Immigrant Making Art Origin Story
1982: I’m a toddler and my hair—black, long, knotted—has been brushed and pinned back with butterfly barrettes. I am seeing my grandmother for the first time, and she puts my small hand into hers, giving me a blue rock that came out of Afghanistan’s ground, where she just came from, too. I am not crying about this, but my father is. I am not yet caring that she escaped Afghanistan, like an adventure star. Like Rambo. And so I hide from her for most of the year, wondering what she is saying.
The ‘80s: Grandma and I speak in code. Her language, Dari, is a network of sounds that appears daily like a comforting yet complex Led Zeppelin song that a five-year-old doesn’t get but likes the energy of. I spend a lot of time in this sound, because it is she who takes care of me while my parents work and do all their traveling.
This means I am always feeling out what she is trying to say. And I come to understand that knitting me a sweater is making her happy and me happy all at once; that certain kitchen smells make her go silent and smooth, smooth like cursive writing; that bread is universally loved by all countries.
But the kitchen she inhabits for most of the day is not so soothing to me. In there, she feeds me things I don’t like the look of, with sauces and brown coloring. She comes at me with it, and I shape my face in an unloving pose. It’s at this point that her voice turns maniacal. She calls me something I don’t understand. I cry to get out of the situation, and in doing so show her that I care what she thinks and need her love. This turns her into water. She loses all form and substance, becomes the shape of the room. And so she carries herself awkwardly, as if she were wearing cowboy boots on her chubby, arthritic feet. Her need to assume all positions—loving, knowing, confused, liberated, attuned, uncomfortable—is in the room, happening. This turns her into the one who is teaching me how to be American.
At times, Grandma and I go silent, dropping any need to be understood. It comes in the afternoons, for the soap operas. Always Days of Our Lives and One Life to Live, where the men are lacquered and the women are cunning. We never know what the actors are saying to each other, but that doesn’t matter. We sit captivated on opposite sides of the couch, waiting for a man and woman to end up in bed together. And they always do, which is very satisfying.
The ‘90s: It’s at this time when I understand Grandma has left someone behind in Afghanistan, a daughter. And the daughter has a husband and four kids. They are photographs in her wallet.
When Afghanistan begins appearing in the news, the volume is turned up, as if the Buffalo Bills were playing—and everyone’s bodies stiffen. Grandma cries, which is completely normal given the circumstance. So, too, is her enthusiasm later in the day for a trip to the mall or public market. She is a good haggler, even in her few English words. Her hands and facial expressions make her desire known, to have the object in front of her, which at that price is more than a deal—it’s conquering.
Once, she bought a stainless steel pasta maker and spun dough through it for days. Her whole body moved as she cranked the handle, over and over again. And then, the whole house vibrated with it. Only when she prayed—which she does five times a day—did she rest, and it looked like a bucket of wavy water being abruptly set down on the ground.
No one in elementary, middle, or high school in Upstate New York has heard of Afghanistan. And because it’s a word too nonsensical to say, I don’t say it. But the kids in my class can smell it on me, since grandma still cooks every day, and always with so much onion, so much turmeric. Kids don’t like the odor, so I take to spraying myself with a pink, flower-shaped bottle that smells like Juicy Fruit gum, the one she douses on herself, too.
2001: People learn about Afghanistan when the towers fall in New York City. The villains came from there, and more linger about in caves or apartment towers. I am in university, and my roommate’s mother tells me people from my country were responsible, which causes me to question where I am from, and it bugs me for weeks.
The next year, in a restaurant, I meet someone who survived the attacks. Her skin caught fire in the North Tower. When she asks for a table in the restaurant I am working in, I can’t look at her, which she probably notices. I cry when no one seems to be looking, as I’m sure others have, and then feed myself long steamy slices of New York-style at 1 a.m. when my shift is over.
Grandma prays for the survivors, victims, and all their families. But there is something I want to ask her, yet don’t know how, since we still don’t speak the same language. It’s about Grandfather, who also died from Afghanistan’s problems. Instead, I assume the position: loving, attuned, confused, uncomfortable. And then wish for an easy fix or place to go, like America, like in the stories. But, here we are.
2008: I marry a tall, white Canadian. He loves my grandmother’s food and when he tries to speak Dari, he seems nervous, which makes her laugh. She kisses his cheeks whenever he comes near. Sometimes, we put him on display and ask him to dance Afghan-style, which makes everyone laugh.
2011: A child is growing inside me. Grandmother tells me not to pick up anything heavy and eat Afghan food when I feel ill, which is most of the time. This is my first baby. She has had seven. So I take her advice and end up at an Afghan restaurant in flip-flops and a tent dress. Entering the restaurant, I smell her food and then have a cry behind large, round sunglasses. I eat the food in my car, and it tastes as warm and salty as I need it to be.
When it’s time to push the baby out, after vomiting into many kidney-shaped bowls, I say all the superstitious words Grandma taught me, grit my teeth and do it. All of it. And a little white boy comes out of me, crying.
2015: I don’t see Grandma much anymore. We don’t live in the same city, and I am always working and mothering. Life with Grandma feels otherworldly, even though I am constantly in the kitchen, constantly needing to look and feel like Marlena from Days of Our Lives. And lacking a lot of words.
One morning, I put on the cowboy boots and dance around. I am pumping my fists and trying to embody freedom.
2020: Grandma is dying. Because it’s the pandemic, a lovely nurse has supplied her with an iPad so her seven kids can say goodbye and tell her they will be ok. She can go. And so she does, quietly.
Soon, I am watching her funeral on Facebook. I watch through a phone her other granddaughter—the one who was trapped in Afghanistan in the 90s—is holding up. It is from her hand, we watch.
The casket opens and I hear my aunt wail into her face mask. My son, sitting on my lap, hides his face in my hair.
Also, he is breathing heavily, breathing from his belly, breathing from breaths that originated in my belly, and mine from a marshaling of others.
For this reason it is not surprising to do what I do the next morning, like all the mornings: tend to the children, beat the eggs, find the bread. And also, before that, before the kids awake, in a vibrating silence, I tap my fingers furiously across letters—write a tale where a person like you becomes the center of the story, not its foreign object.
Of course, my attempts are imprecise. Because it’s like understanding war or leaving someone or a place. Still, my fingers hunt for it, like a wolf.
The digesting of this is both elegant and harsh. Like an X-Acto knife and pearl in the mouth. It goes like this, written, always written: What? How? Will it ever make sense? No. And why should it?
NADIA SHAHBAZ is the first in her family to be born in the United States. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Tahoma Literary Review, Coffee + Crumbs, and the We The People art project. You can find her at @nadiashahbaz_writer.