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03 tender musings: love is amorphous
How do you allow yourself to experience loss, love, and longing for a land you’ve never known?
sylhet, bangladesh january 2022
You know I’ve never really seen photos of my mother as a child or at her wedding until this past year. From January in Bangladesh to September in London, this has been a year of connecting dots and filling in gaps I didn’t realize were manifesting as a deep emptiness that I’ve been grasping to fill my entire life with lackluster diaspora poetry and ardent historical study of the liberation war. How do you allow yourself to experience loss, love, and longing for a land you’ve never known? I intellectualize my way out of feeling profound sadness on the disconnection of family history due to immigration, war, and poverty – and instead numb it with the study of Bengali textiles or listen to an ‘80s folk song to give me some sort of agency and control. In 2022, I returned to Bangladesh for my first time as an adult, and know that part of the pull bringing me to stay in London for a month was the twelve hours closer it brought me to the homeland.
east london, september 2022
Growing up in a tiny apartment in Queens, the focus was on survival and not sentiment, and so upon moves and constant decluttering to maneuver space to fit a rotating door of grandparents and uncles living with us at any given time, old family photos were found scattered in different shoeboxes on top of closets; cassettes and video tapes were discarded. I spent the final week and a half of my time in the United Kingdom visiting uncles, aunties, mamis, mamas, dadis, dadas across East London, Wales, Birmingham, and the Midlands. Alone in a country, a late twenties woman showing up after hours of travel to the doorsteps of family scattered across the world, I was constantly a shock to them, a walking embodiment of a world they never could perceive. For my uncle in Wales, I was the first family member in almost a decade across immediate and extendeds to visit him in that northern, homogenous, desolate province. In East London, among my first cousins and all the fresh nieces and nephews under the age of three, a grandma-in-law scarves me immediately upon entering the house. In Birmingham, my chacha had not seen his sisters– my aunts, who live in Queens, since they parted ways in the ‘90s and emigrated their different ways, and my arrival at their doorstep felt like a knockoff alternative to a reunion. I was nervous before visiting this last house– deeply religious, relatively unknown to me, and a pressure like I was an ambassador with all of the United States family contingent to represent upon my visit. But quickly, my fear dissipated as we fell into the familiar rhythm of how I relate to all my older family so confused but intrigued by me– helping my aunt plate curries in the kitchen and asking about the spider mites on her naga morich growing in the backyard, and sitting with my uncle in front of the television watching Sky News and discussing the Labour Party’s latest neoliberal antics, the impending cost of living crisis in Britain, and his health updates.
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aunt & first cousins, hackney london 1999
When sharing about my life, I drop in the buzz words that would ring familiar to them – law, school, work meetings, but stay away from details or attempting to explain the colorful aspects that nourish; socialist political organizing, artistic endeavors, nightlife, etc. It creates a mental divide for myself that I often fear trickles into my interpersonal relationships; a quick gloss over my life updates to friends, “Yep, I’m doing fine!,” a wave away of the learnings and activities that actually fill a life because of a fear of being misunderstood. Yet I’m so in awe of the friendships in my life of deep emotional intimacy, who challenge, question, and hold space for me, who allow the multiplicities of self to exist in the relationship without judgment and with care. This is the family I get to create in my adulthood, and this is a freedom I never take for granted.
When my baba first emigrated to the States, he lived in an old tenement apartment on Delancey & Allen St with 5 roommates, all Bengali men commuting to Dunkin Donuts, restaurants in Times Square, yellow cabs in Long Island City to drive around for the day. Those uncles are now settled in their various lives across the city with children of adventures of their own, and they have become family – a forged community growing up. They still gather every few weeks for a chai and paan in Jackson Heights, or a walk through Flushing Meadows Park. I think about this sometimes when I’m sitting on Jamie and Angie’s stoop looking up at the full moon, when friends gather in my living room playing records or looking through books, when Raquel asks me if I want a cup of tea, when Kat randomly pulls out the sweetest cherry tomatoes to try, when the sun is rising at Nowadays and we look at each other bleary-eyed in sonic bliss, when I pull up to an action and hug comrades knowing that across whatever intricacies and difficulties of our personal lives we are in the struggle together. This is the extended family I get to build for myself here in New York City and across the world, and for that, I am full of an unexplainable gratitude.
