My religion gives me guidance and inner peace. Islam has always been a source of wisdom and comfort to rely on regardless of how dire my situation’s circumstances are. However, I frequently find contradictions between how I practice my faith vs. how others practice. While most of my family strictly eats halal meat, I find myself to have an awful addiction to the number seven at Chick-fil-a. But what I have come to realize is that my way of practicing my faith does not make me any less Muslim than them. As a second-generation Pakistani-American, the environment I have grown in has forced me to adapt my religion around my life priorities.
My experiences are similar to those of my father’s. As a Pakistani immigrant, my father’s circumstances led him to develop a reformed practice of his faith which he continues to abide by to this day. My Baba gradually came to realize that he did not have the capacity to pray five times a day while committing to a full time job. “America was very tough for Muslims back then…mosques were so far away from the city, [Los Angeles], and there weren’t any halal stores,” Baba said. “I was working all day like a robot to support family back home— like everyone—so I guess I started to practice my religion according to my convenience.”
My father’s story is representative of what many immigrants experience: having to leave their home country in search of an opportunity to provide for their family. Although Baba maintained his strong connection to his faith after immigrating, he had to prioritize providing for his family over his religion. He simply didn’t have either the resources or the time available to practice Islam the way he did back home. It would be difficult to pray five times a day while committing to a full time job, but Islam meant much more to him than the number of times he prayed in one day. His faith was a source of comfort and peace for him at a time when he was on his own, and burdened by the responsibility to be the sole supporter of his family here and in Pakistan. My father’s way of practicing Islam is definitely not the only way.
Some may think my father isn’t necessarily a devout Muslim because he misses his namaz, or prayer, once a day. But ultimately, both Baba and I have endless love and passion for our religion. We simply practice our faith in different ways.
About four years ago, I asked my friends from my local mosque if they wanted to grab something to eat after our typical Friday prayer. And because it wasn’t too far away, I suggested Chick-fil-a. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would soon feel embarrassed by asking such a simple question. However, since the chain offers non-zabiha meat, my own friends began to question my faith. They were quick to assume that I wasn’t a devout Muslim.
This experience, and many similar ones, have made me feel as if I was unfaithful to not only my religion, but also to myself. I often felt that people judged me as less of a Muslim for minor infractions rather than my actual spirituality. It was because of Baba, however, that I felt like Islam was an essential aspect in my life that directs me to having willpower to keep pushing through any time where I feel defeated. From whenever Baba’s business wasn’t doing well all the way to whenever he would have a slight cold, Baba would pray, make dua, and feel as if he is unstoppable. And I wanted to follow Islam exactly the way he did as it seemed to always bring immense inner peace and guidance.
I may not relate to my father’s story of being displaced, but we share a struggle for authenticity. I’ve realized that it’s unfair to not only Muslims who were born in or who migrated to the US, but also people of the diaspora to feel like they aren’t as deeply connected to God despite being separated from homeland communities that would offer that validity. Religion offers displaced immigrants like my father a way to feel like they’re still at home. To feel like they will always belong to a greater good no matter where they go.
The motherland has two tongues: the one we speak and the one we see. There is the language of words, with unique phrases and even more unique vulgarities, versus the language of the body, of perfectly tilted heads nodding back and forth, of mobbed hands grabbing for the check. We, immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, tell our stories in both of these vernaculars; we pass down our histories through our hands as much as our lips.
Tilt. Shake. Side to side. As one of the most common gestures in India–and one of the most perplexing to foreigners–the head bobble is a movement that means far more than what it signifies. With its very own Wikipedia page, the head shake is recognized across the globe as archetypally Indian; it is a physical representation of the culture of a subcontinent. As a simple gesture, it would seem easy to replicate. And yet, judging by the popularity of articles, blogs, and videos on the internet offering decodings of such seemingly inscrutable movements, the head bobble is apparently as difficult to understand as it is compelling for Western audiences.
The head bobble, then, has more in common with a sleight of hand than any kind of nod; in plain sight, occurring everyday in one of the world’s largest populations, it is physical evidence of what we have come to characterize as a collectivist society, a culture centralized around group harmony over individual discord. Rather than a definitive answer, the move presents a sort of equanimity, equally applicable in agreements as in disagreements. Paradoxically, a head nod communicates nothing while simultaneously enabling a wider range of communication. It is a cultural product that spreads the values of its origins.
The inability for other Western cultures to accept such a movement comes, perhaps, from mismatched sensibilities–a willingness to act in personal interest above other goals. But what, then, does that imply for us, for the people of two cultures, two cultures so different in values that our very movements are inscrutable to the land we live in?
