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? project. What Is Home? production, one that 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. Everything went almost the way I expected. 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 visit Christa Forster’s home, so she can work on my performance with me, and then a week later, she comes over to our place, takes notes as I cook brussels sprouts, daal and chicken, and we continue more brainstorming while her daughter plays with Minal,
Another night Eric Hester and Josh Turner came over to for a meal I prepare in front of them, and together we brainstorm ideas about how to hang printouts from my blog posts. A few days later, mother friends Carmen, Jasmina and Stephanie drop by my house (usually we meet at a bar) to share chicken karhai and mattar-pulao. We end the evening by sitting in the back patio. There, they watch me burn old notebooks, ashes for which I will use for my performance. Jasmina reads the covers of one of my notebooks and says: “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 comes over and makes lists while I prepare meals that nourish me and others around me. Before and after eating, we brainstorm segments of the installation / performance, figuring out lighting, ceiling height, poles in outdoor pavilion and more. Yet another night, Ana Laurel comes over and I cook kale, eggplant and potato sabzi, and she helps stitch a sari to see if it can hang from the rafter.
And then there’s my quest to borrow a five-gallon tea thermos from Royal restaurant. Each time I phone, Rahim tells me, “It’ll be here tomorrow.”
Today, twenty-four hours before the production, I’m able to procure the thermos and drop it off to Zehra’s so she can fill it with fresh chai. “Should I add sugar?” she asks. “How about cardamom?”
The installations are 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.
Zarana Sanghani, who recently returned to Houston after graduate school and working New York, talks about the issue of “home” – a subject that’s close to her heart:
Feeling at home is where I can turn off and don’t have to think of presenting; home is when you don’t have to think about what you say. In many ways, home is with my parents: I didn’t have to dress up around them. I felt at home with them and didn’t have to filter too much. But there were certain conversations I reserved for my friends, talk about romance, ambitions… And in the end, there’s no one place for me that’s home.
I get attached to places. The first space I think about when you say “home” is my parents’ living room. And then I think about Alief where I was born and the people around us, my neighborhood, and then I think of every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.
When I was living in Brooklyn, I would always tell people about places in “my” Brooklyn neighborhood and I’d say: “You gotta check it out.” But I would also come back to my first home: “In Alief there’s this special place and it was so awesome…!” And even when I was just working in the South Bronx, I got so attached …I would tell people the best place to eat tacos there. If I adopt a neighborhood, it stays with me.
I always feel refreshed when I have a new environment. In a weird way, I’d gotten into a rut in New York, and so when I got back (to Houston), it was good to have a fresh perspective. I like new places and new changes.
My parents are living in Sugarland now and I’m staying with them. But I don’t yet think about Sugarland as home. I’ve found a few special places that I like. And I’d show those to you. But I haven’t adopted the neighborhood. The things I like about Sugarland is that it’s child-centered and it’s green. But as a single person without kids, I do ask whether I fit into the neighborhood.
I haven’t given the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) label much thought. What’s more important are my values and principles and what is important to me. As far as identity – it’s more about love – whom I love and how I love. It’s personal and I never got into the identity question.
And ultimately, home is more private. I feel at home when I’m with my friends – who are Indian, black, Latino/a and everything else. If I go a week or two without meeting or talking to some, it makes me feel not at home. From time to time, I let them know how much they mean to me.
And though I don’t think about the Indian label, I do talk about being Indian. A lesson I learned about being desi and American is that boundaries are made up. The more I can wear different identities the more I can be free. I like not being bound in labels. That’s what makes me feel at home, basically having the freedom to just be myself. So don’t make me choose one identity!
The question of home…? It’s difficult.—Zarana Sanghani
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
My friend Gordon talks about his sense of home as we drink tea and sip smoothies just a few blocks from his house in Freedmen’s Town, where he and his wife Christine hosted my 2012 VBB production:
Feeling at home for me is to not have feelings of anxiety and feeling that I am safe and secure – that wherever I am physically or within my own head, everything is okay. That I can relax, that I can — metaphorically and literally — take my shoes off and stay awhile. I can also feel at home in a room with the doors closed – just being in isolation. Being at home doesn’t necessarily mean being in Houston, my birth home, but that I am okay.