There is a loneliness to paving your own way and charting a course so unknown to the ones who have birthed you, but there is a strength that also comes from knowing that despite the distance, there is an unconditional loving at the foundation of my uncle picking me up from the airport and driving an hour and a half across London, my aunt in Wales calling my grandmother in Bangladesh to learn her paratha recipe for me to eat for breakfast, my second cousin massaging my scalp with warm oil when I visited my ancestral village. I learn from them that we don’t need to always have words for the love we share with one another; that it is an action, it is commitment, and it transcends the misconception that we must always fully “understand” each other. A shared humanity is enough, and that is the ethos of love I take into building towards the world we deserve. To fight and to be in struggle, I don’t need to and won’t fully understand the experience of a Palestinian child growing up exiled and under drone strikes, of an elderly woman in Puerto Rico living in blackout hearing her home deteriorate in a hurricane, or of a family in Flint, Michigan driving three hours to get filtered bottles of waters. I won’t ever fully understand the extent of my mother’s life at twenty years old with a baby boy in an apartment above a halal butcher shop in Elmhurst on food stamps working part-time at Port Authority. But I do know and understand the power of a love and the duty to one another.
“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” - Che Guevara
Anyway, my birthday is next Saturday and heading into another year of life, I guess I’m reflecting on my womanhood and the lineage of tenacious maternal energy I come from.
That’s my mom. She looked really sad at her wedding. Eighteen years old, meeting my dad only a few times prior, leaving her family in Sylhet to go live with my father’s side in Dhaka, and then a journey to the United States soon to come. And yet, over thirty years later, my baba wakes up at 5am every morning to drive my ma to her work at Duane Reade, naps for 3 hours, then heads to his waiter job. My ma comes homes in the afternoon after taking two buses, makes the specific vegetable curries my baba likes the most and leaves it on the stove with fresh rice for him to eat at 11pm upon returning. Growing up, I used to be envious of the seemingly perfect suburban families on tv that would eat together at 7pm on the dot every night. But I now realize that so many of them remain spiritually disconnected even when sitting across the table from each other. Yes, we hardly got a chance to eat dinner together as a family, but I learn from the quiet gesture of my baba always having papaya or guava for me when I visit home now, that again, love is a dialectic, it is amorphous, and takes the shape of what is possible considering context.
At exactly my age now, my ma was learning English at Laguardia Community College, had two babies on her hip, and a precarious citizenship status – and me? I’ll have just completed an entrance exam to law school and will be throwing a party in a friend’s Brooklyn loft surrounded by dear ones to ring in the solar return. In this new year, I have the privilege to keep defining and refining what family, love, vulnerability, and commitment looks like and that…that is the biggest gift of all.
…With these monthly-ish tender musings aside, I’m eager to share another round of grassroots people’s movements, political education resources, and the vibrant arts & culture I am fortunate to be held by. If anything here resonated with you, please let me know, send to a friend, and feel free to share on social media (Instagram: @tahia.co)
with much love and solidarity,
Tahia Islam is a cultural and community organizer, political activist, stylist, and educator from New York City.
Let the grassroots movements lead us and inspire us…
LULA is elected as President in Brazil! After the fascist destruction from Bolsonaro over the last few years, the people of Brazil struggled and fought to vote in trade unionist and organizer, Lula de Silva. It’s a victory for democracy in Brazil, a win for people’s movements across the world, for the Amazon, indigenous communities, and public health as Brazil had the second-highest death toll (700k+) after the United States under Bolsonaro. This also means a growing left bloc in Latin America representing the people, from Chile to Colombia. [READ MORE from People’s Dispatch]
However, midterm elections just happened in the United States, with a vastly different turnout for the people, with Republicans poised to win the House and the Senate. Election Day in the empire is a rare day of collective political will in the air; a bourgeoise liberal construct meant to isolate us from each other where the ballot boxes at churches and schools are the few times many of us see our neighbors working together/interacting intergenerationally. In an organized, socialist society, this would be the norm, not the exception. It already happens here, from rent strikes to mutual aid to anti-war actions, and we can build that power a hundred fold. If voting gave you a sense of agency and/or if you reluctantly went to vote because you inherently understand the inaction and complacency of the capitalist-owned, white supremacist electoral structures that is the United States but know the detrimental localized effects if we don’t, then this is my urgent call to you to internalize political responsibility BEYOND Election Day. Politics is survival, it is every day, in every action we take, to not do is a choice, it is a choice to spend hours elsewhere, to give up, to believe we won’t win. Trust me, to struggle together, to work towards a world we deserve, to build internationalist solidarity is nourishing and removes the cynicism that people feel when seeing red blue polling results roll in on CNN.