Because the head nod is by no means limited to land, only culture. Inherited along with the collectivist values it reflects, the shake is used by people of South Asian descent even if they’d never been to the mainland. Rather, surrounded by friends and family, the act is transmitted within a country far away from its origin, learned from everyday interactions.
And so whether Indian or Indian-American, whether speaking the language of the motherland or not, the head shake is still understandable across such barriers of language. But in its presence in the X-American, two cultures are forced to inhabit the same movements: one body inherits the simple, clean nods of yes and no, and at the same time learns how to move the neck in a figure eight to say both.
Hours spent on makeup and wardrobe, sweat and anxiety poured into weeks of practice, and the restless nerves before a performance – ManyFacedGodX enters the stage. Dressed in a handmade bodysuit and reality-altering makeup, Dornika Kazerani is no longer themselves. They have manifested a new face for their godly powers to possess. For this performance, ManyFacedGodX strips themselves of the image of their body and immerses the crowd in pure experience as they dance freely. The Sunday after November 2nd show, Kazerani wrote on their Instagram:
“As long as I move,
I am in my river –
A snake in the waves.”
Like other artists of the diaspora, Kazerani performs to liberate their truest self. Kazerani has joined a collective movement within the diasporic community to create a third space for immigrant artists to explore the relationship between hostland and homeland. Performing in the nightclubs of Berlin, university, and festivals, Kazerani is part of spaces that allowed them to not only fit in, but to transcend. They are able to share art that goes beyond the surface to express the intersection of cultures.
Born in Tehran, Iran, Kazerani moved to Berlin, Germany at 22 to study fine arts at The Berlin University of the Arts. Kazerani received a classical education in sculpture during high school in Iran, but their recent projects have evolved into an interdisciplinary form of writing, visual arts, and performances that draw on their experiences as an Iranian woman. Kazerani has delved deep into diverse forms of expression including body work, drag, and experimental music.
Having lived through an American and Iranian upbringing, Kazerani felt the deep impact of displacement when they moved to Berlin. “You get so used to a surrounding with certain rules and dynamics until they are ingrained in your being,” Kazerani said. “And then you’re put somewhere where everything is different, but those rules and dynamics are still in your body and its memories.”
Kazerani’s desire to understand the restrictions imposed by society on identity and self-expression inspire their art. In Berlin, Kazerani creates art that addresses displacement, body trauma, and mental health – all issues that they feel they need to heal for themselves. Recently, they have been performing with a group of drag kings called the Venus Boys in the Berlin bar Silver Future. The Venus Boys use drag to represent, challenge, and subvert masculinity in a performance where the world is for a moment suspended into fantasy. On the stage, they invent a world in which definitions are different, rules are perverted, and the story is their own.
Through the art of dance, drag, and character-creating, Kazerani explores resistance and resilience. “I am expressing myself with the freedom to explore, without the taboos and social limitations that could have existed for me in Iran.”
Thousands of miles away in Oakland, California, Saba Moeel, known by her artist name Cult Days, harnesses the power of social media to expand representation. Cult Days family moved to the US when she was three to escape Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Now the artist behind Instagram’s @PinkCatDaily, Cult Days channels her experiences with spiritual and comical cartoons that chronicle the stories of Pink the cat. Cult Days says she intends to create a bigger movement than just an Instagram page. Since launching the account in 2016, Pink Cat has rocketed to 116 thousand followers and gained enough momentum for Cult Days to open a headquarters in Richmond, California.
Growing up as a Muslim, Southwest Asian woman in Oakland, Cult Days’ community was diverse, but without anyone like herself. Cult Days spoke to the experience of growing up without a community of celebrities, musicians, and artists who are Middle Eastern or Muslim.
“My parents didn’t really want to be in the US,” she said. “No one wants to go to the country that is the cause of why you need to leave your own country. They left generations of wealth, their entire network, family, cousins – the people who share their experiences in the world.”
Despite living in racially diverse cities such as Oakland and Chico, California, Cult Days’ struggled to find a community representative of her experiences. This lack of representation drove Cult Days to create art, fashion, and music that allowed her to share her culture with those who let her be a part of theirs.
“People don’t know anyone like me. But I know a lot of people like them,” Cult Days said. “It’s my job to present to people who I am – I was born in Iran, I’m Muslim, but I also grew up in the Bay Area with all the influence of the Bay Area.”
