*A zij (Persian: زيج, romanized: zīj) is an astronomical book or map of Islamic origin that provides a framework for calculating the positions of celestial objects. In this exploratory feature, refugees comment on their experiences adapting to life in America, map past journeys, and account for dueling identities underlying their consciousness. Punctuating these audial and written narratives, American artist, Geena Massaro, imagines the Syrian Diaspora through a series of sketches and poetry.
Every ten minutes I hit refresh. It’s like the 8-ball I played with when I was little – ask a question, shake, and hold my breath while I wait to see what it says. “Yes, no, or maybe.” The questions are different now, the stakes are higher – will I get the job, and will it work out? Appointment confirmations, dates need to be set and applications need to be filled out. A stream of words marked by a time stamp, beyond my inbox the screen presents answers to questions I don’t always want to know the answers to – fires, droughts and flooding, an endless stream of images, overwhelming and numbing, I continue to refresh the feed.
Making our way south, a seven-hour drive is enough time to contemplate blackholes and macrophages with the children; enough time to feel muscles in our bodies tighten from stillness in motion—arrived, we unpack bags and walk to the beach. The sun already set; the ocean’s mass appears a void in the night. We climb the white ladder and take in a wider vantage. There’s room for us to be close; time for us to listen to the tide, we have a week to leave everything behind. A week to pause the flow of questions and headlines.
Riding the waves, feeling the swell beneath us, children play beneath the sun, I try not to look, but the stream doesn’t stop. In between ice-cream, paddle boarding and sandcastles, it creeps in—failure of country, ineptitude of people, corruption, and waste. A reflection of choices and culture, I’m in the middle but on the outside, that much hasn’t changed. A refugee born in Kabul, raised in America on shiny notions of democracy that contradict another way of thinking. Unable to manifest without interruption, and torn apart by decades of war, we were the lucky to have left when we did. From Kabul to Pakistan, Turkey, and Italy, before we landed in Providence. Life would have been different if we stayed, and in another dimension, I’m still there, and maybe that’s why it’s always close to the forefront of all the decisions and indecisions that harbor guilt I can’t shake off. In between phases, waxing and waning, it makes it hard to know which direction to go. Tossed between a divide, the back and forth form a background of inconsistent notions, and that feeling that I don’t belong anywhere is a constant that doesn’t go away.
I refresh my feed hoping it will bring me closer to truth, and an email I didn’t anticipate appears. “Are you still interested in the project, and can you fly to Saudi in two weeks?”
“Yes, I’ll scan my passport and send it to you when we get home,” I respond without pause because I’m suddenly more certain than I’ve been all week that leaving is what I’ve unknowingly been waiting for – to believe in destiny is a way to mollify guilt and to justify the path I’ve been allowed. It gives purpose, but it’s not always an easy expectation to live up to, and I remind myself that value is inherent to living.
Traffic on the bridge, so many hours left till we get home. We’re stopped, but the stream grows. Swollen by conflict which continues to escalate; resistance and protest, no one knows which side will win. For the last four decades the story of Afghanistan has been tied to the story of America; shaped by a jumble of contradictions, just like me, it is in flux and not sure what it’s supposed to become.
Being in motion has a way of sorting things out. Drifting from place to place, nomad by nature, adaptable by necessity. I like to think it’s in my blood, squeezed deep inside the double helix of my DNA; being rootless has its advantages, but this time it’s different. This time it doesn’t feel like drifting. A design of grand proportions in the desert, I refresh my inbox, and the stream flows quicker now. Contracts to be signed, proposals describe The Work, and where I’ll be staying. Just like the 8-ball, it answers my questions one by one. A manifestation of art, and a journey in time—I leave in a week with a group of five. We’ll have a layover in Frankfurt and stay in Riyad before we convene in the desert. We’ll measure the site and confirm the program.
With each answer, I become sure of who I will become. And it’s the ultimate privilege of having fled our home all those years ago. My path is not always clear, but I have the freedom to ask questions and make choices. As I pack my bag and get ready to travel 6,700 miles away, family and friends cheer me on. In this version of my life, I get to choose where I want to go, who I want to marry, and what I want to do. On the other side, the stream of photos shows a rubble of dreams. They remind me that even as the rest of the country has started to move on from the news, I can’t forget where I come from or why we had to leave. The irony that I’m visiting a place where women still don’t have those rights isn’t lost on me, and I wonder how the trip will change me – new questions emerge in my mind, and I realize unlike so many things outside of my control, the answers to who I will become can only come from me.
– Neelab Mahmoud
limb, for: the boat says,-
you are so measley, -,love, my
you have crawled ever
so farther and farther
at the bottom of the mast, on
the deck you become so brown
my little bunny, my first death,
are you coming towards me or leaving? has the ship stood
still? I cannot tell
, the pacing of the spacing of clouds is as much the efforts of a breathless titan
I cannot tell
and the grip of your vision is fixed on a determined vacancy I cannot tell
What delivery is to be spent now
Oh fond, the middling, however it be a paradox much
like cupid’s arrow stabbed in stone (I met him once
a razor over a layer of my belly I awoke disarmed and disabled
and within my tummy he did lay a knife
so what is it that I am pregnant with? What is this beguiled pulse; this ship, before me I laugh, I
see) ” hello, I am the Hepatia flower! I am winter! I am spring! I am time, hello!” says the ship.
my, you are a fixed
life and death, you do not move. This is where you always remain, in the water
– Geena Massaro
N.I. Mahmoud enjoys exploring conflict; the mundane or the spectacular, in the present, future or past, she believes there’s no limit to how far a story can travel.
Ari Honarvar is an award-winning writer, visual artist, and speaker. As a journalist, she is curious about many topics, including social justice, parenting, and mental health. Her words have appeared on Parents, Teen Vogue, The Guardian, Washington Post, Newsweek, and elsewhere. As part of her continuous efforts to build poetry and musical bridges across war-torn and conflict-ridden borders, Ari is the Iranian Musical Ambassador of Peace, conducting Resilience through Joy workshops for refugees and volunteers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. She is the author of Rumi’s Gift Oracle Deck and her debut novel, A Girl Called Rumi, is forthcoming in 2021 from Forest Ave. Press.
An acclaimed speaker, Ari teaches workshops and presents at conferences, universities, nonprofits, and other venues. In performances, she collaborates with musicians of different cultures and presents a dynamic program including poems, stories, and music. She is the vice president of Gente Unida, a human rights border coalition, and the founder of Drop Poems Not Bombs project.
Geena Massaro is a visual artist and poet. She received her BFA in drawing in painting from Pratt Institute in 2016. Her work varies in subject matter and material. Geena Massaro currently lives in Ithaca, NY.