Vareesha Khan: Native

Artist and designer Vareesha Khan believes that building intimacy through storytelling leads to more compassionate and inclusive communities. Informed by her experiences as an immigrant, Vareesha explores the turmoil of being displaced in her poem, “Native”. Incorporated in her work is the theme of grasping for a connection and the gnawing desire within ourselves to belong anywhere. 

The New Agenda and MALA are proud to launch the “Women of the USA,” a campaign to showcase Muslim women’s stories and voices.  Our goal is to spotlight the diversity and accomplishments of Muslim American women.  If you would like to share your story as part of this series, please submit your information here. Join the conversation by using #WOTUSA, and share your voice with us.

My tongue stutters, stumbling to pronounce my own name,
The whispers of its syllables, soft and breathless,
Overtaken, by sharp winds, brought by winters,
Now almost two decades in the making.

My ancestors never felt this cold,
They wandered, instead, in the oasis of Asia,
With sweet aam, spicy tikka, and crispy makkai,
At lunch, I am given the choice between a hamburger or pizza,
I go with pizza.
Cheese only, please.

So, we take pride in our new abodes,
But moving boxes that are never quite unpacked,
Rip out tendrils that just began to take root,
Fertilized soil with seeds plucked out,
Eventually, you learn not to bother planting at all.

Asia giving earthquakes of culture shock,
Magnitude 6 coming your way,
When you step out of the airport,
And see people who look like you,
More than people who don’t look like you at all,
And you breathe in the aroma of a country you began to forget,
And you wonder what life would have been like if you never left.

The sands of distance, however,
Erode with time, the link between home and birthplace,
Your history becomes a foreign land,
Drawing blanks as you try to translate,
The English that has spread into your veins,
Neither West nor East nor North nor South,
Tugging on your mother’s scarf to whisper what color churiyan you want,
Into her ear, too hesitant, too frightened to speak out loud,
The exposure of your voice, with the accent of she left saying quite plainly,
I’m not from here anymore.

Sunday mornings you are woken up by the sounds of your parents,
Shouting into the phone hello hello can you hear me? in Urdu,
Desperate to sew oceans back together,
From calling cards found in ethnic enclaves to the green WhatsApp icon,
Pulling relatives close to close the distance,
I stay silent when they call me over,
I return to my room, and pull out my French assignment.
Je m’oublie.

History is discarded, replacing memories with legacy,
Turning ancestors into refugees,
Immigrants, under the weight of two worlds,
And without roots to latch onto,
Drown easily when flooded with change,
Assimilation shows up as a lifeguard,
But shakes the integrity of your spirit,
When it costs the sum of all you ever were.

I’ve become claustrophobic with conflicting identities,
Pressing against my skin,
The questions brought by past and present,
Cutting at my throat, and frustrating my future,
Pushing me further from the shore,
Adrift, drowning seems imminent,
So you begin to look for anchors,
Just to sink.

The certainty of faith draws a believer a warm bath during frigid hardships,
But the task of believing crashed waves higher than tsunamis,
Pulling me under over and over,
I never learned how to swim,
Like the whispers that have left my name,
So had the possibility of peace.

The crisis of faith made robust by the paths of nomads,
Like friends and school, God comes and goes,
Ebbs and flows, without anything permanent to hold onto,
Sometimes you pray to God just to feel something,
Sometimes you pray to God just to feel nothing.
Sometimes you don’t pray at all.

But identity doesn’t leave you,
Your skin is marked, your passport is marked,
Reminded by the checkboxes of forms and the rhetoric of the news,
Belonging impossible, but escaping more impossible still.
Eventually, you hit the ocean floor, yet water has not flooded your lungs.
Somehow, I’m still breathing.

So you learn the paths of currents,
And the texture of coral,
Underwater, the voices from above are muddled,
And your soul begins to echo from shells,
Building buoyancy into your flesh,
Rising to the surface on your own island,
Is this what it feels like to be a native?

Boundaries of countries stratify with pigmentation,
But leave out homes for those lost in the spaces between continents,
So we must hunt for something to believe in,
When the desire to belong roars in our ears,
Easing the aches of our souls with the promise to find paradise,
And if all else fails, make within ourselves a sanctuary.