Watts Towers; photo by Minal
René, Minal and I make a trek to Watts, one of LA’s oldest neighborhoods, where we manage to catch sunset at Watts Towers (Simon Rodia, the artist who created the structure, called the work “Nuestro Pueblo”). Though the towers are lower than they appear in photographs, I’m still stunned by how one man – using found objects (glass, bottle-tops, steel, scrap metal etc.) – created these structures over a span of thirty years. Rodia’s house no longer exists but one of the arches (see photo below) marks what was once the entrance to his home.
Though I’m generally drawn to art that has direct relationship to social justice issues – such as Tropical America (1932) by David Alfaro Siqueiros that I experience thanks to my friend Veronica Reyes – I still appreciate the creation Rodia’s installation. As we peer at the mosaic through the fences, I’m reminded of Houston’s Orange Show and the Beer Can House.
On our second day in Los Angeles, René, Minal and I wake up early, so we can get to Disneyland before a crowd builds up. However, the battle to enter the amusement park without struggle is a lost cause. We have long waits at the entrance tunnel, at the park’s train shuttle, and at the park’s entrance gate. Even when inside, we face 90-minute lines that wrap around entrances to rides.
By the end of the day, exhausted from weaving between throngs of adults and children, René and I ponder over whether the experience was worth our time and money. We drive away from the park in agreement that Minal can now say she’s been to to Disneyland in its original format. In January 2016, one section of the park will be closed off so the amusement park’s Star Wars section can be further developed, and old sections of the park will be permanently removed.
As the bank teller processes my check, she asks: “You have a show tomorrow, don’t you?”
I look up from my phone, noticing her face for the first time. “Yes. We do. Are you on VBB’s mailing list?”
She nods. “I came to the show you did on the eastside. About women and Planned Parenthood. I’ve followed your work ever since.”
I have talked to this teller before. This time, I take her name, and thank her for following the work that I do through VBB. Even though the issues we explored through Women Under Siege – religious extremism and the impact on women’s lives – were frightening, I’m glad that the art we created three years ago still resonates with her.
And driving away, I marvel at how in just the space of a month I’ve had two conversations with young women of color in different parts of Houston, and they have talked with me about Planned Parenthood.
Today, I finally eat lunch at Lucy’s Ethiopian Restaurant, and I understand why I have heard so many rave reviews. The two platters I share with a friend contain four different kinds of meats and four different vegetables, accompanied by injera. Each bite is delicious.
installation of interviews from my blog
Last month, I led a storytelling workshop for women, where we talked, ate, and shared narratives about issues of displacement, the state of being transnational, and the loss one faces when attempting to come to terms with being in-between.
The workshop culminated yesterday at Houston Public Library’s second floor. Participants Sukhada Tatke and Azeb Yusuf shared their own stories and read narratives by Zema Kelleta, Tanya Jackson, Muna Tamang. Additionally, Purnima and Hemangi, students who participated in my spring 2015 workshops, performed their stories that were published in Voices Breaking Boundaries’ Borderlines Volume 2. I also read an excerpt, “Skyping My Father Goodbye” from my memoir-in-progress, one that was published in Houston’ Chronicle’s Gray Matters column.
As part of the project, I installed images from my blog that will be on view till December 29, 2015.
The reading and exhibition are part of Building Bridges: Poetic Voices of the Muslim World, presented by Poets House and City Lore, in partnership with the American Library Association and the Houston Public Library.
Once again, just a week after the bombings in Lebanon and Paris, the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hype in Europe and the US is escalating. In the meantime, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! radio show announced the premier of a new documentary, Drone, and she interviewed four US army veterans who are speaking out against using drone attacks as weapons, actions that have led to the deaths of not just marked “terrorists”, but also innocent civilians.
Stephen Lewis, a former US Air Force office who spoke out against using drones said: And there’s an old saying in Texas: You don’t back a scared animal up against the wall. And if you do that, he’s going to come out fighting. And that’s exactly, I think, what’s happening now.
As I reflect on the cycle of violence erupting around the globe, I’m thinking about the remembrance that will be held in one month in Peshawar to mourn the lives of 141 people, including 132 school children who were killed when suicide bombers stormed a military school. I also reflect on how Boko Haram’s violence and torture of women often goes unreported while the Palestinian death count continues to rise.
As a reaction to one wave of violence, an entire group of people, who have no connection to each other – let alone to the extremists – are lambasted when the US Senate votes to block Syrian refugees from entering the US. And smaller petty actions increase such as the vandalizing of a mosque outside Austin, Texas, and the burning of another one in Toronto.