Houston is home in that familiarity is one part of feeling secure, which is important to me. The Third Ward, which is located near the epicenter of downtown, was where I grew up. This neighborhood makes me feel at home although I haven’t resided there since 1972. My mom still lives there, which is my current connection to the area.. If she leaves the area, I don’t think I would see this area of Third Ward as a place of maintaining permanent roots.
Strangely enough, I can feel at home even as far way as Delhi, India, where I’ve been three times – even though it’s a crazy place to be! I’ve gone on a Gandhian study tour years ago that ended in Delhi. We started in Mumbai, and took a train and bus to Delhi with stops in various villages along the way. On my second trip, I went for an auspicious Jain anniversary, and I was invited to stay in homes of family members of several Jain Samanis. And the third time, I went for an Anuvrat International Conference.
Fourth Ward is where I currently reside, but when I was growing up, Fourth Ward was another planet in that I had no familiarity with this area at all. These office buildings that we see today were not here and the Sheraton Hotel on Louisiana Street was the demarcation line between the Fourth Ward and downtown. Even to this day however, having grown up there, the Third Ward is home. I went to elementary school there at Dodson Elementary and also to Ryan Junior High – both exist today in name. I attended Stephen F. Austin High School which was close in proximity but on the East End.
The reason I live in the Fourth Ward is more related to circumstance – and not moving to the Third Ward is more about economics these days. If I had a dream choice, I’d move to the Sixth Ward (which is even more expensive that properties in the Third Ward) close to MECA and the East End would be second. I am drawn to the Third Ward, always because of the demographics, which is a part of what makes me feel comfortable. Fourth Ward/Freedmen’s Town is not my ideal neighborhood because it is growing to a point where the infrastructure of the neighborhood is being over stretched by the sheer number of people being crammed into this neighborhood of narrow and. one-way streets. Fourth Ward is gone, in the same way of the original peoples of this area. I didn’t grow up with this history and the history of Freedman’s Town that remains is “heralded” with plaques along one side of the road, which is a travesty. The true history is held on to by a generation that is aging and will soon be gone. When they pass, Fourth Ward as “Freedmen’s Town” is simply another reality that is relegated to the memories of those who care.
I’m raising multi-racial children now. My daughter is being taught and groomed in both cultures of her own DNA. She knows her Mexican side and the Black American side – which is simply an extension of who we are as a family. Black people (among our own) are acknowledged as multi-racial and although this cultural pride should always be foremost, that should no impact on how society relates to my daughter. She is being raised up to be among the best and brightest – from child to adult.
These kinds of questions help me reflect and visualize some of the experiences I’ve had and that I rarely if ever think about anymore. In the end, I think home is important but having the feeling of home is more important. What used to be home could change, so you have to find home within yourself. —Gordon Anderson
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
I meet up with my friends Sally, Beverly and Yolanda, who I know through many Houston-based spaces and organizations including Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and the University of Houston’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to view Sally’s new apartment on Kirby Drive, which she and her husband have procured while placing their current house on the market. All three are interested in learning more about my May 9 installation/performance and about my blog. I take notes as they talk about the subject of home:
Sally: When I hear the word “home” I think of people that make your life, people that you want to spend time with — which makes it a bit difficult because I’m in between spaces since my kids are in Santa Barbara and we have a house there and here!
Yolanda: For me, the word “home” brings up family, safety and where you can be yourself, sheltered from the outside world.
Beverly: I think of windows! You don’t give yourself permission to be still. I miss looking out of a window, at a bird-feeder, at greenery, the experience between inside and outside… And of course, family is part of home.
Sally: To me, the people I care about and the food we eat together is what makes you feel at home. I have things that I love, and my home is my own personal culture, the culture of a country or a city. Home is our own culture, and is filled with the things you do in that space and how you decorate: textures, spaces, culture. It’s our personal style. And we surround ourselves with what we’re most comfortable.
