oriented," she explains, "and I think this play is a bit slower in some ways than that one, so I guess I'm maybe a little bit worried about how that will carry across on Zoom. I had one Zoom meeting of my other play, and it's definitely different. But it's nice to still have the chance to develop work during the pandemic, however you can."
The Frontliners is scheduled to be presented as a full-blown production by the Playwrights Theatre Centre in September of 2022 as part of its New Play in Development Prize, and Rahemtulla is thrilled about getting it in front of a live audience. Her last in-person theatrical experience was seeing Donna-Michelle St. Bernard's Sound of the Beast at Rumble Theatre in February of 2020.
She is also working on short fiction, and now that the plays are more developed, she's going back to a children's novel that she's been trying to work on for a while. Her philosophy, she says, has always been, "Try not to be afraid to start."
"As a writer, it's real easy to get scared of the blank page," she says, "and so I think one of the hardest steps to take is just to start. The road to developing a play and writing something without really knowing what's going to happen with it can be rocky and can require putting blind faith in something when you have no idea what will happen with it. But I try to just say, 'Okay, just start and see.' "