Interview with Gazelle Samizay, conducted by Leila Nadir and Zohra Saed
Gazelle Samizay was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and now resides in Los Angeles. Her photographs and videos have been exhibited across the US and internationally, including Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Pakistan, U.A.E and the UK. In addition to her studio practice, she has taught courses in Afghanistan, Jordan and the US, and her writing has been published in One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature. Samizay is a recipient of the Princess Grace Experimental Film Honoraria, the 1885 Graduate Fellowship in Arts and Humanities, and the Northern Trust Enrichment Award, among others. She received her Master’s in Fine Arts in photography at the University of Arizona and currently teaches at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh-Online Division. She also serves on the board of the Bo M. Karlsson Foundation, which provides scholarships for Nepali women to attend college.
* From Photo 1: The man on the left said, “Everything you see standing is due to Afghans. They do all the hard labor.” The man on the right worked in a sweltering brick factory in Iran every summer, as evidenced by his white and torn up hands. He would return to his wife and child in Afghanistan during the winter to bring them money. These men had nowhere to sleep simply because they were Afghan.
Leila Nadir and Zohra Saed: What are the languages, cities, cultures that make up your particular Afghan self? What were the layers of your family heritage that you can share with us?
Gazelle Samizay: I was born in Kabul but we moved shortly after my birth, first to Paris, then D.C. and finally in a small rural town in Washington state, far removed from a strong Afghan community you might find in larger cities. What this means is that my experience of “Afghan-ness” was actually just an experience of my family and extended relatives. My parents spoke Dari with one another but English with me, so I never felt very comfortable speaking Dari and my survival mechanism was to keep quiet and laugh and smile when people spoke to me and I didn’t understand. Sometimes I still find myself slipping into that habit.
Surprisingly, there were a handful of other Afghan families in Pullman, WA, brought by Washington State University. One family only spoke Pashto, so that gave me a good excuse to converse in English with them. Another family spoke Dari but with a Herati accent, so I always had a hard time understanding. I always felt uncomfortable and like an outsider because I couldn’t understand, yet everyone expected me to. I felt much more comfortable among Americans because in many ways I was more familiar with American customs, and I was certainly more comfortable with English. The language barrier was crucial in keeping me on the surface of Afghan culture because I could not express who I was—my thoughts, desires, and opinions—through language. Furthermore, I found the culture and my upbringing to expect nothing more than for me to be a quiet, dutiful guest in the presence of others, which also prevented me from getting acquainted with other Afghans in an authentic way.
Aside from language, religious practices also isolated me, not only from other Afghans but also from Americans. My parents are Muslim and though we have never spoken about it explicitly, it was always my understanding that they saw religion as a personal journey. My mother did not wear a headscarf and neither did I. One of the Afghan families had a daughter who wore a headscarf and was not allowed to participate in sports. I, on the other hand, was very active and loved playing sports. In fact, I was quite the tomboy so it was hard for me to find commonality with other Afghan girls living there. I had more fun playing with the boys, though I was never sure if it was fully acceptable.
It wasn’t until I attended college that I finally began to accept my Afghan-ness without any shame. For most of my life I felt like I had to hide it so that I would fit in. I had never seen it as an asset, but always as an annoyance. I just wanted to be like all the other kids. In college I became more interested in my heritage and where I came from and realized that I knew very little about my family’s history. I took some Persian language classes and traveled to Iran in July 2001 in an effort to acquaint myself with a culture that I believed was quite similar to that of Afghanistan. However, the experience was even more alienating. First, the instructor and the Iranian-Americans in my classes spoke “Modern Persian” which is a different dialect than Dari, so I did not understand many of the words they were using, and when I spoke in Dari they did not understand me. Second, while I found commonality with Iranians, they seemed to think Afghans were quite foreign. Traveling in Iran, I saw that many Iranians looked down on Afghans in the same way some Americans might look down on Mexicans due to the influx of Afghan refugees [Photo 1]. I do not regret those experiences, as they helped ground me in understanding who I was, as well as providing me with a language base with which to communicate, but needless to say it did not provide me with the sense of belonging I was seeking.
When I think about my family heritage, rather than thinking of customs that were passed down, I think of how strongly my family values education and a strong work ethic. In fact, many people ask me if my parents expect me to marry a Muslim or an Afghan, and I always respond that they do not care, as long as he is educated. I have found my extended family to be inspiring—they left their homes and came to a new country, found jobs and succeeded in their own ways. That is not to say that my family has not endured hardship or struggle, but the most important thing is that they rise beyond the struggle and keep pushing forward. The women have been the strongest inspiration because they are strong, independent, educated and know what they want. This has deeply influenced my artwork, which often addresses issues that still confine even the most independent woman. It is ironic because when people think of Afghanistan they often think of oppressed women, but the women in my family are courageous. Whether it was divorcing an abusive husband in 1960s Afghanistan, leading an underground movement against the Soviets, or creating a prosperous life for themselves and their families in the U.S., these women do not fit the stereotype.