Beverly: My memories are on the wall, which is an altar feeling. On one wall is my grandmother’s needlework, the thing that she did. When I walk in, I see that. A lot of cool stuff is in that space. On the wall, we place clumps of ourselves.
And of course, Houston is home, although when I rent a place for a month that place becomes home.
Yolanda: The spaces at home are what make one feel comfortable: the kitchen where you do things together, cook together. And in terms of spaces, the Hill Country is not a city, but it’s an area that I enjoy. And the MFAH’s sculpture garden is another space I love.
And of course, Houston is home. I was born here. When you’ve gone out of town for a while, you come back and you always say: “Aaah, I’m home.” My grandparents are from here, though they’re also partly from Mexico…
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
Most of the interviews I’ve undertaken for my project have been with friends and family who were born in spaces other than Houston. For the next month until my 9 May installation/performance, I’ll post conversations with friends who were born and/or raised in Houston. During one such visit, my friend René P. Rodriquez jumps in with responses even without my what is home? questions posed to him:
Houston is home. But it’s not that way for most people. But for me, I have history. I went to the same elementary (Looscan), junior (Marshall), and high school (Jeff Davis) as my dad. When Dad went to Jeff Davis, it was mostly white— Kathy Whitmire, Kenny Rogers — went there. When I was there, the school was a mix of Hispanic and black.
And I’m proud in a way, but I don’t know anything else. The only way for me to know something else is to travel and visit. But for now, everything is here. I have had the desire to explore outside of Houston, but I don’t know. I would always keep coming back to this city. And it is crazy that I’m the first person on your blog who was born and raised in Houston. A lot of people say that there aren’t many people like me, but then you do start talking to people and find out that they are from here.
For me everything is here: friends, family, health, doctors. I’d be afraid to go somewhere else. But then, I have a partner who probably doesn’t want to be here.
And I know I’m in the minority in this city. When I think about people moving into this city, I think of diversity. I’m a people person. I’m all for growth. From the neighborhood that I come from, we knew we wouldn’t go to college unless we paid for it ourselves. Recently, I saw a photo on msn.com of our skyline and I was so proud of it.
If you still go by my neighborhood, Northside, it’s still the same. (Those of us from the neighborhood refer to Northside or Near Northside as just Northside. Nowadays, when you say Northside people think of the north side of town, like 45N and the Beltway, but those of us from the neighborhood know what we mean.) The biggest change is the housing and the people — and the ethnicities. There are new housing structures, but mainly the neighborhood is the same.
For me, the whole city is home, but I enjoy going back to Northside. It’s familiar. The housing and the rail and all of that is — wow! But that doesn’t erase the history of the neighborhood. It just adds to it. And I believe that it (the neighborhood) won’t change. Not everyone will be pushed out and it will be a mix.
I was 10 or 11 years old when the Moody Park riots happened. It was scary. I remember standing on our front porch and seeing the sky red from the fires. And I was glad to be home. My mom still lives in that house. They bought the house when I was a baby. I used to play baseball there. But after the riots, I didn’t go back (to Moody Park). And when I did, it was the first time in a long time. After the riots, my friends and I hung out in our front yards. We didn’t talk about what happened in Moody Park. Everyone knew of it. It was something we experienced together.
It was about the ‘hood, living in Northside. After I left the first time, I went back to live in a garage apartment and I enjoyed it very much. But I haven’t lived there since 2001.
I came out to my good friends in high school. And word got around. I was ready for it. I had already been through so much. I wanted to see who my real friends were going to be. I had a difficult time from ages 16 to 23 and I had to leave “home”. It saved my relationship with my parents. The goal was to leave the nest and now I enjoy going back. It’s home. My family accepts me and my partner. They were there when I found out I was HIV positive in 1988…when doctors told me I had 10 years to live. I’m now coming up on 27 years…
A project like this makes me proud of where I come from; I’m a proud Houstonian. I’ve never done this before, you know. No one has asked me these questions. I’m proud to be part of your project. — René P. Rodriguez
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
Today is a special day. One of the storytelling workshop participants, Sunita, has opened out her Crescent Oaks apartment for a final gathering. This past spring, during the workshop I held in the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center, I became familiar with southwest Houston’s Crescent Oaks apartment complex, but I never learned its street address. Only when giving women workshop participants rides to the apartment complex, I found that I had to drive west on Rookin Street, take the first left turn, pass by a large mosque on my right, and the apartment complex entrance appeared after the first cut in the road.