This is where the cartoon of Pink, a Middle Eastern, Muslim cat, comes in. The cartoons of Pink often depict religious or social situations in cartoons written in English, Farsi, Arabic, and Korean. These have become immensely popular among the young Southwest Asian, North African and Muslim communities. Pink has emerged in social media as an influential voice for these groups that often go unheard in American art communities.
Cult Days is mobilizing Pink to strengthen her artistic movement and eventually one day create an “e-nation.” With the new Pink Cat headquarters, Cult Days has a physical space for artists and professionals to collaborate and spread a peaceful message of inclusion, diversity, and brazen honesty through social media. For Cult Days, the Internet served as her original third space to spread a message through creativity.
“It’s going to be poignant,” Cult Days said. “It’s going to be educational about what we’re doing right or wrong.”
To Cult Days, Pink Cat is a deity. She said, “She is the Internet. She can stream this huge amount of information in the real wild-wild west, the Internet.” Cult Days described her relationship with Pink as the Slim Shady to her Eminem. Pink Cat can brunt the consequences of saying things Cult Days wouldn’t necessarily, but she feels should be shared. The Pink Cat cartoons share Cult Days’ message to be honest about who you are, to pursue growth, and not lose faith.
Far from their homelands, Kazerani and Cult Days have never let go of their origins. They use their art to provoke questions against the status quo and share their unique perspectives with the world. Pushing audiences to challenge their perspectives over social media and on a stage, these artists are giving their communities a voice to bring new narratives into society’s collective conscious.
Music strum with the oud, freshly cooked Mansaf and dabka dancing come to mind when picturing Palestine, according to second-generation Palestinian-American college student, Mohammad Jubran. In a perfect world, this image would be the only truth.
With a military occupation of over 50 years, Palestine’s reality is one that weighs heavily on the identities of Palestinian-American young adults. Often times, along with participating in activism, Palestinians maintain their identity through imagining a liberated homeland where Palestinians are free to return. Without the ability to visit or return to their homeland, Palestinians claim their identity only through memories, stories, and photographs passed down from previous generations in their family. The simultaneous physical and mental displacement forces Palestinian youth to struggle with identity construction.
This struggle is deeply felt by the likes of Jubran, whose grandparents were forcibly displaced into Jordan after Al-Nakba: the Palestinian exodus. Jubran’s parents grew up in Jordan and eventually immigrated to America as adults. While growing up in Los Angeles, Jubran visited Jordan every summer.
Although he was able to see his family, Jubran had little room to develop his Palestinian identity. Many Palestinian young adults embrace their heritage while living in the diaspora. However, their displacement still causes confusion. As a child, Jubran felt disoriented while juggling three different identities.
“I didn’t know I was Palestinian until the end of middle school and beginning of high school,” Jubran said. “As I got older, I actually began to delve into my identity a lot more. The displacement really erases your actual identity. I grew up thinking I was Jordanian because that is all I experienced until I began asking questions.”
Although he only visited his homeland once as an infant, Jubran says his current connection to Palestine is “strong and spiritual.” Like many displaced Palestinian young adults, he depends on his own memory and awareness of Palestine to keep this piece of his identity strong.
First-generation college student, Jumana Esau, says that her family’s displacement into Jordan caused confusion for her growing up particularly because she identified as Jordanian as much as she did Palestinian. This is quite common — approximately 70% of Jordan’s population is made up of displaced Palestinians, many of whom consider Jordan a second homeland. Living in Jordan for five years caused Esau to develop a deep connection to the land.
“I’m very grateful to Jordan because it’s a small parcel of land with barely any resources of its own, taking in all these refugees,” Esau said. “I would not be where I am today if my parents didn’t go to Jordan.”
Although Jordan acted much as a safe haven, Esau believes it caused her connection to Palestine to become muddled because she was never able to meaningfully experience Palestine first hand while growing up in exile.
“When I was young, I was skeptical it [Palestine] even existed because when you’re young, you only believe what you see,” Esau said. “As I got older, my perception has gone from questioning if this place exists to I know this place exists but I don’t know where or how I fit in.”
It’s common to see Palestinian youth fully embrace their Palestinian identity as they get older, and develop their own connections with their homeland. Constructing and maintaining Palestinian identity directly lie in the hands of Palestinians who keep their roots and history alive.
Since Palestine is constantly being denied the basic right of existence, the passion for the homeland and culture, coupled with participating in activism, are often some of the only things Palestinian-Americans have to hold onto. Much of this passion is often displayed in the form of fierce activism targeted at raising awareness for the Palestinian cause.