LN + ZS: What was your childhood like growing up in this multiplicity of places, sounds and identities? What were the challenges and the blessings?
GS: As a child I was very interested in fitting in and not being picked on. I always felt bad for the other foreigners who were somehow more “foreign” than I was, perhaps because of the way they looked or because their skin was darker. To this day, I am very good at camouflaging, a skill that still comes in handy.
As a kid, I was concerned with small details, like why I couldn’t eat pepperoni or why we didn’t celebrate Christmas. I felt more of a connection and likeness with my best friend who was Jewish because we were both outsiders. I was confused because I wasn’t fully American or fully Afghan. As I got older, I usually got along with people with mixed identities—people from other countries like me.
However, my hybrid identity allowed me to relate to many people. I could always understand people from different cultures and understand their accents, while my American classmates could not understand. I think it was a blessing that I grew up in a small town rather than within a large Afghan community. This allowed me to explore my interests and develop my identity without the “nasihat” or advice of other Afghans. My parents would have also been pressured to be a certain way. I am sure our lives would have been very different had we lived in an Afghan-American community.
LN + ZS: How did your identity and sense of where you fit change after 9/11? What relationships were built and which were torn under the pressures of post-9/11 experience for Afghans? How did this influence your art? Your life?
GS: I was in college during 9/11, pursuing a degree in International Studies, Interdisciplinary Arts, as well as taking Persian and French classes. This education had opened my eyes to the faults of the American system and its foreign policy. I did not have a strong emotional reaction to 9/11 in the same way that many other Americans did because I viewed it within the context of world politics. It was another tragic act of aggression among so many others occurring worldwide. I was more concerned by what was to come, as I knew that the US could react in a way that could cause even more tragedy.
I distinctly remember receiving Tamim Ansari’s email about talk of “bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age” and forwarding this to all my friends. I attended rallies, wondering if my fellow protestors knew I was Afghan. Suddenly I went from being invisible to feeling like I was under a magnifying glass. I had become both the token Afghan spokeswoman for whom you should feel sorry and the exotic, possibly dangerous Afghan who was born in a “terrorist country.” 9/11 increased my interest in Afghanistan and I was both concerned and curious for its future. In 2005 I went to Afghanistan and created a series of photos called Afghanistan: Beyond the Burqa. The photos were accompanied by stories locating family points of interest and other details. While there I also wrote stories from my travels and emailed them to all my friends. My goal was for people to see a more humane side of Afghanistan, as I was tired of the video of Bin Laden’s training camps looping on TV.
After 9/11, people actually knew what Afghanistan was (Well, at least somewhat–some still think it borders Iraq). When I told them where I was from it would open up conversations about the country. I would often be asked, “…but you grew up here, right?” This was somewhat offensive, as they were judging that a “real Afghan” could never speak perfect English and have uncovered hair. Some also commented on how lucky I was to be living here. While I agreed with them, I didn’t understand why strangers suddenly felt they had a right to give their opinion on my life because my birthplace had become a public spectacle. Despite my annoyance, I never responded to these strangers in an antagonistic way. I politely answered their questions so that they could learn more about the country and culture and have a positive interaction with an Afghan.
I think that 9/11 also affected the way my art is received. People are probably more interested in my work because I am from Afghanistan, a place of mystery and intrigue. This poses interesting challenges as I could easily produce work that feeds and satisfies the thirst for the exotic and make lots of money from it. Whenever my work incorporates elements of Afghan culture I am very careful to only speak from my personal experience. I try to portray things in their true complicated nature rather than an easily digestible simplified portrait of what it means to be an Afghan-American woman.
LN + ZS: 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?
GS: I started to become more interested in my cultural heritage in college and traveled to Iran as a part of this exploration. This was prior to 9/11, so traveling to Afghanistan was not a wise idea. My first photography exhibit consisted of my photos from Iran. The exhibit was very well received and this encouraged me to pursue photography further.
I traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 2005 and have returned many times since. On my first visit I convinced my mother to accompany me so she could show me sites of interest, such as the hospital where I was born. Oddly, seeing this building seemed to verify my identity, as if my birth and existence remained a question up until this point. My mother was shocked by the amount of destruction, commenting on the absence of birds singing in Kabul that she once remembered. This experience illuminated the varying shades of Afghan-ness between different generations: those who were educated and fled the country, those who stayed behind or grew up in Pakistani refugee camps, and people like myself, with hyphenated identities and broken Dari as a second language.