For this final spring session, everyone has committed to attend, including Shirin Herman who will bring Anjali, a woman that attended the March student presentation and who talked to many of us about her difficult marital situation.
We begin the gathering with greetings and hugs. After gift exchanges, we settle on the sofa and chairs, and I pass out the feedback forms so we can take care of business. Shirin and I transcribe feedback from Sunita and Naila (Hindi/Urdu speakers), while Nandita and Ana, Baker-Ripley’s UH-Downtown intern, scribble notes on their sheets. When feedback is shared, all participants say the workshop helped them feel part of a community.
By then, Sunita has served up dhokla and tea. As we nibble and sip, Nandita reads her story, one she has shared with us but has not been able to write until now. We know her narrative — marrying in Mumbai, moving to Houston, being abandoned by her husband and then finding her footing and completing graduate school — but seeing her words on paper and hearing her read is a new experience. When she closes, we applaud not just her writing, but where she has arrived.
The workshop ends much later than I plan, but that’s what always happens. Nandita will give Anjali a ride to her apartment and help her connect with Daya.
As we leave, we know the connections we have struck up will remain strong. Everyone offers to help me with my May 9 production, and we talk about ways to extend the workshop further down the road.
* all participant names have been changed.
photo by Salma Qazi
Spending spring break at our family friend Shaista’s home in California’s Bay Area is a welcome break from our hectic Houston schedule. One afternoon, as we recover from our long drives along the coastline, I chat with Shaista about my “home” project. Given her movement from Karachi to Houston to Lahore and now the Bay Area, she has given the concept of “home” a good deal of thought:
I haven’t had that “at home” feeling for such a long time. Every time you address that question, you’re so conflicted to find an answer.
I think that the way I feel in Pakistan feels more “at home” than here (California’s Bay Area). When I feel “at home” is when I can accept whatever is happening at face value. Like, you know, you interact with outside your world, when you’re almost forced to interact with people and things in the normal course of the day, like going to the market. That’s when you completely understand that everything around you is happening — even if it’s bad — you completely understand the reality you face. Here, that feeling only comes up when I’m with my own community.
That feeling of finding spaces or cities that feel most “at home” is a fleeting feeling that’s not very consistent. It can happen. It happens probably most in Karachi, but that’s not necessarily only in Karachi. I can be anywhere in Pakistan and feel like that.
It’s only when I feel part of a group or an event. And when it’s an event, the experience has to be mixed with certain things. It’s not only with things… I’ve thought about. I’m convinced I get that feeling when I have actually understood something about myself, like you know, some kind of music and certain kind of people. When you feel like the people around you are completely in synch with you…
I just feel like it’s not logistically possible to be in Pakistan right now. It’s more work, partly because once you live outside so long some practical things aren’t so easy. I don’t even know the streets of Karachi any more. Practically if I try to live there past a certain point, it becomes hard. In that way, the city is not familiar – like here, it’s familiar and maybe familiarity does give you that sense of “home”.
Also, I think I’ve given up on the idea of one place being “home” for me. I’ve just let that go. Intellectually, I can’t justify always expecting to feel at home. I can’t justify that necessity of being at home. I live with the knowledge that I can have that feeling – sometimes – anywhere. To articulate this is a struggle and it’s such an important issue because you can get into some sort of mission to create that feeling, so you have to deal with these feelings very carefully.
I think I’m at peace with where I’ve landed…I think so. — Shaista Parveen
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
Photo by Michelle Garcia
Baker Ripley Community Center bustles this Thursday morning since many activities are being organized around campus for a national reporter site-visit.
