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A hidden value

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I am currently residing in a hostel in Cape Town, South Africa, living what most people would consider the dream. Over the course of two months, I have lived in Washington D.C., Vietnam, and South Africa. In a week, I will be off to my last stint of my study abroad experience in Argentina. I have had the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience both rural and urban settings across the world. In the process, I have become a member of three different families, all of which are likely to be lifelong friendships. The experiences I have had this semester are more diverse than what some people may have in a lifetime, and I can not even begin to express how grateful I am for this incredible opportunity.

Yet, even as I am living the so-called dream, I find myself in moments like today, where I can’t help but feel a little lost and uneasy. Roaming the bustling markets of Greenmarket Square and walking along the pier at Waterfront this afternoon, everything seemed so distant, as if it wasn’t really happening to me. So many days on the program, I’ve felt the same disoriented feeling. I’ve gone to bed in the comfort of my Auntie’s (host mom’s) home, and been hesitant to close my eyes because reality already seems so far away, would sleep make it disappear altogether?

At first, I was at a loss for how I could possibly have so many moments of unhappiness despite having such a transformative and unique experience. I felt ashamed of myself because, while I can’t stop acknowledging how incredibly lucky and privileged I am to be abroad, I question whether I am fully appreciating the experience if I still think about the United States, Swarthmore, and home. If I still have moments of missing my life back home, am I truly living in the present to embrace where I am right now?

While these questions still continue to haunt me on days like today, when I feel especially disconnected, traveling to so many places and engaging in conversation with different people has actually taught me how fitting these feelings are.

Some of the deepest conversations I’ve had throughout this program have been with community members in rural villages and with my host families in urban areas about the importance of community. Throughout the areas I have visited, despite differing political or ethical beliefs, and regardless of country or setting, there has been one common thread between everyone, and it has been the love and devotion people feel for their families and communities.

In my neighborhood in Salt River Cape Town, the doorbell to Auntie’s house would constantly ring, and it would always be a different family member, picking up a snack, asking Auntie to watch their kids for 10 minutes, or just checking in to say hello. Auntie’s family all lived on the same street and when I asked her jokingly if she ever got tired of her family, she seemed surprised and responded “of course not!” She had always grown up near her family, they attend prayer meetings together, and life would be dull and purposeless without them.

 

While I was staying in a small fishing village in Arniston, South Africa, the importance of family and community resonated with me more than ever. Listening to a panel of youth who grew up in the village, someone asked the students if they would ever want to move out of Arniston. I was struck when one of the panelists, a 22 year old, responded, “No, of course not. I will never feel connected to any place like I do my mother’s home.” At the end of the week, I thanked the fishing activist who had organized our trip to the village. I’ll never forget the way she placed her hand on mine and shook her head. “No, thank you,” she answered, “thank you for listening to our story. I could never leave my family and home for as long as you all. Thank you for making the sacrifice to hear our story.”

These moments are only a snapshot of the times I have witnessed how deeply people value their families and communities, something that we in the United States often take for granted.

Sure, in the United States, our value of independence allows us to explore new places or to leave home for an elite, immersive education like Swarthmore. We see it normal to leave our friends, family, and home community to build broader social networks and gain a larger perspective of the world. Yet, especially as I am exercising my independence through traveling across the world but am still experiencing emptiness at times, I think it’s important to consider what we lose by choosing independence in favor of collectivist or community values.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we should never leave our family and communities, but I do think it’s important to nourish the relationships we do have and to take the time to talk to family and friends. At Swarthmore, it’s easy to get caught up in studying or campus life, but it’s also okay and therapeutic to remain connected to our community back home. Finally, valuing relationships also applies to on campus. Especially during midterms or finals, we can easily forget about our Swat family, eating a wrap from Essie’s in the library to study instead of savoring a meal with a friend who we haven’t seen for two weeks. But, while studying and homework are constant stressors that can always be done, family and friends last a lifetime and are essential to wellbeing.

Continuing my study abroad experience, I am ecstatic to explore South Africa for one more week and to embrace life in Argentina. But, I will also continue to savor conversations with my family and friends back home, and am looking forward to enjoying the simple moments when I return. Independence offers so much freedom, but community fosters belongingness and support, which are irreplaceable and essential for wellbeing.

A Happy Psuedo-Persian New Year

in Campus Journal by

When it comes to observing cultural holidays while at Swat, being away from my home and family has always been a challenge. No matter the occasion, I always find myself defying conventional traditionalism and celebrating a filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift interpretation of the holiday.

With the vernal equinox comes one of my favorite family holidays: Norooz. Celebrated on the first day of spring, Norooz celebrates nature’s rebirth concurrently with the Persian New Year. It predates Islam, dating back to the ancient monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism in Iran, and is observed across a number of political borders, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and of course Iran.