Palestinian college student, Cenna Abboushi, is one of the many who eagerly participate in protests and other types of activism. Abboushi has been an activist since the age of 15 and most recently has participated in raising awareness through Anti- Zionism week at her university. Similarly to Jubran and Esau, Abboushi also struggled with her identity as a child due to the displacement of her family into Jordan. Since she grew up thinking she was half Jordanian and half Palestinian, Abboushi did not always feel a connection to the activism around her.
“When I was in elementary school, people in my school would protest for Palestine and I didn’t always know if I was allowed to be helping them because I thought I wasn’t full Palestinian,” Abboushi said.
The effects displacement had on Abboushi didn’t allow her to truly connect with her full identity until she was old enough to discover it herself. With age, however, she was able to secure her identity in part due to activism.“Activism helps me remember my identity even though I live here [America] where it’s hard to avoid assimilating into American culture. I am able to educate others about my culture instead of just the other way around” Abboushi said.
This passion for activism fuels the hope of freedom and allows for the integrity of Palestine to live on regardless of the realities of war and occupation
Identity construction proves to be a complex journey for many displaced Palestinians. Whether it’s Jordan or another neighboring country, forced exile leads to generational confusion that can take years to unravel. Nevertheless, Palestinians maintain their identity strongly through their passion for the homeland.
“Power lies in representation. The only thing we have to hold onto is our passion for our homeland,” Esau said.
“Coolie” in many South Asian languages commonly refers to an individual that carries heavy loads and does unskilled tasks. For Indian laborers working on plantation estates in British colonies circa 1890-1902, this simple word was shaped into a derogatory slur that eventually became a part of their identity. The word “coolie” began to take a literal form as workers carried the pain and suffering their British oppressors imposed upon them.
The British were in need of labor and a compliant population willing to work for cheap for their sugar plantations. British-hired recruiters would use outright fraud and deceptive methods like making Indians “fear[ful] of being beaten up, prosecut[ed] for kidnapping before unsympathetic magistrates or having their licenses canceled,” to coerce them into agreeing to travel to unknown locations as laborers. The Fiji Islands were one of the colonies where the laborers would travel.
During this time, approximately 60,995 Indians voyaged to Fiji. Of the first Indians to go to Fiji, “45,833 went from Calcutta and 15,132 from Madras.” Then the reality hit them: this was a trap. A long journey of hard labor and unfair working conditions awaited them.
In 1921, despite knowing the risks, people from Gujarat and Punjab joined the groups traveling to Fiji seeking economic opportunities. Records reveal that Fiji had the highest suicide record of indentured laborers among the British colonies. In an unfamiliar land away from everything and everyone they considered their own, many Indo-Fijians began experiencing, “ homesickness, jealousy, domestic unhappiness”,. This coupled with an inability to return home to India all contributed to the “coolie” diaspora’s suffering. This level of trauma, transferred to generations of Indo-Fijians to come, is a driving force behind the struggle of Indo-Fijian identity construction today.
As of 2018, 37.5% of the Fijian population is of Indian descent. Many Indo-Fijians immigrated abroad to become a part of other diaspora communities. Moving out of Fiji’s borders brought a new challenge for Indo-Fijians: attempting to converse with others a history and an identity that still remains an unfinished puzzle for the diaspora.
With the question of identity being widely discussed, the conversation and self-discovery of identity has fallen on younger generations, some of whom take great pride in their Fijian heritage. Pallavi, aka Fijiana, is a Fijian rapper living in California. In her song, “Identity,” she speaks about Indo-Fijian diaspora’s lack of representation, and the “coolie” diaspora globally. “I noticed the need to constantly insert the ‘coolie’ narrative since people around me constantly forgot about it,” Pallavi said. Even at a South Asian Activist camp Pallavi attended, there was still clear room to learn about Indo-Fijian issues. This fight for acknowledgment of Indo-Fijian history drives the need to wear Fijian culture’s forgotten customs as a badge of honor. Pallavi naturally tapped into her music career as a medium to showcase more representation of the “coolie” diaspora.
“I have been focusing on my Fijian Identity because I noticed that when I let people think of me as Indian or Indo-Fijian, it kind of erases my ancestors [from Fiji] and their struggles,” Pallavi said. This ideology sprouts from people automatically grouping Fijians with Indians. Furthermore, Pallavi’s desire to honor and remember Indo-Fijians’ plight is rooted in systematic erasure of the Indio-Fijian experience within wider British colonial intervention despite being as brutally used as indentured laborers by the British as other commonwealth populations.