I drop off VBB’s Associate Director Ana Laurel, who’s helping me, to the front of the building so she can set up the sound system, and I loop around the street to find a relatively close parking spot. The weather hasn’t changed much this week; temperatures dip lower than usual for this time of year and thin drizzle slants across the street.
Despite the cold temperatures, Westbury High School students Kali, Purnima and Suk arrive, clad in desi dress-up attire while Hemangi and the boys – Sagar and Barun – are in western clothes. As the morning unfolds, some of the women from the workshop walk through the drizzle, ready to hear students read not just their own narratives, but also the stories of women workshop participants.
In one corner of the lobby, tax consultants help residents with their paperwork, on a nearby computer employee Khalid enters data, while on the far side of the long room is another gathering of women.
Ignoring the noise, I step forward, turn on the microphone and introduce the project. One by one, the students step up to read their stories. Once finished, they narrate the women’s stories. At the end, they stand together to bow and are met with resounding applause.
The morning ends with a rich meal from an Afghan restaurant giving performers and guests ample opportunity to dine together and exchange more ideas. There will be another gathering at Los Arcos apartments where most of the students live, and the afternoon ends with me giving the women workshop participants a ride to their apartments behind the mosque, and with one of them promising to host a tea for all of us at her apartment.
Today, International Women’s Day, is cold and rainy day. As I adjust to the spring time change, I reflect on the women’s workshops I’ve been offering in Houston’s Gulfton neighborhood. I’ve worked in this community before, but more with youth at a nearby high school. This time, as part of my What Is Home? project, I offered a six-session women’s workshop at the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center.
When starting out the workshop, I didn’t have a clear idea on how the mornings would unfold. At the orientation session, more than eight women attended, many seeking health, immigration, and labor support. As we entered into the workshops, attendance lowered but intensity increased as women shared stories about work practices, legal documentation issues and more. And though Baker-Ripley provided notebooks, often the gatherings consisted of conversations in Urdu and Hindi, that were then translated into English for Baker-Ripley’s University of Houston-Downtown intern, Ana Perez.
After each workshop ended, I returned to my computer where I typed out the stories, which I brought to the women the following week for correction. As I clarified that the stories would be performed, the narratives were altered so identities could remain private.
On Friday, February 27, at our final session this spring, one of the participants brought dhokla for snacks, Shirin from HISD’s Newcomer/Refugee Services brought tea, I brought fig cookies, and we read over the narratives for the last time. When it came time to part, the conversation extended well past the ninety minutes allocated for the workshop.
And then, I took the stories to Westbury High School, where I ran a parallel workshop for Nepali and Indian students, who will share their stories and also read the women’s stories on Thursday, March 12.
I haven’t run workshops or performances in this format before and am excited to see Barun, Hemangi, Kali, Purnima, Sagar and Suk perform. I’m also curious to see who will attend at ten on a Thursday morning.
Note: The image is designed by Joshua Turner, containing workshop participants’ writings in Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, Nepali, Spanish and English.
After I close out a meeting with Ana Mac Naught, Community Developer at Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center — where I’ve been running a women’s workshop and am now planning a public conversation next week — I ask her to participate in an interview for my blog. We chat in the lobby, while a zumba class unfolds before us. In her discussion about “home”, Ana says:
Responding to a question about “feeling at home” is tough for me to answer. For a while, “home” was where my mom was. She was a single mother and she was my pillar. We were in Puebla, Mexico till I was twelve years old, and then my mother got married and our family moved to South Carolina.
Today, I’m fascinated by the experience of moving. That’s something my mother shared with me – that there’s a world and we should go live it. I’ve lived in seven different countries, and each time I lived somewhere, that was my community.
I ended up in Germany even though I was determined to go to an Italian exchange program, but they required prior knowledge of the language. The German exchange programs didn’t, so that’s where I went! I also did my masters’ program in Germany and have spent time in India, South Africa, and other places. And of course, since I studied formally in Germany, I acquired German as a language also.