This is just one short list of incidents. Many more die every day, and mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are left grieving for the rest of their lives, while their losses are unreported. Most of us know that the killings have little to do with religion, and are about complex issues that cannot be explained with a simple hashtag.
Today, I’m reminded of what Minal said a few months ago. She and her friends are ten and eleven years old, but she can express wisdom when she comments on the difference between grownups and children: “We own up and apologize, but grownups get mad and start wars…”
When I first told Minal that our friends Oskar and René were getting married and that Oskar invited me to serve as his Best Wo-Man, her first response was: “What’s the big deal?”
I had to spell it out to her that the US Supreme Court had made a ruling for sex marriage to be legalized around the US: “That’s a big deal. That means that GLBT couples can offer health insurance to each other, and they can legally parent the same child.”
She thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes, that’s a big deal.”
The wedding took place yesterday and I haven’t had time to reflect on the experience of immersing myself in a western wedding: co-hosting the bachelor party, being part of a “wedding party”, standing at the altar with Oskar and René passing the ring to the pastor, joining the other best men/women at the party and making a toast to the married couple, decorating their car with shoe polish, and so much more.
Though their wedding was nontraditional – just because two men were getting married – in other ways, Oskar and René held close to western rituals for their ceremony. And even though I’ve been in the US for half my life, I had never until now experienced a Christian wedding from so close. Through the entire experience, Harbeer, Oskar’s other best man, and I kept joking with Oskar: “Why did you pick two desis to plan everything for you? We’re clueless!”
I don’t go to Home Depot very often, but I dropped by today to exchange a toilet seat.
As the woman behind the counter processed my exchange, she threw out a comment to another woman working behind her: “I heard they closed down Planned Parenthood!”
“Really?” responded the other woman. “I think the federal government cut the funding, but I don’t think Planned Parenthood is closed.”
I jumped into the conversation: “I’ve been involved with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. They’re not closed – they’ve lost federal funding. And many women around Texas don’t have access to safe reproductive care. They have to drive hours before they can get support.”
Both cashiers were young women of color. They shook their heads at the same time. “That’s terrible,” they said.
I didn’t want to lecture, but I couldn’t stop myself: “It’s urgent that young women like you take action. You can sign petitions, join protests, writer letters – visit the Planned Parenthood website to learn more.”
Again, both women nodded. “We’ll do something.”
I drove away, feeling hopeful after listening to two women discuss Planned Parenthood, an organization that’s almost taboo to mention in US public spaces.
MC Alexis Nicole Whitney
Despite my years of being entrenched in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, I’ve never attended a drag show. But last night – even as I received flash flood alerts – a small group of us assembled at our friend Jaspal’s Montrose home, for a bachelor party that we organized for our close friend, Oskar, who will marry his long-time partner, René, in just two weeks.
Inside the dark club, René along with his mother, sister, nieces and friends assembled at tables directly in front of the stage. The table seemed cramped, so I perched at the nearby barstool.
A woman in a sparkly green dress walked onto the stage and sang karaoke to a song I didn’t know – not surprising, since I don’t listen to pop music. After she exited the stage, another woman, who served as MC, picked up the microphone.
“So the rain’s cleanin’ us up, isn’t it?” she commented. “All our dirty minds need scrubbin’, right?” She made a joke about body parts, one that I’ve already forgotten.
I took a deep breath, wondering how long I would need to listen to vulgar jokes before I could leave. But then I remembered the rain and our car-pooling system. At the urging of René, I joined everyone at the table.
As I listened, I learned that the MC, Alexis Nicole Whitney, was blind, but she navigated the stage and the mic with perfect ease. After her song ended, another older black woman shifted up to the mic to sing, and Alexis commented on how the performer needed extra love because she had experienced partial paralysis.
In between the performers, Alexis shared stories, talked to us, even directly asked me how I was enjoying the show. Without being able to see my face, she could tell I was at TC’s for the first time.
The longer I sat and listened, offered money to a singer and in return received a kiss and a smile, the more I wanted to learn about the performers and their lives.
Our group was the last to leave. By the time we stepped out, the rain had ended. I drove away from my friend’s house knowing that the performance is one that I will remember and will return to experience – not for the singing or the dramatic visuals, but for the stories.