“Being ‘coolie’ is like navigating the South Asianness which I carry on my skin, in my features, etc, whereas the other culture [Fijian culture], the struggles and the journey isn’t that easily seen, so I think [I] have to talk about that more,” Pallavi said. Indo-Fijians don’t choose to forget or discredit their South Asian heritage.
Rather, it’s the complexities in the “coolie” history that motivates cultural selections between Fiji and India. For newly arrived Indians to Fiji, the Indian culture reminded them of their old homes, and provided sanity in a place that felt insane to them. Naturally, adjustment to the new environment, newly gained relationships with native Fijian culture, and cultural similarities all allowed for the Indo-Fijian or Fijian culture that had emerged. For Indo-Fijians living abroad, an additional layer of complexity comes from the culture of their new home. Some Indo-Fijians maintain balance by omitting the traditional Indian culture and incorporating aspects that their forefathers decided to carry on. Ultimately, the relationship became an effort to consciously formulate an identity to pay respect to the hardships of Fijian forefathers.
This unsteady search for identity all depends upon the experiences heard or seen about the Fijian “coolie” diaspora. The younger Indo-Fijian generation relies on the oral histories of older generations to help them construct their own identity. “I don’t think we had that kind of privilege and ability to carry these kinds of stories. Most stories ended at my grandma, and I don’t even know if anything said is accurate,” Pallavi said. This lack of information limits young Indo-Fijians’ curiosity about their roots in India. Thus, even with the desire to tie themselves to a location in India, the inability to find a relation forces them to lean heavily on their Fijian heritage to ground them.
Indo-Fijian history is a puzzle. And with so many pieces erased forever, younger generations must fit together their information of the past and the present to create a new puzzle altogether. Call them Indo-Fijian, call them Fijian, or even call them “coolie”, people like Pallavi have taken on the mantle of educating others about the Fijian “coolie” narrative. They have taken the conversation back into their hands and have decided that it’s time to pull the rug off and put a mirror in faces that previously chose to not recognize the diaspora by automatically grouping them with another community. The displacement to Fiji left their ancestors to find a new place to call home, now their descendents are here, finding a place in the world.
At an estimated 30 million, the Kurds are among the world’s largest stateless population. They are dispersed across four corners of the modern nation-states of Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), Syria (Western Kurdistan), Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and Northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), where the autonomous Kurdistan region is located.
The scattered nature of their community has burdened Kurds in diaspora communities with a sort of double displacement: while they reside in a hostland far away, their homeland’s population is physically fragmented, and its existence attempted to be erased and denied. Second generation Kurds in the diaspora carry the weight of these circumstances as they grapple with defining their position in relation to their multiple identities. Their work pairs artistic expression with activism to create wider visibility of their homeland’s culture and struggle.
Sayran Barzani (@sayran) is a Los Angeles based jewelry designer whose intricate pieces are inspired by her Kurdish roots and the regional Southwest Asian North African (SWANA) cultures while including a “western flair.” Her pieces combine geometric shapes and bright colors with traditional cultural symbols such as the evil eye, the Egyptian eye of Horus, and the Hamsa hand. She describes her jewelry as “where east meets west:” a notion she personally identifies with in terms of her cultural identity.
Sayran found it challenging to understand her identity while growing up in America, and she felt equally alienated when going back to visit Kurdistan.
“I’ve been visiting Kurdistan for the past decade…the longest [visit] was three months when I was eighteen,” Sayran said. “The first time I went, [the experience] was in my face in a sad way. I was ready to come back here, and [I was] ungrateful of the experience. Looking back, that was the best experience I had and didn’t appreciate it.”
Her feelings changed, however, when she revisited about a decade later in 2017: “I accepted [I’m] never going to be 100% like the people there, and never going to be 100% American, and accepting that allowed me to experience the country for what it really was.”
While growing up in Dallas, Sayran and her sister were two out of the three Kurds in her entire school. She recalls the hurtful childhood experience of having to explain where she was from, only to be met with confusion from her classmates.
“I remember in fifth grade someone asked me, ‘where are you from?’ and I had to point because technically [Kurdistan] is not on a map, and they would say, ‘Oh, you’re from Iraq.’ I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say it–I was such a shy girl–but I remember thinking, ‘No, Saddam Hussein almost killed my family [and] gassed my grandma’s village’,” Sayran said. “But as a child, you can’t put those things into words. As a kid, I was so desperate to see it on a map, I remember thinking at one point that maybe they spelled it wrong, maybe it’s Kyrgyzstan.”
