Interview with Zohra Saed, conducted by Leila Nadir.
Leila Nadir: What was your childhood like growing up mixed race? What were the challenges and the blessings?
Zohra Saed: “You ain’t nuthin but a skinny little chink” was scrawled in my 5th grade autograph book, which was something we got to have our friends sign before we left elementary school. Rakesh wrote this on a pink piece of paper… or was it yellow? I’d have to dig to find that one. There was a poem that started “Roses are Red Violets are Pink, You ain’t nuthin’ but a skinny lil chink!” Well, I didn’t know what “chink” meant when I was a little girl — struggling with the jagged elbows and knees of English. Alexandra read this and when she got to “chink” she said…. “chick! It means he likes you!”
“Hey, Qadafi’s children are here!” was the term of endearment my Irish-American babysitters had for us. Even though they loved Afghan naan, Palau, and Qorma they still called us “sand niggers” and asked if I would run away with a “niglet” which meant a little black boy. This was most of Sheepshead Bay’s attitude toward people of color in the 80s.
I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. When we moved in, Ocean Avenue was a strip of Central Asian supers and shopkeepers and frame shop owners and fabric store owners. My dad was none of these but we fit very well into this ready set community of others who looked like us. It was when I started school and left the bubble that I realized there was a very big difference in between face and the face of my neighbors.
I was born in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We were one of the few Uzbek families in this area. Jalalabad is in the Eastern part of Afghanistan. My father spoke Pashtu as his main language. When he was in second grade, he lost a vocabulary challenge between students from Kabul elementary school and Jalalabad elementary school because he didn’t know how to say “cloud” in Farsi, he only knew the Pashtu term. This is unusual because my father is half Uyghur, his mother was from Khotan, China (once the Northwest Autonomous Xinjiang province of China). My grandmother did not raise her son, she left to join her uncle in Saudi Arabia, who was among a group of Uzbek and Uyghurs granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia after they came as refugees escaping the displacement that communism created in the home countries. This was how we ended up in Saudi Arabia. My father wanted to meet his mother and introduce her to his new growing family.” His father had originally come from Uzbekistan after the Bolshevik Revolution in the 1920s. He traveled through Xinjiang and then came to India and settled in what was then called Bombay to make his wealth. My mother, who was born and raised in Old Kabul, did not speak a word of Pashtu. She was also Uzbek predominantly but her father was Kipchak Tatar. This means he was Turkic but his features were blonde and green eyed. This was quite a novelty to learn about when I was growing up in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn. The “little Chinese” girl at PS 254 had secret blond roots.
I grew up monocultural, but multilingual- and multiracial-looking based on being a descendant of nomadic Central Asians and being the surviving grandchild of grandparents who had suffered through the forced movement of 20th Century wars in Central and South Asia. My paternal grandfather settled in Afghanistan after the Partition of India, while my paternal great uncle had established his roots as a dentist in Jalalabad since the 1930s. My father was born in a fancy Kabul hospital then taken back to Jalalabad. This is how my Uyghur Uzbek Afghan father articulated the world in Pashtu before Uzbek or Farsi.
This mixedness meant that in my family, we looked biracial. My mother was very fair and was often mistaken for Russian. My father, on the other hand, was followed around at a Native American festival because they thought he was a full blood. I came out more like my Uyghur grandmother. When we grew up, my brother passed as Italian, a good thing in Sheepshead Bay, while I passed for Chinese, which made me an easy target for taunting at school.
LN: How did your identity and sense of where you fit change after 9/11?
ZS: I grew up in a very nationalistic household. I remember that my father drew the royal insignia of Afghanistan in every country we went to — it was featured in the living room. There was a photo of Zaher Shah that was placed in an oval frame and moved from one living room to another between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Brooklyn. Afghanistan was my parents’ country. One of the first plays I directed as a little girl (yes there were many that I directed in our living room) was a play called “Afghanistan” and we played out whatever images we saw of the country in the news. The country felt far away, made of gauze, and sometimes so magical that I didn’t believe it existed.
After the catastrophe of 9/11, the experience of being in NYC had me more involved in literary, and film projects based on building a bridge between Afghanistan and the U.S. I met more Afghan American artists, writers, filmmakers, activists and intellectuals than I had ever met before. There were coalitions being built, films being made, and conversations going on across the country. It was a significant moment after the Soviet Afghan war for Afghan Americans. Documenting this moment, collecting writings by Afghan Americans was what transformed me during this time. One Story, Thirty Stories: an Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature took ten years to produce but it was worth the time it took because of how it marks the transformation of Afghan American consciousness. I was fortunate to work with poet Sahar Muradi on this project.
LN: Can you tell me how your art has grown, changed and transformed itself in these years of weaving an Afghan-American life? And what is your latest project?
ZS: This weaving has become easier. I have been fortunate to find a community of writers and artists and filmmakers. The Afghan-American anthology grew from this interest in wanting to connect and tell our stories. My latest project is multiple — I’m an academic, so my work is in discovering American connections to Central Asia as early as the 19th C. As a writer, I have begun this memoir about being a rather odd type of Afghan and being an odd kind of American — because 80s Brooklyn is a country unto itself, sometimes. I believe being Afghan, being American, being Muslim is a constant process that, as writers and artists, we work out and sometimes we are not just these identifiers, but we are what we need to recreate, challenge and question. As an Afghan-American with a mixture of cities, languages and cultures to choose from, the work of creation and self-making are, at times, the same thing.