231. …I stopped hoping.
232. Perhaps, in time, I will also stop missing you.
—Maggie Nelson, Bluets
This essay came together in the weeks following a trip to Mexico City that my then-partner Alex and I took together. Despite all the beauty between us, our relationship (at least the romantic part) has now ended. I have yet to fully sit with what that means, to even begin unpacking, let alone moving on.
In the aftermath of the breakup, I was very tempted to revise this essay. I had the urge to omit sections entirely and completely edit others. On other days, I have wanted to set it aside and never look at it again. However, I do not want this new development to eclipse what I gained in Mexico City. It was, and remains, an incredibly powerful experience. Besides, as a self-portrait, I am proud of this work. I want to share all of the love in my heart, even love lost.
When I was first writing this essay, I could not have foreseen this outcome. Ironically, in rereading this piece out loud now, in hindsight, the breakup seems inevitable, almost a logical conclusion. All the answers I seek are here. It should have never come as a surprise. The reasons for our separation are fully contained in all the lines that speak about us.
Loss, in all its forms, is featured heavily in this essay. This breakup now adds a layer of weight to this central theme. Though I am leaving this work (almost) entirely intact, I also know that my prologue colors every other page with the knowledge of what comes after the trip. There is no undoing, or unknowing. The shift is permanent.
They say in every ending is a new beginning. May that be true. In that spirit, I choose to begin here, with this ending.
The night I came back to Los Angeles from Mexico City I stayed up all night writing about my trip—not the trip I’d returned from, the trip I’d taken to Kurdistan six months earlier. The time in between the two trips felt like an hour. The scents were all mingled together. The aftertaste, bittersweet, burned in the back of my throat. I couldn’t quite pinpoint where the taste originated. The colors, so warm, so intense, flashed before my eyes when I closed them. Deep vibrant reds, greens, yellows, blues, Aztec golds, silvers. The colors of Ciudad de México. The colors of ھەولێر Hawler, the capital of Kurdistan.
I kept reliving the day I was lost in the Qala Bazaar. The fear in the pit of my stomach slowly accumulated into a full panic. I had no phone service and my battery was at nine percent. I kept reminding myself that it would be okay because I spoke the language and the faces were familiar. “I am Home,” I kept repeating like an incantation. But eyes stared at me with curiosity. They stared because I was a young woman, head uncovered, walking alone. It was as if I had a sign hanging around my neck announcing that I was alien. They could detect it. My clothes, my mannerisms, my walk. Maybe I smelled like it. I didn’t have to open my mouth for everyone to know that I was not shareza. I was too afraid of my broken Kurdish to ask for directions. While away, I had ached for this place, longed for it pitifully. I had thought, perhaps naively, that I would belong. There I was, out of place in the one location in the whole world that I could call my Homeland. A fact that made me increasingly self-conscious. A fact that made me unbearably sad.
All of my senses were overloaded. It was a cold December day. My palms were sweaty. Certain sections of the market were noisy and filled to the brim with bodies, while others were completely deserted, hushed by lack of electricity. The music of my ancestors played on speakers somewhere. There was shouting and quiet whispers in Kurdish and Arabic. Lanky men wearing Pantol and fidgeting with tazbehs stood huddled in corners, where they smoked cigarettes and drank black tea, their small glass cups half-filled with sugar. It smelled like sweets and cardamom. Like kebab stands and tea houses. Like baklava. It smelled like sewage and butcher shops. I was both fascinated and terrified. At once a part of it all and alone. I wanted to immediately find my way back to my family and simultaneously remain lost there forever. I was navigating my way through a labyrinth of rugs, fabrics and jewelry, gold that glistened from the sun rays shining through the openings in the Bazaar’s rooftop. I stood for ten long minutes with my head tilted back, mesmerized by a massive flag hanging overhead. Then, with a manic jolt, I began speed-walking again, looking for an exit, only to encounter another puzzle. The size of the place shocked me, but maybe I was going in circles, disoriented.