Jiyan Zandi is a creative director, artist, photographer, and founder of Local Brown Baby(@localbrownbaby), a media platform that celebrates cultural heritage, reclaims historical narratives, and tells the stories of empowerment through personal, local and global struggles. She describes her work at the intersections of content production, fashion, and lifestyle with both a social justice perspective, and a focus on cultural representation and celebration.
Born to a Kurdish father and Mexican mother, Jiyan grew up in San Diego, Calif., another city with a large Kurdish community.
Jiyan learned about her Kurdish heritage from her father. “The way [my father] taught us was through food, music, dance–through very vibrant culture references,” Jiyan said. “That’s the way that I got my Kurdish side; it was from a very artistic perspective.”
One of the reasons for the creation of Brown Baby was to express the many dimensions of her identity through an artistic medium. “I didn’t really understand myself, and my art has always been that way of figuring it out and showing how I feel in my mind,” Jiyan said. “One of the photos I would take is me in a Kurdish dress holding a Hip-Hop magazine.”
For Jiyan, self-portraits and art are a way of expressing the juxtaposition of the different worlds she navigates.
“[For] my dad, his homeland is Kurdistan, and he’s here in the United States, and those are just two places he navigates,” Jiyan said. For her, the experience is far from binary: “You’re never Mexican enough, and you’re never American enough and you’re never Kurdish enough,” she added.
Through Brown Baby, Jiyan hopes to create a space for women who share this complex experience.
“You have to create the spaces that you wish existed, and that’s what Brown Baby has done. It [has] connected me with the right people who [had] similar experiences that I did growing up as a Kurdish girl in America–growing up with pop culture and being misunderstood,” Jiyan said. “I grew up with 90’s Hip-Hop but also my dad would tell me stories of his homeland and play Kurdish cassette tapes in the car. What do I make of all of that?”
Nuveen Barwari is an artist whose multidisciplinary work is also inspired by her heritage. Nuveen is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the founder of Fufu Creations(@fufucreations), an apparel and art company. A native to Nashville, Tennessee, Nuveen is part of the largest Kurdish community in America. Growing up in Nashville and attending school for five years in Dohuk, Kurdistan, her identity is something that she describes as “continuously changing”. Throughout the years, she has come to identify as a Kurdish woman living in America.
“Growing up, I was thinking: wow, this is so cool, I have cousins that live all over the world, and I get to visit them,” Nuveen said. “When I grew up, I realized [that] this is not cool at all. We’re so displaced; the Kurds are scattered everywhere.”
As these artists create work representing their diasporic experience and culture, they also garner inspiration from the incredible immigration stories of their families, who came as refugees to the United States in the 1970s.
Sayran’s family came to the United States to flee the Ba’athist party’s Arabization campaigns, a series of violent raids throughout northern Iraq aiming to wipe out the region of non-Arab ethnic minorities. In 1974 her grandfather, Jamal Bekhtyar, painted a political poster about the tragic violence imposed on the Kurds by the Ba’ath party. “The Ba’ath party saw [the poster] and wanted my grandfather dead,” Sayran said. “They got him at some point, but he escaped jail and ended up getting shot in the leg.” Following this incident, Sayran’s grandfather fled Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, and traveled by foot to Tehran, Iran. Here, they lived in a tent for a year before receiving their paperwork for political asylum and relocating to North Dakota through a church sponsorship.
The incredible experience of her family has led to Sayran’s own activism for the Kurdish community. Sayran launched an exclusive Rojava earring set with 100% of the profits going towards emergency aid provided by organizations such as Heyva Sor and the Lotus Flower. The funds aided the Rojava region in northeast Syria when nearly 300,00 people were displaced as a result of Turkeys offensive into northeast Syria in October 2019.
Nuveen’s family were also made refugees as a result of the violence taking place in northern Iraq. Nuveen’s father, Muhammad Said Barwari, was part of Peshmerga, Kurdish guerilla fighters leading the rebellion against the Iraqi Ba’athist regime. Like Sayran’s family, Nuveen’s father also fled to Iran, unable to go back due to his political status as Peshmerga, and ended up coming to the United States in 1977.
Jiyan’s father, Salah Zandi, immigrated to the United States as a political refugee in 1977. “Saddam Hussein promised he would give [Kurds] autonomy. He didn’t; he betrayed them,” Jiyan said. “During that time, my father had to flee to Iran with [Mustafa] Barzani.” Zandi was a Peshmerga fighter since he was 17 years old, eventually moving his way up to a political strategist. “My dad was [a] guerilla fighter in the mountains. They didn’t have a lot.” Jiyan’s father was later sponsored by the Agape Foundation and immigrated from Iran to New York first and eventually moved to San Diego.
