Darulaman Palace. Built in the 1920s by Afghanistan’s King Amanullah in Kabul. The name means “place of peace,” or “home of Aman,” a play on the King’s name. Mostly destroyed now by decades of war but undergoing reconstruction. Source: Wikipedia Commons. (The Russian text says, “Kabul, Year 1982,” which is three years after the beginning of the USSR’s occupation.
I was raised on stories of a glorious Afghanistan. “Most beautiful country in the world” is how my father described his homeland during my childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s. He’d been living in the United States for a while by then, since the late 1970s, and he watched the war in Afghanistan unfold every night on Dan Rather’s evening news. The Soviet occupation. The mujahideen’s resistance. The trail of American money and weapons that we believed was military aid. My father was sure, one day, our family would be going back. Never mind that he was the only one of us who’d ever been there. My Mom was a second-generation Slovak-American Special Ed teacher whose heroes included Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey, and my siblings and I were all born in rural delivery rooms at a tiny hospital in upstate New York. Yet my father operated as if everyone in our nuclear family were temporarily displaced, like him, waiting for our Afghan return. As soon as the war was over, we were going back.
This feeling was shared by all the Afghan émigrés who socialized with my family at the time. There was an intense cultural cohesion among this group of exiles from Kabul, the educated, bourgeois elite, the first to get out when the war began. Whether it was a national or regional bond, I’m not sure. It wasn’t the sort of nationalist pride I’m used to seeing in the States. There was no guns, no combative postures, no defensive slurs to keep others out. Some of my Afghan aunties were proud of being Westernized, they wore thick makeup and high heels, but they hung out happily with their sisters in hijab, all of them cooking dinner together in whoever’s kitchen we’d congregated in that Saturday afternoon. My father’s Afghan friends included a guy who installed a swimming pool in his backyard, and whose daughter, in an actual bathing suit, dove into the deep end during parties. (As a Muslim kid, this seemed pretty scandalous to me.) And his friends included refugees of more humble means, in traditional perhan tumban, who struggled to make sense of this foreign land and married their daughters off when they turned eighteen. (This seemed scandalous to me too.)
With all their cultural diversity, the Afghans of my childhood seemed to share a soft, confident, loving kind of national connection. A sense of belonging that pulled them back in so they could be whole again. A community based on a land that no substitute could replace—and until we returned, weekend Afghan Parties would have to do. I’ve never lived in Afghanistan. I’m an immigrant’s kid. I’ve absorbed Afghan culture in displaced contexts. But that’s what I felt. I grew up on that expat Afghan aura, and it told me that I didn’t totally belong here in the States. The Americans I knew didn’t know how to sit down and talk quietly and cook for hours and laugh and look at each other and turn off the television and enjoy a cup of tea. One day we’re going back.
One day my father broke out a couple dozen postcards of Afghanistan. I don’t know where they came from. The Afghan mementos and trinkets in my childhood were like that—tea cups, prayer rugs, Persian carpets, bronze plates—these items mysteriously appeared in our home. The postcards he decided to arrange into a collage in a large picture frame. He liked my handwriting so he had me write out افغانستان on a sheet of paper. (That’s Afghanistan in Persian script.) If anyone were to be confused, he wanted to be clear: these postcards represented Afghanistan.
They were souvenirs of tourist hot spots, frozen in the 1970s, stuck in time. These were my visual references for the Afghanistan my father and his friends obsessed over. Before the internet, before searchable image databases, there were the Buddhas of Bamyan in my rural New York State living room. The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. Some amazing blue body of water with rocky cliffs, which I later figured out was Band-e Amir. Meanwhile, on TV, Afghanistan was reduced to exploding bombs and mujahideen rocketing missiles into the air. The Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen—everyone had their own ideas for the future of Afghanistan. We should have known, but somehow no one admitted, the dissonance between the fading postcard hotspots and the news-report detonations—it was real.
One of those living-room postcards showed the Darulaman Palace in Kabul, the royal castle of King Amanullah, constructed in the 1920s, after the third Afghan-Anglo War. (A photo of Darulaman is at the top of this essay.) The palace’s name is a Persian pun. It means “place of peace” and also “home of Aman”—the king’s promise that the war was over, peace was here, and political progress, represented by the European architecture, was on its way. I have a Lonely Planet guide book to Afghanistan, published ten years ago. It warns against getting too close to Darulaman today: “The palace is now little more than an empty shell. Don’t explore the palace too closely as there are still unexploded ordinances (UXOs) in the area.”
This is what Darulaman looked like after decades of civil war.