One of the hallmarks of this holiday is the preparation of the Haft-Seen table. President of AMENA (Arab, Middle-Eastern, and North African Cultural Group) Ava Shafiei described this tradition as a “7 item representation of the hopes and values for the new year” in a email sent to the Swarthmore community announcing the implementation of the Haft-Seen on the upper floor of Sharples for the week of March 20.

These components include seer (garlic) for good luck, sumaq (ground berry) for the color of sunrise, seeb (apple) for health and beauty, senjed (sprouted wheat or barley) for rebirth, samanu (sweet pudding) for wealth and affluence, and finally serkeh (vinegar) for patience and old age. For additional ornaments and decor, sometimes a goldfish, a mirror, or the Qur’an are incorporated to represent life and reflection.

Being half-Persian, for the past two years I have implemented my own homespun Haft-Seen in my humble abode in Willets. My mom sent me some of the components in the mail, like the senjed and samanu, but for the most part I was collecting items from the most intimate niches of Swarthmore student life, i.e. I stole an apple from Sharples and put Goldfish crackers that I bought from Essie’s in a jar, like a true Persian.

I can just hear my Persian grandma joyously clapping her hands, her infinite amount of wrist bangles clanging in symphony, as she exclaims, “Afareen, azizam!” (Good job, sweetheart).

Admiring the absurd amalgam of objects scattered across the ornate Persian sofreh in my dorm room, I am perplexed by a shocking, existentialist thought: I, Yasmeen Namazie, am nothing more than this filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift Haft-Seen, because 2,000 miles away from my home and family, I am hardly Persian at all. I am a messy, fractured, last-minute, sad excuse for a Persian.

I confided with one of the only other people who resonates with my existential anxieties surrounding my cultural and linguistic inadequacies: my beautiful sister Leyla.

My younger sister and I, while very similar in personality, could not be more visibly different. She has big, deep brown eyes that don’t squint when she smiles; she has a paler complexion that burns red and not brown under the Los Angeles sun and she has fuller, thicker eyebrows.

In other words, this girl is a cookie-cutter Persian.

“I have a very Persian-looking face — you know that,” my sister said to me on the phone.

“But what about you looks so Persian, Leyla?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I feel like just my face does,” she said.

I was asking her about the Norooz festivities back home in LA, and she was telling me about how she enjoyed our Persian-side gatherings more over our Chilean-side gatherings. This was her logic:

“While looking at both my Chilean and Persian side, I feel more connected to my Persian side because I look more like them so I don’t feel as out of place as I do when I am at Chilean parties,” she said. “I don’t really feel Chilean when I am at Abuelo and Abuela’s house.”

While I was at first critical of what I assumed was an absurd reason for enjoying one cultural space over another, I thought about how my insecurities with language and my inability to speak Farsi operate under the same assumptions: if I can’t participate in Persianness, I therefore am not Persian.

This has truly been the perennial struggle for my sister and I, identifying as bi-racial. Our lives are spent searching for points of reconciliation between our two cultural origins, to the extent that even something as mundane as a family gathering propels us into existential crisis. Even while we participate in the functions, eat the foods, and sometimes even utter the phrases, we are in a perpetual state of inadequacy, of “not enough.”

Leyla shares the same sentiments regarding linguistic barriers.

“Not speaking Farsi is pretty big barrier during relative gatherings for Norooz. Even though I do understand the gist about the Haft-Seen and the cultural significance of Norooz, I feel like when they are talking about it, especially in Farsi, I just can’t contribute because I have no idea what they are talking about. They usually have to translate it to me in English which makes you feel a little bit disconnected … like you are not a part of something.” she said. “I feel like knowing Farsi would make me feel more Persian.”

Together, we thought about what voids would have to be filled in order for us to “feel more” Persian or “feel more” Chilean. Learning to speak Farsi fluently? Taking up dutar lessons and embracing ancient Iranian folk music? Living in a remote hostel in the high desert of Chile? All this infatuation with justifying our Persianness and Chileanness was draining and picked at our consciousnesses.

“All I know is that I like being able to spend time with my family and being able to set up the table because it’s kind of like a family thing. You go to the market and you go buy fish and all the elements of the Haft-Seen — you do it together,” my sister said.

It was in this intimate conversation with my sister that I started to realize that perhaps my cultural identity isn’t conditional or situational, nor contingent on locale. So what if Goldfish crackers are the staple of my homemade Haft-Seen?

Assumptions of my sister and my cultural essentialism are not conducive to my understanding of myself as a multicultural person. Instead, there should be acknowledgment that sometimes I may have to negotiate and renegotiate the bounds of my racialness. Maybe I will just be perpetually grappling with my “pseudo-ness,” but at least I am the agent of this process of formation and reconstruction. Maybe next Norooz, I can be comfortable with this “new normative,” even if it entails grass plucked from the Scott Arboretum in lieu of sabzee.

I would like to thank Farsheed Shomloo for taking the featured image of the Haft-Seen for this article.

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