Jiyan gains inspiration from her father’s incredible and arduous immigration story to uplift the Kurdish struggles for independence.
“It’s a way of validating that we might not be on a map [and] the only thing you might hear on the news is about war and violence; but I’m here to show you that there’s so much more: there’s this beauty, there’s so much complexity, and there’s so much color to this world that you only know through this black and white media binary.”
The validation of these stories is a powerful sentiment that resonates with Nuveen’s work as well. She explores this through the depiction of mobility between the United States and Kurdistan.
“There’s a duality happening with the hot Cheetos [and rugs]. I think about the time and place[s] the hot Cheetos would travel from America to Kurdistan when I lived there. There is this cultural exchange happening. There’s this constant east and west exchange. I create a lot of these alternative borders in my work. Some [pieces] don’t have borders; [for those pieces] I’m leaving the borders open.”
On Nov. 9 2019, Alfred was on a bus to Washington D.C., mindlessly browsing the internet when he saw his name plastered on the Global Times, a Chinese nationalist newspaper. In an official statement by the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Chinese government wrongfully accused him of being a member of a terrorist organization, the World Uyghur Congress.
Alfred is a twenty-two year old Uighur Muslim born and raised in East Turkestan, officially known as the XUAR. In 2015, he came to the United States to pursue a college education in Economics, and later switched to Computer Science.
It has been two years since he has been able to speak to his parents. Alfred’s mother and father, a math teacher and journalist for the state television respectively, were detained inside internment camps. His mother was detained from December 2017 to early 2019. He has been unable to contact over a dozen of his imprisoned relatives and loved ones in East Turkestan, including those who remain outside the camps. Chinese authorities have banned Uighurs from contacting relatives outside of the immediate region. Even if granted the chance to speak with them, Alfred fears that reaching out to anyone back home “will get [them] detained.”
Internment camps are just one aspect to the Chinese government’s slow, calculated project of ethnic repression and internal displacement of the Uighur Muslims. Mass detention of Uighurs is relatively new, but anti-Uighur policies and actions are not. Although they Uighurs have lived in the region for thousands of years, Uighurs of East Turkestan were brought under Chinese rule in 1911.
In 1949, the region attempted to declare independence, but the movement was crushed soon after. Then, demonstrations in the 1990s led to a temporary independent status. The Chinese government swiftly responded by curtailing any seperatist sentiment. A series of violent protests in 2009 to 2014 continued to escalate tensions which ultimately culminated in the most severe crackdown yet— the opening of the internment camps.
Today, China exploits the Uighurs’ plight to paint their narrative as a terrorist threat to national security. Alfred frames this issue as one of cultural imperialism and colonization, not of Islamophobia. Targeting Uighurs has more to do with China’s interest in controlling the oil-rich East Turkestan, and erasing Uighur identity than with suppressing their Islamic faith.
“If the current situation was due to Islamophobia or China’s treatment of Muslims, there would also be camps in Ningxia [another autonomous region, in north-central China],” Alfred said. “There are over 10 Million actual Chinese Muslims called Hui, who practice way more strict form of Islam, and there is no single camp there, and they are not subject of internment camps and other crackdown like in Uyghur Autonomous region.”
Alfred’s story —from his childhood in Xinjiang to his current efforts to bring justice to the Uighur community — shines light on the Chinese government’s campaign of forced ethnic assimilation.
“Even before the crackdown, there were [Uighur] people who disappeared–people who said something or did something, or showed any sort of resistance against the central Chinese government,” Alfred said
By 2005, the Chinese Government required classes from elementary school to university to be taught only in Mandarin. Government workers and educators, such as Alfred’s mother, were not allowed to wear headscarves. Uighur language and cultural classes were restricted throughout the education system.
Uighurs have a rich cultural history filling Xinjiang with traditional dance, music, and art spaces. Muqam, a style of classical music, has been collected into an epic called “the Twelve Muqams” and is considered an “Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” by U.N.E.S.C.O. But over time, openly practicing these traditions became more and more dangerous. When such “re-education” camps first opened in 2014, the immediate targets were those who actively participated in cultural or religious spaces.
If one were to openly practice their Islamic faith, pray, or fast, they were in danger of detainment. Moreover, those who had any association with foreign nations—whether they had relatives abroad or had studied abroad—were at greater risk.