I live a double professional life. In one version of myself, I’ve been working on a childhood memoir about growing up as the daughter of an Afghan-Muslim father and Slovak-Catholic American mother, who unhappily raised seven kids and who fought (constantly and violently) over my future and my identity. My memoir’s narrator is an Afghan-American concerned with ethnic diaspora, Islamophobia, racism, and the geopolitics of the Cold War. As a girl, she read the Qur’an, prayed five times daily, wore headscarves over her hair, and absorbed a lot of inter-generational family trauma. We lived in rural New York State, and I grew up with forest as my backyard. I played with bugs, climbed trees, caught toads before they could jump into our muddy pond. Some classic Huck Finn nature stuff: hanging out in the woods to get as far as possible from my physical home, to escape dysfunctional family.
The other side of my double life, the part I have more recognition and institutional support for, comes from those wilderness countryside experiences—at least that’s what I thought for a while. I am an environmental artist, and I founded and now direct an Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Rochester. I earned a PhD in English originally, but I eventually found that I was motivated more by creative interactions with the public than by literary scholarship and I gravitated toward a new artistic genre called “social practice.” My latest projects engage with communities to resuscitate ancient food practices and environmental wonder in an effort to heal a cultural memory disorder that my collaborator, Cary Adams, and I have been so bold to name “Industrial Amnesia.” This is our term for the memory and imagination loss caused by industrialized consciousness. As new techno-science innovations, and colonial occupations, replace slower, more local, self-reliant, or indigenous, and perhaps less convenient practices, we want to know, do we also lose a slower, more contemplative and connected part of our souls? Except for a few individuals who have looked at me with a curious, questioning eye, my audiences mostly assume I am ethnically, culturally, religiously neutral—that is, a passable-white girl with a big affinity for Thoreau. But this environmental work is also Afghan.
It took me a long time to realize how this works.
These two sides of my life rarely touch. Perhaps I’ve been purposefully, unconsciously protecting them from each other—not an uncommon experience, I believe, for those of us whose personal lives and professional survival speak different languages, or for those of us whose most intimate, familial, ethnic experiences are not reflected in the disciplining whiteness of our national culture. I kept my two worlds and my two practices separate. I didn’t have a clear narrative to articulate their connection, to synthesize my two souls. If media, institutions, journalists, critics, and power structures need anything, it’s a digestible narrative, highly processed and refined, and I didn’t have one. Any experience that falls out of the frame—good luck being understood. (Don’t make anyone think too hard. That would be intellectual self-reliance, an idea I got from Thoreau, who was worried, back in 1854, that it was going extinct. There’s that Industrial Amnesia again.)
Last spring, the divide between my Afghan-American self and my ethnically blank environmental self began breaking down. The two sides were getting closer, asking for synthesis. Chapters of my memoir were being published, the book was immersing me, it almost half-done, when I was invited to present my environmental art at the Sanctuary for Independent Media’s “Ruderal Ecologies: Grounds for Change” (a conference hosted by NATURE Lab Environmental Education Center and sponsored by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in North Troy, NY). For the past year I’d been trying to roll back the art production to focus on my memoir (you know, my other life), but the organizers were artists and activists whom I admired, so I agreed. I wasn’t too familiar with what “ruderal” meant, so I started researching. I thought about my talk. I read more. And something profound happened. I started to realize: I had just found the concept that could stitch together my two lives.
Here’s a good definition of ruderal ecologies from anthropologist Bettina Stoetzer, who presented her work at the same event:
“Ruderal” is a botanical term that comes from rudus, which is the Latin word for rubble. It refers to organisms that spontaneously grow in “disturbed environments” usually considered to be hostile to life—the sides of train tracks, for instance, or roads, waste disposal areas, or literally rubble… The interesting thing about ruderals is that they aren’t really wild or domesticated; they are non-native species and they dwell in the gaps of urban infrastructures like invisible hitch hikers.”
“Ruderal” is an ecological term, yet Stoetzer’s definition here applies wholly, I believe, to human organisms too, specifically misplaced populations. To diasporas, like Afghans, fleeing war. To people, like me, who grew up in hostile homes. These souls “spontaneously grow” in troubled places, where they don’t belong, not wild, not domesticated, yet they find ways to make homes on the edges, in the spaces in between. Wildly domesticating. All my work, I realized, has been about survival amidst the rubble. Growing within disturbance. Healing after trauma. Life After Disaster and Ruins. When I read Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, which is about surviving the Anthropocene, this snippet was my favorite line because it seemed to describe how I spend my time: “partial healing, modest rehabilitation, and still possible resurgence in the hard times…” I do this in my memoir. In my environmental art. As a survivor of childhood violence. As a diasporic person. And as an ecological being in the Anthropocene.
