“Five is a good number. Five pillars. Five prayers. Five players on a basketball team.” So says Marwand, the protagonist of Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights In Logar (4). Marwand is visiting family in Afghanistan from the United States, reconnecting with cousins who are much more interested in soccer than basketball, a strange American sport where the whole team never plays at once. Even the family dog, Budabash, can sense Marwand’s dislocation and bites off the tip of his index finger to inaugurate Marwand’s homecoming. But when the dog runs away, Marwand is eager and insistent to find and bring Budabash back. Thus begins an adventure: a band of boys in search of a dog, sweeping through the villages and mountains of Afghanistan at a time when the war is at a low frequency, a familiar background noise of daily life.
In many ways, the novel is a werewolf story. For Marwand, Budabash is more of a demon than a dog. Though his twelve year old imagination may be spurred by the bootleg DVDs like An American Werewolf in London he watches with his cousins, Budabash certainly has some supernatural tendencies. The dog disappears from photographs – classic demonic behavior. But as we learn more about the history of Marwand and Budabash’s relationship, it becomes clear that Marwand, too, has a streak of evil. At age six, Marwand tortured Budabash profusely, and “the dog just suffered it” (78). His simultaneous villainizing and villaining toward the dog is not unlike the United States’s relationship to Afghanistan. What are the mythologies and stories we create and tell ourselves when we go to war? What stories get lost or eroded in the process?
The penultimate chapter is written in Pashto (or Farsi?). My confusion and readers’ confusion at large seems to be exactly the point, powerfully protecting a part of the story so that it is accessible only to those who know, are tied to, or have learned the language. Kochai’s novel not only explores what American imperialism looks like, but directly resists American narrative imperialism in which English and US centric narratives are the only ones disseminated and understood. Even though I have a first grade reading level in Farsi, I couldn’t muster the energy to attempt to translate, and found myself in a similar predicament to Marwand – patchworking languages to communicate with his family, discomfort with the tongue of his homeland. Maintaining and persevering language, culture, and stories is an active process in the diaspora, a truth explored in 99 Nights in Logar and embodied the experience of reading itself.
In this reinvigoration of a coming of age story and werewolf saga, stories lost and drowned by the United States imaginary are brought back up to the surface. Readers witness Marwand learn and remember, be clueless and be curious, and create and tell his own stories. Just as Budabash’s strong and scarred body is a stunning reminder and testament to the simultaneity of beauty and trauma, Kochai’s novel resists a neat narrative, weaving humor, history, pain, and growth to invite readers to experience Logar alongside Marwand and his family.
The term diaspora is something many of us can connect to or so electronic producer, Diaspoura hopes, having chosen their name to reflect community experiences. Diaspoura grew up in South Carolina and first came to Davis in May 2019 to record with UC Davis radio station KDVS. I was fortunate enough to interview and connect with them, and learn about their diasporic experience as a queer artist. Diaspoura’s performance revealed the freedom independent artists have over their identity, rewarding nonconformity in oppressive systems of identity, making it a memorable performance. As an artist, being transparent about queer identities can be very difficult; it may displace them further from an already displaced community. I relate to Diaspoura’s experience of understanding discovering this liminal state of identity, and it was inspiring to hear about how music gave them the ability to express their identity truthfully and connect queer people together, which is why music is such a powerful thing. I caught up with Diaspoura after their performance in October to explore their musical career and discuss the topic of displacement.
What inspired you in using the name Diaspoura?
“I remember reading my first ever account of a South Asian diasporic feminist. My college professor showed me a scholar named Chandra Mohanty, and in the essay, she was talking about the experience of living in America and being from India. I wasn’t born in
India, but the word…how it bridged people…it felt like a void had filled. [I] started looking [the word Diaspora] up to find more people talking about this. I was so fascinated, this was in 2015 or so, that I literally just started publishing things under the name hoping people would see it and be like ‘cool, they’re here talking about this shit too… and the music is good’. And now I’m seeing new people and articles every day who are normalizing the word ‘diaspora’. It just shows that building community across borders and oceans – it’s needed.”
How did getting into art and music let you express your identity better? What were your hardships identifying as those and showing your art and being public about it?