Note: Alexis’ statement on the JC website reads:
I was born on May 7, 1976 in San Antonio. Although born in San Antonio, I now live and reside in Houston and call Houston home. I have been pursuing the art of female impersonation for 19 years. I have been visually impaired for 15 years and visually impaired meaning completely blind. During my career I have captured many city, state, local and national titles, some including Miss Unlimited, Miss TX Unlimited, Miss Tx EOY, Miss Oklahoma USofA, Miss Gulf Coast USofA at Large, Miss Dallas USofA, Miss Energy USofA, Miss Austin USofA, just to name a few. I am the Show Director here at TCs where I have been employeed 3 years. I work 5 nights a week and you can catch me as your hostess and emcee every weekend. I love to help individuals learn and grow and anyway I can help you please let me know. I look forward to hearing you here at TCs.
Yesterday, my mother, Minal and I drove to my friend Yaksha’s house where more friends joined us. After tea and a short visit, we piled into two cars to head toward BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, so we could experience a new space.
Once we parked and began walking along the man-constructed pond toward the multi-domed temple, I commented on how, though most of us in our party of seven were from India, Nepal and Pakistan, only one of us was from a Hindu background. The temple/mandir was festive, since Sunday marked the birthday of the Hindu god Krishna.
Inside the temple were sculptures and and mosaic floors, and I felt transported to another continent. After walking through the temple, we walked to the side store and purchased South Indian snacks, which we then took back to Yaksha’s house to eat together.
Once back at my house in Houston, I once again remembered how all around us mosques are being camouflaged while churches and temples are increasing in size and quantity.
As we drive to school, Minal, who will be 11 in just a few weeks, says to me: “Children are more honest and peaceful than grown-ups.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Children are honest. If they do something wrong, they own up to what they did, and they apologize.”
She shares a story from pre-school when she accidentally pushed another child into the mud. “His clothes got messed up, and the teacher was telling him that his mother would be upset. And then I said, ‘Actually, it was my fault.’ I apologized. The teacher scolded me a little, but she also said: ‘Thank you for being honest.’”
After finishing the story, Minal says: “That’s what children do. We own up and apologize, but grownups get mad and start wars…”
On our drive from Santa Fe to Houston, we take a short detour to experience Cadillac Ranch.
Dr. Ruqaiya Hasan, Hong Kong, Feb 2015; photo by Lexie Don
When our flight lands in Auckland, I turn on my phone to find messages from my sister, who is in Sydney helping with my aunt’s cancer emergency — informing me that my aunt is in critical condition. Prepare for the worst reads one text, after which there are no more messages.
Because it’s four in the morning in Sydney, I can’t phone my sister to find out what is happening, so I call my cousin in California.
“She went fast and her death was not connected to her cancer,” my cousin tells me. “She passed away the way she wanted. Without pain.”
Though the flight from Auckland to Sydney is less than three hours, the experience feels as if Minal and I are flying around the world several times over.
photo by Minal
The month of ramzaan started today, but this billboard popped up on Houston’s interstate highway I-45 just a few days ago.
photo by Paul Hester
A month has floated away, and I’m still processing my What Is Home? production, one that took months to prepare and perform.
People ask me: Were you happy with how the show turned out?
I nod, unable to explain, even to myself, why I have yet to write about the experience. Almost everything went the way I planned. The gusty wind meant that my blog interviews that OS designed had to be strung along exterior walls instead of under the pavilion as we had planned, and in the end, I couldn’t stray the ashes from the notebooks I had burned. And my fabrics remained hanging, except for one that drooped a little.
My interactive performance in the glassed-in room evolved the way Christa and I planned – audience members helped select What Is Home? excerpts through questions that I posed. Everyone listened, including children, babies, senior citizens, friends, strangers, fellow parents, health experts, fellow artists and writers. Not every single student who participated in my project was able to attend, but Purnima and Hemangi compensated well by sharing their stories and engaging audience members in a string-tying ritual. Meanwhile, women who participated in my workshop offered massage, face-threading and home-made chai and snacks.