I passed by dried limes, herbs, fresh cheese, honey combs, lentils, henna and walnuts. I stopped to ask for a sample of red plum paste that tasted so sour all the muscles in my face twisted up.
The vendors laughed at me kindly. I wanted to disappear into everything. I wanted to run away. This was the sense I had in Mercado de La Merced in Mexico City. Walking between the zucchini blossoms and mole and nopales and jalapeño and roja pelona, I wanted to take everything and wash my face in it. There was the heat of summer. There were Spanish words and songs swirling around me. I wanted to pour all of the spices over my head and bathe in them. I wanted to belong to everything, immerse myself, to be saturated in the scents and colors. I was overcome by desire. I wanted to melt into the ground. I wanted nothing more than to escape as quickly and quietly as possible. All the dissonance of my trip was crystallized in this one experience.
here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here
never enough for both
—Ijeoma Umebinyuo, “Diaspora Blues”
The thing about PTSD is that time, space, and place do not neatly align in a linear fashion. You find yourself hundreds of miles away from where you are too often. You hear sounds that belong to a distant land. You smell the burning tires of a refugee camp in the middle of a shopping mall. The past, present, and future are rarely in order. I often visualize it like a blender that turns on at random times. Everything is jumbled together. Nothing has enough time to settle. Everything is a reference point, a trigger, a reminder of a different time, a different space. Your nightmares and waking hours overlap. Memory is fact. Memory is unreliable. You can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. (But you need others to believe you. You need others to trust you.) It’s not that only bad memories resurface. The problem is that you are always losing the here and now to a ghost, some version of the past, or anxiety about the future. You are sentimental. Nostalgic. Fearful. Always looking over your shoulder.
Trauma, especially prolonged complex trauma, splits you. You are forever fragmented. Part of you just does not grow (up). The world goes on, you go on, life goes on, but a part of you remains chained, fixated even. You have multiple selves, each locked to a point in time when the unspeakable happened (or maybe, ironically, you don’t even remember what, when, and how it happened). You painstakingly plan your day to avoid being caught off-guard. You go out of your way to avoid certain reminders. But sometimes, the memory is just in the body. In the flesh, in your bones. You can’t help it. You tense up around certain people. You get headaches around certain sounds. A cotton candy stand in a park sends shivers down your spine. You marvel at its beauty, but your body feels otherwise. You can’t sleep or eat for days because someone said something with a certain tone. A picture, a piece of music, a benign gesture physically paralyzes you. You are jumpy or often just numb. So, you cling to the people who make you feel safe. You act out. You retreat into a cocoon of sorts, become too protective. Attachment is a loaded word. You are afraid of abandonment. You love too much, or don’t let yourself love. Or both. You feel conflicted. It takes work, arduous, grueling, continuous work, to try to negotiate with this multiplicity, merge these selves into a cohesive whole, to stay solid, to stay present, to maybe heal. Sometimes you feel spread apart, splintered in a hundred directions. Other times you feel just fine.
Mexico City was where Kurdistan came to life again for me, where my childhood turned up, uninvited.
Salman Rushdie, in his seminal work Imaginary Homelands, writes of the fragmentation, the “shards of memory,” that make even the most trivial quotidian things symbolic in hindsight.
Walk inside a mosaic tile house in the middle of Centro Histórico, a building you’ve never before entered, and you’re suddenly transported back to the bathhouses of Saqqez. You feel deprived of all the basic goods in the world and yet immensely, infinitely rich for no apparent reason.