Even during Alfred’s younger years, China was gradually becoming a surveillance state, specifically targeting Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. Police checkpoints were set up every 100 meters. Police were granted the power to enter and reside in Uighurs’ home for extended periods of time without permission or previous warning. Phones were frequently confiscated and randomly checked by police. Internet firewalls often prevented communication with loved ones. Alfred managed to get a green card in order to study in America, but many Uighurs are barred from leaving their own cities without a permanent resident card.
Even so, when reports of the internment camps emerged, he was shocked at how such atrocities could occur “in the 21st century.” China’s efforts of forced integration of Uighurs had gone on for decades, but had never undertaken a project of mass incarceration on this large of a scale.
Such ”re-education” significantly centers around criminalizing Islam, and punishing Muslims who practice their faith. Prisoners are forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, and take courses which aim to turn them away from Islamic cultural and religious practices. They are barred from praying, or donning traditional garb.
Jessica Batke, a former State Department research analyst reported that detained Uighurs are tortured through waterboarding, isolation, starvation, and sleep deprivation.
Alfred was afraid to speak out about his family’s treatment in XUAR instead choosing to keep his Uighur identity hidden.
“I stayed silent for a while–I even stayed away from the Uyghur community in the United States,” Alfred said. “I followed every one of their rules. But my parents still became victims.”
Contact with relatives back in China makes Uighurs more likely to be targeted by the government; Alfred is still fearful that anything he may say or do will provoke the government and put his family in harm.
On Nov. 17, the Global Times, published another article condemning Alfred, claiming his relatives were “ashamed of the scum among their families,” and his activist abroad. They claim his mother, “lives a normal life and is not under detention,” and wants Alfred to “not be manipulated by others.” His father, who has also been accused of “harboring a criminal and inciting national enmity or discrimination,” and has been detained for a sentence of nineteen years and ten months. Alfred is shocked by these false accusations.
”To be honest I don’t even know how I feel now. All I hope is my father can be released as soon as possible and my family can get some rest and treatment,” he said.
Alfred, along with other Uighur immigrants, has met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss China’s repression of Uighurs, and how the U.S. will address this human rights issue. On Dec. 3 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act which calls for sanctions on members of the Chinese government. The U.S. is also one of twenty-three countries that signed a multilateral statement at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in Oct., condemning Chinese treatment of Uighurs.
Fifty-four countries stand in opposition, including Russia, Egypt, and Pakistan. They defended Chinese internment camps as counter terrorist efforts intending to protect human rights.The geopolitics these letters reflect speak to the complexity and global reach of China’s actions, and will likely inform future reactions to the current situation. Still, Alfred hopes that the global community will condemn China’s actions, and put an end to these atrocities.
Darwish fled from his village, al-Birwa, never to live there again. Taken from his indigenous land and forced to watch as the Israeli forces leveled and occupied his homeland into the new Israeli state, children like Darwish were lucky to make it out alive during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Like so many that came before and followed after, Darwish recollects on his homeland where he learned to read from his father’s books and speak in his mother tongue. He remembers Al-Birwa, his bayt, as a place of open spaces, a place of fields and watermelons, olive and almond trees. “I remember the horse that was tied to the mulberry tree in the yard and how I climbed on to it and was thrown off and got a beating from my mother…I remember the butterflies and the clear feeling that everything was open. The village stood on a hill and everything was spread out below.” Darwish remembered the sky and the moon, orchards and basil, thyme and orange groves. All he could do was remember.
Growing up in Israel and forced to join in Israeli celebrations with a school of people who treated him like a second-class citizen, Darwish knew his place. He became familiar with the intense emotions he felt during this precarious time of his youth, with the anger drove his poetry’s message and the outrage filled his pens with ink. He may not still have the poems, but he recollects how his youth was filled with questions of equality and rights. “You can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can’t. You have a house, and I have none. Why can’t we play together?” Why can’t Darwish and his family return to his village? Why can’t he have the same rights as his classmates? Why?
The cultural world held its breath after Darwish died in August of 2008, following heart surgery complications. A moment of mourning but also a moment of celebration, for the man that provided a voice for so many voiceless. Darwish is a symbol of the reclamation of identity, to fight back against the limits imposed on our heritage. To express ourselves, in any form we can, is the way we take back all that is taken away from us.
Other Collective is a student-run online and print media platform dedicated to covering the issues and culture of South Asian, Southwest Asian, North African (“SWANASA”) communities.