Staying with the Trouble has become quite popular among scholars and artists looking for practical ways to continue on with our lives while in ecological mourning, but I worry that these readers forget that the strategies Haraway describes to deal with climate change and environmental destruction have been around for a very long time. Immigrants, refugees, diasporas, the displaced, and the dispossessed have been struggling to partially heal and partially rehabilitate for a very long time. Kathryn Yusoff, in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, explains so well the historical erasures embedded in contemporary anxiety about climate change:
“If the Anthropocene proclaims a sudden concern with the exposures of environmental harm to white liberal communities, it does so in the wake of histories in which these harms have been knowingly exported to black and brown communities under the rubric of civilization, progress, modernization, and capitalism. The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence.”
The ending of worlds. Colonialism. Occupation. Making a home within and after ruins. Afghanistan. The nation where the United States has been at some sort of war, including the Cold War, since World War II.
Once before, two years earlier, I tried to articulate the overlaps between my memoir-writing and my environmental art, but I wasn’t as secure in my reasoning. This happened at an art event called “Distant Attachments: Unsettling Contemporary Afghan Diasporic Art,” organized by the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. “Distant Attachments” presented a series of creative responses to “the different relationships, connections, detachments, and dispositions one can have to ‘the homeland.’” I’d never presented my work in an Afghan context before, and as a half-Afghan, I worried I wouldn’t fit. (There is actually a pejorative term for people like me: we’re called Half-ghans.) Most, if not all, of the artists involved in Diasporic Attachments had Afghanness at the forefront of their work—Persian script, Afghan landscapes, trips back to Kabul, the burqas—and there I was, screening videos about the industrial food system. Like Probiotics of the Kitchen, in which I make fermented cabbage in my kitchen as a response to feminist video artist Martha Rosler’s seventies-era “Semiotics of the Kitchen.” Or OS Fermentation, in which my partner and I work with public communities through reading groups, hands-on food workshops, and communal eating experiences. Or Food Convenience Labor Luxury, about the failures and impossibilities of performing slow food practices while living in the timescapes of industrialization.
Despite the event’s embrace of unsettling assumptions about diaspora, I felt pressure to synthesize how this work related to Afghan identity, and here’s what I said:
To grow up Afghan is to be raised on nostalgia, to constantly measure the Afghanistan of today with the world my father hung on the wall and the one conjured by all the hopeful Afghan kakas and khalehs over at our house on weekends dreaming of a return to Kabul. To grow up Afghan in America is to be filled with longing for what no longer exists, to carry your parents’ mourning for nation, for the past, in your body, in how you see, and so my work on food and environment is always a look backward, a wondering about “what if we tried that again.” An attempt to redress that disorder my partner and I call Industrial Amnesia. (I’m accused of plenty of romantic nostalgia for my work, and I reject that reading, especially when these same critics do not dedicate the same energy to assessing our global futurist colonial order promising a coming techno-smartphone-utopia of unchecked privatization and destruction of public and indigenous cultures. I live in the temporalities of diaspora and memoir. I like to remember.)
Maybe growing up Afghan-American, I explained to the audience, made the past more accessible and appealing to me—or at least a constant preoccupation. Maybe it does this for many children of immigrants, or indigenous people, who often seem to possess some residue of older ways of communing, eating, communicating, and being, ways of maintaining and nurturing kinship and community, ways of healing, that can seem almost entirely extinguished within the upper-caste echelons of Industrial-Amnesia America. Community, James Baldwin wrote, “simply means our endless connection with, and responsibility for, each other.” This feeling, he suggested, “scarcely means anything anymore” in the modern state, “except among the submerged, the ‘lowly,’” who know that “only they of the community can sustain and re-create each other.”
At the Afghan Distant Attachments event, I was almost there. But the concept of ruderal ecologies provided the next step. The ruderal part of my work has been my transplanting of this disjointed legacy, taking my alienation from the Afghan context and relocating that sense of community and place and survival and memory and cultural cohesion, displaced, in rubble, with no home, and rooting it into my life on American soil. Finding the gaps to dwell in, to use Stoetzer’s words, to become an invisible hitch-hiker. And invisible, for so long, even to myself. Alterity is complex. It will not fit the frame. How many stories of others do we lose because the speakers don’t have enough time in a lifetime to reinvent the right frames? Or they are up against an impatient institutional or financial clock so they settle for something simpler that white spaces recognize? (I originally chose a contingent teaching position in academia instead of pursuing tenure-tracks because I needed more time, and now, unfortunately, this means I have less.) This is how ethnic marginalization and invisibility works.