Charred eggplant tamal feels ominously like a dish you had by a fire on the beach of the Caspian Sea when you were eight. Walking down a small alley in Xochimilco you see a woman selling cut mangos in small plastic bags, and you have an intense urge to hug her, speak to her in your mother tongue. You stop yourself. Contain yourself. You are sitting joyfully, with a smile plastered on your face, watching El Ballet Folklórico de México in awe, and you hear the drums of a wedding ceremony you witnessed in Baneh when you were nine. Walking in Mercado de Artesanías de Coyoacán and you are mercilessly drawn to a colorful handwoven rug. You want to collapse into yourself, sit on the floor, run your fingers through it, feel the textures, and just cry inconsolably. You don’t know why. Now, try to get a hold of yourself. You begin to spiral, feel out of control. Is anyone else noticing? You’ve become an expert in hiding it. Your breath shortens. You panic. You think, any minute now you’re going to bleed all over yourself. You fear, irrationally, that all your guts and innards are going to start spilling out. “Hold yourself together, Cklara. Hold yourself together.” Try to ground yourself. Count the cars that pass by, look for red objects. You dig your nails into your skin. Take a deep breath. Repeatedly remind yourself: “You are here.” Here.
They have no idea what it is like
to lose home at the risk of
never finding home again
have your entire life
split between two lands and
become the bridge between two countries.
—Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers
The first thing I asked Alex when we landed in Mexico City was whether he felt like he was visiting “Homeland.” Alex said, without hesitation, “No.”
Maybe because Kurdistan (as a country) does not exist, and maybe because I have spent my life insisting on its existence, “Homeland” is not a concept I can take for granted. Toni Morrison writes:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
―Toni Morrison, “Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2”
I have been distracted all my life. Maybe precisely because of genocide, denial of basic rights, torture, the near-annihilation of my people, visiting a place (semi)-recognized as Kurdistan felt surreal. But it occurred to me that Alex (though also an immigrant) is not constantly and persistently longing for Homeland. He is not always waiting for the moment of return. The moment of reunion, of homecoming. Diaspora is not always a place of exile. Not all homelands are the promised land.
I kept comparing my experience of first visiting Hawler with Alex’s first visit to Mexico City. I cried at the sight of the Kurdish flag as we walked out of the airport, I told him. He shrugged. For me, visiting Hawler was a pilgrimage. I will not begin to interpret what visiting Mexico City meant for him, but it was not holy.
It became immediately clear that although Alex and I were on the same vacation, although we were both seeing Mexico City for the first time, the coordinates of our birthplace, our relationship to immigration/assimilation/colonization, delineated our trip into two parallel worlds. Throughout the week, we would oscillate between this rift and a shared reality. We would then compare notes; an attempt to converge distinct experiences.
Some of us travel as explorers, looking to discover something new about the world outside of ourselves: new cultures, new connections, new tastes, new people. I wish I had the luxury to travel this way. As the Yrsa Daley-Ward poem goes: “Every time I travel, I meet myself a little more.“ Every time I travel, I take myself with me. For me, as a displaced refugee, traveling is always an archeological task; one of digging deeper, into myself, into what I was forced to leave behind, into what has forever been lost to me, into what remains lost. Eva Hoffman, in Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language, declares: “Time stops at the point of severance…” Displacement severs you not just from a place, but from yourself.
In every new city, I wonder, often out loud: “Can I make a home here?”/ ”Can I find myself here?” It is searching, albeit in new places, for old things. I am always gripped by nostalgia for an abstraction; an overwhelming attachment to a concept. This is why I cannot begin to write about Distrito Federal without addressing Kurdistan first. This is why it has taken me so long to articulate what Mexico City meant; to try to parse out where Kurdistan ended and Mexico City began. But it has also taken this long to sit with all the growth, the fullness, the fertility of this excavation.
And there we were: tourists! It was amusing and heartwarming to watch Alex be a tourist in his own country. I saw him become fascinated and more enamored by his own land, by his own culture. By the third day, he was singing old tunes in Spanish.
As for me, I was there and not there. I was immersed and yet dissociated. The limits of my language, or lack thereof, separated me from the experience. Like in Kurdistan, like in LA, I was stranded in the in-between, straddling belonging and estrangement.
In Xochimilco, Alex rented one of the colorful trajineras for us to float down the ancient canals for an hour. These boats, named after daughters and wives, fill up on lazy Sunday afternoons with families eating and drinking in a festive environment and having a blast. Mariachi hop on board and sing songs on request. People, old and young, dance together. Small boats carrying snacks and beer float by, selling flower crowns for thirty pesos.