photo by Paul Hester
In the program for the afternoon, I shared a long list of thanks for all the amazing people who helped with the production. These include VBB Board President Yolanda Alvarado and board members Gordon Anderson, Oui Duran and Lauren Zentz for attending and helping, VBB Associate Director Ana Laurel for support on too many fronts to list; all Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center staff including Ana Mac Naught, Adonias M. Arevalo, Khalid Dadani, Carlos Soto for space, time and resources; Lisa Gray, Sarah Gish, Duane Bradley and Jenni Rebecca Stephenson for marketing; Jordan Astrich and Copy.Com team for donating printing services; Jennifer Can, Amanda Madrigal at Westbury HS for connecting students and Barun, Hemangi, Kali, Purnima, Sagar and Suk for sharing resilience and hospitality; women workshop participants for their honesty and bravery; Shirin Herman for introducing me to Westbury; Lorraine Wulfe for introducing me to Baker-Ripley; Renée Stern and Lauren West and PAIR staff for transportation and promotion; Ana Laura Guzman and Yaksha Shah for coordinating snacks, body-care and storytelling; Yunuen Perez Vertti for helping, even from afar; Paul Hester for photo-table and for documenting; Helmut Ehrmann for designing table; Eric Hester for support; Heydel Cepero, Michelle Garcia and Just News team Jeremy Martin and Sean Quitzau for documentation; Jaspal Subhlok and Yaksha Shah for blog brainstorming; blog interviewees for sharing splices of their lives: Sorayya Khan, Stephanie Chapman, Lacy Johnson, Shirin Herman, Zeba Shah, Maha Khan, Kairn Klieman, Asad Ali Jafri and eL Seed, Masooma Syed, Veer Munshi, Yunuen Perez Verti and Kalyan, OS, Zakia Sarwar, Beena Sarwar, Sunita, Ana Mac Naught, Shaista Parveen, René Rodriguez, Yolanda Alvarado, Beverly Robinson and Sally Russ, Gordon Anderson, Zarana Sanghani, and Karen Martinez; Reggie Young and Liliana Valenzuela for making treks from different cities; Carmen Pena Abrego, Stephanie Chapman and Jasmina Keleman for participating in my notebook-burning ritual; Wharton K-8 families including the Fentons, Martinezes, Pelherts, Stravatos and Wongs for helping out; Karen Farber and Mitchell Center team for funding and promotion; Christina Dotterweich and all M-AAA staff for funding; Mel Chin for sharing his time and art; writers Lacy Johnson and Jacsun Shah for editing; Christa Forster for fine-tuning my performance; OS for being who he is and René R. for loaning him to me; Beena Sarwar, Salman Sarwar and Zakia Sarwar for listening; and René Saldivar and Minal for offering understanding and love as I worked on a project that has consumed me for years.
My project was supported in part by an award from Mid-America Arts Alliance, the National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. What is home? is developed in part through a residency with the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and is cosponsored by Neighborhood Centers Inc., and Voices Breaking Boundaries.
laying out final excerpts from my memoir before documents are sent to Oskar to layout
The last few weeks have been filled with meals as I spend time with friends to help me plan for my What Is Home? production, One night, Minal and I visited Christa Forster’s home, so she could work on my performance with me, and then a week later, she came over to our place, took notes as I cooked brussels sprouts, daal and chicken, and we continued more brainstorming while her daughter played with Minal,
Another night Eric Hester and Josh Turner came over to for a meal. I prepared in front of them, and together we brainstormed ideas about how to hang printouts from my blog posts. A few days later, mother friends Carmen, Jasmina and Stephanie dropped by my house (usually we meet at a bar) to share chicken karhai and mattar-pulao. We ended the evening by sitting in the back patio. There, they watched me burn old notebooks, ashes for which I will use for my performance. Jasmina read the covers of one of my notebooks and said: “I didn’t know you were in Rome?”
I can’t explain why I have to burn those memories, even as I struggle to retain others. After all, how many notebooks can a person save if one has been writing for more than 30 years? And what’s the value if some notebooks are only recordings of night dreams?
All through the past few weeks, Oskar came over and made lists while I prepared meals that nourish me and others around me. Before and after eating, we brainstormed segments of the installation / performance, figuring out lighting, ceiling height, poles in outdoor pavilion and more. Yet another night, Ana Laurel came over and I cooked kale, eggplant and potato sabzi, and she helped stitch a sari to see if it could hang from the ceiling rafter.
And then there was my quest to borrow a five-gallon tea thermos from Royal restaurant. Each time I phoned, Rahim told me, “It’ll be here tomorrow.”
Today, twenty-four hours before the production, I was able to procure the thermos and drop it off to Zehra’s so she could fill it with fresh chai. “Should I add sugar?” she asked. “How about cardamom?”
The installations are now up. Oskar is back on his computer creating more templates to be printed, even as I scribble this last-minute blog post. I then need to review my performance and field text messages from students asking about times and transportation.