In my talk at “Ruderal Ecologies,” I focused on a project I began with Cary Adams a few years ago, School of Live Culture, named for the fermenting wildness of the krauts and kombuchas domesticated in our kitchen. School of Live Culture (SLC) is an artwork of radical pedagogy based in Rochester, New York, a city where the concentration of urban black poverty is the fourth-highest in the United States. And the hyper-segregation is getting worse. The affluent and the poor rarely cross paths, they live and work within different neighborhoods, in separate institutions—a reality clear to us everyday when Cary and I arrive on at the University of Rochester campus bordered by the Genesee River and the impoverished PLEX and 19th Ward neighborhoods on the other side. We didn’t want our classrooms to be ones where food and environmental justice issues were textbook problems faced by abstract people somewhere faraway without recognizing that, directly across the river, local residents were already working in creative ways to support sustainability and public health. Without institutional affiliation or accredited degrees.
School of Live Culture collaborated with urban farming and community justice nonprofits, Seedfolk City Farm and the M.K. Gandhi Institute, to gesture against hyper-segregation by developing micro-networks of dialogue and collaboration between youth populations typically divided from each other by race, class, and educational politics. In its first iteration, SLC hired local youth farmers to teach university students about urban agriculture. By paying the youth farmers to be college instructors, this project not only provided leadership opportunities and life-enriching jobs but also put undergrads of an elite university in a position of learning from individuals they thought they were supposed to help. The ruderal, Stoetzer explains, “refers to communities that emerge spontaneously in disturbed environments… the cracks of sidewalks, the spaces alongside train tracks and roads, industrial sites, waste disposal areas, or rubble fields.”
Through a temporary disruption of socio-economic and educational hierarchies, School of Live Culture generated space for new possibilities of imagination, community, skill-sharing, and being-with-others. The goal was to collectively question patterns of inequality and privilege in educational systems, the relationships of universities to their immediate neighborhoods, and the notion that academic experts need be the solvers of the problems faced by the so-called “underprivileged.” As artists, we can’t solve entrenched world problems, but we can contribute to a ruderal “partial healing, modest rehabilitation, and still possible resurgence…”
I didn’t get here on my own. Friends, close and distant, some drink tea in my house, one lives with me, others I’ve never met off-line, they respond to my work, give feedback, and we bring together all the creative-intellectual resources we’ve got to think through who we are, how we came to be. In and despite spaces inhospitable to our misshapen ethnic, class, and cultural expressions. (Why do we always have to fit into containers? And then casually, cordially bust out?)
At the Ruderal Ecologies conference, one of those unplanned re-creative brainstormings happened again. In my talk, I explained how my father once told me that my grandfather “helped build” the Darulaman Palace when it was constructed in the 1920s. But what does “helped build” mean? I don’t know what role my Afghan grandfather actually played. That history is lost to me. Afterward, Aaron Mair, the keynote speaker, an environmental justice activist and the first Black president of the Sierra Club, spoke. In his Q&A, he generously commented on my weaving of Afghan diasporic confusion and my environmental community-building, from the Darulaman Palace to Rust-Belt Rochester to my childhood in ruins:
“The young woman [that’s me he’s referring to] talked about how she had no sense of her history and the diasporic element, but yet she was taking the most significant piece of her people’s history, of community and sense of place and restoring and bringing it to another country that still needs it, to a country that has its own war zones… she’s bringing her culture… she’s doing a cultural exchange… it’s the same oppression… The oppression that created the conditions in Afghanistan are the same conditions that created slavery… that created the degradation of people…”
Ruderal ecologies are why I live in the Maine woods in an off-grid cabin every summer, an Afghan-American girl with her Southern-American partner, hanging out like Walden‘s Henry David Thoreau. No electricity or plumbing, resisting the global commercial flow. Thoreau was worried that the arrival of the Fitchburg train line in Concord, Massachusetts was speeding everyone up, even when they weren’t physically boarding the cars: “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?” I’m worried about why some of my friends don’t look at me anymore when they talk to me, why they have so readily substituted texting and social media clicks for face-to-face chats. I want us to be in the same place, no media around, like those Afghan parties when the women were talking in the kitchen, rolling their eyes at their husbands, while they baked crispy naan.