Everything was so colorful and bright. The sun was unyielding but the heat was not as suffocating as it had been on other days. A group of young friends on a passing boat began a conversation with us. I was oblivious and ignorant of what exactly was exchanged but at some point, the party discovered that Alex, like them, was also originally from the state of Chihuahua. They invited us over to their boat and offered us their drinks. We hopped on and let our own boat go by. Even though I did not understand the banter, I was lifted by the energy of the group. Xochimilco is nothing like Kurdistan. But the spirit, the sentiment, is the same. Total strangers took us in and celebrated with us as if we were all friends. This could have happened “back home.”
If before our trip I had my quiet fears that Alex and I were too culturally different, that we spoke, literally and metaphorically, different languages, I am now entirely convinced that, at least in this aspect, we understand each other on a molecular level. We share meaning, if not always the words. The signified, if not the signifier, is the same. We would often turn to each other and say: “Where I come from people do…” and then realize that we had the same story. I was born halfway across the world from his birthplace and yet this shared understanding is a testament to the universality of the human experience. After our boat ride was over, the group hugged us and gave us kisses on the cheeks. This was Kurdistan. This was Ciudad de México.
you still want to travel to
you could not take a camera with you.
-a question of appropriation
―Nayyirah Waheed, “A Question of Appropriation”
How do I even begin to write about a place I have visited once without romanticizing it, exoticizing or fetishizing it? I wanted to buy every embroidered dress and wear them everywhere. Where is the line between appreciating my partner’s culture and appropriating it? How do I begin to write about Mexico City without statements that are a reduction and an exaggeration at the same time? How do I capture all the splendor of the vast maze that is Mexico City without butchering it? I don’t know.
I am still intoxicated. I know I am in love, so my recollections are magnified; they cannot be entirely trusted. This is, in essence, a celebration, a love letter. And, as in all love letters, there is a little bit of infatuation, some embellishment. But it is also raw and honest.
Our trip was meticulously documented and yet when I go through the pictures, I am disappointed because so much was not captured. It simply cannot be.
The city is divided into colonias, each with their own distinct identity and character. You might walk into a bar in Condesa or Roma and believe you are in San Francisco or LA. Then you might walk twenty minutes through neighborhoods with taco stands on every corner, a thousand miles away from the familiar mediocrity of other cities.
We would often be hit, smacked in the face, by an odor that reminded us how many humans occupied each building. In The Art of Travel, Alain De Botton notes that “poetry lives on illusion,” but I have no illusions. The city is dirty. It is chaotic and dizzyingly busy. It does not hide or sanitize the violence of poverty. But it is full of poetry.
You see very young kids walking alone at night and a shortage of basic amenities in places minutes away from displays of luxury. At the end of a soccer match, you suddenly discover that you are in the midst of a block party, a riot, a protest, a spontaneous gathering of jubilance and victory.
The driving is disorienting and cars pass each other with unfathomable logic. Traffic laws appear to be suggestions. Uber drivers are always quick to offer agua and wish you a wonderful day. Everyone seems kind and helpful, and I felt safe even when walking through narrow streets that did not show up on Google Maps.
Part of my feelings of safety came from the fact that I was traveling with someone who spoke Spanish fluently. Like a child, I struggled to read the street signs. I didn’t know how to order food. I didn’t know how to count my money. But I didn’t have to work too hard to figure it out. I am sorry, however, that I could not understand the graffiti decorating the walls of the city.
What else did I miss?
Visiting Mexico City instilled a new-found desire to learn Spanish. Since returning, I have immersed myself in Carla Morrison songs, in Lila Downs, Chavela Vargas, Julieta Venegas, Natalia Lafourcade. In lyrics that swirl in my head all day: “Yo vivo para ti, para ti, para ti…” I preoccupy myself with Duolingo lessons, but the progress is painfully slow. The thing about wanting to learn your partner’s language is that it makes you shamefully aware of how little fluency you have in your own. Kurdish is also a language I am attempting to learn or relearn, depending on how you look at it. It was robbed from me by assimilation. I do not speak Kurmancî. I struggle with my Sorani. I do not think in Kurdish. My dreams are in strange word salads of various tongues. I cannot code-switch easily. I read like a third-grader.