“As a revolutionary, art is a great way to plug people in and it’s shown to be a form of resistance to me – to be able to make content about the struggles that I have, and then organize around it. It’s helped me own my identities, and break out of this weird shame cycle that I was socialized with. In controlling societies, we are told to be quiet about our experiences and what we’re upset about, and when we vocalize them normally, it’s hard for people experiencing shame or guilt to receive that information, but art is a good way to communicate. People will listen, re-listen, and double-take, like ‘oh, I feel this too!’ It’s a great way to rebuild the public narrative. But I do want to add, musicians have the power to contribute to movements beyond narrative-building. In this way, I’m thinking, ‘OK, so my music is bringing people with a shared narrative together. What’s next after building community? What are we all doing when we’re all together?’ I’m on tour on the West Coast right now in part to host workshops to explore this topic! I am grateful to host them with my artist friend and organizing comrade, Joseph Quisol, and we hope to continue in 2020! Book us please.”
How does your experience of being queer displace you from an already displaced community?
“It is really hard noticing and speaking on your own trauma. In this light, it’s hard for me to publicly delve into it for a quick and free interview, but I will say that the transparency in my public image has helped me understand who in my extended biological family is on my team. I have two cousins who reached out this year and let me know like ‘hey what you’re doing is cool, keep doing it’, and it was really, really relieving. That relief is even a trauma-informed response, one that says we’re not normally both acknowledged and validated within our extended family. I am grateful for my parents’ effort in growing acceptance and support of my wholeness each year; my mom started practicing pronouns last summer and we will hopefully move into the sex-positivity ballgame in 2020, haha.”
How was the barrier to making music inspiring?
“Platforms create barriers for artists because they are designed and marketed as headless entities. Tech heads design them so that nobody really knows who’s developing the stuff and what their lives are like, and namely, the insane amounts of money Big Tech investors, leaders, and workers earn off the backs of independent artists, musicians, and writers. Once I had taken the first dose of platform suspicion, I started writing about the experience of being an independent, assessing my grief and fear by song-writing.”
Diaspoura uses their experience as an artist to advocate for social changes; They hold workshops about unlearning oppressive systems through their patreon website, which directly fund their art and mission. Support Diaspoura by checking out the website they created and listening to their music on Bandcamp or Spotify!
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.
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.”
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.
Who would have thunk it? Amazon released Guava Island and only had 55 minutes to leave an impact. And the best thing is they accomplished their mission.
The movie is about a man named Deni Maroon and his love interest Kofi Novia. It starts off as an innocent love story with animated little kids. Young Deni is doing what he can to woo the young Kofi. Their story shifts and jumps a huge leap in time from children to adults. Deni is still trying to write Kofi the perfect song, but suddenly their love is not at the forefront, it is established and the focus is now on Deni trying to defy the tyrant Red Cargo. Deni sings jingles for the Cargo company but he also wants to host a party. A party for the people with music and dancing. Red Cargo does not approve. This story is about tension between the little people and the world of mass production/consumerism.
The film is short but personally it left such an impact I watched it twice in one week. People have continuously talked about how representation matters. This movie is proof. I felt so good seeing African American actors and people of color filling up the screen. It took me back to my trips to Sierra Leone where nature is breathtaking but the people are being restricted from growth. The story covered love without focusing on toxic relationships and also expressing your passions. I don’t want to spoil the ending but I think the last 5-10 minutes are the most impactful. Kofi’s poise and grace in the face of oppression is nothing short of inspiring. The movie is just right for a night summer watch with family or friends.
I’m floating by in twilight anesthesia as Disgraceland overtly stares back from a distance; watching the jousting match Of sufi mystics above polluted clouds with the cypress-figured lady who gives scarlet poppies, I’m enchanted. I envy these midnight archers I have tried their dance but I don’t seem to awaken basking in the thirst of hyacinth water, floating by weakly in this opaque state, in deprivation of clarity summoning more and more tales that end with a question as crescent slashes of annihilation forbid the quest to liberation and yearning yearning yearning, ever so eternally aware of my oblivion then— swimming thrashing clashing as I drown leaving nothing but silent screams of pleading and yearning
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.