Ruderal ecologies are why I founded the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Rochester, where I try to recreate, in my research and in my classrooms, a bit of space to think, rest, and dream, to be human, to be critical in a way that is also healing of the self. To create community, as Baldwin defines it, to nurture connections and responsibilities, to “sustain and re-create each other.” To give my students permission to close their laptops and turn off our phones and really listen to the texts we read. And they really enjoy this, but I have to make it a rule for them to actually follow through on unplugging, and then they can’t believe how amazing it felt, thank you so much, but then they me all the reasons they can’t do it on their own. “If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run?” There’s Thoreau again. I’m teaching him right now.
Ruderal ecologies are why I love Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I’m teaching in a couple weeks, and how the protagonist Milkman, when he finally reweaves his family’s occluded history within the violence of race politics of the United States, finds himself “exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking like he belonged on it; like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there.” He’s home again. On Earth. On this maddening land. Despite an entire nation bringing his people here and then conspiring to throw him off. And the answer was in the seemingly nonsensical song that his old-fashioned, simple-living Aunt Pilate refused to stop singing. As Toni Morrison has said, “the history is in the songs.”
Not the songs designed with algorithms to stick like superglue to your brain. Your songs. Your people’s songs. Your stories. Your people’s stories. The ones that came from a specific reality in a specific place. Can you remember them? Or even feel them? Because if you can, they might heal you. And if you can’t, or if you don’t like them, you can make them up. Afro-futurist space musician Sun Ra insisted he hailed from Saturn and was sent to Planet Earth to spread peace. Invent your stories, imagine them. That can heal you too. In the disaster that is neoliberal capitalism’s incessant wiping out and privatizing and expelling people out, the violence of which is hidden in the geologically neutral “Anthropocene,” when climate and technologies are evolving faster than cultures and ecologies can adapt, ruderal strategies might be all we’ve got.
Special thanks to Kathy High, Branda Miller, and Ellie Irons for inviting me to participate in “Ruderal Ecologies: Grounds for Change” at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, hosted by NATURE Lab Environmental Education Center, in April 2018. An earlier version of this essay was also presented at “(Re)Patterning Performance,” curated by Lauren DiGiulio, at the Center for Performance Research, in Brooklyn, in June 2019.
Aaron Mair. Keynote Lecture. “Ruderal Ecologies: Grounds for Change.” Sanctuary for Independent Media conference hosted by NATURE Lab Environmental Education Center. April 2018.
Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. Website.
James Baldwin. Evidence of Things Not Seen. 1985.
Donna Haraway. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. 2016.
Lonely Planet Guide to Afghanistan. 2006.
Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon. 1977.
Toni Morrison. National Visionary Leadership Project Interview on Youtube about Song of Solomon. Posted 2010. Online.
Bettina Stoetzer. “Ruderal Ecologies: Rethinking, Nature, Migration, and the Urban Landscape in Berlin.” Cultural Anthropology 33.2 (2018). Online.
Bettina Stoetzer. Interview with Caroline Picard. “The Multispecies World of Technology: An Interview with Elaine Gan and Bettina Stoetzer.” Aug 3, 2016. Online.
Henry David Thoreau. Walden. 1854.
Kathryn Yusoff. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. 2018.
Postscript about Darulaman Palace
The New York Times recently reported, in 2017, that “Nothing symbolizes the wrack and ruin of Afghanistan and its four decades of war better than Darulaman Palace, a once-magnificent edifice visible on its hillock perch for miles around.” A comment like this is good article opener—American readers love a way to efficiently consume everything about an exotic, mysterious nation that they may or may not remember their government has been at war within for a very long time—but it risks turning Darulaman into a cliché of tragic beauty, of the doomed optimism of democracy in the Muslim Middle East, disconnected from foreign policy and geopolitics, destined naturally for demise, a necessary casualty of the Social Darwinist progress-march. But that same Times article discusses Afghanistan’s decision to rebuild Darulaman and how Afghans are doing it themselves, refusing foreign assistance. Here’s a cool fact: during the beginnings of the project, in 2016, a foreign corporation bid $1 million for a contract to clean 600 tons of debris out of the palace. Afghans refused the offer and instead the work was done in-house for only $30,000. (That’s $970,000 in savings.) Maybe in neoliberal disaster capitalism, when colonizing corporations border-hop to overcharge for services that once used to be the domain of national governments and local cultures, to be ruderal means that the natives do it on their own.
Ron Nordland. “Saving an Afghan Symbol, With Afghans Only.” The New York Times (05 Apr. 2017)