SAY NO TO INNOVATION QNS! Innovation QNS is a $2 billion development project by Larry Silverstein, Kaufman Studios, and Bedrock Realty, which will turn Astoria into a soulless, sanitized version of midtown Manhattan. It will have a significant environmental impact, and it will not be affordable nor accessible to the community, especially those who truly need deeply affordable housing. It will flood the area with majority high-end luxury housing and drastically impact the surrounding community of Bangladeshi, Spanish-speaking, working class, and other residents who are at most risk for displacement. Innovation QNS threatens to destroy the fabric that makes Astoria and Queens such a special place: its immigrant, working class communities. Follow the lead of grassroots organizations, CAAAV and Astoria is Not for Sale for coming actions and info.
Let Cuba Live! For over three decades, the world votes against the inhumane U.S. economic blockade on Cuba which prevents vital resources from reaching the island and isolates them from global trade. This past week at the annual U.N. General Assembly, 185 countries voted to end the blockade providing emotional and heartfelt testimonies on the support Cuba has given their countries…and 2 voted to keep it - the U.S. and Israel. [WATCH: Cuban delegate responds to the U.S. vote]
I cherish dearly all of the live music I experienced in London, from Tom Skinner at Church of Sound with drums and saxophone reverberating across walls of an old church in Lower Clapton, to an analog set at Phonox club by tabla electronica master Talvin Singh. My friends shared their knowledge and passion; from Anu’s NTS show exploring the work of prolific Tamil composer, Ilaiyaraaja, to the *once* underground jazz Fabrice exposed me to coming from Hackney’s Total Refreshment Centre. I spent a lot of time walking up and down Whitechapel passing street vendors and chatting, so here is a little playlist of music I have been introduced to, produced by friends, or experienced live from sound systems at Notting Hill Carnival to a music video I styled.
Other mixes and playlists I’m enjoying:
Coloring Lessons Selects - monthly playlist by Musclecars
For your bookshelf…
Blood in My Eye - George Jackson / a political statement and required reading from political prisoner, George Jackson, assassinated in 1971 at the the hands of the California prison system for his revolutionary organizing and clear understanding of the perils of the U.S. government
Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Anti-racism - Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee / written by comrades in London, uncovering the histories of radical, multi-racial antiracist struggles and organizing in the UK, beyond “representation” and superficial anti-racism activism perpetuated by the US
All That’s Left to You - Ghassan Kanafani
Terminal Boredom - Izumi Suzuki
November 11, 10p - 4a | Mi Sabor Cafe, Bushwick, Brooklyn - From radio shows to parties with local and international DJs, Puerto Rico’s Radio Red PR takes over NYC local electronic music scene! DJs: Ibn Itaka, Aguepanti, Payola, Riobamba, Diego Hauz, Joselo
November 12, 11a - 12:30p | Kimchi Workshop with Katie Yun, Crown Heights, Brooklyn - proceeds go to Feed the People Bed Stuy
November 13, 5p - 11p | Nowadays, Ridgewood, Queens - NYC’s own producer/DJ duo, Musclecars, reviving old-school New York house music sounds for our generation, takes over the best sound system in the city for their monthly residency, with Toribio.
November 19, 11a - 4p | The People’s Forum, Manhattan (hybrid) - The Real Path to Peace in Ukraine - stellar lineup of dedicated left thinkers and activists from Jeremy Corbyn to Claudia de la Cruz - “Anti-war forces in the United States and across the world may have different analyses of Russia, Ukraine, and this tragic war, but we can unite around one thing: there is no road to peace if US government policy remains to obstruct negotiations and send endless weapons into the war zone. We, people of conscience, are coming together to demand that there be a radical shift in the direction of US military and foreign policy. NATO expansion must end. Money must be spent on education, healthcare, and housing, not the war machine. We demand peace, not war. Join us!”
Dec 9 and 10 | Mayday Space, Bushwick, Brooklyn - Social Justice Holiday Market with local vendors, artists, makers. Shop responsibly and locally for the holidays
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