I think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work in her book In Other Words, where she speaks of the paradoxical experience of considering one’s mother tongue a foreign language:
“In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.”
This alienation has marked my life. Kurdish feels like a dream that slips from my tongue as I try to recollect it. I shy away from speaking Farsi whenever possible. Arabic appears in rare glimpses. I have forgotten Danish entirely. German, Russian, and Turkish have nearly disappeared. I pronounce English words all wrong. I constantly use the passive, rather than the active voice. I am too wordy. I often lack clarity.
Rushdie declares, optimistically:
“It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being ‘elsewhere’. This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.”
―Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
I am not sure that I agree. Most of the time I cannot even “properly and concretely” articulate my own needs.
I have spent most of my life in translation. I have spent it negotiating my relationship to languages, those that were forced on me, those that were taken from me, those I have voluntarily chosen, those that are out of reach. How much meaning is lost in transit, in each crossing? How much is diluted, muffled, congealed, morphed in displacement from one border to another, in each flight, each departure from one language into another? I don’t know. But perhaps that’s the nature of speaking. Octavio Paz writes: “When we learn to speak, we learn to translate.” Is that true?
Language fluency does not always give way to articulation, however. Words are elusive in our best moments. Sometimes we open our mouths and nothing follows. Words alone rarely give us voice. Some of us spend a lifetime trying to find our voice, voice our needs, feel worthy of having a voice. And even then, we might not be heard, witnessed, truly seen, or held. When I write of alienation, I am speaking of a deep sense of estrangement, not just from land and home, but from my past, my present, from my own being, from my own body. I am speaking of a distance, a discrepancy between who I am and how I am perceived, the space between what others want and need of me and what I can give. This is in part due to (lack of) language, but it is also the nature of occupying intersections of identity that marginalize me, others me, even from my own family. What does it mean to be a queer woman shamed into obscurity in my community? Or chronically ill in an ableist world? Or a refugee, stateless and foreign no matter where I go? I am constantly facing the problem of definition.
Every single time I sit down to write, I lament that words are just not good enough. In this instance, in trying to conjure up an image of Mexico City, in trying to understand this city’s connection to my homeland, they are most certainly not good enough.
Even if I somehow mastered a language, what about the unutterable? What about the unsharability of our solitude, our insecurities, our heartbreaks? The sensations and feelings that defy verbalization? Those that actively resist it? Those that have no translation in any language? Which words should we use when faced with the sublime? What about the moments of pure agony that take us back to pre-linguistic groans, or pleasures that reduce us to gibberish and obscenities? What of the horrors that are unspeakable, traumas that are ineffable? I think of Wittgenstein’s pronouncement that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Must I be silent?
I am even more haunted by his idea that “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” What effect does the fact that I have no fluency in any language have on my ability to perceive, interpret, and understand the world around me? Like Maggie Nelson, I am preoccupied by yet another one of Wittgenstein’s ideas that maybe the “inexpressible is contained in the expressed.”
Is all I want to say, and cannot say, expressed in what I have so far said?
When we were walking through Museo Nacional de Antropologia, words were superfluous. There was no need for language. Sometimes I would sigh. Sometimes I would proclaim: “WOW,” “Aaaaah,” “Ooooo,” and maybe that is the best I can do. Maybe that is good enough.
As if possessed, I write of Mexico City compulsively. The city comes to me in my dreams like an apparition. It pains me that the colors are fading. Our memories are fluid. With each recollection, the narrative, like this essay, shifts. One element is highlighted, another taken out entirely. Sometimes it is a matter of mood. Some paragraphs have expanded and others are completely erased. The real estate each photo takes up varies from day to day. I wish I could have extracted the experience and bottled it up. I miss the purity of when I first began this essay. Except it was never pure, it was always mired in memory of elsewhere.