But now that I’m in Houston, I’m not sure where my community is. I don’t have many friends in Houston. I have more in Germany and everywhere else, actually.
I’ve been in Houston since 2009, the longest that I’ve been anywhere. My husband and I are homey because we feel like outsiders anywhere we go. It’s hard for me to find that concept of “home”— it’s a shifting term for me since I’ve moved all my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a person who would never settle.
I visited Puebla again last week and that’s where my grandma, uncle and other family members live. Though I love it there, I couldn’t live in Puebla but I could move to India!
Further down the road, I want to move to Latin America. We’ve thought of Peru for a while — my husband is Peruvian. I want my children to have the cultural life of Latin America, the accessibility of the USA and the education of Germany.
I wish I could move to Mexico, but I get exasperated there. Mexican people have no sense of hope, and there’s a lot of intolerance. There, I find extremes of both interesting and beautiful things as well as ugly. And people are struggling. There’s a sense of violence and impotence since 22,000 people are missing and no one can account for it. And you get things done if you push, if you’re a bitch.
I, myself, moved to South Carolina when I was twelve. I was sad to leave my family in Puebla. But now, I can move anywhere. And I don’t see having kids as a challenge. I think my son will adapt well.
The only things that keep us in Houston are the grandmothers and work, of course! My mom is now in McAllen, and his mother is here. She spends a lot of time in Peru, traveling back and forth, but she is here. That’s my challenge: how to move and yet make sure the children get their time with their grandmothers…. — Ana Mac Naught
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
Sometimes, I get my hair touched up at Ruby’s salon on Harwin Drive, around the corner from Hillcroft. I go to the same place for threading and waxing, and on Eid, friends and I take our daughters there for mehndi/henna designs on their hands. Though the salon is owned by a Pakistani (as are many along that strip), the women employed are from India, Pakistan and Nepal; often, I strike up conversations with them in Urdu/Hindi.
On this particular day, I’m being cared for by Sunita from Katmandu, Nepal. (The conversation below is a translation from Hindi/Urdu).
I tell her: I work with students from Nepal! Most of them were refugees from Bhutan.
She nods and responds: They live in terrible conditions just outside Katmandu. They had difficult lives, but now they are starting to get refugee status in the US. Most of them have left Bhutan – almost 90 percent. We accept the refugees in Nepal, but India has more difficult visa standards.
And she talks about her own situation: My husband won a lottery from Nepal and we came to Houston four years ago. Most of our family is here. My brother is starting a business in Colorado. My daughter goes to Memorial High School and my older daughter is at Texas A&M. My husband stayed in Houston for a year to settle us in, and then he went back to Katmandu.
He’s a government employee and he took a year’s leave to get us settled. Now he comes every six months. In a few years, he’ll have citizenship and then he won’t need to go back and forth.
I had a business in Katmandu. I was doing video editing and also documentary work. I also did filming for TV serials, but then we came here…
I still have someone working in the office over there, and I check on him when I go back. But here, I wanted to do something different, so I enrolled in cosmetology. It took me a year and half but now I cut hair. I’m the only one in the salon that cuts men’s hair. My husband doesn’t believe I do that! I’ve cut his hair a few times…
I like my work. It’s a change, but it’s fun. And I need to be here right now to get my daughters through their education. They both like it here, but let’s see what they do in the future….
I do miss my husband. We talk on Skype every day and we’re always texting. I’ll go home in the summer. And once both our daughters go to college, we can decide where we want to be…although we know we don’t want to be in the US as we grow older. It’s a much more difficult life…
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project through which I exchange and post conversations with friends, community members, artists and family members.
photo by Maha Shahid
Based in Boston where my sister Beena Sarwar has been for the last four years, she’s happy to spend a week in Houston and get a break from piles of snow. Inevitably, our conversation turns to issues of “home”, particularly since her editorial work with Aman ki Asha keeps her connected to India-Pakistan peace initiatives as does her involvement with politics and human rights issues. Here’s what she says:
I pretty much feel at home no matter where I am.