During my travels I started using photography as a way to depict my own fragmented history. Using these photos and writing I wanted to show the international community a different image of Afghanistan than Osama bin Laden’s training camps looping on TV. I presented the work from this trip in several exhibits and artist talks. This was a great way to reach the general public, and I really saw the value of art in opening conversations about difficult subjects. The body of work produced from this period was critical to my artistic practice. Utilizing my own life and stories, I was able to address and redefine cultural constructs around nationality, gender and my own identity.
These projects were personally inspired, but the content was relatively safe. I realized later that I was still hiding and not fully expressing my opinions because I was afraid of whom I might offend. After this I dug deeper and it was quite challenging but cathartic to create the work that followed this phase. These projects were born out of the specificity of my life, but veiled in symbolism to give me enough of a sense of privacy needed to share the work with the public.
The first project was Nosh-e Jan (Bon Appetit) (2008), in which the viewer is invited to witness the ritual of passing and consuming secrets within an Afghan-American family. The ritual serves as an outlet of expression for the women that bear the secrets, without violating the strict code of keeping face. The secrets are shared in three different languages (Pashto, Dari, and English), each of which signifies a different generation in the family) [Photo 3]. While the women are the main transmitters of the secrets, the impact on men is not ignored.
My next video was entitled 9,409 miles (2009), which is the distance my family traveled from Kabul to Paris, then to D.C., and finally to Pullman, WA. The viewer watches an architect, who, after leaving Afghanistan more than 20 years ago, is still longing for the house he built and was forced to leave. The impact of dislocation is also felt by his wife, whose efforts in creating a new home will never be enough. Absorbed in recalling the memories of his old house, the architect pays no heed to his wife preparing him breakfast. However, the architect’s ruminations are abruptly interrupted, signifying the futility of clinging to a home that only exists in his imagination [Photo 4].
In Upon My Daughter (2010) I look at women’s roles in passing and enforcing traditions. The viewer bears witness to the transformation of a young woman through the ritual of marriage, and her struggle with the suffocating social expectations that lie therein [Photo 5].
My latest work does not include overt cultural symbols but still deals with identity. im/pure (2011) shows the ambiguity of the transformative space of self-creation, where nothing is certain. A woman stands in the water, looking at her reflection. At times the reflection shows what everyone else sees—a woman in a white dress, symbolizing the ideal of the perfect, pure woman. However, at times this looking pool reflects her inner-self, one that is marked by grief, shame and guilt, represented by the black dress. In between, there are fragments of both selves represented as one identity morphs into another in a continuous cycle. The ephemeral quality of the image reflected in the water—the fact that the image could be destroyed by something as small as a thrown pebble—illustrates the fluid and fragile nature of one’s identity, and that our sense of self is not as clear and concrete as we might like it to be [Photo 6].
Ravel (2012) uses a barren landscape as the setting for psychological release. A woman embarks on a solitary journey with no clear destination. As she traverses the desert, her emotional baggage becomes visible in the form of glass bottles tied to her back with thick twine. The bottles are empty, symbolizing that her baggage is meaningful to her but imperceptible to others. A tree stands in as a reminder of the woman’s possible future. The bottles hang from its branches spinning in mid-air, unattainable and unreachable. They are relics of unfulfilled hopes and dreams hanging in limbo between creation and completion.
I have ideas for other projects that deal with Afghan culture, but I make these as they come to me rather than exclusively focusing on this subject as the focus of my art production.
LN + ZS: How does being mixed (language, ethnicity, artistic genres, and cultural heritage) play into your video art? Who is your intended audience? And what can we learn?
GS: I think my mixed-ness allows me to look at cultural or social issues from multiple perspectives. I never see anything as black and white. This also allows my work to be relevant to other mixed populations outside of the Afghan-American community. My intended audience is women who may struggle with social constructs or boundaries. Women are expected to be strong and independent, and many are, but there are subtle challenges that women face on a regular basis that cannot be defined as easily as more concrete issues like equal pay. It is my goal to challenge the subtleties of gender oppression—to reveal and express them so that I may move past them and so that others may also have that opportunity.
One thing I hope people can take away from my work is that culture, nationality and gender are not clearly defined and are much more complex than they are portrayed in the media and by our political representatives. I also hope that people will learn something about themselves through the work. It is not my intent to teach something specific to others (although that was the aim in Afghanistan: Beyond the Burqa). Rather, I hope that my intimate self-expression creates an opening for others to self-reflect and gather whatever they need to for themselves at that time in their lives.