Anaïs Nin says: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” In writing now, I want to relive the Pyramids, Xochimilco, Pujol because they moved me to my core. Mercado de La Merced has a section dedicated entirely to witchcraft. We didn’t go, but I would have been spellbound. Tell me, how much agency do we really have over the things and people and places we love? How much choice? I want to hold on to the magic of Mexico City. It really was magic. But my preoccupation with this trip is also because I landed in this city at a very particular time. The experience evokes so much rumination because I was there to enter a new decade.
“I can remember a time when I took Henry James’s advice— “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”—deeply to heart. I think I was then imagining that the net effect of becoming one of those people would always be one of accretion. Whereas if you truly become someone on whom nothing is lost, then loss will not be lost upon you, either.”
―Maggie Nelson, Bluets
Loss is never lost on me. Loss, like pain, like crisis, has been a constant. It has been the rule, not the exception of my life. A refugee is a vase filled to the brim with loss. The news from “back home” is always enveloped in loss. Every day, I wake up to the loss of another city, another activist, another peshmarga, another promise. I grew up with bedtime stories of loss. My parents, both survivors of state-inflicted torture, refer to themselves as “the lost generation” of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Loss, as if an offering, was wrapped in every conversation, gifted to me in passing. That “all things are lost” was a lesson imparted in their sense of betrayal and agony, their mistrust in the world. My mother, pregnant and imprisoned at eighteen, was beaten until she miscarried. I grew up knowing I was not her first child. Secondary trauma came in abundance, even before my own direct lived experience of grief. I could not help but pick up this intergenerational heirloom.
Grief has a life of its own. Brit Bennett, in The Mothers, informs us: “Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.” Sometimes, you can breathe more easily, but it never really leaves you. The process of mourning is prolonged precisely because loss mingles with the memory of other losses. Sometimes all it takes is a reminder. It isn’t a clean process. You are messy, often.
Of course, I can also argue that there have been enormous gains: of freedom, of experience, of (self) knowledge, of interpersonal skills. But at times, it has felt as though my entire childhood and early adulthood were defined by an acute sense of loss (and by not knowing what was lost). Melancholia. A crisis of identity. A type of malignant homesickness. A yearning. An ache. Maybe it was the loss of Homeland, the loss of family, order, safety, childhood, friends, the loss of health, of love, the loss of land, of people, of language, opportunity, joy, the loss of self, of bodily integrity, agency. But if that is the case, it was also marked by a wild flailing to stay afloat, a stubborn relentless search to reclaim what was lost.
If five or even three years ago someone had suggested that I would actually turn thirty and would do so in Mexico City, I would have laughed. I couldn’t have imagined it. I was too busy surviving. When the time came, it seemed like the most perfect place had chosen to open its arms to me. And when the time came, I also chose it. Side note: To choose is the operative verb here, but the word denotes agency. I have my doubts about how much agency we really have in love, in life.
In either case, this metropolis of twenty-one million people had a place in it for me to spend a week wandering the streets, attempting to decipher the mysteries of growing (old), attempting to leave behind nearly two decades of perpetual struggle.
I was happy to leave my twenties. That’s an understatement. In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Had there been a mistake? I wasn’t supposed to make it this far. I grew up with a ruthless conviction that I would die before the age of thirty. I was convinced of it. I had prepared for it. I had lived as someone who was sure of nothing else but their own demise.
The year after I was born, Kurdistan was bombarded by chemical weapons and thousands perished in minutes. This was followed by numerous other historically significant tragedies and a harsh familial journey. Survivor’s guilt was instilled in me very early on because I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I was on borrowed time. As a deeply religious child, I used to think God must have miscalculated somewhere along the line. Years later, while struggling with depression, or dealing with how my body was failing me, the almost daily ideations of death were a rude presence, a reality that made it almost impossible to believe in aging.
With this history I entered Mexico City and I write of my travels now. Carlos Fuentes said: “Writing is a struggle against silence.” Writing, in this context, is a struggle against forgetting. Against losing. Against (more) loss.