This time tomorrow, the frenzy of the last year will have melted away in just a two-hour experience that took months to prepare. There will be more blog posts about what unfolded and there will be more to process.
notebooks burn in my back patio
An excerpt from my longer essay “That Long Monday Afternoon” was reprinted in the Houston Chronicle’sGray Matters under a new title: “Skyping My Father Goodbye.”
Karen Martinez, a filmmaker and a recent college graduate, talks about “home” and crossing borders:
Houston is my home. I was born in Tula, Hidalgo – Mexico – and my family moved here when I was ten. I haven’t been able to go back. It’s my parents’ home, but it’s an unclear memory for me. I’m still nostalgic for the place. My boyfriend Stan and I had conversations about where we come from. He was under the impression that we come from the same space. But we don’t. His father is Vietnamese and his mother is Chinese and he was born in Dallas. Cowboy!
He asked me if Tula is my home. I first said I didn’t know but then realized Houston has shaped me. I had a ticket to New York and I was about to go, but I cancelled my flight at the last moment, and I am still in Houston.
I am part of the DACA program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This status has helped make me feel more welcome. Before being in the DACA program, it was difficult not being able to work legally or drive, even if other people can’t tell the difference. I went through DACA in January 2013 and every few years I have to pay more than $450 to remain in the program. And I still can’t cross the border, not officially. But I can work.
I remember being in Austin and talking to a senator and we were having drinks. I told him: “DACA is shit. It’s doing nothing for the parents.” Yes, I’m glad and grateful, but this was not promised to us. Obama could have done a lot better. He could have passed a different bill in his first two years, Obama promised amnesty or (a comprehensive immigration reform). The bill that was passed in 2012 does nothing for our parents.
My parents still deal with being undocumented. My father is one of the best. But there’s fear. My parents just tell me to work hard and they made sure I went to college. I do tell people around me that I’m in DACA, but I also say that I’m undocumented.
My parents left Hidalgo for financial reasons. Violence was starting. They didn’t want to see it. A lot of our family members had already crossed over into the US and that’s what my parents chose.
People don’t realize how hard it is to leave the place you call home. My parents they talk about the foods, the smells, the scenery but for me, the memory is hazy.
I find it so difficult when students around me backpack to Europe, Asia, but no one talks about the necessity of travel, the necessity of crossing. —Karen Martinez
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
Sagar’s apartment ceiling
After a sleepless night, I wake up to read a text message by Hemangi, a Westbury High School student who participated in my storytelling workshop: Did you hear about the earthquake in Nepal?
In just a few hours, I need to be at the apartment belonging to another Westbury High School student Sagar, where he and his family will host a gathering for fellow students to share their parent interviews.
Unsure of how the earthquake is affecting his family, I email Sagar: Are we still on for the gathering? Is your family in Nepal okay?
When I don’t hear back from him, I load up my car with a tray of samosas and head towards southwest Houston. Whether the social gathering takes place or not, I can at least drop off the samosas for him and the other students who are supposed to participate in the program.
But once I reach Sagar’s apartment, a group of students and their family members have assembled. We talk about the earthquake, and we also listen to the students share stories in Nepali to their parents and in English to us.
The gathering closes with a meal: Nepali chow mein, jalebi, pakoras and samosas.
On May 9, the students and their families will join me at my final production What Is Home? at Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center and they will participate in more storytelling.
But today, as we celebrate Sagar, Purnima and Barun, I am thinking of Sabeen, of the thousands dead in Nepal, and loss, even as we live.
photo by Reuters
My mobile phone ringer goes off while I’m at a lunch meeting. I glance at the phone and see that Beena is on the other side. Rather than have a clipped conversation, I tell myself I’ll call her after my meeting ends. Only later, after I drive away from Royal Restaurant, do I pick up my phone to notice more missed calls from Beena and my mother, as well as many text messages, all of which convey the news: our friend Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated in Karachi.
I spend the next twelve hours—in between more meetings—on the phone and on email with friends and family and together we grieve our loss and express rage. Since the moment Sabeen was murdered, there has been an outpouring of support for her mother, for T2F and for the extended community that Sabeen left behind. Her friends have created a Tumblr blog where anyone can leave comments for Sabeen. Some online and print stories include pieces by columnist Ghazi Salahuddin, my sister Beena Sarwar, writer Uzma Aslam Khan, artist Yaminay Chaudhri and many more.
So much to left to say, but tonight I weep.