But then, there are different levels of home. Home is a place you inhabit. You know the land, and there are daily things you do in life, where you put things away in the kitchen and fold laundry.
And then you feel comfortable, and you know the ways around, walking places, where to buy groceries, traffic routes.
And then, there’s another level of how you connect with people, how far back you go with them, your association with them, and how much you have to explain yourself to them.
For me, the spaces I associate with home are wherever I’ve been the longest: Karachi (where I’ve lived the longest), Lahore, London and Cambridge (Massachusetts), for more than a few months. Also, places in India though I haven’t lived there, those feel like home.
“At home” is where you know people, where you have friends.
But for me, I need to live in a place where there are avenues to connect with people. I don’t think I could live in a suburban community. I wouldn’t feel at home. I’d feel pretty alien if I were living in a place with people that aren’t like-minded. For me, home is being close to the people who think like I do in terms of religion, politics…
Thinking about it, I might not feel that much at home with people who have a very different worldview. I might connect more with a white friend in New York than a shopkeeper in Karachi who donates to Al-Qaeda, or with a Jewish journalist who has never been to Pakistan but has ideas that transcend nation and religion.
I have no idea where I’ll be in the future. I lived in Cambridge for two years, went back to Karachi for three and a half years. There was a Rip Van Vinkle feeling when I returned to Cambridge. Some things were the same but others had changed. My daughter was no longer going to middle school; she had started high school. Little girls who had played softball with her had changed. Shops and cafes were different but the same. But it always feels like that when you go back to a place you’ve lived in for some time.
The Internet has helped me ground myself. I am also connected with a parents’ volunteer group, and I help various people with their projects. I’m beginning to understand things here better through connections such as with the Mass Peace Alliance or the Veterans Parade – I did a story on the Veterans For Peace when I learned that they had to march with a huge gap behind the main St. Patrick’s Day parade because they (VFP) allowed members of the GLBT community in their group. This year, the St. Pat’s Day parade has allowed the LGBT community to march with them – but not Veterans For Peace! I like to get copies of Spare Change and would like to do a story about the homeless.
I’m also still connected with journalists I met through the Nieman Foundation, which was what brought me to Cambridge in the first place… —Beena Sarwar
This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project.
photo by Minal Saldivar
As we drive up the freeway ramp, I notice that the freeway shack that Minal and I documented a few months ago has been “torn down”. The only vestige of the temporary home aka juggi is cardboard strewn on grass.
Minal documents the change today, as she did back in November.
As we drive to our house, I tell Minal that I once glimpsed the man who lived in the shack that is no more: He was tall and had a bicycle, I say.
Later that afternoon, as I drive to Hillcroft to prepare for my workshops, a man jumps out from under the cement underpass and starts cleaning my windshield.
I lower my window and call out: I don’t have any cash today. Sorry – please stop!
The man laughs. Don’t worry! I don’t got worries. You’re the one who has to drive and pay bills! Me? I got nothin’ so I got nothin’ to worry about.
I rummage in my glove compartment and find a few quarters. Thank you, I tell him. This is all I have today…
He jingles my change and smiles: That’s all it takes for me to be happy!
Minal’s eyes widen when I tell her about the conversation. But how can he be happy if he lives under a freeway? she asks. He doesn’t have a house or a car….or anything.
I say: His home is under the freeway. He believes he has freedom.
My essay, No Borders: Delhi Twenty-Five Years Later about my travels to Delhi appeared in Aman Ki Asha, a print and online newspaper that’s a peace initiative between the Jang Group and Times of India.
In the dim light before dawn, as the taxi meanders between neighborhoods to find Singh Sons Hotel, I catch sight of an elephant with its owner plodding along the street. Rubbing my eyes, I peer out of the window but the bulky sight is left far behind in the winter darkness. Later when I tell my Delhi-based friend Fawzia, she nods: People rent elephants for weddings, she tells me. They walk to different parts of town, and sometimes they have to start that early to cover thirty miles.