On May 31st, I found myself walking in Coyoacán and being sure of my life (as sure as any of us can be). It was an unfamiliar strange (but pleasant) sensation. I felt high. I felt so intensely alive that my head tingled. I reflected on the fact that for a while now I no longer feel doomed to suffer. Surviving has been a radical act. I now believe that joy, healing, thriving is possible, that I am deserving of it, that I am embodying it. Birthdays tend to be the time when I grapple most with death. I recognize that I haven’t wanted to die or feared that I was in imminent danger of death in a long time. I was teary-eyed, grateful to be alive.
The neighborhood of Coyoacán is distinctly different from other parts of Mexico City. It is on solid ground. Cobblestone paves the streets. It was here that all the intellectuals built homes, wrote, plotted. This is where Mexican magical realism and surrealist fiction flourished. (But this is also where Cortez’s army generals lived!)
Coyoacán, for the most part, did not trigger memories. There, I was not in Kurdistan or anywhere else. More surprisingly, I did not want to be anywhere else. I have spent many hours wishing I was elsewhere. In Los Angeles, I would often wonder why I am not in Kurdistan. In Kurdistan, I would wonder if I am in the right place. I always had one foot here, one foot there. I lived according to multiple time zones.
In Coyoacán I also did not want to be doing anything else. Most of the time, I am chronically restless.
There I felt as though I was exactly where I needed to be when I needed it most. Fully mindful. This state of being present is such a rare experience that I sometimes don’t know what to do with it. But even I am tired of self-analysis; it doesn’t lead to insight anyway. “Forget personal psychology and just be,” I tell myself.
How many hours did I spend in my twenties, lost in the poetry of Octavio Paz, nodding to his laments about our solitude? “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition,” he asserts in The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings. How ironic then to find myself unexpectedly in his home, feeling linked to everything, the strangers on our tour, to the woman traveling to Mexico for a school reunion, to the solo traveler who spoke more than he listened, to the woman from Inland Empire who now lives in Chicago, to the guards at the gate of the museum who looked at us with boredom, to our tour guide who spoke so passionately about Paz, about Fuentes, knew of Valeria Luiselli, Sandra Cisneros. In Coyoacán, I did not feel alone. I was deeply connected to a land I had never visited before.
This is also where Frida’s house is located. The blue of La Casa Azul is hypnotizing.
I wanted to be in Frida Kahlo’s house on my birthday because she had made it possible for me to continue living. I had turned thirty in part because, at some point in time, these words had carried me through my pain:
“Al final del día, podemos aguantar mucho más de lo que pensamos que podemos.”
I have inscribed this quote into my heart, if not yet tattooed on my skin. To compare my pain or my attempts at creating self-portraits to that of Frida’s would be self-aggrandizing, but her endurance, her triumph in the face of suffering, disability, betrayals, revolution, disillusionment, deprivation. All this made it feel possible for me to do the same.
When I first told Alex about my admiration for Frida, early on in our relationship, he had joked that “every girl” likes Frida Kahlo. I hope that is true! There was a time when I would have resisted such a statement. I didn’t want to be “every girl.” I didn’t want to be average. I would go out of my way to distinguish myself, set myself apart. That’s internalized misogyny (now I know). Today, I’m emboldened by a statement like that. I feel liberated from needing validation of my uniqueness. I am okay being “that girl,” “that woman,” the one who is accused of being “oversensitive,” the one who is “intimidating,” is told she is “too much,” the one who feels the pain of others, the “hopeless romantic,” the one who is steadfast in her belief that there is power/healing in literature, in art, in music, the one who believes that the world would be a better place with some radical softness, some sharing of vulnerability, with interdependence. The one who fawns over love songs, reads the poetry of Neruda, pines for affection, puts her hair up like Frida. I am tender. I am hard. I am okay with that. May I always be “too much” —overflowing with passion, emotion, life, creativity, resilience.
Frida’s home housed her bed, her urn (her ashes!), her paintings, her photograph, her love for Diego, her heartbreaks, her yearnings for a child (not unlike my own), her words quoted on the walls. I was in a trance throughout. I write this as an atheist: God was there somewhere.
Frida was fierce, with words like this:
“Manda al carajo a toda la sociedad estúpida, podrida en mentiras, del capitalismo y el imperialismo norteamericano… La revolución es ineludible.”
I know I am idealizing. But to me, Frida is the embodiment of exultation in the face of death. Her work is visual poetry and as Edward Hirsch says:
“Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish—to let others vanish—without leaving a record.”
―Edward Hirsch, How To Read a Poem
La Casa Azul is a shrine. I must have thanked Alex ten times that day for facilitating the visit. I loved him more than ever there.
Our feelings for each other, our intimacy, our exchanges ebb and flow. Sometimes, we are completely connected, in tune. This is then followed by intermittent periods of jarring disconnect, distance, both physically and figuratively. At times, in Mexico City, we were in communion. I wanted to recite to him Frida’s words:
“Quisiera darte todo lo que nunca hubieras tenido, y ni así sabrías la maravilla que es poder quererte”
“Los átomos de mi cuerpo son los tuyos y vibran juntos para querernos”
“… aprenderé historias para contarte, inventaré nuevas palabras para decirte en todas que te quiero como a nadie”
But these words do not fit. Our love is more subtle, more subdued; the quiet embers of a fire rather than the flames. It is not the fireworks of my early twenties, but it can be trusted. It is honest. There is mutual respect, there is deep regard, there is admiration and affection. We learn from each other. We might never love each other this way but Frida expands our vocabulary of love:
“¿Se pueden inventar verbos? quiero decirte uno: yo te cielo, así mis alas se extienden enormes para amarte sin medida. Siento que desde nuestro lugar de origen hemos estado juntos, que somos de las misma materia, de las mismas ondas, que llevamos dentro el mismo sentido…”
In Mexico City, I was constantly in a dialogue with what I had lost and what I was gaining. I seesawed between mourning and celebrating the life I have chosen and the lives I have departed from. I dreamed, almost every night, of the fiery love I left behind in Kurdistan. But I was exhilarated to awaken to a new kind of love, a new reality. There are now an infinite number of universes where all of my choices have branched out into other lives, lives that I am no longer living. Adam Phillips points out:
“our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”
―Adam Phillips, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life
All of my many selves (the poet, the lawyer, the diplomat, the politician, the nomadic traveler), all of my unfulfilled potentials, or as Anne Sexton calls them, all the “dismantled almosts,” have a little place in my heart, but they do not occupy it. They tell you to make choices you can live with, in the moment and spread out across time. Now the lives I have chosen not to live tell me as much about who I am as the life I have chosen to live. Less than a year ago, I was seriously considering, even planning, to move “back” to Bashuri Kurdistan, a place I’ve never before lived. But at this moment, I feel that I am exactly where I need to be. Jhumpa Lahiri writes:
“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk.”
―Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words
I too wander the world. The truth is that I can never really go back to the Kurdistan of my imagination. But the opposite is true as well. I will always go back. I go back constantly, as I did in Mexico City, as I do now. Kurdistan is ever-present, it is always at the tip of my tongue. But even so, the thought of moving “back home” suddenly feels like so long ago, as if that trajectory is the fate of someone else entirely.
On the flight back to Los Angeles, I wrote:
You think Home with capital H
has to be here, somewhere, anywhere
you know, deep down, It’s not “back home”
I contradict myself here, but as the Tom Waits song goes, “Home” is “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” Maybe it is in the arms of my partner, in the future we are building together. In Mexico City, I felt that I was finally rowing in a river, moving forward.
Cklara Moradian is a diasporic Kurdish writer, spoken word poet, social justice advocate, former refugee, and current Social Worker in training. She has presented at national and international human rights conferences and numerous university campuses on trauma, resilience, and the power of creativity in the face of atrocities. She is a 2nd year MSW Candidate at California State University Northridge, completing a year-long leadership training program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), and writing/translating from Los Angeles, CA.